Anthony Mackie is one of those actors who perpetually seems one pivotal role away from becoming a household name. He made a strong early impression in Half Nelson and achieved another career milestone in The Hurt Locker, followed by a steady stream of roles in studio flicks like The Adjustment Bureau, Real Steel, and Man on a Ledge. In his latest movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, he plays Lincoln’s steadfast childhood friend William H. Johnson, advising him on political decisions by day and helping him slay vampires by night. The movie, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and adapted from the Seth Grahame-Smith novel, opens Friday. Mackie spoke to Vulture about avoiding campy vampire humor, being self-conscious of his slow-motion face, and wishing he were Matthew Broderick.
Vampire Hunter was shot in New Orleans. What’s it like working on a movie where you grew up? Are you shooting in a lot of places that you knew as a kid?
I loved it. I love being able to hang out in my barber shop or go to my local eatery and have them come down and see all the movie stars. I love it.
And obviously it’s the home of Anne Rice and is kind of famous for being steeped in vampire lore. Were you immersed in any of that culture growing up?
I went to a local art school, so we had a bunch of those goth kids that would walk around and talk like they were vampires and all that shit. But I wasn’t so much immersed in it when I was a kid. I was more the marching band baseball player.
How did you get involved with Vampire Hunter?
I got a call from Timur and he was saying that he wanted me to be a part of it. We had a meeting at a hotel not too far from here and had a long conversation. I told him that I didn’t wanna be part of a jokey, campy movie. With someone like William H. Johnson as well as Abraham Lincoln, if it wasn’t a serious film, if it wasn’t an accurate film, it wouldn’t make sense to be a part of it.
And had you read the book?
My niece had read the book and was telling me about it, and literally I got the call about the job a week after. So I started reading it then and I was interested in how different it was. It’s just a different beast. When you write a book you can go on and on about the color of a jacket or someone’s chair, but when it’s a movie you have people’s attention for two hours at the most. So certain things you have to change to make it work.
What was your reaction when you saw Benjamin Walker as older Abe? The makeup was pretty great.
It was funny for me because I always felt like I was his sloppy seconds. I got him at the end of the day, so his makeup would be falling off or bubbling up or his eye would be dropping. I would always take the piss at him, push the bubble here and it would go across there. The more he sweat the more the makeup would just — remember that movie Mask, with Cher? It was like that.
There's the epic train scene at the end, where you're hanging off the sides. Was that a moving train platform? Did they actually build a train?
They built a four-car locomotive. They built the main steam engine and three cars behind it, and they put them on this hydraulic system. So they didn’t move, but they rocked and bounced, and they put these fans on us and smoke and threw dirt at us. It was hard-core. And then there were the stuntmen with pads, running along the side of the train in case we fell off.
And you had to pretend to be dodging things.
That was the weirdest part, because Timur would just yell at you. Like there’s this point where I’m just hanging off the side of the train and he’s like [in a Russian accent], “There’s a tree! Tree branch!” And I’m like, “Ahhh!” That’s when they take these tennis balls, and he’s like, “Rocks!” And they’d throw. I thought it would look really cheesy, but it actually came out pretty good. I actually like the way it looks.
As an actor, you have to put faith in the editing process to make you look good, but when you’ve got visuals effects on top of everything else, does that create a whole other level of uncertainty about how you’ll look in the end?
Knowing Timur’s work and knowing Tim Burton was a part of it, and Caleb Deschanel is such an amazing cinematographer; all the stuff I saw on set looked remarkable. So I knew it would look okay. I was just afraid — you know, you think about the stuff that you do in regular time and sometimes it looks weird, but for the most part it’s okay. But when you slow stuff down, even just regular talking, your face is like [distorts face]. So that’s what I was afraid of, because I knew he would be ramping the film from slow to fast. There were a lot of shots where he would go [again in the accent], “Anthony, oh, the face.” So I had to figure out how to not make my face look weird.
How well do you know your Civil War history?
I know we won, I know they lost. That’s about it. I read a lot. There were all these specials on the History Channel and A&E about the Civil War and Gettysburg and everything, so I just watched a lot of those. Just Tivo’ed and Tivo’ed and Tivo’ed them. Most of my research was specifically about race relations, because William H. Johnson, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln was so unusual for that time.
You’re one of those actors that always seems to be working. When’s the last time you had a lull?
I took a year off after Hurt Locker in 2007 into 2008, and that was the last time I felt like there was nothing. Eleven months into it, I was like, Maybe I should go back to work. But I feel like sometimes you have to take that time for yourself. It’s good when you’re doing theater. Usually when I’m doing Broadway or something, I have the ability to kind of check out of the film world, ’cause it can be such a different reality from actual reality. But yeah, that was the last time: 2007, September, when I finished Hurt Locker.
So theater is grounding for you?
Yeah, theater is my home away from home. If I was Matthew Broderick and I could make money doing theater? I would only do theater. I love it. I love the instant gratification. I love being in the Broadway box and being able to have a beer and have conversation with guys in other shows. I love it.
What about television. Is that something that ever appeals to you?
Uhh. I would love to produce TV. I did one episode of Law & Order and it was the hardest job I have ever — I was like, I might as well get a job at McDonald’s. This is the hardest job in the world. The hours, playing the same character over and over; it’s just difficult. TV, you get compensated extremely well, but at the end of a day it is a job, and you have to forfeit every other aspect of your life for nine months.