Written and directed by Paul Bettany, Shelter tells the story of Hannah (Jennifer Connelly) and Tahir (Anthony Mackie), individuals who come from two different worlds, but whose lives intersect because they’re both homeless on the streets of New York. As the details of their past unfold, their journey of loss, love, hope and redemption makes them more than the nameless and faceless.
At the film’s press day, actor Anthony Mackie spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why he was so drawn to this script, understanding homelessness, how this character struck a chord in him, and why he wants to feel challenged with his work. He also talked about playing Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon B. Johnson for All the Way, why The Night Before is a great Christmas movie, what it means to him to play Falcon in the Marvel cinematic universe, and how all of his co-stars in those films love to one-up each other.
Collider: Congrats on such a terrific performance in this film!
ANTHONY MACKIE: Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Thank you!
This is a very different kind of story about homelessness than what we’re used to seeing. What kind of reaction did you have to this script when you read it?
MACKIE: When I read it, I knew it was special. It’s ironic, about a year and a half or two years ago, a friend of mine moved to L.A. and I went to Downtown L.A. for the first time and saw Skid Row. I was just dumbfounded by the disparity of Downtown L.A., and the glitz and glam of all of the rest of L.A. I just didn’t understand it. I couldn’t comprehend it. I went back to my reps and said, “I want to do something about homelessness. I don’t know what. I want to figure something out, and write something or direct something. I don’t know, but I want to do it.” A year later, this script fell in my lap. I had a meeting with Paul [Bettany], and he said all the things to let me know that he was going to do a good movie and a movie that he cared about.
It was something that I became really passionate about a few years ago, after Katrina. I live in New Orleans and there’s this older man in downtown New Orleans. I used to see him every day on my way to school, and then Katrina hit and I never saw him again. I was just horrified and heartbroken. I felt like I had lost a piece of my life. Two years later, he was back on the same corner, in the same suit, yelling at the kids. I was relieved that he was okay. Doing this movie, I was very ashamed of myself ‘cause I feel like I’m one of those people who overlook the existence of homeless people in America. Instead of trying to help them or understand their situation, I took to judging. I used this movie to try to help me with that and to correct that, to have more compassion for the unfortunate situation which is homelessness.
It’s something that easy to ignore, or at least turn a blind eye towards.
MACKIE: Yeah, and it’s easier to be like, “You get away from me. You did that to yourself. Why don’t you just get yourself together?” It’s easy to say those things. But when I was doing research for this, there’s a homeless shelter at the end of my block in Brooklyn and I just went, put on a hoodie, put on a baseball cap, let my hair grow out, and just stood out there with these guys all day and talked to them. I saw who were the leaders and who weren’t, who were the drug dealers and drug users, and learned about what their stories and their histories were. It was really horrifying and heartbreaking to hear where these guys have come from – men and women – and where they’ve ended up. A huge amount of families are homeless, which was really a shock to me. Each individual person, no matter how rich you are or how poor you are, has an interesting story. I was just so ashamed of myself for overlooking the value of that story. So, when Paul brought this to me and gave me the fortunate opportunity of playing Tahir, it was very important for me to convey his story, fictional or not. It was very important to me to make him human and to make him a tangible person that you could relate to. Even though homelessness reaches into the depths of despair, there’s also a pride and beauty in it, as well. I think what Paul was able to do, which was really great, was to find the beauty in these two people’s devastated world.
Where did this project fit in among all of the stuff you’ve done recently?
MACKIE: We shot this about two years ago, I want to say in the fall or the end of summer in New York. We did the Toronto film festival, and then it slowly rolled out. All of these 40 movies coming out right now were shot over a two-year span, and all of them just worked out right now.
When you go off and do the Marvel movies, where you’re a part of this heightened superhero universe, is it important to you to re-ground yourself with a film like Shelter?
MACKIE: Yeah. When I started acting, I loved it because I felt challenged. I felt like I was doing things outside of my box and outside of my norm. And about three years ago, I realized that I wasn’t being challenged anymore. I was taking the safe bet and doing the roles that people expected me to do. I got caught up in it. So, I went to my reps and told them that I wanted different stuff. I had never done a comedy, so I wanted a comedy. I told them my idea about a homeless piece. I just started writing and looking at different things. And all these amazing projects started coming up, like The Night Before, Shelter and Our Brand is Crisis. They were different projects with completely different types of characters. I feel like they’ve put me back on the track of actually having to work when I go to work, which is exciting. It gets frustrating going to work and everybody is like, “Just do that thing you did in The Hurt Locker.” After awhile, that gets boring.
It seems like, sometimes in this business, Johnny Depp is the only person who’s allowed to have fun. I watch Johnny Depp movies and I’m like, “Man, that’s a lot of fun!” For me, I want to have the opportunity to play different roles and not be limited by my height or my build or my sex or my race. I want those opportunities. I want to be able to branch out and fail. It gives you the opportunity to do the things that keep you growing, as an actor. When I’m 60, if I do a movie, I don’t want to be working. I just want to show up and be the old fat dude saying lines. I’m working now, so that when I’m in my 50s and 60s, I can just show up and be Morgan Freeman. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
What’s it like to be playing Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon B. Johnson for All the Way?
MACKIE: I just finished that for HBO. It was a lot of fun. It was really eye-opening, as far as being a working actor and being across from somebody like Cranston who is, I feel, the epitome of a working actor. Just now, mid-way in his career, he’s getting his just due. Now, I watch a movie and I’m like, “It’s Cranston!” He’s in all of my favorite movies, but I never knew that until now. It’s just funny. Playing Martin Luther King was something that I’ve turned down many times, in the past year. It was just very, very emotional and eye-opening.
How did you approach taking on someone like that? Did you look at the person, did you look at other performances, or do you try to stay away from all of that?
MACKIE: You have to be honest with yourself. I’m not Martin Luther King. I can’t be Martin Luther King. The only thing I can do is present what I feel the essence of Martin Luther King is. He was 5’7″, and I’m 5’11”. He was a stocky-built cat, and I’m more of a slender-built cat. Physically, I can’t capture him. But the reality of his essence, I feel like, of all the scripts I’ve read, nobody ever captured what I knew him to be, until I’d read this script. It’s remarkable, being able to go back in time and read his speeches and see just what he stood for, and all of the people who turned their back on him. There’s nothing beautiful about fighting for what’s right.
The Night Before is already getting some great buzz. How do you make a great, lasting Christmas movie that can join the ranks of the ones that people want to watch, every year?
MACKIE: I don’t think you think about that. My favorite Christmas movies are Die Hard, Home Alone and Gremlins. Every year, when Gremlins comes on, I’m like, “Yes!” For me, it’s about reminding people what Christmas is about. For me, Christmas is about family, loving, forgiveness, compassion, understanding and comradery. With The Night Before, what’s so great is that you get that. You get three guys that are just living carelessly and selfishly, and then they realize the true essence of Christmas.
In a world where everyone is so separated by their electronic devices, it’s cool that the Marvel movies can get families back into the theater to spend time together. What does it mean to you to be a part of that?
MACKIE: It’s great! I love when kids recognize me as the Falcon and ask me questions. He’s bad-ass times two. It’s just fun. I wish there was a way that more families could afford the opportunity of getting together and going to the movies. Movies have become so expensive now. If two parents take two kids to the movies, and they get popcorn and soda, you’re out 100 bucks. It’s really expensive. So, I wish there was a way that we could make it more family-friendly. It’s frustrating, the amount of kids that aren’t able to ee it because they simply can’t afford it. But it’s heart-warming to know that kids look up to these characters, want to be these characters, and love these characters the same way that we did, growing up. Marvel, as well as DC, has done an amazing job with reintroducing these characters. If you look at all these superhero movies, they give kids something to want to attain and strive towards. I don’t think that’s bad. I love it!
Did it feel any different on set, with the kind of story you’re telling in Captain America: Civil War? Were you guys more separated and divided, or did you still totally harass each other as much as always?
MACKIE: That’s all we do! It’s funny, after awhile, you just become good friends and everybody bullies everybody on set. Everybody is nice to Scarlett [Johansson], and we beat up on everybody else. She’ll just kick your ass, or she’ll tell Kevin [Feige] and you’ll get in trouble. So, you’re nice to Scarlett, and you make fun of everybody else. I love it!
Shelter is now in theaters and on VOD.