On paper, actor Anthony Mackie and rap icon Tupac Shakur couldn’t be more different: Mackie is an up-and-coming Hollywood star who grew up in middle-class New Orleans and is doing films with greats like Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood; Tupac was a gangsta rapper who was raised by a drug-addicted mother and vilified by mainstream America. The upcoming biopic Notorious, about Tupac’s onetime friend and, later, greatest enemy, Notorious B.I.G., exposes the stereotypes surrounding the early hip-hop scene. But the film also shows what a brilliant shape-shifter Mackie is. He played Tupac once before, in Up Against the Wind, a Juilliard stage production in New York City that made it to the New York Theatre Workshop in 2001. Now, after a number of film roles—including his first major one, as the sperm donor for affluent lesbians in Lee’s She Hate Me (2004)—he reprises the character and plays the controversial icon to a tee.
BEVY SMITH: So, Mr. Mackie, you’re Tupac, huh?
ANTHONY MACKIE: That’s what they tell me.
BS: I caught the resemblance in the eyes and the charismatic smile. Have people always told you that you resemble ‘Pac?
AM: I get it sometimes. It depends on how my hair is cut. When I was doing Up Against the Wind, I got it a lot from his family. His mom has always given me a lot of love since she came to see the play, and she was very happy to hear I was doing the movie—that was an extra vote of confidence.
BS: Do you feel like this film is going to shed some light on the complex nature of Tupac?
AM: I think the movie’s going to shed some light on the relationship between Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] and Tupac. Early in Biggie’s career, Tupac really took him under his wing and mentored him through a lot of confusion—obstacles Biggie was facing, things that we all go through when we first come into a little money and fame. Tupac really gave him an opportunity to talk and find solace in the storm.
BS: I actually met Tupac through Biggie. We became really good friends. It was so crazy to me when the whole East Coast-West Coast thing happened. For me, I was just like, “What? Wait. What’s happening?”
AM: Money always changes the game, when you let a dollar come between you and your friends, your cohorts. You get a little money, and all of a sudden you get confused about who you are and how you fit into that. I think Tupac started to realize that it was truly him against the world, because everybody who said they had his back didn’t. He was stuck out there on his own.
The roles that rappers are takingØthey’re not roles that matter. You’re not going to do the Marvin Gaye Story and cast 50 Cent. You’re not going to do the Martin Luther King movie and cast Usher. We expect trash and that’s why we get trash. And we appreciate trash. We bootleg trash.Anthony Mackie
BS: He was a quiet and thoughtful person. I think a lot has changed since he died. When he was in the world, he was vilified. He was thug-life and gangsta. But there was a whole other side to him.
AM: All these wannabe 50 Cent pseudo-thugs now are who they are because of Tupac. Before Tupac came along, everybody wore polka dots and had flattops. He truly transcended the game. Now everybody’s a thug with security, which really don’t make no sense. Tupac really taught the power of hip-hop. You can’t be this hardcore gangsta rapper and hang out in Malibu with all your white friends on the weekends. It’s really weird right now because everybody’s trying to live up to an image that they have no idea of what was. That’s why he was so great. He was able to bring people together in a major way.
BS: Since you have a lot of respect for him, did you feel added pressure to nail the performance?
AM: I just wanted to be true to who he was to me and who he was to his family. I think those are the two most important things. He’s something different to everybody. I wanted to bring that wildin’-out hell-raiser to the movie. I wanted to bring that jokin’, funny kid, but I also wanted to bring the introspective demon that he was. Everything around him affected him. That’s the cat I wanted to bring to the movie, not just some baggy-jean-wearin’ wannabe thug.
BS: It’s good that you’re playing Tupac, versus some rapper wannabe. For many years we heard, “Oh, the rappers are taking all the young black actors’ roles,” and now here we have a movie where it’s being flipped on its ear, where it’s really helmed by serious actors.
AM: The roles that rappers are taking—they’re not roles that matter. You’re not going to do the Marvin Gaye story and cast 50 Cent. You’re not going to do the Martin Luther King movie and cast Usher. We expect trash and that’s why we get trash. And we appreciate trash. We bootleg trash.
BS: But you’re taking on serious legends. Next you’re set to do the Jesse Owens story.
AM: People today don’t even know who Jesse Owens was. They don’t have no idea what happened in 1936 [at the Olympics in Berlin]. That’s what’s scary, because our history is being lost. The world should recognize how Owens transcended race. His life was so remarkable. And he came up during the time of no drugs, no steroids, none of that, yet his record [winning four gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics] stood all the way till Carl Lewis [who matched the performance at the 1984 Games]. He really put the U.S. in the forefront of the world for taking down the German empire. It’s funny, because when he got back to the United States after winning those four gold medals, there was a ticker-tape parade to the Waldorf-Astoria—and would you believe, they wouldn’t let him in the front door? He had to go in the service elevator. It’s very epic, very beautiful to play him and introduce him to a new generation.
BS: You’re also going to be introducing ‘Pac to a whole new generation. How did his music affect you when you were growing up?
AM: I was a huge fan. My first CD was Tupac’s Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. . The first time I saw Tupac, in the movie Juice , I was totally enamored with the dude. Everything he said, every song, every CD-I bought everything I could possibly get. I was blown away. He really allowed me into a world that I wasn’t privy to. I mean, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans. My dad got up and went to work every day, and my mama spanked me every day. I had five siblings. I wasn’t that kid out there on the corner. I went to school and made good grades and went to college. So I was afforded an opportunity through my parents’ hard work that most people don’t have. And because of that, Tupac really let me see what people were experiencing in the ‘hood. It was almost like voyeuristically looking into someone else’s hardships.
BS: How do you think that ‘Pac might have been different if he’d maybe had that strong family foundation?
AM: The thing about ‘Pac was he had to turn 30, or he had to die before he made 30. If ‘Pac would have made 30, the entire world would have been changed, because as a man, when you turn 30, your outlook is different. You realize your mortality. People walk around questioning everyone’s validity if they even read a book. You’re not real just because you have an education, because you can speak in complete sentences. I think the great thing about ‘Pac . . . what he would have been able to do is get rid of all these bumbling idiots teaching kids how to be more stupid. The fact that we have Ludacris speaking in front of kids is ludicrous.
BS: Are you trying to say that the ills of the community rest squarely on rappers’ shoulders?
AM: No. I’m trying to say the ills of the community rest squarely on our shoulders. I don’t want Snoop Dogg selling my kids Sprite. I don’t want R. Kelly having a youth girls’ soccer team. At some point we have to figure out if our kids are sacred to us, and if they are, we cannot buy another R. Kelly CD. We have to figure out if our women are sacred to us, and if so, we cannot buy another bitch-and-ho CD. Was [rapper] T.I. buying silencers to kill 15-year-old white suburban kids? Or was he buying silencers to kill 15-year-old black ghetto kids?
BS: Or was he buying them for protection?
AM: [laughs] Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. Ask him how many silencers he’s got in his trunk?
BS: But as you just mentioned, it depends on how you were raised.
AM: No question. And that was the blessing of Tupac. That’s what Tupac gave us. Tupac gave us validity. Tupac made the kid getting beat up every day realize that it was okay to be smart. Tupac made the knucklehead realize that it was okay to stay home and read a book. A fool at 40, a fool forever.
BS: I might think that you have more than a bit of disdain toward rap music, but I know from dancing with you that you like it very much. So I just need you to put it out there to clear it up. Because I done danced with you many a night over some great hip-hop!
AM: I love the art form. I paid for college through hip-hop. I had a record label here in New Orleans called Take Fo’. We helped create Down South Bounce. It was all of us-Mannie Fresh, Baby, Lil Wayne, Master P. But I got into Juilliard, so I cashed out.
BS: You could have been a rap mogul. You could have been Diddy.
AM: No! We used to go in a van from Texas to Georgia and sell CDs, have concerts in little venues, make money, do our bounce music, and then come back to New Orleans.
BS: Why do you think a person who has only a nominal interest in or knowledge of Biggie should see this film?
AM: Because of Tupac! [laughs] No, because if you look at Biggie, Biggie was truly the American Dream.