Sitting outside of a barber shop in North Hollywood on a Saturday afternoon, actor Mike Colter gets temporarily sidetracked while talking about his huge, breakout role in Netflix’s highly anticipated upcoming series Luke Cage and how it’s set to change his life. Instead, he’s drifted into conspiracy theories. Colter’s big on them. “Man on the moon? That wasn’t real. JFK? There was so much going on there that was mob-related—ties to Jimmy Hoffa, unions,” he trails off.
This is definitely unexpected, but you can’t exactly blame a guy who is all of the sudden about to be one of the biggest stars on TV for thinking that there are larger forces at work. After all, only a year ago, Colter was just a supporting player on CBS’ The Good Wife; one fateful casting later and he’s in the role of a lifetime, perfectly embodying the Harlem superhero Luke Cage and leading the hip-hop-ification of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
One of the most anticipated series to debut this fall (episodes are available on Sept. 30), Luke Cage is built on the beloved but malleable legacy of that namesake character. With his invincible skin, astonishing strength, stoic humility and proto-rap, Muhammad Ali-influenced exhortations, Luke Cage—originally known as Power Man—has always been superhero shorthand for “badass.” (It’s not for nothing that when then-aspiring actor Nicolas Coppola decided to change his last name to avoid charges of nepotism, he looked to Luke Cage.)
As the center of Luke Cage, and the bedrock of a spectacular cast—which also includes acclaimed film/theater OG Alfre Woodard (Primal Fear, The Practice) and relative new jack Mahershala Ali, (the surprise breakout from another Netflix hit, House of Cards, and star of this year’s Moonlight)—Colter is shouldering all of the show’s immensely high expectations. Not that anyone’s worried he won’t be able to deliver. “He’s just perfect,” Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Coker says. “It’s like, ‘Holy shit—this guy is Luke Cage.’ Honestly, I consider this the best casting since Sean Connery was James Bond.”
Coker—a former music journalist who went on to write the 2009 biopic Notorious, contribute to the screenplay for Straight Outta Compton, and co-executive-produce Showtime’s Ray Donovan—says that Colter is the adhesive that fuses together his hip-hop-heavy vision for Luke Cage. “Through Mike’s portrayal of this character, we get the first taste of the Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel Universe. Luke Cage is a trojan horse; through him, wrapped in the package of this show, we introduce real deep hardcore NY hip-hop culture to the world. And Mike Colter is such a perfect choice: he's so attractive and cool, you can keep the camera on him while introducing all this other stuff.”
After his stop at the barbershop, Colter is walking around NoHo’s Arts District, running errands to get ready for day one of the weeklong celebration his wife Iva has planned around his 40th birthday. He pops into connoisseur comic book shop Blastoff, where ultra-rare editions of X-Men and Justice League stare down from the walls in plastic bags. He’s low-key, but the Blastoff patrons can’t believe their eyes: Luke Cage is standing before them. Dressed casually in a henley t-shirt and jeans, Colter agrees gladly to every selfie and autograph request, and then flips through the store’s Luke Cage section, pausing to study the vintage covers. “I think I have this one,” he says, before admitting he wasn’t much of a comic nut growing up. When asked about his favorite hero, he cites a real-life one, not a comic book character: Barack Obama. “He always takes the high road,” Colter explains.
Luke Cage feels momentous not just for Colter, but for pop culture. The titular superhero was a groundbreaking character: one of the first black superheroes ever in mainstream comics, and the first to carry his own title on the newsstand. As Colter puts it, Cage has “real problems his abilities can’t fix, that anyone can relate to—earning a living, paying bills, finding a soulmate.” When he debuted in 1972 in the series Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, he was falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
Emerging at the peak of the black power movement, Cage was a symbol of black strength, survival, and attitude. Still, he's never been saddled with the fanboy baggage of a Batman or even Iron Man, let alone Deadpool. Cage has gone through various incarnations and guises since he debuted in the funked-out ‘70s with an afro, steel tiara, body-hugging slacks, chest-revealing shirts in bold primary colors, and a slang-y, now-dated catchphrase: “Sweet Christmas!” But instead of reviving past versions of Cage, Coker decided to take liberties and reflect society’s present day trials and tribulations in the spirit of the character’s evolution—from Blaxploitation muscleman to the pivot point in Harlem fantasia. Luke Cage features hints of Spike Lee’s ‘80s classics School Daze and Do the Right Thing, New Jack City, and Carlito’s Way, along with au courant A$AP Rocky references, brutally choreographed street-fight massacres, Instagram selfies, and verbal debates on the literary merits of George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley.
“We’re throwing the viewer deep in the pool of black culture,” Coker says. “I call it ‘inclusively black’—you may not understand everything that’s being said, but you don’t feel excluded from the party. I wanted to give people an eavesdrop, in the same way when you watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan you’re eavesdropping on Upper West Side culture. I wanted to show hip-hop could be just as sophisticated as anything else—in the same way Jessica Jones and Daredevil proved that comic book storytelling could be as sophisticated as anything else on TV.”
“He's just perfect.
It's like, ‘holy s**t—this guy
is luke cage.”
—Cheo Coker, luke cage showrunner
In person, Colter’s charisma is so oversized it threatens to suck up all the air in the room with every sotto voce utterance he makes. He balances that, though, by deflecting attention off himself. Colter has spent a lifetime fitting in. He grew up in a largely white small town, St. Matthews, South Carolina, where he claims he rarely encountered discrimination, despite the state’s troubled reputation. “I got lucky,” Colter says. “To be frank, I was surrounded by white teachers who never did the whole 'You're never going to amount to nothing' thing you hear about in the South. Instead, they would say, 'You're really smart, you can do this.' If I hadn't gotten that, I don't know where I'd be.”
Colter—who started his high school drama club, and practiced his oral presentation by reading student announcements over the intercom—had a vision of his future as an actor from an early age. He was voted “Most Ambitious” in his 1994 graduating high school class, although he says that “the competition wasn’t that hard. It was a small town, and all they could see was what was around them. I saw more than that.”
After bouncing around a number of schools, Colter ended up getting a graduate masters degree in acting from Rutgers University, where he met his future wife, Iva, who was studying for a PhD in comparative literature (and now works at Netflix in a corporate executive position). Their first child, a girl, was born in September 2015.
Colleagues and critics say Luke Cage is the role Colter was born to play, but he has been working hard towards this moment for years. By 2010, Colter had landed a number of recurring and starring TV and film roles, including Million Dollar Baby and The CW’s Ringer; he had begun attracting more substantial parts in films like Men In Black 3 and Zero Dark Thirty. Then The Good Wife came calling, handing him the juicy recurring role of Lemond Bishop, a complex, sexy, drug-dealing business mogul. “When I was playing Bishop, I would always walk on set thinking, ‘This is my show; this is a show all about me,’” Colter says.
The performance was enough to turn heads and land Colter an audition for what’s become his defining role, Luke Cage on Jessica Jones, one of Netflix’s other collaborations with Marvel. After being cast in that show, Colter was abruptly written off of The Good Wife in an admittedly anticlimactic (and uncharacteristic) storyline that had Bishop cooperating with the Feds. “It all just happened in a flash,” Colter admits. “I think Bishop’s run on the show would’ve come to a different end had they not had to chop that storyline when I got cast as Luke Cage.”
Jessica Jones debuted last year to critical hosannas praising its embrace of diverse points of view, with storylines centered around people we don’t always see represented on TV. Colter’s buzzed-about characterization of Cage provided an unexpected anchor of that triumph—suddenly, a solo Cage series was on the fast track. According to Coker, Marvel and Netflix had originally slated martial arts superhero Iron Fist as the next character from the Defenders—a loose federation bringing together Marvel’s more street-level heroes like Daredevil, Jones, and Cage—to get his own series. Coker had worked up a treatment capturing his vision for the show that was turning heads; meanwhile, Colter had proven a popular breakout on Jessica Jones. For once, the internet pretty much agreed: No one could play Cage better than him. “Marvel went from, ‘We’re gonna take our time’ to ‘Let’s flip it and do Luke Cage first,’” Coker says. “‘We’ve got this great concept and this guy is leaping off the screen, let’s follow the momentum.’”
Colter was shocked by the accelerated timeline, to say the least. “I called Mike and he’s freaking out: ‘We’re having a baby, my wife’s going to leave me!’ I had to calm him down,” says Coker.
Coker cooked up a deeply personal, ambitious treatment for redefining Luke Cage as a superhero on Netflix in 2016. “I didn’t want to eradicate [Jessica Jones showrunner] Melissa Rosenberg’s conception of Luke Cage, I wanted to expand it,” he says. In Jessica Jones, Cage is a man with reluctant superpowers and a damaged soul, emotionally hollowed out by the death of his wife. For Luke Cage, Coker is keeping all of the emotional baggage of the character, but changing the environment around him. Coker’s treatment for the show quickly morphed into a love letter to hip-hop in the ‘90s, when the genre ascended to cultural and commercial supremacy, an era Coker covered in depth as a journalist at outlets like The Los Angeles Times, VIBE, and Rolling Stone. (Full disclosure: Coker and I have known each other and been friends since this time.)
With its layered, moody hip-hop noir score from A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Los Angeles-based funk/soul maven Adrian Yonge (Ghostface Killah, the Delfonics, Souls of Mischief), Luke Cage features the sound of ‘90s era grimy samples and the energy of an MC battle. The edgy spirit of Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, and Gang Starr hovers over Luke Cage’s best, most electric moments. Coker even titled each episode in Luke Cage’s first season after a different Gang Starr song, from “Code of the Streets” to “Suckas Need Bodyguards.”
Ahead of the show’s premiere, much of the internet chatter around Luke Cage centers around how the show will play in the age of Black Lives Matter. When every day brings a new video of an unarmed black man being shot to death by a police officer, seeing an indestructible Luke Cage is transcendental and empowering. His hoodie may get blown off, but the bullets merely bounce off his flesh. According to both Coker and Colter, the show was written well before what Coker calls the “epidemic” of shootings and the resulting protests reached the mass saturation it’s at today. “We’re just trying to tell the best story we can,” Coker says. “The same rules still apply to black men. We’re just touching on things that have been in the black community for fifty years that society is just awakening to. I mean, I’m one of four black male drama showrunners. We all know each other; we could all fit at one table in a restaurant.”
“This is a cultural moment,” Coker continues. “It’s the first time you've seen television from a black perspective on black terms. Shows like Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Insecure—we're all making black-themed entertainment on our terms, backed by major white companies who see the merits of saying, ‘Let’s see it unadulterated.’ That’s why with Luke Cage, we’re going for broke in everything we do.”
For Colter, finding humanity in Luke Cage amid mindblowing superhero action is the priority. “What I like about my character: Luke Cage is a person first and foremost,” Colter says. “We do have other black superheroes, but he’s important because he’s touchable. Luke has moments when he has to try to forget his pain, but then unlike the rest of us, he’s also able to channel that frustration into fighting bad guys. Real martyrs aren’t trying to be martyrs. He may never be accepted, but he’s going to walk his own path.”
Colter pauses before finishing his thought: “That’s what’s heroic to me.”