New Orleans native Anthony Mackie came to New York to attend Juilliard, and since then he’s quietly carved out a career both onscreen — most recently in The Hurt Locker and Notorious (in which he played Tupac) — and in theater (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Drowning Crow), winning acclaim for his memorable, understated performances. After “begging to do Shakespeare in the Park for like, seven years now,” Mackie’s about to take on the starring role of Pentheus in Euripides’s The Bacchae (in previews starting today for an August 24 opening, running through August 30). Mackie spoke to Vulture about cross-dressing and the role he still can’t escape.
You have this steady movie career, but for some reason you’re thought of as a theater guy first. Do you prefer one to the other?
I definitely prefer theater, simply because it’s more forgiving. Doing film — I did this movie where I felt I was pretty bad in it, and a friend of mine just watched it two weeks ago and told me I was bad in it. It’s kinda rough! But with a play, you have one bad night, the next night you could have a great night. So people can argue about whether you were good or not if they saw separate performances.
So what movie was this?
I will never tell! If you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly what movie I’m talking about.
Was it Spike Lee’s She Hate Me? Do people still ask you about that one?
All the time. I get asked about She Hate Me every day. That’s definitely not the movie I’m talking about, though!
Anne Hathaway talked about dressing up like a dude in public to get ready for Twelfth Night. Have you done anything to get in touch with your feminine side?
Nah, I’m a firm believer that being an actor means you should act. I’m not someone who’s like, “I have to play a murderer in a play, I’ma go out and kill somebody!” The idea of the play is not so much him cross-dressing to become like a girl — there’s a disintegration that goes along with Pentheus’s character throughout the play, and the culmination of that is Dionysus getting him to dress up like a woman, and it goes against anything he’s tried to be in his life. Though I’m sure some people will see my devastatingly beautiful legs and will applaud when I walk out.
Pentheus cross-dresses to get close to the Bacchants, a group of frolicking ladies. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done to be around a girl you were into?
I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff to get close to girls. The most outlandish thing I’ve done, I moved back to New Orleans to be with my present girlfriend. The most ridiculous thing would probably be, I was at this dance club, trying to get this girl’s attention, so I bought her a drink, and she was like, “I’m not gonna drink that, you might have put something in it.” So I ended up drinking both of the drinks and got too drunk to talk to her. It seemed like a good idea, till it went south.
You’re a pretty funny guy, but you seem to specialize in these cool, smooth guys onscreen …
When in actuality I’m just a straight nerd? No, I’d love to play some comedic roles, those Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen–like roles. I haven’t been able to find them yet. But you’re right, if you ask anybody, they’ll probably tell you I’m the goofiest person they know. I’m definitely not the dude to stand around and have a mean grill on my face to intimidate people. Though most of the time that’s the only thing in scripts when you read them.