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NPR Arts & Life

Anthony Mackie On Portraying Martin Luther King Jr. In 'All The Way'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend a few minutes talking about an election year marked by over-the-top rhetoric, racial resentment, vicious infighting with both political parties. Of course, we're talking about 1963. That's when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in.

That's how the historic docudrama "All The Way" begins. It premieres on HBO tonight. It's based on the award-winning Broadway production "All The Way." And it offers a gritty portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson's first year in office, a year in which he tries to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

And central to that mission, of course, is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who's played in the film by Anthony Mackie. For his part, Anthony Mackie is no stranger to playing heroes. At the moment, he's also returning to his star turn as Falcon in the latest "Captain America" film. And Anthony Mackie is with us now from NPR's bureau in New York. Welcome back. Thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

ANTHONY MACKIE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What drew you to this role? I read - and I don't know if that's accurate - I hope it's accurate - that it's not the first time you were actually offered to play Martin Luther King, Jr. True?

MACKIE: Very true. It's the first time I read a script that I saw Dr. King as who I knew him to be. I feel like a lot of times when a man is humble, when he shows compassion, people take that as a weakness. You know, Dr. King for me wasn't like that.

If you look at some of his speeches and the things he was doing, he was very radical. He was very out there in his approach for change.

And I grew up in a house where my dad made sure that Dr. King was a part of our daily existence. And he always described him as a leader of men. And that's the Dr. King I wanted to portray. And he was a great and shrewd politician. And I don't think we've ever seen that aspect of him on film.

MARTIN: Yeah. The movie comes just two years after the critically acclaimed "Selma." So that exposed a fresh portrait of Dr. King for many people who perhaps haven't thought about it. And I just wonder whether you had any trepidations about taking on this role.

MACKIE: Not at all. I never saw "Selma," but I know my interpretation will be different. When I read the script - I mean, Robert Schenkkan is such an amazing writer. And if you saw the play, you know, Bryan Cranston was really outstanding in his portrayal of Lyndon Johnson.

And that relationship along with the hazing of J. Edgar Hoover was kind of remarkable in the approach that the two of them took with compromise. I feel like we live in a day and age now where compromise is the word that can never be said in a room.

MARTIN: What was your own sort of own process for deciding how to play King?

MACKIE: I read these two books. One was "Bearing The Cross," and the other one was Tavis Smiley's "Death Of A King." And they both portrayed King in the way I knew him to be, as a - just a bad man. If you look at everything Dr. King was doing as far as the labor unions, as far as women's rights, as far as African-American rights - yet in none of this stuff did he take lightly.

He wasn't passive. He wasn't reactionary. He was the aggressor. He was the one who would go out and give the speech to start the conversation, not the one who reacted to it. I was in Atlanta shooting "Captain America" when I got cast in the role. And my brother is a graduate of Morehouse College where Dr. King went to school. So I used that connection and went over to Morehouse. They just...

MARTIN: I'm sure they would've had you anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't know if you needed to use your brother. I think they would've been quite happy to host you.

MACKIE: He is the connect of all connects. I used that relationship and they just gave me the run of the gamut. I saw footage and pictures and read things. And I actually got to sit down and talk to men who worked with and marched with Dr. King.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip from the film, if I would, from "All The Way." I think it showcases what you're talking about is that Dr. King as a realist - I mean, not as kind of the Black History Month calendar version, you know, nicey-nice. But of a real - a strategic thinker who was very tough. And I'll just play this clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL THE WAY")

MACKIE: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) I've put all my credibility on the line telling our young people that this president can be trusted. But they want results. They're down in Mississippi right now putting their lives at risk, registering Negroes for a vote they still don't have.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I want a good bill, too, Martin. But you can't give people blood tests for loyalty every 15 minutes. The president will handle Everett Dirksen.

MACKIE: If this is what it takes to move the bill, I will start a public fast to the death.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) God, Martin, that's not necessary.

MACKIE: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) What choice do I have?

MARTIN: Did this portrayal - did your research kind of change your perception of him in any way?

MACKIE: Definitely. I feel like most of us, you know - we only know the "I Have A Dream" Dr. King. He's put on this pedestal of being almost like a saint or an angel.

You know, Tavis Smiley's book "Death Of A King" chronicles the final 365 days of Dr. King's life. And it showed his insecurities, his fears, but also his determination. And I feel like you can't take someone's kindness for weakness, especially like Dr. King.

MARTIN: Well, the movie also is very warts and all about both the Lyndon Johnson character and Dr. King. I mean, the fact is the film goes to a place that some people still find controversial and offensive, which is to acknowledge the fact that Dr. King did have affairs. He was under continual surveillance by the FBI...

MACKIE: Right.

MARTIN: ...in these intimate moments. And I just wonder how you felt about that.

MACKIE: You know, being an actor, I study people. I study human nature. And no one can relate to an angel. When you see a man and his flaws and him overcome them, that's what makes you relate to him. That's what makes great characters, and I respect him more for his flaws than I do his perfection.

MARTIN: Did you see some resonance of the current political moment when we're at - being asked to evaluate candidates that many people find flawed in different ways?

MACKIE: Definitely. If you go back and read some of things that Goldwater was saying in some of the speeches he gave, he and Trump are best friends. It's ironic. In 1964, LBJ not only did the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he also brought into affordable housing. And those are the same things we're fighting about today.

I think the reason the world is - or our country is so topsy-turvy right now is because we're coming out of a LBJ society. And we don't know what the next phase is. We don't know who the next great leader is to lead us into that phase.

You think about it - you know, right now we're fighting about free health care. That's the same thing as Medicaid, Medicare. We're fighting about Black Lives Matter. That's the same thing as civil rights. I mean, we're having these conflicts, and now they're finally coming to a boiling point.

MARTIN: One thing that you said at the beginning of our conversation I wanted to pick up on is you said that we are now in a moment where compromise is a dirty word. That is the through line of the film. You know, Dr. King had to compromise, Lyndon Johnson had to compromise. And you talked about how that process worked.

When I was looking back to the conversation you and I had in 2014 about your role in "Captain America" then, one of the things you talked about was how you had to learn to compromise in your career, how you couldn't necessarily get everything you wanted. And I wanted to ask, you know, since then - what have you learned since then that maybe you could drop some knowledge about?

MACKIE: The great thing about being an actor is you have - you put yourself in a position where people actually watch you and listen to you. And I didn't understand that two years ago. I still thought I was just same goofy Anthony Mackie that could have a good time and make jokes, and they'd be jokes.

And, you know, you move onto the next phase of your day. But I realize the reality is people are going to use my words to emphasize what their agenda is. So I have to be very careful with what I do and what I said.

MARTIN: What do you want to do with this platform now - now that you have it?

MACKIE: I tried to find young men who are, I feel, working equally as hard as I did and give them the opportunities that I was given. Every step of my career, I had a great man that put me on his shoulders and carried me to the next level of my career.

And because of that, I started a mentoring program at the film school at Morehouse to where I make sure that these young men get the opportunity to work on set and get experience on these movies that I'm a part of when I shoot in Atlanta because I think that's things we should be doing. We should look to other people or other facets of society to take care of our communities. We should take care of our communities. And we're at the point now where we have the education. You have the background. We have the finances to do that.

MARTIN: Anthony Mackie co-stars as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the new HBO movie "All The Way" based on the Broadway production. It premieres Saturday night. Anthony Mackie, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MACKIE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.