When Anthony Mackie turned up for his first tour of superhero duty as the Falcon in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he immediately found himself strapped into a costume with wings and instructed to leap backward through the air and land on a safety mat far below.
Mackie isn’t someone who’s fearful of heights — he’s a certified sky diver with more than 30 jumps under his belt — but the situation still gave him pause.
“If I jump out of a plane, I have a parachute that I know is going to work, so I‘m good,” Mackie said. “But if I have some dude who’s holding a string who’s like, ‘I got you! Go ahead, jump!’ that makes me nervous, especially if I’m 50 or 100 feet off the ground swinging face-first at the pavement. Everybody had a good day laughing at me trying to jump and not hit my face.”
On screen, Mackie, along with stars Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, made such impossible feats look easy in the politically charged “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which soared to a record $96.2 million in its opening this weekend, making it the best April premiere of a movie ever.
It’s significant too as the first live-action film to feature the Falcon, who arrived in a 1969 issue of Marvel’s “Captain America” and went on to become mainstream comics’ first major African American hero.
As a child, Mackie, 34, said he was aware of the Falcon thanks to his brother, an avid comic-book collector, but he hadn’t realized the reach or the emotional pull of the character until he was cast in the role.
“The influx of emails and information I got about the character was crazy,” the actor said in an interview last month at a Beverly Hills hotel. “There was a huge angst that came over me because I realized a lot of people were going to come see this movie and look at this character for many different reasons than I expected. It’s not just like, ‘Hey there’s a dude flying around and fighting!’ It was a burden that I wasn’t expecting placed on my shoulders when I found out how many people loved this character.”
A Juilliard graduate, Mackie has extensive stage, television and film experience, including roles in “8 Mile,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Half Nelson,” “We Are Marshall,” the Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious” and “Gangster Squad.”
But it was his powerful turn in the Oscar-winning drama “The Hurt Locker,” as a member of a U.S. bomb disposal team in Iraq, that most directly influenced his performance as Sam Wilson, the veteran and accomplished military strategist who becomes an ally to Evans’ Steve Rogers in the “Captain America” sequel.
“I emailed some guys that I met on my military tours after ‘Hurt Locker,’” Mackie said. “This one guy, he said, ‘When you come home from war, you’re in the process of mending your brokenness, but it’s a constant process of mending.’ … That was something that, with Sam and Steve, I wanted to come across in their relationship, his understanding that if it was World War II or if it was Afghanistan, they were both going through the same thing.”
Although their initial meeting is presented in a lighthearted fashion, the characters’ shared experiences in combat help them bond in the movie, which takes its story from a 2005 comic book arc by writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Steve Epting.
“The Winter Soldier” sees Cap pursued by a lethal enemy from his past even as he begins to uncover a possible conspiracy at the headquarters of international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Once he’s forced to go on the run, he finds unexpected support from Johansson’s spy, Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, and Mackie’s forthright veteran.
“I think they’re both wounded warriors who don’t bleed on other people,” Evans said on the set of the movie last year. “Cap has no one to bleed on. I think Mackie knows how to handle people like that. … Sometimes when things are bad, trusting a stranger is the way to go.”
Mackie first met Evans on a different set, the 2011 comedy “What’s Your Number,” starring Anna Faris, and the pair developed an immediate rapport, which Mackie said made the friendship between their heroes in “The Winter Soldier” seem especially credible.
“Our first day we showed up on set and we’re like, ‘Dude, we’re 35-year-old men in costumes. We look like idiots,’” Mackie recalled. “We started making fun each of other.”
The Falcon costume did present some physical challenges. Mackie described the harness he was required to wear for flying scenes as a cross between a corset and a chastity belt.
“There were days when I was [nauseated] — bruises and pain, I hurt my back,” he said. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for it. The hardest working actors in Hollywood are flying superheroes. Hands down. There’s nothing more painful.”
That’s not to suggest he’s unwilling to bring the Falcon to the screen again. Marvel already is moving forward with plans for a third “Captain America” solo adventure, which, like the latest film, will be written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo. It’s set for release May 6, 2016.
“I’m pretty happy being in the ‘Captain America’ universe,” Mackie said. “Chris and I work really well together and I would rather do a really good movie with another really good actor as opposed to doing a mediocre movie by myself.”
Mackie’s also pleased to see the superhero landscape becoming more diverse, with empowered female characters such as Black Widow and heroes of color gaining more prominent roles.
“I feel like the way Natasha has evolved in the Marvel universe is really cool,” Mackie said. “When you have a chick running around kicking ass, it’s I think more interesting than a dude running around kicking ass.”
Similarly, he cheered the recent casting of Michael B. Jordan in Fox’s upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot. The “Fruitvale Station” actor is set to play Johnny Storm, also known as the Human Torch, a hero who was, coincidentally enough, originated on film by Evans years before he picked up Cap’s red-white-and-blue shield.
“I feel like I’m of a generation that we remember how things were and we don’t want to let go of it,” Mackie, a New Orleans native, said. “There’s a new generation where people see things differently…. I think it would be ridiculous to have a black dude play John F. Kennedy or a white dude play Martin Luther King, but to have a black dude play the Human [Torch]? I can live with that.”
— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex
RECENT AND RELATED