The Iraqi war film “The Hurt Locker” feels incredibly authentic, not only because screenwriter Mark Boal spent time with a working bomb squad in the war-torn country, but also because the film actually shot in the Middle East, transplanting the cast and crew into the Jordanian desert to work under some of the most rigorous conditions possible.
When the 120-degree heat wasn’t pounding down during filming, and the actors weren’t itching for Starbucks, they were learning about a culture that most of them were unfamiliar with, prior to becoming immersed in it for the film. Anthony Mackie, who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn, even said that it was hard for him to reacclimate, once he returned home.
Here’s what he had to say, at the film’s press day, about the experience of telling such a high-stakes story:
Question: Can you talk about being guarded by the Jordanian military while you were filming in the Middle East?
Anthony: We had some retired or reformed Blackwater guys, some SI guys and some Jordanian military guys. We were 3 km from the Iraq border.
So, you were being paid to be right by a war zone?
Anthony: Very true. Not paid much, but paid nonetheless. For me, it was more so the experience. In this business, you have to choose which way you want your career to go. You can have one career where you’re just doing “Spider-Man 15,” or you can have a career where you get to do those great movies, but you also get to do little gems like this, where you have an interesting script, great director and amazing cast of actors, instead of two good actors, four stars, a football player and a rapper. It’s completely different.
When I met with Kathryn and I read the script, Sanborn and James were two white guys, and she wanted me to play Eldridge. In the face of war, I really felt like race is not an issue. It’s not like, “Oh, you need a white guy to do this. Only white guys blow stuff up, and only black guys do this.” It’s not like that. War has no race. So, I sat down with her and really pitched her the idea of me playing Sanborn, just because of the level of humanity that was written into the character.
Where the other movies about this war got it wrong was that they were movies about the war, and everybody trying to put their political stamp on the movie. This was more along the lines of “Three Kings” or “Apocalypse Now,” where it was more of an emotional drama about these guys, and the war is a backdrop. I was all about getting paid little to work on a cool project.
How much training did you have to go through?
Anthony: Well, I’ve handled a piece before. I know how to save my life, in case you want some drama. I did this movie, called “Hollywood Homicide,” where I had to do all this special tactical training that all got cut out of the movie, which was great. I didn’t get a lot of off-the-set training like Jeremy did ’cause I was down in North Carolina working. Once I finished in North Carolina, we went straight over to Jordan, so most of my stuff was done online. It’s funny, if you put one little phrase online, how many guys will respond. I got to go up to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and met and talked with some interesting guys, and found out more of the military aspect than the EOD aspect.
Can you talk about working with your co-stars, Jeremy Renner and Brian Geraghty?
Anthony: If it wasn’t for Brian and Jeremy, this movie would have been a disaster. I say that honestly because there’s a certain comradery that goes along with the lack of egos. Every day I showed up on set, I knew Jeremy and Brian had their shit together, so I couldn’t be the dude coming up and going, “How do I hold a gun?” So, every day, we really just supported, watched out for and really looked after each other. We were in the Middle East during Ramadan and we didn’t have any female or alcoholic distractions. Every day, we woke up, went to work, and went back to the hotel and just tried to purge the emotional strain of the day. That really informed the characters.
How did you purge the emotional strain?
Anthony: With this movie, it was just talking about female distractions. It was a bunch of different things. Most of the time, we had our weekends off, so we would just go away to Aqaba, the Dead Sea, Egypt or somewhere like that, to really experience the Middle East. As frustrating and as hot as it was, it was cool to be on set and just have a herd of 100 rogue goats come running through set. Nobody else has had to deal with that. You’re shooting and, off in the distance, there’s a bunch of Bedouins on camels, watching you. That was interesting and different. Things like that really made it worthwhile and really made us more acclimated to the Middle East.
What surprised you about being there?
Anthony: I learned so much about Muslim culture and faith. I don’t think we, as Americans, have developed that level of pride and faith yet. We’re prideful of our country and our religion, but in a cynical way. You go there and everybody has a Jordanian flag on their car. If your neighbor puts an American flag outside of their house, you wonder why. Here, everything is up for question, whereas there, if you question, you die. You’ve got to go balls in. It’s all or nothing. And, there’s something to be said for that. There’s a certain beauty about that, that we don’t possess here.
Did you look at how they treated the war on the news there?
Anthony: Yeah, I watched a little television. It was interesting to see the guys waving the American flag, and then when they put the cameras down, CNN pays everybody and they walk away. That’s stuff you don’t see on the news here.
What was it like to work with Kathryn Bigelow? How was her process, as a director?
Anthony: She’s visually oriented, so it’s like organized chaos. Kathryn knew the movie she wanted to make and the story she wanted to tell. There were five cameras, so you’d be talking and, all of a sudden, a camera would come up and you’d be like, “What do I do?” Barry, the D.P., and Kathryn really understood what they were trying to portray and how they wanted to really get inside these three guys, so Kathryn just let us go. The three of us would get together, before every scene, and just rehearse and talk, and Kathryn would come over and listen, and then just go away. She just wanted to make sure we were on the same page that we were when we signed onto this project. Her process was not so hands-on with us, but very behind the camera.
How difficult was it to shoot out in the desert of Jordan?
Anthony: Out there, it’s 120-degree heat. You’ve got on 20 pounds of Kevlar and guns, and it was very, very difficult. It was extremely hard because there was no shade, we didn’t have trailers, we didn’t have craft services and there was no Starbucks. I like my Starbucks. It was rough. But, it informed the movie more than if we shot it in New Mexico.
Wouldn’t you have to be crazy to sign up for that then?
Anthony: I’m a firm believer in people who love what they do. Every time I go to the grocery store or post office, I realize that there are people who just do shit to make a living and they’re pissed off, every day of their life. They’re not gonna make your food right, they’re gonna spit in your coffee, your mail might not go out. They’re just not enjoying life. And, I love what I do. If I have the opportunity to do what I do with people I admire, it’s 10 times better.
We get paid a king’s ransom to do a boy’s job, even if you make $15,000 on a movie, for two months of work. In New Orleans, where I’m from, the average household income, with two working parents, two kids, a dog and a little fence is $16,000 a year, so $15,000 for a movie sounds pretty good. If you’re not out here buying helicopters and blingin’ out, you can live good. So, what are you really fighting for? Do you want to be an actor, or do you want to be a celebrity? I made that decision when I went to Juilliard. I wanted to be an actor. So, if I get the opportunity to be an actor and do some cool, fun and interesting projects, I’m going to do that.
Can you understand why these soldiers sign up to do this kind of thing?
Anthony: I don’t get that. I tried, but I don’t. I have so much appreciation now for the military. You look at it on TV and think, “I could do that. I’ve jumped out of planes. I’ve seen “Top Gun.” I could do that.” And then, you get out there and the idea of your mortality being a reality hits you. I’m scared of motorcycles. I could fall and die. Why would you do that? I haven’t been able to grasp the concept of putting your life on the line for whatever reason people go into the military for. Some people just want to pay their bills, some people believe in their country and some people do it because their parents did it, but that’s rough.
Typically, films about this war don’t do very well. Is that something that you’ve thought about?
Anthony: With this film, I feel like what makes the movie work so well is that it’s a character study. It’s like a Chekov play. When you look at this film, it’s not about these guys being at war. It’s not about war, it’s not about Iraq, it’s not about Bagdad, it’s not about Bin Laden, it’s not about Bush. It’s about how the backdrop of the war is mentally and emotionally affecting these three human beings. That’s the magic of film. We’ve never fought aliens, but when we saw “Independence Day,” we fell in love with Will Smith because we could relate to him fighting aliens. When you see “The Natural,” you might not be able to swing a bat, but you can relate to it. None of us have been hookers, but you see “Pretty Woman” and you’re like, “Wow!” It’s the human relation aspect that makes this film so important, and that’s why other war movies failed. It was about the war and it wasn’t about human nature. We can’t relate to war, but we can relate to human beings.
When you came back from the Middle East, did you have any trouble re-acclimating?
Anthony: I was happy to see my ex-girlfriend because there was lots of sex. Some poor bastard’s daughter had to pay for me being in the Middle East for three months. I’m sorry. It was rough. But, the acclimation process was more about coming back to a world that was 20 years behind. Now that I’d seen so much, experienced so much, heard so much and lived so close to so much, it was hard to hear people go, “Oh, Bin Laden . . .” It was like, “Dude, for real? You don’t get it.” It’s so much bigger than that. Living in Muslim culture, and now having devout Muslim friends, really changed how I look at the world and it helped me inform my family to change the way they look at the world. Living in the South, it can be difficult sometimes. Being in the Middle East, you learn so much. It’s like the epicenter for everything. We were right outside Israel, right next to the Gaza strip, and we were having dinner with Palestinian refugees. You learn about the Six-Day War, and you learn so much about how the U.S. was a part of all that.
What would you like the audience to take away from this film?
Anthony: At the end of the day, it’s a movie, so I’d like for people to be entertained. I’d like for it to be a thrill ride, but I’d also like for people to take away a certain level of understanding. With CNN and MTV, we forget that these are people’s sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and so on. Once we get to the core of that and remember that, a whole lot of things about this war and where we are as a country will become very clear. We shouldn’t have to have commercials about supporting our troops. I hope people take some semblance of that away.
How was it to work with these bigger stars, like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse, in smaller roles?
Anthony: It was weird because they weren’t there. Guy Pearce was there for a week. We hung out and it was a lot of fun, and then he was gone. It was interesting because, at that point, you learn that everyone is expendable and no one is safe, and that’s how it felt shooting the movie. It was great to work with those guys, and I think they brought a completely different dynamic to the movie. I’m glad that they played the parts that they played, the way that they did. It was great. Kathryn did that on purpose and it works really well.
Are you going to get “Jesse Owens” going?
Anthony: We’re in the process now of finalizing the script. The problem with “Jesse Owens” is that we don’t believe in our heroes, so people will be like, “That was an interesting story. He saved the world from Hitler.”