Luke Cage Speaks: Mike Colter Interview

Mike Colter tells us about Marvel's Luke Cage Netflix series, staying in superhero shape, the Jessica Jones sex scenes, and more.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones Netflix series has become something of a phenomenon. While the primary story, dealing with Hell’s Kitchen private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and her battle with Kilgrave (David Tennant), the series treated viewers to the introduction of mysterious bartender, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who is destined for his own Netflix series.

We spoke with Mr. Colter by phone earlier this week about introducing Luke Cage on Jessica Jones. Just in case any of our readers haven’t finished all 13 episodes of Jessica Jones yet (seriously, what are you waiting for?), I’ve moved all the questions that could contain Jessica Jones spoilers to the bottom. But consider this a serious spoiler warning because we discussed big moments from the back half of the season. We’ll give you one more warning before they start.

You must be busy. How are you today?

Well, you know, today I’m actually in the gym right now getting a workout in. Gotta do it. Then I have some things today, but I’m having a little workout in the two hour window, and then I’ve got some other errands to run, and eventually I go back to filming. Today I actually have a day off which is very unusual.

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Thank you for using it to call me.

No worries, no worries, always a pleasure.

Netflix really got their money’s worth with you having a major role on Jessica Jones before your own show, didn’t they?

You know, it was always the plan. I think a few articles mentioned that it was a spinoff and I was like it was always planned to do this before.

I think some people were confused because they don’t read and they go, “Well, if he’s in this one and now he’s doing his own, he has a spinoff.” A spinoff would be kind of an afterthought, meaning that you do one show and then you go, “Wait a minute, I want to do a show with this character.” But they already had planned to do that.

It’s very unique that you have a character in the other person’s storyline and then have him go into the other storyline right after. So in that regard I think it was a little confusing, but for me it was a nice thing to have a warmup to Luke Cage’s own series, to have him be introduced in Jessica’s series. It was planned that way because it was hard to tell one story without the other.

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I’m so happy that it happened that way because ultimately they were linked romantically in the comic books and they were linked in a big way, so it was hard to go, “Well, here’s Jessica’s story independent of Luke Cage’s story” and vice versa. So I’m happy that it played out that way. I thought the Jessica Jones series was so unique in what it tried to do and how it brought about a female superhero in a very nuanced, complex way. I was happy to be a part of that. So it was nice to introduce him and see how he plays in her world before he goes into his own narrative.

Of course, we know all the characters populate each other’s stories.

Oh yeah.

Were there any Luke Cage comic book stories that were key for you?

As far as the Luke Cage comic books, Blaxploitation was so long ago when it was introduced to the fans, those stories, those comic books didn’t help a lot because ultimately, we’re trying to tell a story that’s so modern day, every day, here and now, we didn’t want to or at least I didn’t want to get lost in the story they were telling back then.

Some of the characters that we’re using are definitely from those comic books. We stay true to a lot of the things that the fans reminisce about, want to see, and I think we’re going to give them all those things and then some. So I’m really happy about that.

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We obviously see Jessica. He does still use the phrase “Sweet Christmas.” He still has certain things that he does and he’s also going to do more of that, but he is someone who is here right now and I don’t want to bog myself down with that, because the storyline that the showrunner, Cheo, is doing now is completely different. He and Melissa’s take on it based on the Alias comic books, which are more current.

I think we’re just getting the tip of the iceberg as far as what Luke Cage’s story is, and I like how he’s introduced in Jessica Jones. There’s more to come.

How different is the tone of the Luke Cage series?

The tone is, in the sense that it is adult. It is grounded in realism and it is able to deal with very heavy issues, it’s similar.

In the sense that it’s tonally different, I like to say there’s musicality to Jessica Jones. As you notice with the music and the way the themes are unveiled. There’s always something about the musicality of something, even in dialogue, that is distinct and very different. That’s Melissa Rosenberg’s voice, that’s the writer’s voice, Scott Reynolds. Really those guys who wrote have a certain musicality.

Cheo who is our showrunner, he brought a whole new writing team and the musicality, literally and figuratively, will be different. Where he is uptown is going to feel different than Hell’s Kitchen. I would like to think that while we are in the same world, it’s going to feel a little more, I guess, urban is the word most people would say. We’re all in the city but I guess uptown specifically versus Hell’s Kitchen.

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The characters that live uptown are different than the characters that live in Hell’s Kitchen, but you will see some crossover characters as you already noticed on the previous series. So there are similarities but definitely you’re going to notice that you’re in Harlem as opposed to Hell’s Kitchen. We want to be true to Harlem as a part of town and distinctly different than Hell’s Kitchen.

You’re calling me from the gym today. You’ve always been a very fit guy and we’ve seen your work before. Have you always had to work out this intensely, or is this a new level of staying in shape?

Yeah, yeah, it is absolutely because I pretty much don’t eat things that I shouldn’t eat. That way I don’t have to worry about going to the gym to correct those things. I try to have a good diet. I just do the cardio and pretty much eat well.

I pretty much spend most of my time in the gym bulking up and staying fit, and putting muscle on so I can play the part of Luke Cage, but I’ve never been a gym rat. I don’t love it but it is a part of the job and an additional chore now that I’m playing Luke Cage.

From here on out, we’re getting into heavy SPOILER territory for Jessica Jones. Don’t read if you haven’t seen all 13 episodes of Jessica Jones yet.

When you’re telling Jessica about your wife, did you already know what would eventually be revealed about Jessica’s involvement in her death?

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Actually, believe it or not, the reason I knew about it is because they had us doing chemistry reads for the roles during the testing process. They had us using some of those scenes from further episodes. So those scenes, that was one of the scenes they had us doing.

It was kind of unusual to have someone doing a scene like that without knowing the backstory of it, so that was very overwhelming and hard to grasp the storyline because they didn’t give us the scripts. We didn’t see all the stuff that we then played. Then we got to the story and basically some of the scenes were from Jessica’s episode where she revealed that she had killed my wife.

So this is all something that I knew but I didn’t know how it evolved and how it happened. So that was very heavy material to give someone for an audition process without giving some backstory on, so that’s how I knew about it, yeah.

So then when you did the earlier scenes, was it heartbreaking to know what Luke was going to find out?

No, as an actor, part of the process, what makes the thing unique in what we do is that we’re always playing things knowing certain amounts of information, but pretending that we don’t. You never anticipate when you’re in scenes, you never look forward to what is or information that you’ve already been given. You can’t play the scene before it actually happens. We’re always shooting out of context. You’re always shooting out of order, so I knew where this was going but it didn’t change the fact that [we performed] as if it was happening for the first time, especially starting shooting episode one, two, three before we got to that episode.

It was just about discovering Jessica, discovering who she was. Trying to connect with her and making our relationship blossom. That’s what it was about. It wasn’t about this is the woman who killed my wife. It was about a man who was a widower trying to connect with someone on a deeper level and finding solace and comfort in someone who’s like himself as a superhero, who also is broken.

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Kilgrave was such an interesting villain, especially for Luke Cage, because you can’t just punch him to death, right?

Well, you can if you can get around hearing what he’s telling you. He figured it out by the end but if you can get your hands on him, it’d be pretty easy, but you’ve got to get your hands on him.

It was a mental villain and this is Jessica’s story, so this is someone who has done grave harm to her emotionally and physically. It was only fitting that she be the person that dispatches him and figures out how to get rid of her own nemesis. This is about her and it’s also about females standing up for themselves and righting a wrong and moving on in life. So it was very appropriate that she be the person who dispatches him, so it was just to go to show you that not all villains can be taken out by brute force.

How vulnerable was it for you when you played the scenes where you got Kilgraved?

It was one of those things where it’s almost like playing another character. You’re doing something that is unlike you as the character and you have complete permission.

It’s like you’re playing a bad guy and you’re justifying yourself and your actions. You pretty much are doing things 100% and not judging yourself. In this sense, I was uncontrolled because I was being manipulated, but at the same time, there were moments where obviously Luke wanted to just not do what he was doing and tell Jessica that he didn’t really mean it, but he couldn’t stop himself.

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So I think I got to the point where obviously he told her, “Just do what you have to do.” Which we know what that meant, that she shot him in the head. That stopped him but he was at all times kind of in and out of this control. As strong as he is physically, he couldn’t stop himself from doing those things to her.

What was interesting about that episode is that it was revealed all along that he was being Kilgraved, that Kilgrave was in his head the entire episode. Even those moments that he was talking to her and being very tender with her, supposedly Kilgrave was there which makes it all the more disgusting and nasty. You’re trying to figure out how much of that was Luke and how much of that was Kilgrave.

When I was playing him, I would like to think that the Kilgrave portion was Kilgrave telling him what to do, but part of it was Luke and part of it was Kilgrave. It’s hard to figure out which parts. The audience will always have those questions. It may never be answered what part was Luke and what part was Kilgrave.

Were the sex scenes with Jessica like doing fight choreography?

Yeah, a bit of it. Slightly less dangerous than fight choreography and hopefully not as difficult, but it was harder because you’re doing it for a while. There’s always more setups and more angles.

There are also more and more takes. I was joking with Krysten, it’s almost like doing 1000 push-ups. How many times are we going to shoot this again? My arms are turning to jelly at this point. I can barely hold myself up. I don’t want to crush her. I’m trying to do the scene, so it was not a pleasurable experience but it works in the end.

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Then the actual fight scene where you’re tearing through the walls, how long did that take?

We had a really good stunt team that came in. As complicated as it was, they made it happen in a couple days I believe as far as that location. That episode was long. It was hard and we were really tired by the end of it but by the time it’s over, we really felt like we told the story that we wanted to tell.

I love the choices that they made. Tearing through the walls, Luke Cage is almost indestructible so we wanted to show how powerful he actually is, versus Jessica who’s very strong, but what I like about her character, you don’t see it coming. You don’t know that she’s really strong because if you look at her, you’re going, “She’s just a girl. I’m gonna kick her butt.” Then you go over there and you get thrown in the river. That’s what I think is so cool about her. She possesses a power that is not so readily seen.

I never thought she’s just a girl, I can kick her butt. I was actually worried she was tougher than Luke in that scene.

Oh, awesome, awesome.

When he’s in the hospital with impenetrable skin, was it as simple as a rubber needle that doesn’t pierce?

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There’s camera tricks, there’s CG stuff and then there are some technical things where you can use a needle that is not actually metal. It does poke. It just doesn’t go into the skin. A dull tipped needle that will bend if you push it hard enough.

It’s all technical stuff that they use, but there was CG stuff too with the eyeball because, you know, it’s very difficult to get a needle in an eye. How they do it, I actually don’t know.

Luke Cage doesn’t have a premiere date yet, but we hope to see it arrive on Netflix in 2016. You can read everything else we know about it right here.