Netflix’s latest MCU spin-off sends Luke Cage back to Harlem and a face-off with a fresh tranche of nefarious types. For its star Mike Colter it’s a breakthrough role that, he tells Empire, brings both rough and smooth. Ice-cream and beers are out; gym time and being shot at on set are in. But it’s all worth the sacrifice. “It was a unique opportunity,” he enthuses. “The thing I enjoy is that Luke Cage has a morality about him, but it’s conflicted.” Read on for Colter's inside track on the show.
How does it feel to be bulletproof?
(Laughs) When you take the job, you never think about how many days you’re going to take those bullets. Sometimes you go on set and you’re thinking, “Ah, a day when I don’t have to get shot. This is going to be a nice day.”
How did you get the role of Luke Cage in the first place?
When [Luke Cage] came about I was on another job and we hadn’t started filming. I’d heard people talking about it but I’d tried to ignore it. I walked in, saw the material and immediately knew it was right for me. I thought the audition had probably gone well but I wasn’t going to think about it because I had a contract. They called me back for chemistry reads and I though, “Oh boy…” It’s the worst thing to do to yourself pursuing a job you can’t have. I was testing against a few guys and, not being cocky, I felt it was my job to lose. I went in playing with 'house money', as we say in America, because I had another job to go back to. Things went well and I got the job, and then I had to get rid of the other job. It took two weeks of lawyers talking but eventually the great producers on the other job knew that Luke Cage was such a unique opportunity, they got me out of the contract. They were shooting themselves in the foot – rewriting the show, changing their own plotlines – but they did it and I thank them for it.
What show was it?
It was called Agent X and it only lasted a season, so I guess I made the right move.
Sometimes you go on set and think, 'Ah, a day when I don’t have to get shot. This is going to be a nice day.'
How did you go about discovering who this guy is?
I felt that the source material wasn’t going to be useful for what we were doing in 2016, but I connected with the writers’ ideas of the character. The primary thing that I enjoy about Luke Cage is that he has a morality about him but it’s conflicted. He’s never sure what the right move is, but he at least contemplates it. He’s a not a rash character. It’s that thoughtfulness that I really identify with.
Was Jessica Jones a good starting point to get to know the character?
It allowed me to show a different side of Luke Cage. Luke leading his own series is a different character to the Luke seen through Jessica’s eyes. He was a confidante; a supporter; a lover, obviously. He didn’t try to solve her problems, like some men try to do, because it’s a female-driven storyline and she’s more than able to do her own fighting. Of course, we found out she had something to do with Luke’s past and ultimately they have to go their separate ways. But that series was unique and I was happy to be a part of it.
There’s a specific fighting style Luke Cage has – "smack-fu". Can you explain what that is?
That was actually one of our stunt co-ordinators, James Lew, who came up with that. He’s a little Korean guy who is very, very badass. We had to figure out exactly how to approach Luke’s style, because ultimately if he were to make a fist and hit someone full-strength, he’d knock their head off. He’s not a killer. He’s trying to spare lives and just neutralise people and go from there. So he’s throwing people around, pushing them, how does he do it? We figured he’s using his open hand instead of a closed fist. It’s a little disrespectful but it’s very effective. Some people call it a pimp slap, we call it smack-fu. He’s doing you a favour by hitting you with an open hand. It hurts, it renders you unconscious but you live.
You’ve described Luke Cage as “a hip hop Western”.
I stole that one from my showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker. He called it that because its structure reminds you of a Western. You have this character, Luke Cage, who comes back to Harlem but people there don’t really know who he is. He’s a mysterious guy: he doesn’t talk about himself; he doesn’t engage with people or give his name. There’s an established villain in Cottonmouth, who [locals] look to for leadership but they also have a bad feeling about. Some people already know Luke has powers and they want him to get involved with Cottonmouth. That’s how it works in Westerns: the hero is minding his own business and trying to make a living, but he does something, the villain finds out about it and they have to have a showdown. So it’s kind of a Western set to hip hop music.
There are some great nods to Luke Cage’s past in the comics, including one to his original costume. Was that horrific for you to contemplate or secretly kinda fun?
Listen, as long as I didn’t have to put on the tiara and the chains and the big yellow shirt for the whole series, I was up for anything. [What we did] actually worked pretty organically, and I think when you see that episode, you kinda see it coming but it’s still very satisfying. It’s a slow orgasm for fanboys, although my showrunner was quick to point out that it was tantric. I got a kick out of it.
As long as I didn’t have to put on the tiara and the chains and the big yellow shirt for the whole series, I was up for anything.
Could you imagine Luke Cage appearing in The Avengers and maybe going shoulder-to-shoulder with Thor?
You know, I could. I think we have to get to a point where Luke is entrenched in the Marvel Universe [first]. I think he would need to be literally a hero for hire, because I don’t think he’d join forces with anyone for nothing. He’s pretty busy trying to make ends meet, so as we build his storyline it’d have to be something like that. The Avengers are off dealing with aliens; Luke is trying to take care of Harlem and New York City. It’s more personal for him. You’d have to justice him [getting involved] with dollars.
What are the sacrifices you have to make for the role? Presumably ice-cream is now a no-no?
(Laughs) Yeah. I haven’t had ice-cream in a year, although I did have a slice of pizza. People don’t realise that when you’re shooting a movie it’s only three months to get in shape for. With TV, you can be shooting all year round. I didn’t sign up to be in the gym all the time. You have a couple of hours in your day and you’ve got to go to the gym. I love wine, I love beer and I can’t have a lot it anymore. It’s hard!
Luke Cage Season 1 is on Netflix now