For Anthony Mackie, landing the role of the Falcon in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" meant more than inking his dream deal with Marvel.
"When I heard I got the role I broke down in tears," said Mackie in a recent interview. "I realized two years from that date some little brown boy was going to be at my door in a Falcon costume on Halloween. When I was a kid I didn't have that. It wasn't like I could get asked, 'Who do you want to be for Halloween?' and say Shaft. Being the Falcon is monumental."
Working with Marvel has been a longtime goal for Mackie, though he imagined playing a villain, not a superhero. "I wanted to be like the Joker and get my Heath Ledger on," he said. "I would send Marvel an email, like every four to five months. I was calling saying, 'I'll work for free.' About two years ago they sent me a letter saying, 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' I was like 'Damn – Marvel mad at me.'"
Roughly six months before filming began on "The Winter Soldier" in April 2013, directors Anthony and Joe Russo offered Mackie a role in the comic-book adaptation.
"It was epic," recalls Mackie, who admits he didn't know much about the character Sam Wilson, who becomes the Falcon, one of the first African-American superheroes in a mainstream comic.
"I read up on him and immediately got into the gym," he added with a laugh. "I thought, if I am wearing that much spandex I have to be in shape."
When "The Winter Soldier" hits theaters today, it will likely become the role for which the 35-year-old Mackie is most known. But it was his portrayal of a bomb disposal team sergeant in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning war thriller "The Hurt Locker" that paved the way for mainstream success.
"Both his roles in 'Half Nelson' and 'The Hurt Locker' showed him to be an actor of real weight," said "Winter Soldier" executive producer Nate Moore. "When we were looking to cast the role of Sam Wilson, we knew we wanted an actor who would feel like an equal to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). We'd kicked some names back and forth, but none of the names ever rose above the first we discussed – Anthony Mackie. Once we met Anthony in person, we were sold. He charmed us."
Growing up in New Orleans, acting was the last thing on Mackie's mind. "But I had this great teacher who introduced me to Shakespeare, which opened my eyes to a different idea of who I could be," he said.
He suffered a blow at 15, when his mother died. Mackie's inheritance after his mother's estate was split among him and his five siblings was $550. He used $542 to travel to New York to audition for Juilliard – and got in.
"It confirmed to me that I had the ability to do this and make a living at it," he recalled.
It also offered him the chance to turn his anger into positive energy after her death.
"The greatest blessing that she could have given me was letting me become my own man," he said. "Once I got into school everything took off."
While at Juilliard, he was cast in Eminem hit biopic "8 Mile." Since then, he's appeared in over 30 movies, from indie flicks to big budget, all-star films.
He's one of a select group of African-American actors who are consistently cast in major films. Mackie is well aware of the burden faced by minorities in Hollywood, but he describes it as another hurdle in life that has to be navigated.
"In this business specifically, race plays such a daunting role in our life because so many of my friends, who are 10 times more talented than I am, they aren't working. There aren't enough roles for them. It is simply because they are black, Latino or Asian actors. I think that's slowly changing and evolving," he said.
"I think as we support more our opportunities grow. Look at the cover of Vanity Fair. Look at the Oscars. Michael B. Jordan is treading those waters easily right now. I think a lot of that has to do with the actors who came before him and busted their heads against the wall over and over again."
Mackie hopes to tell the story of another pioneer who helped break down barriers for African-Americans, though not in acting – that of Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. It's a passion project that he hopes to complete in the near future.
"The great thing about the Falcon is, it's put me in a position to where people are willing to have those conversations about Jesse Owens," he said. "I feel like it's a story that has to be told."
Like his perseverance with Marvel, Mackie attests that if given an opportunity, he'll flourish. "That has been my motto in life," he added. "If you let me in the door, then I'm there to stay."