Ever since growing up on the fringes of the St. Bernard housing project, Anthony Mackie can relate to being at odds with his environment. And not only is that the idea behind his character Jack Armstrong in Spike Lee's new film, She Hate Me, but it's exactly where the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts grad found himself during the production.
"One day (on the the set), it's the final scene, the courtroom scene with Brian Dennehy," Mackie recalls of shooting the film, which opens Friday in local theaters. "And I had a lot of dense, hard language, and the extras behind me were talking all this trash: 'Who's this guy? What's he doing here, blah-blah-blah-blah.' And I let it get to me, so I couldn't get my lines out.
"So Spike pulls me aside and he says, 'What's up? You don't know your lines?' And I said, 'I know my lines. Just give me another chance.' And Spike sees what's going on, so he comes up in front of everyone and he says to me, 'Look, this is your movie. We can do this all day. We got enough film to roll all day. Do your scene. Take your time.' Then he looked at everyone in the audience, and he walked out."
With a little help, Mackie always seems to survive and succeed. It's a recurring theme that suggests a major career trajectory for Mackie who, starring in what is frankly one of Lee's most unfocused and critically maligned works, is the reason to watch She Hate Me. Armstrong, after being outed as a whistle-blower at a pharmaceutical company, is instantly caught in a financial bind when his lesbian ex-wife Fatima (Kerry Williams) offers him $10,000 to sire her child for Fatima and her partner, Alex (Dania Ramirez). The offer eventually makes him the unwitting star in demand of New York City's lesbian-wannabe-mothers set, with this and the concurrent corporate scandal plot meeting each in a chaotic ending.
Mackie provides a reassuring presence through this storm of confused narrative and mish-mashed morality play. His Armstrong is steely and indignant, as fierce as some of Spike Lee's previous male leads (think Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, Mekhi Phifer in Clockers, Damon Wayans in Bamboozled) -- all of whom have been placed in a Bermuda Triangle of racism, moral conflict and power politics and forced to fight their way out. Mackie seems equally up to the task. With his trim, sculptured physique, neatly trimmed afro and clenched jaw, Jack acts like a barely contained force of nature.
Ray Vrazel, one of Mackie's drama instructors at NOCCA, remembers an "unfocused and standoffish" kid who gradually learned how to channel his energy, as he did in a production of Shakespeare's King Lear. "You couldn't take your eyes off him," Vrazel recalls. "In King Lear, he was a perfect Edmond, strong and virile. Being a black man, it was the perfect kind of outcast, bastard son kind of role, and that's what Edmond was. (Mackie) really tapped into the rage of that son, and he really had the sexual kind of appeal that you need to have as an actor."
With the help of his brother, Calvin (an engineering professor at Tulane), Mackie buckled down, and upon Vrazel's recommendation got into the North Carolina School for the Arts. He spent a year there prepping for college before being accepted at Juilliard -- whose drama program is as prestigious as it gets. He sailed through his first year before butting heads with instructors in his sophomore year.
"That summer, while everybody else was going to Europe to smoke dope and get drunk, I went away to Chautauqua for their Shakespeare program, so I could work on my craft," Mackie recalls. "So I come back to school, and they're like, 'We're going to put you on probation.' For what? 'Because you're not working hard enough.'" Mackie saw it, essentially, as him not seeking out his teachers' help or feedback. "The short-hand version was, I learned how to play the game better," he says.
His senior-year turn as rapper Tupac Shakur in Up Against the Wind led to post-graduation onstage work such as August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Whoopie Goldberg and co-starring Charles S. Dutton. Mackie's performance caught the eye of Lee, who eventually offered Mackie the role of Jack Armstrong. Mackie also landed roles in 8 Mile and Hollywood Homicide. As successful as Mackie has become, like Jack Armstrong, he knows it can turn on a dime.
"The last time I was on Broadway, I was with 12 black actors doing an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull," Mackie says. "It's unheard of. I don't know any actor under 35 who would consider doing that the way we did it. I felt like it put me in an elite status. And then we opened, nobody sees the play. And then you look around the corner, and Puffy's (Sean Combs) breaking box-office records with one of the greatest plays that's ever written (A Raisin in the Sun). It's a pretty humbling experience. "That's the question: looking at yourself, and wondering what do you do when your back is to the wall and when everything is taken away from you."