Marvel’s Luke Cage: Mike Colter interview

As Marvel's Luke Cage launches on Netflix, we chat with its star, Mike Colter, about Harlem, the show's political relevance, and heroism...

James sat down with Mike Colter, aka Luke Cage, to talk about returning to the character, the unintentionally political aspect of a bulletproof black man in modern America, and what keeps Luke Cage going.

Obviously this is the second time you’ve played Luke Cage after being on Jessica Jones, and the way the Netflix model works means that you don’t get any audience feedback on your performance until it’s completely over. So the first thing I’m interested to know is whether you revised or changed anything about your portrayal of Luke Cage, for any reason, when you took him into his own series.

It wasn’t a revision so much as a re-focusing, I mean we changed the location and his surroundings, and when you change those things it brings out different aspects in your performance. I always say if you put someone from a small town into a big city for ten years, then when they go back they’ll act differently. Are they the same person? Sure, but do they act different? Yeah. That’s what it’s like here; Luke being in Harlem changes him a bit. He’s no longer the nurturing, caring boyfriend he was in Jessica Jones, that’s done for the moment and he’s got his own journey. Back to the grind, figuring out how pay the bills and make ends meet, and finding where he belongs in society and what’s the next step.

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Speaking of Harlem, the idealised version of the area that the show’s come up with has interested me and I’m sure many others. I’m wondering what sort of personal experience you have of the area, if any, and how you think it informs the show.

I lived in Harlem for maybe five or six years literally 2-3 blocks away from where we shot. I could see my old apartment from our shooting location on Lenox Avenue, also known as Malcolm X Boulevard. Harlem was going through a gentrification process even when I was living there and I could see that happening slowly. The way I interpret it is like… forget about the fact that there’s a Whole Foods Market being built on 125th Street, forget that there are two or three Starbucks. The other parts are still there – you’ve still got the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater, Marcus Garvey Park. Harlem is kind of timeless, and I think in our show we’ve got a version of it which is modern but also feels timeless because we’ve the present-day issues alongside some of the blaxploitation stylisation of the early Luke Cage.

Even right from the first trailer the character was politicised so I wonder how you feel about that. You didn’t necessarily sign up for “Luke Cage, political icon” but that’s how it’s turned out.

Yeah, I mean, it’s mostly timing. If we’d tried to make a political show we probably would’ve fallen flat on our face. I mean we started shooting in September last year and wrapped in March, and things were bubbling up all through production, like Eric Garner in New York, rioting… there were a few things across those months. Now that the series is about to air you’ve got things happening constantly, today, yesterday… I wish it wasn’t the case, and God knows I wouldn’t want the show to succeed at the expense of actual lives, but if it keeps the conversations going in any way maybe it can be useful. It’s definitely a product of its time. We don’t have an agenda beyond being an entertainment entity, but we can’t run away from the conversations.

Luke as a character is very difficult to harm and he’s supremely confident because of it, so as the guy inhabiting that role, what do you think scares him?

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In the second half of the season there are things that’ll come up which strike fear into Luke, but he’s not invincible. It just takes a lot. Ultimately the first thing that gets Luke is hurting someone he cares about. We don’t know the limitations of his powers but when people around you get hurt you have to go on. That makes him a loner. He can never really trust people or let his guard down because he’s got those secrets – he’s an ex-con and he’s not even really called Luke Cage! He’s got a lot of skeletons and those things will be discovered sooner rather than later.

Is that something you found attractive about the character? That’s he’s an unambiguously good person who’s nonetheless got that complexity to him?

Yeah, after playing Lemond Bishop [a drug lord in The Good Wife] for several years it’s nice to play a good guy. I think we have a big responsibility to not put cliches and stereotypes on screen at all times. I think when we talk about what we’re showing the world, not just for Black men but also other people of colour, homosexual people, transgendered people – we have to give everyone the opportunity of a nuanced portrayal even if they’re only on screen for five minutes. Some people in America don’t ever interact with Black people outside of television so we should give them real believable characters.

As much as I enjoy seeing Luke on screen, I always sort of wonder what the end of his story is, like what does he really want out of life?

I think he’s looking for the time when he doesn’t need to use his powers. Obviously he wants to be romantically fulfilled and have a family, and find a way to use his abilities for good and change other people’s lives. I think ultimately he wants to show people being a hero isn’t about having abilities, it’s about what you can do, and that’s Luke’s thing really. He wants to make heroes out of all of us.

Mike Colter, thank you very much!

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Marvel’s Luke Cage launches on Netflix on Friday September 30th.