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Anthony Mackie on homelessness and that pro-Trump misquote

"Shelter" star Anthony Mackie talks about how he prepared to play a homeless man in New York City and the widening income gap.

Anthony Mackie is in many, very different films out this season. He has two holiday movies, which are both different: the nice “Love the Coopers” (also out this week) and the raunchy “The Night Before,” with Seth Rogen. He was just seen in the political satire “Our Brand is Crisis.” And he’s in “Shelter,” a small, intimate drama in which he plays Tahir, an African emigre who’s currently homeless. He joins up with Hannah (Jennifer Connelly), a junkie trying to escape past trauma. The film was directed by Paul Bettany, Connelly’s husband, and it made the onetime New York City resident look closer at a part of his former city he tended to ignore.

This was a film shot on the fly in New York, using real locations, sometimes exploring heavily populated areas, sometimes areas most people ignore.

New York is always a character in any movie that’s shot here. What Paul did was capture the essence of the city. We’ve become so smart in sound mixing and technology that when you watch a movie about this city you don’t hear the city. You don’t hear the cabs, you don’t hear the noise. New York is one of those cities where you walk outside and are inundated with noise. It’s funny watching this movie: you get the feel, that claustrophobic feel. [The characters are] just engulfed by the noise of the city.

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Are you a full-time New Orleans resident now? You no longer live here, right?

I don’t. I’m 100 percent in New Orleans. If I’m not working I’m in New Orleans. I just sold my restaurants [including No Bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn] and just completely checked out of New York. I realized I worked a lot. When I have two or three days off, what do I want to do? Come to New York and check on the restaurant? Or go to New Orleans and go to my son’s soccer game? I want to go to New Orleans and teach my son fishing. I want to take him to the track and race go-carts. I don’t want to come here and have people complaining about having to wash mats.

What kind of preparation did this entail? How did you ingratiate yourself into this world?

There was a homeless shelter at the end of my block in Brooklyn. I didn’t get a haircut for three weeks. I would put on my baseball cap and put on my hoodie, and I would just sit on the corner. I didn’t talk to anybody. I would just sit there and watch guys walk back and forth, just listening to them: how they would talk to each other, how they were addressing each other, the stories they were telling. And lo and behold, after about a week one guy talks to me, another guy talks to me. Then I get invited to a card game. And then all of a sudden people are asking me, “How come I never see you at the shelter? When are you coming to the shelter?” The drug dealers thought I was an undercover cop, so they started shooing me off the corner. It was interesting to realize there’s a different world right there. We don’t have to make movies about outer space. We have outer space right here on this planet. It’s a completely different planet, a completely different vocabulary, a completely different world. And we live right in the midst of it.

There are constant reports about the ever-widening income gap in New York City, but awareness never seems to lessen it. It just gets worse and worse.

Worse and worse. I was reading this quote the other day. This guy was like, “If you think you’re progressive and you donate and pay attention to things in society that only pertain to you and your day-to-day life, the one thing you’re not is progressive.” [Laughs] You don’t have to be homeless or to have a family member that’s homeless to pay attention to your fellow man. After Katrina, half of my family was homeless. They had nowhere to go, no home to call their own. They had nothing. It made me realize we’re one step, one lightning bolt away from being homeless.

I met this family in Brooklyn. This guy said his apartment caught on fire. He didn’t have renter’s insurance because he couldn’t afford it. So he lost everything. He missed a week of work because he didn’t have clothes or anything. He didn’t have money, so he went to Goodwill, scrapped up what clothes he could. And then he lost his job, because all of the mental stress of that. He said he hadn’t been able to get back on his feet. This is a college-educated man. It put things in perspective, especially with [Tahir, his character], because he’s along the same lines. All of us have a breaking point. You never what that moment is going to be that sends you on a downward spiral.

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Homelessness is a strange phenomena, because so many of us do absolutely nothing about it. It’s something we’re used to living amongst.

I realized how many times I walked past a homeless person and was like, “Man, get the f— away from me. When I was living in Brooklyn, at the shelter at the end of my block, this church would come in a van and give out plates. They would eat their good and invariably the trashcan would get full and they would put the plates around it. Then the wind would blow and the plates would blow down the street. I would always come out of my place, the three times a week they would do this, and was like, “Goddammit, we’ve really got to stop this feeding program.” These were thoughts I had! That’s what’s interesting about this movie, is it shows the lack of humanity, the lack of person-to-person interaction we don’t have anymore. It used to be if you wanted to meet a girl you’d go up to her and talk to her and give her the opportunity to say yes or no. Now you swipe right or left. That’s how you meet a girl. We’re moving closer and closer to being socially retarded.

Speaking of social media, a couple weeks ago you were the center of some controversy because in an interview you said something that was interpreted as being pro-Donald Trump. You had to go on Twitter and say it was a joke after it blew up. What was it like being in the middle of that size of a storm?

It was weird, because, one, I didn’t endorse Trump. She asked me a question about my character in the movie. So it was weird, but it was eye-opening, because up to that point I thought we lived in America. Some of my best friends are Republicans — I mean, crazy, hardcore Republicans. And they’re my best friends. If you want to endorse Trump or Clinton or Rubio, good for you. That’s your choice. I live in a very gray world, and a lot of people live in a black or white world. That’s scary to me, and that’s why I think we’re so divided now. I was taken aback by the tweets and the Facebook posts. Everyone’s a Twitter thug now. But when you see them they’re like, “Oh my god, can I take your picture?” It’s like, “No, let me see your Twitter page. Let me see what you’ve been tweeting.” It’s just so heartbreaking to see that people can be detached so quickly from your celebrity because of a misquote. It really shows you who your true friends and fans are.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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