The star of the new Marvel-Netflix series talks to us about race, superheroes, and Colin Kaepernick.
Mike Colter is an awful lot like the superhero he's about to be famous for playing. The star of Luke Cage, the third series in the joint Marvel/Netflix venture to carve out a smart, adult-oriented street-level superteam (preceded by two seasons of Daredevil and one season of the gripping psychological thriller Jessica Jones) is about a simple, relatable man with superpowers who eschews the spotlight only to find himself thrust into it when he decides to stand up for those who would take advantage of his community. Similarly, Colter—whose career has spanned over a decade of film and television roles, most notably that of drug lord Lemond Bishop in the acclaimed CBS drama The Good Wife—is now at the center of the Marvel phenomenon. And neither he nor his collaborators are shying away from acknowledging the expectations and realities that come with being at the center of the first Marvel project built around and starring a black hero, at a time where race and diversity are a critical part of our cultural discourse.
Recently, Colter spoke to GQ about the realities of starring in what may be Marvel Studios most important project to date. The actor behind Marvel's bulletproof black man talks about the shift from his first go-round as Cage in Jessica Jones, Harlem, Colin Kaepernick, and the strange feeling that comes with being involved in a project that current events seem to have made even more relevant than ever. And while at one point the comic book character he's based on may have once gone by the name Power Man, in 2016, Luke Cage has no alter ego. Might as well make it Mike Colter.
GQ: You're coming back to the character of Luke Cage after the character's Netflix debut in Jessica Jones. Are you hyped or maybe apprehensive to take center stage?
Mike Colter: I like to call myself cautiously optimistic. So what I look at is, okay, I'm in Jessica—a lot of people responded to that specifically because they connected with her story: the PTSD, the predatory villain. Women connected with that story. For me, I'm supporting cast member No. 9. I'm a part of something that's unique, that created a social consciousness about something that people are very aware of, but don't discuss a lot. So it was nice to be a part of that.
It was nice to know that there was enough source material for [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo Hodari Coker to take and create a relevant story for this era, right now. Every time you get to be front and center is not always a good thing. I'm not so focused on being front and center—I like being front and center for something I'm proud of and something I enjoy doing.
Because Luke Cage is the first Marvel project with a black lead and has a majority black cast, you've been asked a whole lot about race. Are you concerned that there are other things about the show people might miss?
Yeah, I think people kind of miss the obvious in some regards. Everybody's guilty of this: They need soundbites, they need an angle on a story to create interest. So right now [race] is a relevant topic, and it always has been in our country. Specifically, right now, the bulletproof black man, that's a relevant topic. A cast that's majority black, that's a relevant topic. But ultimately, when I look at the series, if you didn't know what anybody's character was, you're talking about a series that has a combination of romance, intrigue, deceit, action, politics, heroic deeds—it's a crime drama at its core, a superhero story secondarily.
Nobody looks at a Woody Allen's movie's cast members and says there's a lack of black people in it, or that they're maybe predominantly Jewish, or something like that. No one takes note of it; they just watch the story and talk about it and like it, and that's kind of how it goes.
Even though it's a Marvel show, Luke Cage is very much about Harlem and its real-world history. What was it like exploring the neighborhood as this character, experiencing it through him?
I lived in Harlem for about five years before I moved out to L.A., and I lived in New York City eight years total. I lived across the street from where we shot exteriors for Pop's barber shop; I've seen that neighborhood change over the years. As far as informing the performance—I wasn't born in Harlem, and neither was Luke. He was kind of a transplant. Like anyone who moves into a city, you live there long enough, you make it your own. You may have heard of some of these great places like the Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater, but you're a tourist for a while until you're not. When I look at Luke, Luke is a visitor in a very culturally rich location, that he has adopted and made his home.
"We've kind of become like, 'Well, these people get to say what they want, and if you say what you want, we're going to call you out on it and try to make you feel anti-American.'"
So it was kind of advantageous that I had already lived in Harlem before—I'm from the south originally, and so is Luke, who moved up from Georgia. That's kind of a parallel in our storylines. It was kind of effortless in that sense, understanding [him], feeling like a fish out of water, but at the same time feeling at home.
Luke Cage also has the added expectation of being a timely, relevant show for this moment.
I think sometimes we read into things because it's so right for the time. We couldn't plan it this way. Originally this series was probably going to be the last installment of The Defenders. So if it was the fourth series, we'd probably be shooting this right now, in a time where it seems like society has maxed out on the crime that's going on, the police incidents that are going on. The timing, it's gonna pop, almost. So you sit there going, "This is a great time for this to come out." But we didn't plan it. When we stopped filming in mid-March, there were some things that had happened, but it wasn't up to a fever pitch, as it is now. And you just hope that conversations are started, and that it leads to something. It's a weird thing—you want to be relevant, but you can't force it.
As a character, Luke seems leery of the spotlight not just because he's an escaped convict, but because he's aware of how ready we as a society are to vilify black heroes. Does that contribute to Luke Cage's relevance?
When you look around at the stuff that's in the news, people are constantly being called out for doing or saying something that people don't agree with … We're really missing the point. We're missing what it is to be an American, and what we have a right to. As long as we're not hurting anyone—I don't mean hurting feelings, because that's something we can't really quantify. It's about expressing yourself, having that right to say what you want to say—and if people want to debate or disagree, you can agree to disagree. But violence is never really an answer.
Another thing is [police] who say, "Well, I don't like what people are saying; I'm just not gonna do my job, because I don't agree with it." There's a lot of that going around, and I think people have to remember—especially when we talk about the society we're in—we are a society that's a democracy, and we're kind of forgetting that. It seems like as time has gone on, we've kind of become like, "Well, it's these people that get to say what they want, and if you say what you want, we're going to call you out on it and we're going to make you feel like an isolated person and we're going to try to make you feel anti-American."
Yes, you see people like, say, Colin Kaepernick protesting in a manner similar to celebrated civil rights leaders—
Yeah, and they're being vilified for it. Just because they're trying to use that platform to express something. They're not simultaneously saying they are not supportive of people who are giving their lives for this country. They're not simultaneously saying they don't agree with our rights as Americans. They're just trying to call attention to the fact that some people don't seem to share those rights.
Does it make you proud to be a part of a project where you get to be a character who decides to stand up and be there for his community?
It's a very passionate kind of character to be involved with. I've enjoyed playing characters that are on the wrong side of the law, and enjoyed playing characters that are on the right side of the law—you just have to hopefully have something you connect with. This is a very unique character, and I just happen to relate to a lot of his struggles—and a lot of his desires. I'm having a great time playing Luke Cage. Hopefully it'll last a little longer.