Twisted Metal: How the PlayStation Classic Found a Brutal New Life with Anthony Mackie

Exclusive: Anthony Mackie talks bringing Twisted Metal to TV and bringing Hollywood hype to his hometown.

Twisted Metal
Photo: Peacock

This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.

I feel like we’re in a time where all of us are trying to not forget our childhood… Twisted Metal is one of those forgotten gems that really brings you back to your youth.”

Hood-mounted Gatling guns, blood-splattered windshields, and a psychotic clown driving a deadly ice cream truck may seem like strange memories to file under the “childhood nostalgia” column. But for ‘90s kids who loved Twisted Metal, like Anthony Mackie, the vehicular mayhem of the long-running PlayStation classic conjures warm and fuzzies in the most delightfully demented way. 

When Mackie signed on to produce and star in Peacock’s TV adaptation of the game, he knew it would be a chance to pay homage to an era that meant a lot to him. “I was formed and defined by the ‘90s,” he tells Den of Geek magazine in an interview in June before the SAG-AFTRA strike. “There was freedom of expression back then. It’s when a generation really found its voice. When I saw they were making a show about Twisted Metal, I had to be as much a part of it as I possibly could.”

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Helmed by Cobra Kai’s Michael Jordan Smith (who Mackie refers to exclusively as “MJ”), the action comedy series centers on John Doe (Mackie), a “Milkman” who traverses treacherous wastelands in his trusty-rusty Subaru, lovingly named “Evelyn,” to deliver precious cargo between walled-off cities in a post-apocalyptic United States, fending off bazooka-toting looters and marauders on the open road. John and the rest of the wastelanders are completely cut off from the prosperous pockets of civilization scattered across the map, but when he’s offered the rare opportunity to earn citizenship in New San Francisco in exchange for retrieving a mysterious package from New Chicago over 2,000 miles away, he embarks on the most dangerous mission of his life.

The original game, created by David Jaffe, wasn’t exactly narrative-forward, telling a loose story about a tournament hosted by a mysterious man called Calypso in which the victor is granted one wish. The show alters and expands on the lore extensively, though Mackie, Smith, and the show’s writers—including Deadpool’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick—do preserve the irreverent humor and ultra-violence of the game while also celebrating the edgy, off-the-wall energy of the ‘90s. The story is inspired by the source material but not bound by it, and the creative process was liberating for Mackie and the rest of the team.

“We had the opportunity to give the characters backstories and tie them together in a way that the video game didn’t,” Mackie explains. “The great thing about John is that we had one hundred percent artistic freedom. Because we had that liberty, the writing team and I were able to develop and craft him to my sense of humor. He’s a very serious character at times, but there’s an absurdity to the world he lives in.”

Absurdity is certainly a core component of the show, with the gruesome spectacle of the car combat and the dialogue’s constant flurry of F-bombs ensuring the material is on-brand for the franchise. But there’s more humanity in John’s story than one might expect. Ostensibly, he’s a happy-go-lucky lone wolf who thoroughly enjoys his job and its spoils. And yet, there’s a family-sized hole in his soul that compels him to take on the suicide mission to New Chicago.

“I think MJ and the other writers gave John Doe, and every character in the show, a very interesting character arc,” says Mackie. “You can relate to all of the characters on the show. There’s not a good guy or a bad guy. When you’re in a situation of survival, everyone has a different vantage point they look at survival from. None of them are right or wrong. Each character has an argument that makes sense and that the audience can relate to.”

The most iconic character in the entire Twisted Metal universe is the maniacal nightmare clown Sweet Tooth, voiced by Will Arnett and played onscreen by AEW pro wrestler Joe Seanoa aka Samoa Joe. Joe is an imposing presence, to say the least, which Mackie can attest to from first-hand experience, having shared a particularly physical casino fight scene with the hulking “Samoan Submission Machine.”

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“He’s a wrestler in real life, so he doesn’t know his strength!” Mackie says with a smile. “Whenever he hit me or threw me or punched me… he literally beat the shit out of me! When he slammed my head against a damn video poker machine, the glass cracked. I was like, ‘Why?! Why would you do that that hard?!’ [laughs] I have a newfound respect for pro wrestlers.”

In trying to flesh Sweet Tooth out for the show, Mackie and the writers designed him to embody the madness an entertainer like a clown would succumb to in this particular post-apocalypse. The show’s world “goes to shit” in the early aughts, so while the story takes place in the present day, outsiders like Sweet Tooth are still culturally stuck in a time when making mix CDs was a national pastime, and EB Games was a staple in malls across the country. “He’s this eccentric, crazy character with flaming hair and a leather chest harness, and we thought the audience would gravitate to that ridiculousness,” Mackie says with a chuckle. “He’s a 6 foot 3 clown who worships Sisqo.”

Sweet Tooth is one of the campiest characters on the show, but according to Mackie, the role required a highly sophisticated performance from Joe, who essentially had to bring the character to life using physicality alone. “Anybody who knows me will tell you that I never say this—Samoa Joe is one of the most talented, amazing dudes I’ve ever met,” Mackie gushes. “What he was doing on the show was basically commedia dell’arte. He created this character with his body. Samoa Joe is so fuckin’ talented.”

Also featured in the cast is Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Encanto star Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Quiet, a character original to the show who becomes a reluctant road companion for John. She’s badass, hell-bent on revenge, and as her name suggests, she isn’t the talkative type, though that doesn’t stop her from putting John in his place when she needs to. “It was really easy to play off of her,” Mackie says of his chemistry with Beatriz. “We had a lot of fun, and I think that shows throughout the course of the series.”

As part of their stunt-driving training for the show, Mackie and Beatriz practiced drifting in a parking lot, leading to one of Mackie’s favorite memories from production. “We had this thing in the car called a funny stick, which you tap to make the car drift out,” he recalls. “Let’s just say Stephanie Beatriz is not the driver of drivers. [laughs] If we had her learning to use the funny stick on film and we put it on TikTok, I think it would get 10 billion views.”

The stunt training was part of the crew’s overarching emphasis on capturing as much of the vehicular combat on camera as possible as opposed to relying heavily on visual effects. The opening action sequence of the pilot is a blistering chase through a mall that sees John dodge rockets in front of a Sam Goody, read the mall directory while doing donuts, and swing by a Foot Locker to pick up a pair of pristine Jordan 1s. “In the middle of the apocalypse, I wouldn’t be looking for any other shoes but Jordans,” Mackie quips.

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“We had amazing stunt drivers and a really great stunt crew,” Mackie continues. “The show hinges on the cars and their abilities, so we put a lot of time and energy into the car combat, and I think it paid off. When you look at these sequences…they’re second to none. Doing as many practical stunts as we could was an important part of the show.”

The series was shot in Mackie’s home city of New Orleans, which was a point of pride for the Captain America: Brave New World star, who had the time of his life working with loved ones in the place he loves most. “Being in New Orleans and having my friends and cousins pull up on set… it was exciting and comforting,” he says. “It was just fun. From running away from alligators at Blue Bayou Water Park to the police chasing us out of Armstrong Park, everything about this production was a big laugh.”

Since becoming one of the biggest stars in the entertainment industry, Mackie has used his platform to help uplift and bring business and awareness to New Orleans, which has always stood strong in the face of adversity thanks to its community’s unbreakable spirit. Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Ida, he helped repair roofs with his own two hands in his neighborhood, the Seventh Ward. Currently, he’s developing a film studio in New Orleans East to help weave the film industry and all of the jobs it creates into the fabric of the city.

“There was a certain pride that I took in that my friends were able to eat off of Twisted Metal,” Mackie beams. “I want people to learn how hard people work in New Orleans. I really appreciate the crew, and I wanted to give them a good performance. It reminded me of why I act and how great my job is. It was really an enjoyable experience to have a production this big in a city so small.”

Twisted Metal premieres on Peacock on July 27.