James sat down with Simone Missick, the actor playing fan-favourite detective Misty Knight in Marvel’s Luke Cage to talk about audience expectations, the political division of playing a Black police officer, and (of course) metal arms.
I’ve read in interviews that you preferred not to go to the comics to develop your performance, so I wonder, do you worry about the responsibility of playing a character who has a built-in fan-base?
Well first I’ll say it’s not that I don’t want to, I was specifically told not to! I do feel like there’s high expectations. The fans are so excited. But our writing team do go to the source material, and they make sure the characters are close to the historical version. Like with anything, some people will love it and some people will might not. I just hope that the fans feel like I did this character justice. As an actor you have to have the room to play and find the character.
I imagine it’s strange knowing that people will have ideas in their head about what your performance should be, which is something you mainly get with adaptations. As an actor, do you try to put that aside?
I think I definitely had to, yeah. With every character it’s interesting. If you play Macbeth, people have seen and read Shakespeare and see dozens of actors play that role. In their mind they’ve got that Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company and that Macbeth on 43rd Street in New York City. But I have to do and can only do my thing.
Speaking about Misty specifically, she’s a complex character who grew up, you know, on the streets as it were. But unlike the other characters from that situation she doesn’t seem morally compromised. Do you think that’s because she’s inherently heroic? Like what drives her?
I think Misty became a cop because she was disheartened by the way her community was being policed. And that’s a special kind of human being who can look at the problem and say I’m gonna be part of the solution. I know I’m very dissatisfied with the way I see law enforcement in my community, but I didn’t go off and become a cop. I went off and became an actor who plays a cop on TV. So Misty, I think, is not morally perfect but she feels such a responsibility to her community and the people she’s grown up around, and the people who she’s watched die and not get justice served. That’s what fuels her. With everyone there’s lightness and darkness, and she has her moments.
Speaking of the community aspect, I think any black actor playing a police officer at the moment is going to feel some political weight on the role just because of what the relationship between the police and especially Black Americans is like right now.
I have an aunt who was a detective in DC for over 25 years, and I always wondered how she was able to do that, and why she chose that profession. DC is a predominantly Black area, as is Harlem, but it’s still hard to be a cop who’s responsible to uphold the laws of the state and still be a human who identifies with her community. That was always in the back of my mind, that dichotomy. You’re working within the system to change the system, but you’re still in it. So that internal struggle and thought process was part of it, even for Simone the human being who watched police officers in the media and news, and in her face, and thinks “Now why did you do that?” So I think it’s hard to separate that, but you know, it’s our job as actors.
The characters in Luke Cage come out of a Blaxpolitation trend, and Misty Knight specifically has a lot of Pam Grier in her, so I’m interested to know what your relationship with that material is and whether you used it as a starting point.
For me, when I create a character I make like a bible where I come up with their history and childhood. Visually, I did have Pam Grier in my mind and all the characters she played. But because the show’s set so current you don’t get to play around with those. I think Misty grew up watching Pam Grier. The scripts and stories are so “now” that there are homages to that genre, but it’s very much its own thing.
Despite that, the version of Harlem is very romanticised, so it’s got those 1970s influences visible even though there’s also a theme of gentrification.
It was something we definitely talked about. Harlem does not look like the Harlem of 5-10 years ago, and for better or worse that’s not what’s necessarily portrayed in the show. You know, you watch Sex and the City and think “that’s not the New York I know…” and yet it’s told from these women’s perspective where they might go to a bar and there might be Asian women and black men and Latino men in the room, but they’re only seeing their white girlfriends and the white guys that come up to them, because that’s the way the story’s being told.
So with Luke Cage, it’s similar. The barbershop might not have a lot of Asian and white gay couples coming in because it’s a black barbershop. So it’s a Harlem that’s told from a smaller perspective. I do think we do a good job of addressing the gentrification and the people that have been living in that community for generations being pushed out because their neighbourhood is changing. You know, it’s nice to have a Starbucks, but when that’s putting the small coffee shop out of business is it really the best thing?
It’s interesting that you get the opportunity to go into that, like how in the early 1900s science fiction was used to talk about social ills through a kind of filter – like you know, this isn’t about people, it’s about robots! – so it interests me that people are using the superhero genre to do a similar thing.
Yeah, it’s interesting. We saw it in True Blood, which addressed society’s view of homosexuality through vampires. I think this show doesn’t veil it in the same way, it’s very transparent in that he’s a bulletproof black man in America at a time when being a bulletproof black man would be very useful. But it does deal with the ills of society as well as the things that are good about communities.
Just to get back to talking about Misty Knight, the character’s famously got a metal arm. Now without having seen the end of the series I’m not entirely sure that doesn’t happen but assuming that it doesn’t – are you up for it?
Oh, it would be awesome. I’d LIVE for a bionic arm. I don’t know how many hours I’d have to get to work early but yeah, I mean whatever may happen at the end of this series… who wouldn’t want a bionic appendage?!
Okay, and knowing that you probably can’t really talk about this… do you think you’ll be in Defenders? Because it seems like they’re gonna throw everyone in there.
They seem to be right? You guys will have to talk to Netflix to make that happen. I think Defenders gets together all of the superheroes so you know. That… might… be possible.
Simone Missick, thank you very much!
Marvel’s Luke Cage is available now on Netflix.