EXCLUSIVE: Anthony Mackie's Career Comes Full Circle: 'Every Stepping Stone Starts With Detroit'

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For Anthony Mackie,
things all started with a Detroit story.

“The funny
thing is, 16 years ago, I was these guys, here in Detroit, where we were
shooting 8 Mile,” Mackie tells ET at
the world premiere of his upcoming film Detroit,
referencing the excitement of his young castmates on the red carpet. “We
were a bunch of young, dumb kids having a good time. We were those guys. You
know, I know what their next 15, 20 years is going to be like.”

because in 2002, a then-24-year-old Mackie made a memorable appearance as Papa
Doc in 8 Mile, Eminem’s semi-autographical
story about a budding rapper living in a Detroit suburb. It was both his and
the rapper’s feature film debut. While the film, directed by Curtis Hanson,
largely left many to wonder what it meant for Eminem’s future in Hollywood, it set
the path for Mackie’s stardom.

If [Eminem] wants to, of course, he can become a movie
star, but you know, he respects people's craft. That's what I love about Em,”
Mackie said at the time. “The first day, he came up to me and let me know how
much he respected the fact that I went to Juilliard and that this is my craft.
Not too many people would do that.”

While Eminem went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song for 8 Mile, Mackie followed up with the Sundance hit Brother to Brother, before quickly becoming known for supporting roles in buzzy films, including Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate and Clint Eastwood’s 2004 Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby. The real game changer for Mackie, though, came with Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. When the film won Best Picture over the box office juggernaut Avatar in 2010, Mackie and his co-stars Jeremy Renner and Brian Geraghty joyfully stormed the stage, knowing that a moment like that might not come again.

After the success of Hurt Locker, Mackie’s status continued to rise until it reached superhero levels. Literally. In 2013, Mackie joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Falcon, realizing a childhood dream. “When I got into the business, I went to the first meeting with my agent and said I wanted to be a superhero,” he revealed when ET visited the set of Captain America: Winter Soldier. “I had no idea [which one]. I said I wanted to create one or I wanted to be like Blade remixed.”  

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has reveled in every moment of the superhero experience over the years, from embracing
spandex suits to playing with his action figure with his kids, and even teasing
fans with prospects of a Falcon/Winter Soldier crossover with co-star Sebastian
Stan, joking earlier this summer that “we wrote a short. We shot it
together. Then we pitched it to the studio.”

definitely think how fortunate I am to be where I am. But the thing is, if
you're not enjoying it, you're not doing it right,” Mackie said of his career

an Avenger also reunited the actor with his Hurt
co-star Renner, who plays Hawkeye. Mackie and Bigelow remained similarly
close: “She’s the only person I’ll call and I’ll be like, ‘You know, this is
what’s going down, this is what the next movie is,’” he says, joking that “Kathryn
knows all the Marvel secrets.”

when the prospect came for the two to reunite on Detroit, Mackie jumped at the opportunity. “I would much rather
have a small role with two lines in a Kathryn Bigelow [movie] than a lead role
[in another one], because I know she’s going to make the best film and make me
look the best I can be,” he muses.

In the film,
which is now in theaters, Mackie plays a military veteran trapped and
terrorized inside the
Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riot
that resulted from police raids of unlicensed bars and establishments. The
story centers on Detroit security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) as he
ends up in the middle of a violent confrontation between a group of white
police officers and a number of young black men and two white women at the

You read the news for the past five years and you realize how
little we’ve grown, how little we’ve evolved, how much fear we live in today
and it’s just a different type of fear,” Mackie says of the film’s timeliness,
which aligns with the Black Lives Matter movement and reports of police
brutality around the country.

Detroit also marks another in a list of
real-life stories Mackie has brought to life, including portraying black icons
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in HBO’s All
the Way
and Tupac Shakur in Notorious.
Mackie also confirmed that he plans to move forward with a Jesse Owens biopic,
which he is also producing, and is developing a Johnnie Cochran project.

Mackie seems
to relish in the scrutiny and intensity that comes with portraying such notable
figures “because that’s our story,” he says.
“I feel like everyone,
at some point in time, should stand up and do something that is reflective of
their culture and their history. Growing up, my first album was Tupac’s 2Pacalypse Now. The first stories I ever
read [were] quotes and stories about Martin Luther King.”

And the full-circle
moment at this point in his career is not lost on the actor, who admits that
his career choices are intentional.
“There are certain
flags in my life that I like to put into my career, and I’ve been fortunate
enough with 8 Mile and, you know, Notorious, Detroit
and All the Way,” Mackie says, adding:
I feel like at every point in my career, I start
at Detroit and I build on top of that. So Detroit has always had an infinite
part of my heart, because every stepping-stone starts with Detroit. Then I move
to the next phase of my career.”