Anthony Mackie on How 'Black Mirror' Episode Conveys an "Idea of Bromance"

Anthony Mackie - Getty - H 2019
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Exploring virtual gaming's impact on intimacy and sexual identity in 'Striking Vipers,' the actor hopes audiences will use the episode to "reflect on themselves and their ignorance."

Black Mirror never shies away from evocative plotlines, but chatter about this summer's "Striking Vipers" episode was fervid — even by its own standards. The season five opener of Charlie Brooker's Netflix series saw Anthony Mackie explore virtual gaming on an extremely intimate level while addressing issues of sexuality and infidelity (and spawning countless think pieces). The episode centers on two longtime platonic friends, Danny (Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who find themselves pushing the boundaries of their relationship while plugged into a VR version of a Mortal Kombat-inspired video game they played in their college days.

The 41-year-old Avengers star talked with THR about how growing up in the South and studying drama at Juilliard primed him to tackle a role that challenges modern perceptions of sexuality during a time of cultural unrest.

What was your first impression when you saw this script?

I was really intrigued by the characters' relationship — the idea of them being in love with one another, finding happiness. What was really important was the idea of love. There are so many different ideas and preconceptions about the way people should love each other. With this, we talked about the idea of what it means for people to truly care about each other and love each other, be it infatuation, be it lust or be it just pure romance. I was really surprised that they were looking to go that route and take on that conversation.

Not only are those things on their own complicated, but then you put them in this Black Mirror universe where you're also looking at the effects of near-future technology on human relationships. What other themes in the story did you find interesting?

One of the themes we talked about when we were all on set is the idea of homosexuality, the idea of a bromance, the idea of two men finding that experience with each other. When I talk to people now about that episode, they look at me in a whole different light. I always ask guys, "Have you never been in an experience where you were somewhere with a male friend and your girl was waiting for you and you're like, 'Man, I just don't want to leave,' because you know as soon as you go home all of your fun's going to be over?" That was the way that I looked at it. The idea of bromance, the idea of comfort and fun, as opposed to the whole misconception in this day and age of homosexuality and what it means to be what. What defines you. It was more so, for me, about the idea of these two characters truly finding happiness within each other in the mundane world that they lived in.

The episode sparked a lot of conversations, especially surrounding the acceptance of gay men and specifically black gay men. What did you think about that reaction to it?

Well, there's a very different reaction from the machismo man and the 2019 open, free love, understanding liberal man that I've experienced from this episode. That's partly why I wanted to do it. I feel like nowadays we're wrapped up in the idea of what exactly is masculinity, especially in the black community. In the black community, homosexuality is still, in certain circles, frowned upon. So when I met with the director, one of the first questions he asked me was, "What would it mean if these two men were black?" Because when they wrote it, they didn't write it for two black dudes. They didn't write it for two white dudes. They just wrote it for two men. So when we had that conversation it really surprised me and intrigued me. I was looking forward to sparking that conversation because it's something that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. You know, I went to arts high school. I went to arts college. So the majority of my friends were artists and a vast number of my friends were gay. Growing up in the South being gay is not like growing up in a more understanding territory like L.A. or New York or Chicago. So, for me, that's something that I had to unlearn. There was a young man that I went to college with named Brandon and one day he called me on my shit and told me I was a dumb, ignorant homophobic fool. It really changed my perspective on how I looked at other people and their sexuality and their space in my world. Because of that, when the director brought up the idea of these two men being black, that instantly pulled me into it. If I can make anyone look at this episode and then reflect on themselves and their ignorance toward people of any difference from what's in their household, I'll do that every day of the week.

How did you and Yahya work together to build your chemistry so that onscreen bond really came through?

Yahya and I have always been friends. We both come from a similar background. So there was never a time where we had to sit back and bro-up and be like, "Hey, man. We're just guys acting." A lot of times people have to do that, I feel, to explain or accept what they're about to experience. But Yahya and I have been friends for some time now and we were playing two men that just happened to love each other. We used our friendship to infuse that relationship between those two guys. If they did an outtake of that show, it would be a whole lot of us just cracking up because it was so far from our character, but it was so real. Like that dinner table scene where it was the three of us, and he had the best line probably written in the history of television where he said he fucked a polar bear. That scene took probably an hour longer than it was supposed to because the situation was so funny to us — how far he was willing to go with that, how honest he was willing to be as an actor. I think we definitely developed more respect for each other as artists coming out of that project.

What other reactions have you gotten from fans?

You have the people who were so intrigued by the story, the themes that were brought up in that episode, and then you have the people who would come up to me and say really wildly ridiculous homophobic things. I don't know if they were doing it to see how I would react or doing it to test my manhood or whatever, but it's usually one or the other. People want to come up and have a long conversation about it or people want to come up and just be so wildly ignorant that you just have to laugh at it and tell them their parents should have raised a better human being.

This show brings up a lot of really interesting questions about our relationship with technology. Are there any particular technological advancements that you think society would be better off without?

Social media has become the death of human interaction. People can't even hold conversations anymore. People can't agree or disagree anymore. I'm the type of person that if you have a different opinion than mine, I want to talk to you, hear your opinion and see how it relates to mine. Whereas, now, if people have a different opinion than you, you cut them off and say "you're ignorant and I'm never talking to you again." And I enjoy my anonymity. I enjoy being away from the whole thing. I didn't get into the business to be a Kardashian. I got into the business because I loved acting. I love what I do. I love storytelling, but for some reason people seem to think that you owe them something. They earned something from you by seeing you in a movie three years ago and you're an asshole for not giving them what they want. That's 100 percent because of social media.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.