NEW ORLEANS—Two days before attending his first Oscars ceremony, New Orleans actor and "Hurt Locker" star Anthony Mackie was playing it cool.
The New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts grad admitted being excited about attending the Academy Awards on behalf of his nine-times-nominated film, of course, but there was an easy, restrained quality to his voice as he said it.
"It's been a whirlwind," he said, sincerely but nonchalantly. "We definitely didn't know what to expect when signing on to all of this, but 'Hurt Locker' has kind of come full circle, so we're just riding the wave."
By Oscars Sunday night, under the glare of the flashbulbs lining the red carpet in front of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, that facade began melting away.
"I'm too excited," he told red-carpet host Robert Osborne in a near-shout upon arriving at the mob-scene that is a pre-Oscar tradition. "My first Academy Awards ceremony. The Saints won the
Super Bowl. It couldn't get any better."
A little bit more than three and a half hours later, it got better.
TV cameras watched as he leapt from his seat and lifted co-star Brian Geraghty off the ground in an enthusiastic embrace. The cameras watched as Mackie and Geraghty, along with co-star and best actor nominee Jeremy Renner, rushed the stage. As director Kathryn Bigelow accepted the movie's sixth Oscar of the night, the three men stood behind her, their arms around each other's shoulders - brothers in arms - and beamed and hooted and reveled in the moment.
Yeah, it's been a whirlwind all right, and a long road from the 30-year-old Mackie's youth in New Orleans' 7th Ward.
"It was a quintessential New Orleans childhood," he said. "Played in my school band from elementary to high school. Went to NOCCA (and Warren Easton Senior High), went fishing in City Park - a typical New Orleans childhood."
But he wasn't exactly a typical kid. He could act, this one. After NOCCA, it was on to Juilliard and a string of roles that earned him notice on the New York stage. Just like that, a film career was born, bringing praise nearly every step of the way, in films such as "Half Nelson" and another best picture winner, "Million Dollar Baby."
Then came "The Hurt Locker," a little film about a big subject, shot in the scorching Jordanian desert about three miles from the Iraq border.
"It was twice as intense (making the film) as it is watching it," Mackie said. "It was just so hot and so unpredictable. ... But we had a good time - we tried to have as much of a good time as we could. We had a lot of Iraqi refugees working on the film, and they really gave us the insight of what was going on at the time of the war in Iraq."
What was really unpredictable is that their little film caught on with critics while hitting the film-festival circuit in late 2008 and early 2009. "Nobody expected it," Mackie said. "We knew we were all there for the right reasons and to make a good film, but nobody knew it would be accepted the way it has been. It's truly been a surprise for everybody involved."
As much as critics have gushed about the film - it has earned a score of 94 on the movie-review aggregator Metacritic.com, and a 91 percent "fresh" rating at RottenTomatoes.com - audiences have shied from it, as they have from most movies dealing with the war in Iraq. Worldwide, the film made just $16 million - $100 million less than "Alice in Wonderland" made in just its opening weekend, and almost $2 billion less than James Cameron's "Avatar," its major competition at the Oscars, has grossed to date.
"It definitely says a lot at this stage in my career to be going to the Oscars for a film that's nominated for best picture, and (with) a co-star that is nominated for best actor," Mackie said. "It says a lot for everything we put into the film and the relationships that we made making the film."
As evidenced by their Oscar-night pose on the Kodak Theatre stage, those relationships only strengthened as awards season had the movie's stars tuxing up nearly every other week to collect more hardware. "It's funny when you get to see the same group of people over and over again, you instantly become cohorts, you instantly become friends, because you realize you're all on the same path," he said.
The awards season commotion only adds to an already busy time for Mackie. This summer, he co-stars with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in Universal Pictures' big-budget sci-fi romance "The Adjustment Bureau," based on a Philip K. Dick story. Before that, he played seminal New Orleans jazzman Buddy Bolden in the biopic "Bolden!," shot partially in New Orleans but which has yet to land a distribution deal. He also continues working to get a passion project off the ground, a movie about barrier-breaking Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, which Mackie will produce and star in.
And just three nights before the Oscars, he opened playwright Martin McDonagh's new Broadway play - "A Behanding in Spokane" - with Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. That kept him in New York until the morning of the Oscars, when he hopped a cross-country flight to Hollywood for Sunday night's show. Monday morning, it was back to New York.
To put it simply, he said: "It's been a whirlwind adventure."
Despite it all, Mackie's still a New Orleanian through and through. Although he moved to New York some years ago to focus on his film and stage career, his family still lives in New Orleans. Two years ago, he said, he bought his own place here.
"When I'm not working, I'm in New Orleans," he said, calling from New York. "I keep my place here because I do most of my work out of New York. So when I'm not here (in New York), I'm in New Orleans. When I'm not in New Orleans, I'm here."
Whether or not he's working, you can find him in New Orleans on Saints game days. He's a season-ticket holder and a passionate fan - so much so that he flies in for every home game.
It was Mackie, in fact, who was responsible for New England Patriots fan and "Adjustment Bureau" co-star Damon wearing a Saints jersey on a recent appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman." It was the result of a bet that would have seen Mackie trumpeting the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady on "The View" if the 2010 NFL post-season had gone differently.
"(But) we have bragging rights," he said. "I don't care if we lose every game next season. I keep telling people you can't take it away from us until you take it away from us."
He's talking about the Lombardi Trophy, of course, not the Oscar, or that memorable Oscar-night moment when he and his "Hurt Locker" band of brothers got to take the stage.
That's something that can never be taken away.