Decked in a tailored suit and fedora, armed with a switchblade, Anthony Mackie’s got so much swagger in his new film Gangster Squad, he nearly forgot he wasn’t actually an undercover, mob-hunting policeman.
“I kept stabbing myself,” the 34-year-old actor tells theGrio about shooting scenes as his character Officer Coleman Harris in the movie, hitting theaters today. “He was a hard-nosed cop. He would sit around all day, and just play with his switchblade.”
Set in 1949 Hollywood, Gangster Squad is a story based on actual events spanning the city of Los Angeles at the time, a glamorous boomtown that blankets an underworld of crime, drug trafficking and prostitution run by mafia kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). As Cohen’s influence grows stronger, a team of men, including Mackie’s character along with other real-life figures played by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick, is assembled to destroy the mob operations.
According to Mackie, Harris was about more then mere combat skills, he was a man on a mission to tackle the underworld beneath him; a guy set on redemption, which was a major big drawing point to this role.
“It’s not so often you get to play three-dimensional characters,” Mackie explains. “[Harris] talks about saving his neighborhood, and losing his niece, and everything that makes him want to join the squad. Then, you see how flawed he is because once he joins the squad, he does certain things to where, morally, it’s not the right thing to do. But he’s very smart about using the streets against the streets.”
The film plays on classic noir aesthetics, a reversion to 1950s dramatics and expressionist compositions. The characters, dialogue, and setting all seems to pay homage to their prototypes, those movies and starlets from the era of Orson Welles, Howard Hughes and Billy Wilder.
“Being a gangster then was all about style and charisma,” notes Mackie. “If you look at these guys like Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen, Al Capone, they were celebrities. And the newspapers and the news made them celebrities. And when they came out of the houses, they wore tailored suits and everything was about presentation. Everything was about letting people know that you were the guy that wasn’t supposed to be messed with…Back then, you knew you were the coolest guy in the room.”
Mackie’s character fills a void he says he often inhabits – “the black guy in the movie” – yet the value of Harris’ character and significance in the story cannot be disputed. Harris is a man hell-bent on defending his neighborhood and people, hoping to restore life to the community. At the same time, he is a product of that struggling mentality. Though he’s managed to overcome his mental iniquities, one of his greatest strengths is his ability to outwit his opposition through techniques he’s learned on the city block. Thus, it’s the strength of his background that makes him an asset to this collective.