James sat down with Mahershala Ali, who plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes to talk about playing a villain, his inspirations for the character and what it’s like to take a job knowing you might not be back for Season 2…
Your version of Stokes is a crime boss, and on the surface he appears to have similarities to the Kingpin at least. Now the Kingpin wanted to legitimise himself and take control politically, so I wondered what you think the extent of Stokes’ ambition is?
I think he’s exploring. When he meets Cage I think he’s stretching his wings a little and exploring his capacity as a person in a position of power. But I don’t think he necessarily has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish. In some ways that’s shaped by his cousin, who begins to steer him into going completely legitimate. There quickly becomes a little bit of friction about how he should run his business and also what he should look to accomplish.
Obviously he does bad things by any objective moral standpoint, but do you think he sees himself as a bad person?
I think he views himself as doing what is necessary to maintain order. A lot of what he does is reactive. That’s his reflex, to counterbalance what Luke is doing to him. Otherwise, the things we see him do he wouldn’t necessarily do. It’s not that he doesn’t have the capacity, but a lot of what we see is him responding to the trouble that Luke has made for him.
So how to you tap into that mentality as an actor? I mean you’ve played villains before…
Well he’s kind of my first outright villain. I tried not to look at him as a villain because people who do bad things can justify it in their mind. So really what it was about was trying to make him as human as possible and connect to his motivations. And his weaknesses, having a better understanding of his vulnerability. For me, it was so well-written that I really just had to step up. I didn’t have to lift it, I just had to fill the space.
And right from the start he’s in the mix, whereas the other Netflix shows seem to keep their villains away from the heroes for a lot of the time. Do you have a particular favourite character to interact with?
I loved having scene with Mike [Colter], especially when Cottonmouth is aware that he’s a superhero. We were both very conscious of the tension of those characters and it gave us a lot to feed off. I really enjoyed working with Mariah, Alfre Woodward’s character, because she’s a wonderful actor and I felt we had a natural chemistry that was reflective of real family members. But everybody was great, I wish I’d had more to do with Simone (Misty Knight)!
Your relationship with Mariah, you can see that mix of disappointment but also acceptance and support of who Cottonmouth is. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Which is a real family thing. Someone you look up to or has a status over you, or who’s a little bit older than you. You get that dynamic where the other person finds themselves trying to obtain approval. There’s definitely that between the two of them.
This might not be your process, but I’m interested to know if you had any specific inspirations for the performance. It might just be the Biggie portrait, but I get a huge East Coast rap mogul vibe off Stokes.
This sounds weird, but I was actually more inspired by the city, by New York and Harlem. I mean I grew up 3,000 miles away in California, but my father was a New Yorker. He lived a few miles up from Harlem, so from age 12 I’d take the train and go down into Harlem. It’s still amazing, but when I was growing up Harlem was the Mecca of black culture. I was so inspired by it, the aspirational feeling you’d get spending time there. Experiences that were really specific to that place. To get to play someone who was in some capacity the King of Harlem, that meant something to me. Deep within my bones. I was inspired by the energy that I knew to be a real thing.
That’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how the series takes place in a kind of idealised version of Harlem rather than an explicitly modern one. So you were able to draw on your memories of how it was as a child?
Yeah, and the story’s written as a bit of a dream. It pulls from the older version. It’s still wonderful, but New York as a whole is very different from what it was 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago. It’s very much undergoing gentrification which changes the vibe, the spirit of the town. Hell’s Kitchen is the same way. What you see in Daredevil and Jessica Jones isn’t the Hell’s Kitchen of today, it’s a version of what it was like. Luke Cage is not different in that regard.
As part of building the character of Cottonmouth, did you go to any specific comics?
Just knowing how I work, I have to be careful of being too academic else it gets in my way. It blocks my instincts if I read too close to the source material. I tried to listen to the cues were placed and planted in the script. I did a lot of communicating with Cheo (Hodari Coker, showrunner) and if something didn’t feel natural it was a conversation that I had to have with him to bring the character to life. I wanted my handprint all over him. It was a collaborative effort to make him feel as real as possible. The source material was something they didn’t feel like they had to adhere to it as fully as possible with the series as a whole, so I didn’t feel like I had to do that individually either.
Now, without want to be too spoilery… when you sign up for a show like this you must know that Marvel’s villains don’t tend to make it out of things alive. So as a working actor, do you have any hesitation in taking a role thinking you might get just the one go around?
I think you have to look at where you are in your career, and what you want. I was all up for this one shot, I really was. If anything it gave me the chance to give it all I had. The villains often don’t make it to season 2, that’s just the reality of it, so you know, maybe I’ll be back as something else and be on the good side. But no, it didn’t make me hesitant. It actually gave me a lot of energy because I knew this was my one shot to make my contribution and have that one experience.
Mahershala Ali, thank you very much!
Marvel’s Luke Cage is available now on Netflix.