"It’s weird to have something like this bestowed upon you – this opportunity to play such a loved comic book character. I remember that people around me and fans were like, ‘Are you ready for this thing?’”
Mike Colter is recalling the dawning realisation that he had been chosen for what many would consider the role of a lifetime: the opportunity to play Luke Cage, Marvel’s first black superhero to receive its own titular television series.
By the 46 year old’s own admission, his career to date had been a little stop-start in its momentum. Colter was happy plying his trade as an ensemble actor in shows like American Horror Story, The Following and most notably The Good Wife, it’s the bread and butter roles he’d got into the business to play, yet here was his archetypal Big Break – the moment that would make every shitty audition or forgettable regional play worth the years of hard graft.
But there was no champagne popped or cigars lit or bear hugs with the agents who’d bagged him the audition. Instead, there was quiet consideration and managed expectations. Was he ready to be thrown in the deep end as part of the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time? The truth is, Colter wasn’t really sure.
“I knew full-well that this was going to be a place that was going to swallow me up as an actor, because it’s just this machine, and the character’s big, and the audience already have a relationship with the character.
I knew that this was going to be a place that was going to swallow me up as an actor
“I remember talking to my team at the time. I said, ‘Look, I’m an actor. Everybody’s looking at the positives, but I’m looking at the negatives, too. This is not necessarily what I want, but I understand why we should do this and understand what the opportunity is that presents itself here for us as a platform.’ I wasn’t stupid, so I knew that, but I was really honest and really aware of the setbacks. So I said, ‘Well, you know what’s going to happen? I’m going to have to rebuild again after.’”
The fact that I should open this interview speaking about a character that Colter hasn’t inhabited since 2018 is proof in itself of the double-sided coin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The opportunity to perform on one of the largest platforms is an opportunity few could resist, but of all the characters one can play in film or TV, surely a superhero has the longest half-life? As an actor so deeply embedded in his craft, who had willingly passed on numerous other roles throughout his career for fear of being pigeonholed, Colter knew that Luke Cage would be hard to shake long after pummelling his last bad guy.
He tells me later in our conversation he felt like “you’re going into hiding once you leave Marvel”. In many ways, it’s what made him so darn perfect to play the part of Harlem’s own reluctant superhero, because he knew what it meant to be given a gift and not quite know what to do with it. As Stan Lee so famously penned in his Spider-Man comics, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Every hero has their own origin story. In the case of Mike Colter it begins in the small town of St Matthews, South Carolina. At a little less than two square miles in size and with a population of 2,000 people, Colter spent his early years dreaming of being anywhere other than St Matthews, South Carolina.
His mum, Freddie, had wanted to be an actress “but she never got her chance” – instead moving back home to look after her mother, and later getting married and settling down. The torch was passed on to her son who, as the youngest of four siblings, found the idea of performing a convenient means of both making his parents proud and also gaining their attention. (Hey, it’s a dog-eat-dog world when you’re the youngest; you’ve got to do what you can to get ahead.)
Colter’s first performance didn’t come on stage but in the principal’s office of Calhoun County High School. There he would read daily announcements over the intercom, doling out results for the basketball and football teams, and informing students about the weather in his newly acquired baritone. He chuckles at the memory: “My voice had just changed right around that time, so I had this voice that people liked. At the time, I hadn’t really gotten adjusted to it. I didn’t really like the sound of my own voice, but people seemed to love it. I fancied myself as a bit of a Bryant Gumbel [the famous US television journalist and sportscaster] – at least, that’s what they called me – so it was a cool thing to have that responsibility.”
But the moment that crystallised Colter’s acting ambitions would soon follow, after he started a drama club with the help of his English teacher, Mrs Caldwell, and teaching assistant Mrs Felix: “I think we got about ten students who also were intrigued by theatre, or wanted to get a credit for doing something other than gym,” Colter tells me. “We read some plays, some speeches and monologues, and then we put on our first school plays.”
Hosted in the last period of the day in the school’s auditorium, the plays were for many of the kids in the audience their first experience of live theatre of any kind. Colter and his band of amateur players had the crowd in raptures: “They were completely engaged, they laughed, they stood up, they clapped, they cheered. I have chills thinking about it now. It was one of those moments, where I literally saw my future,” he recalls. “Right away, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is it. This is what I want to do with my life.’”
Walking home from school, lost in the adrenaline of his first live performance, he took his usual shortcut through the local cemetery, when the ‘cool kids’ interrupted his thoughts: “This car pulls over, and there’s this group of girls, that I don’t think have ever talked to me before. They never gave me that much time or really noticed me before. They were the cool kids… It was like all of a sudden they saw me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, because that feeds into maybe a narcissism, or an ego-thing, but I understood at that moment the value in performing and being an actor. It mattered.”
Colter was voted ‘most ambitious’ in his senior high school yearbook thereafter – “I think people saw a person who was creating, or trying to create his own path” – and was determined to follow through with his ambitions of making it as an actor. But his journey to get there was anything but a straightforward one.
“Everything about my journey has been not quite textbook, or not quite glamorous. It’s just figuring it all out,” he smiles.
He attended Benedict College, a place that “didn’t even have a theatre programme… I think I had to major in ‘media arts’”, where he “became fast friends” with his drama professor Scott Blanks who encouraged him to transfer to the University of South Carolina the following year, and he would go on to attain a BA degree in theatre before studying at Mason Gross School of Arts in New Jersey under the tutelage of respected teachers William Esper and Maggie Flanigan.
I learned early on that you don’t need dialogue: acting is doing, it’s behaviour
It was under Esper, an instructor of the Meisner technique of acting – an instinctual, naturalistic acting method that encourages performers to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” according to its founder Sanford Meisner – where Colter began to assemble the building blocks that would later define his on-screen persona.
“At Mason Gross, they talked about listening as being equally as important as the dialogue as an actor. When you’re listening, be an active listener, take it in,” Colter explains. It’s become a cornerstone of any signature Colter performance: a man for whom brooding silence and the language of movement is as integral to his roles as the script itself. “I learned early on that a lot about acting that’s really great and unique, is that you don’t really need dialogue. Acting is not dialogue; acting is doing, it’s behaviour.”
The formative years of Colter’s acting career weren’t easy. The recent Mason Gross graduate followed the well-travelled path to LA, picking up single-episode guest spots on ER (a show that has perhaps blooded more talent than any other) and sitcom The Parkers, but he “struggled to make it work”.
Colter was under no illusions about the likelihood of making it big, and the remorselessness of Tinseltown tested his resolve. He recalls a frank discussion with his wife Iva back in their college days shortly after they first started dating: “I said, ‘Look, I’m just letting you know that everything may not work out. At best, I may be doing regional theatre, moving around the country.’ At the time she had an opportunity to possibly be in academics and be a professor. Maybe achieve tenure, in which case she would have insurance and a steady job, and I might be living off of her for the most part. So I painted that picture for her, just to let her know that this could be what it is.”
Undeterred by the lack of opportunity in Hollywood, he returned to New York in the hope that theatre might offer an alternate route to market. To make ends meet, he took up a job at Island Restaurant on Upper East Side waiting tables and greeting guests.
Like Colter says, there was nothing glamorous about the early days. He just had to be patient and wait for his opportunity to come: “I was smart enough to look at a bunch of different people and understand there’s time and space for me in this industry, it just might not happen right away.”
And then his agent got him an audition with Phyllis Huffman, Clint Eastwood’s most trusted casting director. She took a shine to a young Colter and cast him in a small independent film, Brooklyn Lobster, alongside established actors like Danny Aiello before offering him his first break.
“She was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this part in this movie with Clint Eastwood that’s coming up and I think you’re right for it.’ And I’m looking at her like she’s crazy. I’m like, ‘No way, there’s no way.’ I didn’t tell her that, obviously, I’m young and eager, so I just say ‘OK, whatever.’”
The part in question was the boxer Big Willie Little (no laughing at the back) in Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby – though Colter wasn’t to know the critical acclaim that was to come. The actor goes through the casting process, sending in tapes and coming in to perform in front of Huffman (Eastwood famously doesn’t see anyone in person), before he gets the phone call during his shift at the restaurant.
“You know how you’re waiting on a call, you don’t know what it’s going to be, good or bad, but you just want to be put out of your misery? I finally got the call. My agent at the time, he was a big cockney, he calls me and he says, ‘Mike, where are ya?’ [Here Colter puts on a wonderfully terrible impression.] And I say, ‘I’m at work.’ He’s like, ‘I’ve got some good news for you. You got it.’ I’m downstairs in the basement, I could barely hear, and I literally don’t remember anything he said after that. I don’t know, I almost fainted. I’m sitting there downstairs, and I’m literally having this out-of-body experience.”
Now, if this is the moment in the movie where you expect our hero to rip off his apron and tell the manager, “I quit!” before running out into the street, you haven’t been paying close attention. Colter gathered himself, wiped the sweat from his brow (“I was in a cold sweat!”), and went back to waiting tables for the rest of his shift. He didn’t tell a soul.
I understood at that moment the value in performing and being an actor: it mattered
Million Dollar Baby opens with a boxing bout featuring our man Colter. Morgan Freeman narrates over the two men in the ring, “Boxing is about respect. Getting it for yourself, and taking it away from the other guy,” as Colter lands the knockout blow. Welcome to the big leagues, Mike: a star is born.
Or so you’d hope. For Colter, his breakout performance led to a crossroads: “I think the expectation from my agency was, ‘You’re going to do some more roles like this, you’re going to do another athlete.’ I remember they had this audition, they wanted me to go in for one of the Rocky movies. They wanted to keep the momentum going by getting me another athlete role. I think that was smart on their part, I don’t think it was wrong necessarily, but I didn’t want that.”
Stuck between ‘playing the game’ and trusting his own convictions to never be typecast, Colter realised he was at an impasse. As he explains: “We fought about it. We fought about stuff. That was a part of the learning curve for me. Trying to figure out how to find a team who actually knows exactly what I want, and if we work together.”
I don’t know what it says about Colter that he stood his ground. Was he too proud? The old phrase, ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’ springs to mind. Then again, despite spending the next few years in the doldrums, his belief in doing things the right way – “I’ve got to bet on me,” he says – ultimately led him to the door of his next opportunity.
On paper, the role of Lemond Bishop in the CBS show The Good Wife, wasn’t too different to other guest spots he’d filled in the past, but the star-studded cast added credence to the idea that Colter was getting somewhere: “Everybody on that show were established actors who had been on Broadway and had Emmys, and some people were film legends. Here I was, this person who really didn’t have much going on, and I was able to sneak my way in there.”
The suave drug lord Bishop gave Colter the chance to flex his acting chops in a whole new way. His “genteel menace”, as one media outlet described his performance, was an instant hit with fans, and one showrunners furnished into one of the series’ most complex villains. Not bad for a role that was intended to be a one-episode gig. And that, Colter tells me, is the point: “I think your career gets a chance to start over sometimes. People always go, “You’ve got one shot,” but I don’t believe that. I believe you have a multitude of shots, and you’ve got to be prepared every time that shot comes along, and be patient enough to wait for the next wave.”
Colter was 34 when he first performed in The Good Wife, but the show would light the touchpaper for the actor’s career proper. He leaped feet first into a host of roles, including Halo: Nightfall, The Following, and American Horror Story. It was an incredibly gratifying period, jumping from character to character, and immersing himself in a new world every time: this was all the young boy had dreamed of while walking home from the high school auditorium. He’d made it.
In many ways the role of Luke Cage in the 2015 Netflix show Jessica Jones was just another guest spot – another character to explore, a new world to walk around in – before moving on to the next project. He’d never read Luke Cage, Power Man (Cage’s superhero alias) as a kid, so was unencumbered by the prospect of filling the role, but Marvel’s promise of a titular show with Colter as the lead gave the actor pause for thought.
Cage is capable of inhuman feats of strength and completely bulletproof, but what ultimately led Colter to accepting the role wasn’t the promise of badass fight scenes or awe-inspiring powers, it was the idea of creating a persona that was real enough to be relatable. His years of experience gave him the toolbox required to carry a show that would be watched by millions – he just needed the script to fit: “For me, it needed to be grounded, it needed to be relatable, but it also needed to be a bit more sophisticated. So that people could feel like, ‘Hey, yeah, I could see this guy walking around down the street, and going unnoticed.’ I mean, this is a superhero that takes the subway or the bus.”
Colter’s toned-down performance as the unofficial ‘sheriff of Harlem’ was a masterstroke. His softly spoken tone of voice, his economy of words, and his reticence to use his powers unless absolutely necessary is a far cry from the bombast and forthright masculinity we’ve seen from many of our on-screen black heroes. It was exactly what show creator Cheo Hodari Coker was after.
Coker had promised to create a series that examined Harlem in a similar vein to The Wire did with Baltimore, and in Colter he had the perfect vehicle to execute his vision.
“I think it was important to set an example for young black men, who were going to be big fans of the show, of seeing themselves in this character. That it wasn’t about this bombastic way of being, that would then create this persona. To solve problems, but not necessarily with his hands at all times. It’s not always about a fight,” Colter tells me.
I was suffering from agoraphobia a bit. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of fame
The show was lightning in a bottle. With its predominantly black writers’ room, an impeccable soundtrack assembled by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and a storyline that didn’t shy away from race relations, it’s little wonder Time magazine described Luke Cage as “the most political superhero show yet”. But, more than that, it tapped into a culture and a generation that was woefully underrepresented on television. Colter became a star overnight.
“I tried to stay away from the zeitgeist of it all, because I knew it was happening. It was pulsating, just walking around New York City. I couldn’t go anywhere. It was just really, it was just a weird time. There was a moment where I felt like I was suffering from agoraphobia a bit. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of fame.”
After two series of Luke Cage and playing the character in The Defenders, Netflix announced that Luke Cage would not be returning for a previously mooted third season. But with Charlie Cox reprising his role as Daredevil, alongside rumours of the return of Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I wouldn’t be doing my journalistic duty if I didn’t ask Colter about a possible return down the line…
His response is very polite, considering the regularity with which he fields this question: “I’m having such a good time of just going back and forth, and finding other interesting material and characters to play. I would consider it, just in terms of if it’s something creative and there’s an interesting piece of material, and everything, if it made sense. But I never wake up thinking about it.
“It’s hard for people to believe that. But unless I’m doing an interview or someone asks me in the street, I’m never thinking about Luke Cage. I was at peace with it when it ended. I thought we had another season in us, but it just didn’t work out… Listen, if Kevin Feige or Marvel called, and wanted to talk, I’d listen, but my availability is pretty tight!”
Since leaving the show, Colter has been as busy as ever. He’s filled his schedule with the excellent TV series Evil created by The Good Wife writers, Michelle and Robert King, where he plays priest-in-training Dave Acosta – “the antithesis of a superhero show,” he quips – as well as featuring in a number of films.
Colter couldn’t be happier: “It’s been another opportunity to unite with people that I trust, and whose writing I like, and whom I like as people. It’s a great situation for me.”
Before we delve into Colter’s latest project – the blockbuster film Plane, currently out in cinemas – I thought I’d share a few aviation-related facts about the actor. The star hadn’t flown on a plane until he was “about 25 years old”, but now spreads his time between New York and LA, as well as travelling around the world as part of his latest projects. He’s also flown a “handful of times” on the LaGuardia-to-Charlotte flight made famous when Sully Sullenburger miraculously ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009 without any casualties: “I stopped taking that flight after that… I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that literally could have been me on that plane.’”
Whether or not these life experiences prepared him for the role of Louis Gaspare, an accused murderer who is being transported by the FBI when the plane crash lands on a war-torn island off the coast of the Philippines, is likely up for debate, but nonetheless, Colter plays the role of the dangerous and mysterious Gaspare with great aplomb. The grey character – someone who could be good or bad – was what attracted the actor to the role in the first place.
“When we meet Gaspare, you can see there’s a lot he’s considering. What’s his next move? Who’s this person? Friend or foe? What’s at stake for him? What’s going to happen? How do I play this thing out? When he first meets Captain Torrance, you can tell this guy’s quietly judging him, Torrance can sense it. So I love these characters where there’s a bit of mystery, there’s a bit of grey. I really respond to those.”
Much of the film pivots around the shared power dynamic of Captain Brodie Torrance, played by action movie stalwart Gerard Butler, and Colter’s Gaspare. As Colter explains, “I think there was this mutual respect mixed with the tension of two alpha males trying to share this space and find some common ground, it’s a balance.” Off screen, however, Butler is the consummate professional, “collaborative” and “very giving and gracious with his time”.
I became an actor to act and to challenge myself
It says a lot about the progression of Colter that his roles now are much more complex than his early on-screen cameos. His refusal to fit into pre-defined boxes may have hindered his early career, but it’s now bearing fruit. Plane, for example, may be on its surface your average action-filled caper, but there are fleshed-out roles, blurred lines between what it means to be a hero, beyond the blueprint to which Hollywood previously conformed.
Colter says this is down to the audience (you clever lot): “I think audiences are becoming more sophisticated. Over time, they’ve been introduced to so many well-told stories. I mean the era of television, if you just compare what was popular 20-30 years ago, you can notice that there’s a trend in terms of characters who aren’t necessarily always likeable, but they’re understood.
“Audiences have had enough of any sense of earnestness, I think that’s fair to say. Anytime someone’s too kind or too nice, you’re suspicious of them. If a person doesn’t curse – I mean, I’m not saying a person should use profanity – but if someone doesn’t curse, they don’t drink, they don’t seem to have any flaws or any vices, not only are you suspicious of them, but you find them boring.”
I think the truth is that Colter finds them boring, too. It’s little wonder he has spent his entire career defying expectations, never afraid to evolve in the pursuit of his craft. “I became an actor to act and to challenge myself, and to find something that’s interesting,” he tells me as our time draws to a close. “You can have talent, you’re born with that, you’re born an actor, but you’ve got to study your craft, because you’re going to have to reinvent yourself a few times if you want to stay in this business.”
He is living proof that persistence bears fruit if you have confidence in your abilities. Whatever Mike Colter does next, no doubt he will tell the story well.
Plane is in cinemas now.