Luke Cage is finally here and most Marvel fans probably binged all 13 episodes over the weekend already. If you want to get to know a little bit more about Luke Cage star Mike Colter, we spoke with him after Netflix’s Luke Cage panel for the Television Critics Association.
Colter of course first played Luke Cage on Marvel’s Jessica Jones series and will play him again in the team-up show The Defenders in 2017. All season one episodes of Luke Cage are streaming now on Netflix.
Was there any hesitation to sign up for the long haul?
Mike Colter: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was hesitant about this. [Cheo Coker] describes my reaction to him calling me with exuberance, “Hey, we got Luke Cage, this is going to be great.” I’m on the other end of the line very morose and going, “I don’t know whether this is going to be great. There’s a lot happening in my life.” But that along with the idea that yes, you’re playing an iconic character that some fans will only know you as for a while. You’re stepping into these shoes. It brings along another set of problems. Kind of like Luke stepping into the hero shoes. People will know you a certain way. It changes your life a little bit. Yeah, I’m not wearing a mask so while I appreciate that as an actor, maybe I’m going to he grocery store, I’m walking through an airport or going somewhere for dinner, that attention is not something I necessarily would want. There was some hesitation there but I had to weigh the good versus the bad, the positives and pros and cons.
Is it harder to own a character like this and make it your own?
Mike Colter: Luckily, this character, even though he was well known and pop culture had a good, clear idea of who they thought he was, he’s never been brought to life on screen. So there was no predecessor. I didn’t have to figure out how am I going to make it different than such and such who had already played him 10 years earlier. I had a blank slate and so did Cheo in the writing and stuff. I felt like we were kind of creating him from scratch. We were doing this for the first time and you couldn’t compare us to anybody else because there’s no one else that had done it before. There wasn’t a bad movie that had done it and we’re going, “Let’s see if we can make this better.” There wasn’t another series that had been done 20 years ago and we wanted to reboot it. We just said this is a character that we’re going to make fresh, make him new and make him relevant today and applicable to what we’re dealing with today in this culture.
You get matched up with amazing actresses. How have you found chemistry with each one?
Mike Colter: It’s interesting because I’ve been doing it long enough where I’ve seen it done in a certain way where it can work and not work. Listen, sometimes they give you chemistry reads and in our case, me and Krysten [Ritter] had a chemistry read. I didn’t meet Misty Knight early. I didn’t screen test or anything with Rosario [Dawson] because she was established already. You just hope that when you meet a person that you have some rapport, because ultimately you’ve got to kind of fall for each other kind of fast in a movie/TV kind of way. We’re all actors and we have to find a way to connect. Sometimes you have to turn on the charm a little more and act a little more. Sometimes it’s pretty natural. It just depends but luckily I have three people, or more, I’m not going to say. Either way, I come across the women and they’re easy to work with. That’s been a gift so I don’t have to try too hard to make the connection.
Did you grow up with Luke Cage in the comics?
Mike Colter: No, I didn’t know much about him. I’d heard about him, didn’t know much about him.
Did you know any superheroes?
Mike Colter: Oh yeah, Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men. I grew up reading some comic books that I got from my cousins from up north, because I grew up in a small town in South Carolina. I definitely loved comics growing up but I didn’t get Luke Cage. I didn’t get a chance to get Luke Cage but I’d heard about him and several people had mentioned him to me because they knew he was trying to get a series, and they thought that I was right for the role. I didn’t understand and I couldn’t figure it out.
What was it like shooting in Harlem?
Mike Colter: It was kind of like going home again. I lived in Harlem for five years when I was in New York literally across the street a couple blocks away from where were shot Pop’s Barber Shop outside on Lennox Avenue. Harlem has changed so much in the last 10 years. I feel like the Harlem that we’re projecting in the series is more like the Harlem that I lived in 10 years ago. It’s not quite as gentrified. It’s gentrified but there’s no Whole Foods there. There are certain elements that it still has a little more edge. Obviously the Harlem club, Harlem Paradise is fictitious but I kind of harkens back to the era of The Apollo and The Cotton Club. We wanted to have some of that nostalgia, some of that feel of the unique culture that Harlem gives you. People like Miles and Louis Armstrong and some of the great athletes, everybody gravitated towards that area of town because this is where they felt they could express themselves, they could feel at home. So I don’t think we wanted to get rid of that. Harlem was important in doing so. Every time we went to Harlem, we felt the love. We felt the love from the community and let’s be honest.
How did you have to ramp up your physical regimen to embody Luke Cage?
Mike Colter: You do as much as you can. I put 30something pounds on. I figured you’ve got to try and increase the weight, make sure your frame looks like a guy who could do what you’re needed to be done. It’s so odd because when I got into this business, I never wanted to play characters that would rely on their physical attributes to have the role. I avoided sports for the most part. I never chose to play sports on a high level because I love theater. I loved acting. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I was like that’s just a distraction. I wanted to study. I wanted to get my craft down and I wanted to hone my skills. I really didn’t want to embark on this journey of playing sports to try to get where I wanted to get in life.
So what did you do?
Mike Colter: Oh, you start eating more. You start working out. That being said, I was a big fan of the bodybuilders that started the business. I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book when I was a kid. I read Frank Zane’s book. I watch Cory Everson. When I was growing up, I’m telling you, I watched everything. You talk about movies and films, I watched television. There’s nothing I missed. I didn’t miss anything. So I was a student of fitness. So I remember watching, reading, nutrition, stuff like that. I basically had to revisit those times. I started reading more, trying out legal supplements that I could take that would change me physically and try to do it the right way. Increasing my portions.
How will having played Luke Cage twice now help you play him in The Defenders?
Mike Colter: It pays off because if you did it the other way around, you wouldn’t have time, which is a problem sometimes when you look at the cinematic Marvel universe and all these ensemble shows that you’re trying to fit a lot of people into and you still have to do a lot too. You have to face bad guys, you have to complete the storyline, you have to do it in two and a half hours or something like that. With us, this is a great way of approaching it because the payoff is while me and Jessica are in the same room, Matt Murdock is in the same room and some stuff is unspoken. You already know the history between us. The fact that we’re not speaking sometimes, that’s going to speak volumes. But if we didn’t do this first and we tried to just go into The Defenders, there’s so much you can’t really get into that now the foundation is there. It means something where if we go on a mission and Jessica says, “I don’t want to go with Luke. I want to go with So and So.” Now I’m like, “Well, what does that mean? Are we still there?” Or I say I don’t want to be with Jessica or Iron Fist. There are allegiances. We’re still a group but we’re humans. There are subtle nuances.
Knowing Marvel you’ll probably have to fight them all first.
Mike Colter: I’ll have to fight them, yeah, at some point. A nice little fight between the two of us but nothing too serious, just over who’s milk this is in the refrigerator, something like that. Who drank my milk or something like that.