2016 has been an interesting year for Mahershala Ali. After spending three seasons as a series regular on House of Cards, he decided to ease back on the Netflix series, a career-defining move that opened the door for him to appear in this summer's Free State of Jones and Kicks, the upcoming Oscar contender Moonlight, and one of the most talked-about Netflix original series ever, Luke Cage. In Luke Cage, Mahershala plays Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, a gun-runner with long familial ties to the criminal element within New York City's Harlem. Cottonmouth, of course, finds himself in Luke's way, which leads to some truly epic confrontations between the two.
While Cottonmouth isn't what Kilgrave was to Jessica Jones, he's a perfect foil for what Luke Cage stands for, and Mahershala's performance adds an oomph to the cocksure villain. He exudes all kinds of cool but can turn the character into a coldhearted killer at the drop of a dime. He also has the chops to add humanity and depth to Cottonmouth. When it comes to Luke Cage, you come because of Mike Colter, but you stay for characters like Cottonmouth and actors like Mahershala.
Before the release of Luke Cage, Mahershala talked with Complex and opened up about molding of Cottonmouth, what he thinks the character would be bumping on Spotify, and the importance of a show like Luke Cage in today's America.
After primarily seeing you on House of Cards for the past three years, now it seems like we're seeing you everywhere—Luke Cage, Moonlight, Hidden Figures next year. Is that a matter of coincidence or a purposeful move?
I did three seasons as a series regular [on House of Cards], and going into that fourth season, I approached them about moving on—I felt like the character had done his job. It wasn't anything I could demand, but they were really generous in allowing me to move on. So, I was free to take on any opportunity that came its way. Once you're a free agent, you can work as you see fit, and things just kind of fit together really nicely.
I was working on four projects at one time last year: House of Cards, Luke Cage, Moonlight, and another project that is still being put together called Future Relic. [The move] was conscious in that I knew I wanted to get off the show so I could do other things. What I couldn't predict were the other opportunities that would come my way. It just happened to work out really nicely, and several of them are coming out at the same time.
I saw a recent description of Cottonmouth as having a "Jay Z swagger" to him. Is that something that you specifically tried to inject into that character?
I really took my cues from [Luke Cage executive producer and writer] Cheo Hodari Coker's script. I would read the material and respond to some of the things that didn't totally work for me and we'd have a conversation about that. [The character] had elements that were pulled from the comic book, so we really [tried] to ground him and make him as authentic as possible.
In the trailers and teasers for Luke Cage, Cottonmouth is painted very plainly as a villain. But in the show, he develops into something much more complex. Was that something that drew you to playing him?
It wasn't necessarily the complexity because with Marvel—and any actor, producer, crew member that's worked with Marvel kinda knows—they don't really tell you much. But I could tell by Cheo's energy that it was going to go some place that was really going to fill him out and make him three-dimensional. There was an agreement, an unwritten agreement, that by the time you're done, he's gonna have a lot of depth.
In terms of why I took the part, I just got a real sense that he was gonna be a character that was really present. I'd already seen Daredevil, I'd seen Vincent D'Onofrio and what he did with Kingpin, and just where Marvel is going, it's very clear to me that they have to write villains that are strong; villains that are nuanced, because they know that it makes the story better. I've always wanted to be in a Marvel project for many, many years, I just kind of imagined being on the other side of it. But when this villain came along, it gave me pause for a split second.
I've heard you make playlists for each character you portray. What's Cottonmouth's listening to on Spotify?
A whole range of stuff because he grew up playing music; he grew up around that speakeasy element. If you consider his age and where he's from, he would have a whole range of stuff from hip-hop to blues and jazz. He's somebody who would love Howlin' Wolf, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, musicians and producing musicians, but then I think he would be a fan of Diamond D, Brand Nubian and Nas, Mobb Deep. I think he would love the persona, the energy of Jay Z and Biggie. I think that they, to me, best reflect aspects of his personality. Even some of the Death Row artists—in some ways, there are elements of Suge Knight in him—he would respond and connect with N.W.A. and Dr. Dre. There would be neo soul like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Bilal. But he would also sit down and listen to Hiatus Kaiyote and Bon Iver.
Are there any particular Marvel superheroes that you've ever seen yourself playing?
With there never being black superheroes, it was almost like waiting for ones to emerge that I would be right for. I just never imagined there being a black Spider-Man or Batman or Thor, because it's just never done. So it was more: I would love to get one of these parts at some point, and in some way have enough presence as an actor to be able to transcend race, as opposed to only just waiting for a black character.
With Luke Cage being released during the current climate in America, how important do you think it is to introduce this kind of character?
Anytime you have a character or a story that points the camera at communities that have been underserved, I think they naturally serve a purpose and they naturally do a service, not only to the people that live in those communities, but to people who live outside of that community who don't have access to those experiences. Entertainment serves as a tool to in some ways validate people. When you see yourself on that big screen or even on the small screen, it's a statement that you exist and that you're worthy of a narrative and of stories as well. It also is an opportunity for people to learn that you are as human as they are. We don't see people of color experience the same emotional depth and range of emotion, and at a certain point it's almost as if people of color don't have the same capacity for experience as white people because you never get to see them on camera—you don't get to see them enough as the protagonist or the antagonist in these stories.
I hope Luke Cage is just one of hundreds of stories that point the camera on people who we haven't seen enough—as this begins to happen, it becomes an education for everybody, for ourselves and for people who don't live in those communities or are not African American or Hispanic or Asian. It's really important. You can't understate how important it is.