Mike Colter has already established himself as a scene-stealer on shows like “The Good Wife” — where he has played charismatic drug lord Lemond Bishop in a recurring capacity since 2010 — and “The Following,” but it’s his role as iconic Marvel Comics character Luke Cage that has him poised for long-overdue stardom. He debuts as a supporting character in “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” which premiered on Netflix today, and will go on to star in Luke’s eponymous standalone series for the streaming service in 2016. The two heroes will then join forces with Daredevil and Iron Fist to form “The Defenders,” a Netflix crossover miniseries starring all four characters.
Below, Colter tells Variety about landing the coveted role, what draws Luke to the prickly Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter), and the differences between working on “Jessica Jones” and starring in “Luke Cage.”
I read that you signed up for the role of Luke Cage without seeing a full script – what was the main appeal of it for you, with so little to go on?
The main appeal… it’s hard to say, because when I look back on it, it was kind of crazy to do something like that, and I don’t know that I would ever do it again. I think things are working out, I’m really happy about what I’m doing, and when you talk about the genre that we’re in, it’s quite interesting to be able to get the kind of writing and character development that they’ve been able to give us. But it’s crazy! So I think ultimately, I could sit and say “it’s really a feeling.” The few pages I was given, I could glean a lot from that, and what I gleaned was… it was sparsely written, and it allowed for characters to have time to experience the world and each other, as opposed to a lot of exposition and a lot of talking for the sake of talking. In those few pages, I didn’t get the feeling that these people were not of the world that I was in, they were just in a more damaged version of the world that I’m in, and that was something that was interesting. I could see that I would be able to create something, character-wise, that was something unique and that I would have time to, as an actor, develop. It’s hard to put a finger on it or quantify how all the pieces added up to giving me this feeling, but it was almost instantaneous.
I know you can’t go into specifics about the “Luke Cage” series at this point, but I’m curious about the differences for you — aside from the workload — going from a supporting character in “Jessica” to a lead in your own show. Are there any changes in how you approach him, or the way he’s written, depending on the show?
I don’t want to say it’s a reboot of a character, because it’s definitely not that, but it is a magnification of Luke Cage as you meet him in “Jessica Jones.” You see him and you can tell and feel who he is, but I would say, imagine if you didn’t spend the time with Jessica Jones, but you spent the time with Luke Cage, and Luke Cage came into contact with certain people, and he had to make certain decisions in his life, and he was called into action – I feel like he segues from that series kind of effortlessly into his own world that just happens to be uptown, because this is where he decides to relocate for many reasons. And you’ll find out why in the in the first few episodes [of “Luke Cage”] – you’re gonna realize why he went there and what the purpose of him going there after “Jessica Jones” [was], the condition he’s in… I feel like I’ve been lucky to get the chance to start developing Luke Cage in the “Jessica Jones” series, and we’re working with the same crew, so it’s the same people, so it almost feels like we took a month off and came back and started doing the same show, but in a completely different part of town with different cast members and a different feel. [Laughs.]
Did the scripts for “Jessica” give you a pretty good grasp on who he was straight away, or did you have discussions with [“Luke Cage” showrunner] Cheo Hodari Coker or Melissa Rosenberg or Jeph Loeb, in terms of figuring out who he was, and what you wanted to bring to him?
In “Jessica,” it was written sparingly, but it was written even more sparingly for Luke because he wasn’t the primary character, and in that, knowing that I would have to bring this character to full fruition in his own series, I felt like it was important to make sure I wasn’t doing something that wasn’t gonna hold up later on in the next series. So Melissa and Jeph and everyone at Netflix and Marvel were so supportive, they all were understanding that I had uncertainties, but in that, they answered a lot of questions. Once you find a point-of-view of a character, once you get pointed in the right direction, you get into the groove, you get the needle on the track, and then things start to inform you. The main thing was, I said “who is Luke Cage in a nutshell?” and from there, I have to then flesh out who he is … Jeph Loeb told me, “Luke doesn’t have to try hard to do anything”; you can look at that from a physical standpoint or a mental standpoint – he’s very much a man, very much a person who thinks before he acts, he’s a person who has things come easily to him, whether that be women, life, whatever, and he exerts little effort to get things done because he’s Luke Cage, he just is.
It was hard to grasp that – I was like “what does that mean?” What it allowed me to do was to try to relax into the character and understand that Luke doesn’t have to exert a lot of effort to get things in life and that informs how he sees himself and how he sees the world. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not vulnerable and that he doesn’t have feelings and that he doesn’t care, it just means that there’s so much going on underneath, you can’t play all of that in a scene, you have to trust the character and trust the writers and know that when it’s time for Luke to come into action and be who he is, and peel back the layers, you’ll see it in time.
He’s a character who’s trying to bury his pain in somewhat questionable places, so where would you say he is emotionally when we first meet him in “Jessica Jones”?
He’s been hurt and he’s in pain and he’s lonely. I wouldn’t say he’s miserable, he’s just in torment, the quiet torment where, if he had his druthers, he would just stay to himself and be left alone. But that doesn’t make interesting television, so characters like this, they come into contact with people who, for better or worse, will not leave them alone, who will not let them stay out of the spotlight. He’s so internally damaged from his past, which we will learn about later, that he just tries to stay away.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have needs and desires, because he does meet Jessica, and Jessica and him have a chemistry… You know how people deal with their pain; sometimes people use alcohol, sometimes people use sex, sometimes people use food, anything you can think of to numb the pain. So I think you can understand which one Luke uses. [Laughs.] It’s one of his coping mechanisms, but ultimately I look at him as somewhat of a hopeless romantic and somewhat of a person who, shockingly, is more vulnerable than people might expect him to be because of his exterior — but definitely a person who wants to find happiness in his life but hasn’t been able to.
What draws him to Jessica?
Her being damaged and so flippant… I think he senses her pain. I think he feels like there’s something safe in that, because there’s chemistry, and whether he wants to admit it or not, maybe she does want more, but on the surface, it doesn’t look like she’s the kind of person who would want more. There’s some safety there… “This’ll be what it’ll be,” and there’s an understanding that nobody’s going to get hurt, especially not him, because he’s hoping that there’ll be no feelings. Obviously, you can’t control these things – we are unable to control our emotions, especially when we’re with someone, and I think that’s what happens with Luke and Jessica. There’s a chemical reaction that happens sometimes that we are powerless to stop.
Jessica Jones is the first super-powered woman to lead her own Marvel property, Luke Cage is the first solo black superhero to headline a series since Blade – why do you think it’s taken so long to add a little diversity to the superhero genre?
Timing is everything, here we are in an age where, if this had been done five years ago, it might’ve been done on a different platform, a different network, it might not have been well-received, it might’ve been mishandled. There’s so many things that could go wrong when you’re doing this kind of material, especially in the case of “Jessica Jones” — the comic books were done so well, but you have to do a series and hone it into a storyline that can be digestable to the audience, and not just people who are die-hard comic book fans. And the Cage [comic] series went away for a while in the ’70s, it was a different story and that’s not the story we’re telling, and then his character reemerged in the Alias series, but in a sense, it was a Luke Cage of a different look, a different time — he wasn’t the focus of that series.
I think this time, because Netflix is doing original content, the timing worked perfectly, I don’t know where else you could put this, really, where it fits what they’re trying to do… I think Luke Cage being a black superhero becomes a secondary thing, and I think it’ll stay that way – who he is, it becomes a thing of circumstance, not because of something he’s trying to say. Because first of all, he doesn’t want to be a superhero, so being a black superhero doesn’t cross his mind. All this stuff happens out of necessity.