Luke Cage, as played by Mike Colter, was introduced last year on Netflix’s MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES. The hero with impenetrable epidermis seemed an ideal romantic match for Krysten Ritter’s super-strong heroine – until Luke found out that Jessica was (while brainwashed) responsible for the death of his beloved wife.
Now Colter and Luke have the title in MARVEL’S LUKE CAGE, which debuts its entire thirteen-episode first season on Netflix Friday, September 30. Luke has returned to Harlem and wants to keep a low profile, but a brewing gang war may make that impossible.
Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker (a writer/producer on SOUTHLAND, NCIS: LOS ANGELES, ALMOST HUMAN and RAY DONOVAN) developed LUKE CAGE from its comic book origins for Netflix. He and actor Colter (ZERO DARK THIRTY, THE FOLLOWING, THE GOOD WIFE) sit down at a roundtable with four reporters to discuss their new show.
ASSIGNMENT X: You’ve worked with the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you talk about how that intersects with LUKE CAGE?
CHEO HODARI COKER: The beauty of comics is that comics manage to be socially active and relevant, while at the same time inhabiting the world where superheroes and superpowers exist. And it was really no different with this show, in that we’re able to kind of deal with everything. The crazy thing about this show is that, okay, I wrote Episodes One and Two in March of last year , finalized them I want to say by June, and then we started shooting in September of last year.
And so the fact that all these issues are still topical a year later – you know, some stuff you can’t predict, like some of the sports stuff. All the sports talk in the first episode, I had no idea that [Kristaps] Porzingis was going to be such a great player for the Knicks, or that [erstwhile Knicks coach] Derek Fisher was going to get fired [laughs], or any of that stuff, but you’ve just got to take a guess and kind of just talk about things from a source of passion, and then you just see where it falls out.
But in terms of the social issues, it was really just a question of trying to deal with a lot of different things, but at the same time, doing it in a way that felt natural. So even in terms of literary references, as a huge fan of Ralph Ellison, as a huge fan of George Pelicanos, Richard Price, Donald Goins and Walter Mosley, it’s cool. An advantage about binge-watching is that, once you get to thirteen, that’s it. And so if people love the series, they’re going to start watching it again, and they’re going to get bored watching it over and over again, so [they will wonder], “Wait a minute, what are these books that they keep talking about? It’s going to be another year before we Season 2, knock on wood, comes out, so why don’t I try to read some of this stuff?” And that’s how it starts. As a reader, I started reading at an early age, and I fell in love with the written word. I was an English major at Stanford, and I’ve always been a geek. So this is the opportunity to meld my geekdom, my love of literature, music, all in one place.
AX: Does Marvel give you parameters? Do you run every detail past Marvel, or do they just go, “You can generally do this, you can generally not do that, let us know if you’re thinking about doing this other thing, and go forth”?
COKER: At the beginning, it’s like that. But then once you get closer, once the rubber meets the road, Marvel is there every single step of the way. If you get to a point where they might not realize something that something is cool in this way, then you can say, “Hey, I’d like to try this, I’d like to try that.” I’m lucky that [Marvel TV chief] Jeph [Loeb] in particular, and Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley, were extremely open-minded at the same time and loved the energy of the writing, not just in terms of my scripts, but also the excellent scripts that came out of our writers’ room. I just think that since we tried different stuff, the fact that they were willing to experiment and see things was amazing. Plus, we were blessed to have the best possible Luke Cage ever.
MIKE COLTER: Aww …
COKER: Even if Mike wasn’t here, I’d say the same thing. He’s really the perfect partner, because anything you throw at him dramatically, whether it’s humor or whether it’s superhero stuff, or how to stand a certain way and have swagger, even as all these squibs are going off, or it’s emotional, he can do everything. And so that’s the thing. When you have Andrew Luck running your offense, as long as he doesn’t get injured, the possibilities are endless.
AX: The antagonist Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played by Mahershala Ali, uses the N-word in the pilot. Was there a conversation with Marvel and Netflix as to whether it was okay to have that in the dialogue?
COKER: Well, it was a conversation, but I said, “Look, I’m doing it.” Not from the standpoint of wanting to get anybody in trouble or say that, it’s just like I felt that to not use these words within these situations softened it. And so much the same way that Martin Scorsese goes deep into the culture of what’s happening in different scenarios in GOODFELLAS and MEAN STREETS, and the characters talk as if no one else is in the room, I wanted to do the same thing within context with these characters. So for example, when Cottonmouth uses that word in Carla’s Paradise, Mariah [the politician played by Alfre Woodard] really reacts to it. She doesn’t like the use of that word. But then someone else in his criminal organization also uses the word later on.
And Luke doesn’t use the word, with the exception of Episode Two, when he flips it over out of frustration, after everything that he’s gone through. And he basically gives the kid a whole history lesson – “How dare you use this word in front of this building named after one of our greatest heroes?” And at the end of the speech, after everything that he failed to do, he says, “Go ahead and do it, pull the trigger,” you see him wrestling with all this stuff. That was my whole thing about that word. I want people to artistically struggle with it. I want people to acknowledge the fact that the word exists, and at the same time, if people are so immune to it when they watch DJANGO UNCHAINED, which is one of my favorite movies, then maybe the fact that it’s jarring in LUKE CAGE, even though we used it about two hundred times less than Quentin [Tarantino] used it, it’s good that it’s upsetting. It’s good that it makes you think about it. Because from that standpoint, it allows us to really make this feel like a world that’s palpable, and not just fiction.
AX: Both of these are probably challenging for different reasons, but what is more taxing, the acting scenes or the sex scenes?
[Both Colter and Coker laugh.]
COLTER: Well, the sex scenes usually could be viewed as enjoyable, but they’re very technical. Sometimes, ideally, you would shoot an episode, or you would get to know a person and try to figure how you guys drive a conversation, so you could be put at ease. Most times, it’s so soon, like as soon as you see the person, it’s like, “Hey, how you doin’, blah, blah, blah,” you might go to lunch, or not even go to lunch together, or you have a fitting, next thing you know, they come in your trailer and give you three choices of what you want to cover yourself with. “Put this on.” “How about this?” It’s something [so small] you can put in your hand. And then you’re going to go in a room, and there are going to be cameras, and you’re going to jump into bed, and you’re going to go at it. So it’s very, very weird, so it’s hard to imagine that you’re enjoying it, but that’s what acting is, you’re trying to go through the point of view of the character, and all I’m thinking is, “This is Luke, and he likes Jessica, so we’re doing it, and we’re going to make it good. The better you make it, the quicker you make it good, the sooner you can stop doing this. [laughs] If you make it bad, you’re going to do it all night.” So …
COKER: And that was the thing. Even in terms of what we did with Luke, in Episode One, in terms of his love scene with [Misty, played by Simone Missick], [director] Paul McGuigan, when he shot it, did it very naturalistically. He wasn’t very choreographed. He said, “Let’s start at the door and then start here and then see what happens when we get to the bed.” And he shot it in that way, and it was just like, watching it, literally, I got on the phone, and called [composer] Ali Shaheed Mohammed and said, “I need for you to start composing something for this right now.” He said, “What are you looking for?” I said, “Okay, imagine either Al Green’s ‘Simply Beautiful,’ or Raekwon and/Ghostface’s ‘Wisdom Body’.” And he listened to them, and came back with a beat, and we actually played the beat with the footage, and I said, “This is perfect.” It’s so sensual. it’s such a cool scene.
COLTER: Just to add a dimension to that process, Simone, she’s relatively new to viewers. I remember telling Cheo when they were looking for Misty Knight, I was like, I went through my Rolodex in my head of actresses that were right for the role, and I said, “You’re going to have to find someone unknown to play this role because of what’s required,” and he laughed about it, but sure enough, a couple of months later, that’s exactly what happened, what transpired. To add another dimension to that, I had never met Simone, but I had known her husband for years. She’s married to another actor named Dorian Missick, and he and I had worked on a play years ago, and so we had stayed in contact.
COKER: And Dorian and I also became friends when I wrote for him on SOUTHLAND.
COLTER: Yeah. But I hadn’t seen Dorian in years, and so, having not seen her husband in years, but then going to set and meeting who he’s been married to for a few years, and then having to have a sex scene, it was more odd than I could imagine. Makeup trailer, “Hey, how are you, how you doin’,” and just trying to figure out how to get past that thing. Because I didn’t know her, which was the same as usual, but I knew her husband. So ultimately, you gotta do what you gotta do, but you just never know.
COKER: I feel so sorry [laughs].
COLTER: Listen, they took it in stride and everything’s fine, but it’s funny.
AX: It seems like you really pay homage to the fact that the comic book is originally from the Seventies …
COLTER: Yes. There’s a heroic Seventies blaxploitation influence to shots and/or dialogue that sometimes I’m like, “Really? I’m going to say that?” [laughs] It’s fun, though.
AX: What would you guys most like people to know about LUKE CAGE, the show?
COKER: It’s topical, but it’s incredibly fun. And I know this sounds corny, but it really does have something for everyone. I think people that aren’t necessarily fans of genre will appreciate the drama. People that are fans of hip-hop will love the music. But people who aren’t fans of hip-hop will also love the music, because it isn’t just Wu Tang. It’s also Mahalia Jackson, it’s also Nina Simone, it’s also Donald Byrd, it’s also Charlie Hooker, it’s also the entire spectrum of black music. And then Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Mohammed also recorded the score with a thirty-piece orchestra. So there are just so many things. It’s lush. And I just really can’t wait for people to see it and hear it and experience it.
This roundtable interview was conducted at the summer 2016 Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
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Article: Interview with LUKE CAGE creator Cheo Hodari Coker and star Mike Colter on new Netflix series