Anthony Mackie has had a long road to real success, and he was open to talk about that journey when promoting Real Steel. Mackie got his big break in Spike Lee‘s She Hate Me, which was under-seen and did little for his career. But Mackie kept working, and it was one of those pictures, The Hurt Locker, that really brought Mackie to the fore. We talked about the system, Real Steel, his goals, Ryan Gosling, his future projects and more. Check it out….

I was talking to Ryan Gosling earlier today. He said you’re the real deal. We were talking for Ides of March, and I asked him if he wanted to flip you any sh-t, and he said “that guy’s the real deal.”

 (laughs) Ryan’s my dude, Ryan’s one of those people you see him four years later, and it’s like one day has passed. We’ve become friends through work. He’s a really interesting guy because he has different interests. And so many people in the industry are so focused about being in the Hollywood machine, dating a model, driving a BMW and getting into parties, but neither one of us is that guy. It’s interesting that we found each other on Half Nelson and we found each other now.

I was looking at the IMDb, and you said “I was flabbergasted. Everybody knows when you’ve got a role in a Spike Lee movie, you’re gonna blow up. But I happen to be the only person who’s had the lead in the two Spike Lee movies nobody saw.” And neither of those movies did it for you, but then the film that did took a year to come out. That must have been equally frustrating with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

No. If anybody tells you they thought The Hurt Locker was going to be a great movie, they’re a f-cking liar. We shot in the Middle East for three months. We had more film than Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 put together. So that 100% is on Kathryn’s shoulders. She went into the editing room and found what she wanted out of that film. You can take ten different directors and they’d make ten different movies. We had no idea what that movie was going to be, and subsequently every war movie up to that point had failed miserably. So nobody can say, “we got the jack in the box.” No.

But you would say it was the film that put you in better steed?

Definitely, once Hurt Locker came out… You know, a lot of people made a big deal about me not getting nominated for awards, and people made a deal out of me not getting recognition for being in the film, but I feel if you look at the film, Brian (Geraghty) gave a wonderful performance in the film, you look at Jeremy (Renner), where is he now is because of the performance he gave. All of us came out of that movie on top. Everything that came along with that, I thought “If Jeremy gets nominated, we all get nominated, if Ryan (Gosling) gets nominated, we all get nominated, because every one’s going to watch the movie.” And sure enough, everybody watched the movie so it’s win-win.

So with a movie like Real Steel, do you feel like you’re putting in your time in the Hollywood system? It’s a smaller role than some of the independent films you’ve done, but it’s not a bad character.

Not at all. I feel like you have to build a resume. Every actor I’ve seen who’s done a small role in a big movie, and then jumped out to do a lead in a movie has sucked nine times out of ten. So I’d rather take a handful of smaller roles until I’m ready for that leading role. You look at someone like Morgan Freeman, he didn’t blow up until he was forty-something. It’s a process, it’s a career.

A lot of people can get a job, not everyone can make it into a career. So I’ve just tried to keep trying and working, so you look at this compared to an Adjustment Bureau, juxtaposed with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to this, all of them are completely different, so I want people to not know where they’re going to see me next. I like it when people don’t know what movies I’ve done. That’s when they IMDb me and say “oh my god, I’ve seen fifteen of your movies!” I feel like that’s a testament to my work.

It also means that you’re working.

Exactly.

Here you got to work with actual robots.

It was surprising. I showed up on set, and we’re doing a big scene and I’m down there in my baby oil and leather vest, and Hugh Jackman comes in with an eight foot robot behind him. The funny thing is that it’s hard to remember your lines, because all I could think about was this eight foot robot saying “I don’t want to work” and smashing everything. That’s the way I think.

You were thinking about robots being method actors?

“Where’s my oil?” (laughs)

What did you like about the material?

I felt like after The Matrix, people were interested in the post-apocalypse, where this was a film where the A-bomb didn’t go off, but Bushanomics did. I coined that phrase, by the way. I wanted to work with Shawn Levy for a while, and Hugh Jackman. And the concept of it was crazy. And I’m a huge boxing fan, and every great generation of boxing has had a great heavyweight. But now we don’t really have a great heavyweight, and I think it’s because of MMA. And this film follows the timeline, where after MMA, to get that gore, you put in robots.

Were you modeling your performance on some of the more famous boxing promoters?

Hell yeah! To be is to steal. I feel like one of the greatest figures in boxing is Don King, so I feel like what he did and what he brought to boxing was the showmanship. He turned it into an event. He brought the glitz and pandemonium. King famously said “set yourself on fire, and the world will pay to watch you burn.” And I’ve based my career on that.

I watched The Adjustment Bureau, and it’s amazing on paper how your role is the exposition character, but you made that pop. You watch it, and you say “there’s a lot going on with that character.” And with this, I feel like you had less to work with but I still think you make an impression. Is that how you build your characters?

I think it’s about building the characters, but with this I felt like it was being part of the team. I feel like if you keep yourself in cahoots with people who have good stuff said about them, you’ll continue to do good work. So even if I’m a journeyman or a leading man I’m still in the game (laughs). There’s a whole lot of people who leaped out like “Boom! I’m a leading man!” But you’re a journeyman. Then you’ve got people like “Boom! I’m a journeyman!” and you’re like “you should be on the bench getting Gatorade.” So the idea is just to be relevant. Just to stay in the game, and make sure you’re ready for it.

The greatest thing to happen to me was that Denzel Washington was auditioning for Antwone Fisher, and I did not get that role, because I wasn’t ready for it. And at the time I was like “why didn’t I get that role, and it’s this and boom-de-boom-boom.” And when I didn’t get it, and now that I look back and see everything it takes to be in this position, I know at that time I wasn’t ready for that role. Just like I’m glad I was the lead in the two Spike Lee movies that nobody saw – even though they’re great movies, even though they’re relevant and poignant and three-dimensional characters, I’m glad nobody saw them. But I know I did good work in them. I like when people go back and look at the work that I’ve done.

But also, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, I don’t know about you but when I saw Do the Right Thing for the first time…

Game changer.

I didn’t know movies could be like that.

And I wanted to go to that neighborhood. As chaotic as it was, I wanted to go to Sal’s Pizza, I wanted to hang out with Radio Raheem, I wanted to breakdance on the corner! And I feel like that’s the power that movies have, they make you want to explore and experience things you haven’t explored or experienced. So having working with Spike was a huge learning opportunity, but it wasn’t a huge career gainer. But I’m proud of that.

I understand Shawn Levy went to Yale.

That explains a lot. He’s a dictator, but he’s just a cool dude, a real positive forward thinker.

Would say most great directors you’ve worked with are dictators?

I meant it, he’s a dictator, but yes, I think you have to be, you have to go on set and delegate responsibilities. You direct.

Have you worked with some bad dictators?

I’ve worked with some atrocious dictators, but I’ve been lucky to work with great dictators.

You’ve worked with Spike Lee, Curtis Hanson – not to reel off your resume to you.

(laughs) “Do you know what you’ve done?”

Some of the great of the directors of our time, do you feel like you’ve learned as much from some of the smaller and less successful films you’ve done?

Definitely, the biggest learning lesson I got on a film was Half Nelson. If you look at the original script we got and the movie that was produced, it took everyone’s effort for that movie to come together. All of us put 100% of ourselves to make that movie work. If you look at Night Catches Us – a movie I’m very proud of – you have to give all of yourself to make that movie work. And I think that’s the true artistry of independent world. It takes everybody. I’ve learned great lessons along the way.

So do you see yourself doing half and half, keep one foot in the big business and some independent world – though it feels like the independent world is shrinking.  

I feel like it’s growing because the studios isn’t interested in small movies any more. If you think of your favorite three movies as a kid, they wouldn’t make those movies any more. And that’s crazy and sad. What I would like to do is like a pie. I’d like to do two independent movies, one Hollywood movie and a play every year. If I can do that, that would be the perfect world. That’s the plan.

Real Steel opens October 7. Check it out.