Jeremy Renner wasn’t the only actor in The Hurt Locker to see his career skyrocket after the movie won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Since then, Anthony Mackie has landed a large number of diverse roles, from being a member of The Adjustment Bureau to battling vampires with Benjamin Walker in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. His most recent film, however, features the actor in the not-to-distant future promoting the biggest sport in the world: robot boxing

I recently had the chance to sit down with Mackie one-on-one to talk about his role in Real Steel. Check out the interview below in which the actor talks about digging deep into his character’s history, working with Shawn Levy as a director, and his experiences working on the currently in-production Gangster Squad.

To be a bit blunt, the character played by Hugh Jackman in this movie is kind of an asshole, yet your character, Finn, actually seems to be friendly with him. Why do you think that is?

When I’ve looked at it and I read the script it was funny because it reminded me of the old friends who have now grown into the next level of their careers. I think, you know, when you look at Hugh Jackman’s character, he was a boxer at the top of his game, and I think Finn was the guy who was running around at the events, assisting this person, selling tickets outside, you know, just hustling. Every aspect of this movie is the hustle. Even when they make a lot of money they’re still hustling. If you look at the mega-fights, the mega-promotions, they’re still hustling. So there relationship, to me, is more of a…when someone owes Finn money, he collects, and especially if you’re an asshole. If I don’t fucking like you I’m going to come and kick your ass.

Like Kevin Durand!

Like Kevin Durand! Exactly! If you look at Charlie, obviously there has been certain times when he’s bet and not paid off, or I had to cover his bet, or, you know, he’s come to me, and I’ve given him multiple opportunities to get back on because I respected him as a boxer – who he was. Right now if you had the opportunity and Mike Tyson walked in the room and Mike Tyson’s like, “I have an idea.” “Motherfucker I’ll back that! You’re Mike Tyson!” You know what I mean? So I looked at it in that regard. I feel like as a kid, betting outside and selling fake tickets that I made so much money off of him that I say he’s my friend, it’s 100% worth it.

Talking about getting into the character’s background, is that a regular part of your process when taking on a part?

Yeah. When I was at Julliard we had this thing called the p-square, and it’s a 49 question list. And, basically, you read the script and you answer all of these questions about your character. You highlight everything you say in yellow, highlight everything the writer says about you in green, and highlight everything the characters say about you in blue. And you go through that and you really just create this person. I believe that it’s not so much what you say about yourself but what people say about you that matters, because that’s a true depiction of who you are. So for me it’s very important, cause I know my background. I know what I did on my tenth birthday. I know what my favorite things are. So if I’m playing somebody I should know that about them too. So that’s really important to me.

I did an interview with another actor a little while ago who said that he makes contrasting lists of things the character says about themselves and what others say about them. Does that contrast help inform you as well?

For me it gives you a deeper ability to create. It informs you when you go to react or answer a question as that character. Because a lot of the times when you’re working with really good actors, sometimes if the script isn’t working you have to go off the script. I don’t want to be the person answering that question as Anthony Mackie or giving you the background or the thinking that I would as Anthony Mackie. I want to be able to do that as the character. A lot of that…when we did Half Nelson the whole thing with the cat, all that stuff was improv. The script wasn’t quite getting us where we needed to be, so we wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t do the background work with the characters. It would just be me, giving you my lines off the script and as soon as you go to improv it’s like, “Oh, what motherfucker? Blah blah blah.” That’s boring.

How free was Shawn Levy in terms of letting you go off script?

Shawn was absolutely amazing. He was one of the biggest components for me wanting to do this project and I’m glad it panned out the way it did. The dude kind of has the Midas touch. Everything that went on on-set I would go to him and be like, “What if I do this?” You know, I came in with that over-the-top style and exaggerated stuff and he comes in and he’s like, “Holy shit! Come look at this! This is great! That’s awesome! Blah blah blah! Let’s do this! Let’s do that! I want to do this! Get some of that and do this!” “Okay, cool! What if I do this?” “Oh, that’s great!” He’s the type of guy that makes you feel like you can do no wrong. Even when you make a choice that doesn’t quite work he guides you around that choice in a way without humbling you. “You made a choice, that worked, but let’s try this. And then we can come around to that.” “Oh, okay.” It was fun and he really gave me the freedom to come in and… because I’ve never had the opportunity as an actor to be big and spit and fucking baby oil and AHH! Only Johnny Depp gets to do that. When I told him that I wanted to do that he was like, “Fuck yeah!” So it was cool. It was really cool.

I know you have some really cool things coming up, one of those things being Gangster Squad with Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn. Can you talk a bit about his character?

I play Lieutenant Harris who is a cop who was promoted to Sergeant and gave back everything so he could work in his neighborhood. I think there’s a certain pride that comes along with him that knows that there are good guys and there are bad guys, and it’s going to take the good guys being the baddest motherfuckers they can be to beat these bad guys. The bad guys have no boundaries, so to be a good guy sometimes you need to bend those boundaries a little bit. He relishes in the idea of turning the neighborhood around. It was cool when I read the script and saw who he was becoming, who they were developing him to be. He has fun hurting bad guys. If you’re a bad guy, take the pain like a champ. That’s something, when I read, it sounded really cool and something that I felt add something to that movie with that character being in it.

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