Mustafa Shakir found acting by chance. He was studying business and finance at Cornell University but numbers left him cold. Words were what moved him, writing poetry in his afternoon English class. He shared his doubts with his mother and she took him to the Negro Ensemble Company, the famous theatre company whose alumni include Denzel Washington, Samuel L Jackson and Danny Glover among others.

Shakir planned to attend the writing workshop but there was a mixup and he found himself listening to actors perform various scenes and monologues. The moderator spotted Shakir sitting at the back of the room. “What are you doing here, newbie?”

Shakir explained he was in the wrong class. “And then my mum told me to go up there and do a poem…”

The kool aid was drunk, bug duly caught, and before long Shakir was making his screen debut in police drama New York Undercover. Now his moment has very much arrived. He has played the villainous Bushmaster opposite Mike Colter in Luke Cage. He had a lead role in the Netflix anime adaptation Cowboy Bebop. And next year, he’ll star in the Will Smith thriller Emancipation.

Shakir discusses all these projects and more with our interviewer – his on-screen nemesis and real-life friend, Mike Colter.

Mike Colter: When you and I first worked together on Luke Cage, you played a villain. A really great villain by the way! This is a turn for you because now you’re on the other side now – now you’re a ‘good guy’. There’s grey, but you’re on the other side. How does that feel and what do you like better?

Mustafa Shakir: I like playing villains more, quite honestly. I just think that they’re more complex and fun. That’s not necessarily true, but I have a lot of fun with it – just because I don’t do that in my real life so it’s like a good way to vent my evil! It’s art therapy, for sure.

Doing Jet Black [Shakir’s character in Cowboy Bebop], it’s fun. He’s not your straight and narrow good guy – as you say, there’s grey areas there with him, too. So there’s some complexity to play in. I’ve had fun with that. He’s really an oxymoron: he’s super caring but this gruff dude. I can get behind that, you know what I mean? Playing that contrast.

MC: I think a lot of actors feel like the villains are more complex. Does it then stand true that sometimes, when you’re playing a good guy, it’s more difficult? You have to find ways of making him a three-dimensional character, you have to make people still want to see him succeed? Does it feel harder?

MS: No, not necessarily. I think I’m just speaking from me embracing what the industry has given me so far. I’ve played quite a few villains and so I’ve found my motivation: OK, cool, if I’m going to do this I’m going to have fun and this is why. But at the same time, there’s mad complexity in the good guy. They’re not one dimensional! How about you – how do you like playing a good guy?

MC: If I’m going project to project, I like to do one of each. It gives you a chance to stretch your muscle and balance it out. I feel like I get bored and I don’t want to do the same thing. But sometimes you get a couple of things in a row that are in the same vein, and if it’s really great and the writing’s great, you want to try it.

So it’s not a general rule – I’m gonna try this and try that. You kinda take what comes your way and hopefully it will challenge you and hopefully you will be fulfilled. Because I can’t always say that everything’s gonna plan out just the way I want it to.

MS: Yeah, that’s not life. Totally. I hear that.

Mustafa Shakir

MC: Talk to me about the music. Cowboy Bebop obviously has a great musical score and a phenomenal composer; you yourself are a very accomplished musician.

You’ve put some dope tracks out, you have some really good stuff, man. And I’m still waiting for the rest of the world to understand how good you are – because a lot of times people try to put you in a box but I see you as a phenomenally talented person that can probably do both.

I wanna know, do you feel like at some point you might be able to lend your skills to the show and put out a track or two?

MS: Yeah, absolutely! Yoko Kanno kills this, man. It’s been echoed so many times on press week, she’s the heart and soul of Bebop. That sound, that jazz. As you say, music is hugely important. For Bebop, it sets a tone for sure.

In terms of my own music – thanks, I appreciate the love on it. I do it cos I have to. It sort of haunts me. I wish it didn’t sometimes! For sure, I want to do some, I can see me soundtracking some stuff. In fact, it’s loosely in the plans. It’s just a matter of finding its way. I’m doing a lot more licensing now so I’m right for that format. Yeah, I’m playing around. Everything’s possible!

MC: Just before we get off the music thing – what two tracks of yours would you say to people, listen to these if you have time?

MS: I think for contrast, I would go with ‘King Shit’ – which is the last song that I put out. It’s more the dancey, bouncy vibe which I was playing around with. Then maybe ‘Ali’. ‘Ali’ is a really fun track that’s more ‘hip-hop’ and driving. But if you go on Spotify and check me out, there are loads.

MC: I remember ‘Ali’ – I was actually in the car listening to that track! It was fire. As to being a musician and an actor – what happened, who happened, when did it happen, that you decided this is what I want to do?

And then, when did you know that you had made the right choice? Whether it was because you were making it financially or you just felt in your heart and soul that you were on the right path?

MS: Wow, I’ll try a concise one with this! It was kinda serendipitous. I was at Cornell for International Banking and Finance.

MC: What? I did not know that! OK.

MS: Man, I was up there, I was in it, all the numbers. But it was driving me crazy. Literally. I have done business my whole life so I knew the basics of it; I was just going to formalise the degree. But I was like, Goddamn – y’all complicating shit.

Then I’d go to the English class in the afternoon and write poetry and people loved it! I was like, man, I feel something in my soul. So when I went back to the city in that summer, I was like, ‘yo mom, I’m not really feeling this.’ It was eating at me. There were a few other factors there. She was like, ‘I’mma take you to the Negro Ensemble Company, boy. You always writing something – let’s see if they can find a place for you.’

So I was supposed to go to the writing workshop, because I’ve always been writing my whole life, before anything. I got there and it was not a writing workshop, it was a scene and monologue workshop. I sat in the back; it was all full so I couldn’t leave, and I didn’t want to. All these performances – this is fire!

Chuck Patterson, the manager from The Five Heartbeats [1991 musical drama], he was the moderator. He was like, ‘yo, what are you doing here, newbie?’ I was like, ‘well, I came for writing but this is obviously not the right class.’ And then my mum told me to go up there and do a poem. Did a poem, long story short they told me to go get this play Zooman and the Sign [1979 play focused on the murder of a 12-year-old African American girl]. Giancarlo Esposito originated this one – it’s funny, I got to meet him later on. I came back and I did that monologue and the rest is history. I did a bunch of plays out there.

Mustafa Shakir

MC : Did it give you chills? When you were doing the monologue, when did you feel it? The response?

MS : Yeah, yeah. That’s a good moment to focus in on. When I first went in there and I did that monologue, I wasn’t in my head at all. It was just that fresh newness, that pureness, and I felt that rhythm, and everybody else did. They were blown away – ‘you need to go do this.’

Essentially that’s why they gave me all these opportunities outta there. I booked my first television show, New York Undercover, based on the referral of Carol Khan White, the director of the programme at the time.

I didn’t know what a manager was, I didn’t know what an agent was. I didn’t know nothing. But got the guest star on one of the most popular shows! That was confirmation; I just fell into it! I joined the union, I got taxed!

MC : Once you pay that money to get in, you’re like, this is a commitment here because I can’t just break even! Now I owe you money.

MS : I was like, what? I have to pay my whole cheque to them?

MC : Yeah, it’s wild! You realise – I have to continue to work!

MS : I borrowed $150!

MC : I remember that! I had to borrow from my brother. Yeah I had to borrow that because what I got didn’t pay enough to do it.

MS : On top of the pay cheques! But it was cool when that residual came around. What? The same amount again?

But yeah, putting one foot in front of the other, it challenged me in a way that nothing else did. I had to master myself, my emotions, going into an audition room. How to be detached yet be passionate. All of that just thrilled me. It kept me busy. But I was always in the back of my mind thinking, ‘imma go back to school!’

That was it. That whole sequence of events was a telltale sign that I was in the right place at the right time. It just happened way too serendipitously for me not to notice. I mean, it did kick my ass later on because you have to earn your stripes. I got in easy, but then once I was in, I had to earn my stripes.

MC : By that time you’ve committed, you’ve drunk the kool aid and you’ve got the bug so you have to continue because there’s really no turning back after that point.

MS : No, you’ll never be right!

Mustafa Shakir

MC : I remember the first time I met you. I’d never hung out with a lot of actors. Most of the actors I knew always had a network of actors they hung out with, and I guess cos I was always grinding on my day job, I just never had the chance to really go out there.

I remember you had a barbecue, a cookout with Dorian Missick, and that’s the first time I met you. I didn’t see you again until we worked together on Cage. I remember, there was something about you: you had a style and an energy about you. You see someone and you go, OK, you’re gonna see this person again. Probably 10, 15 years had passed before I saw you again. It was a minute.

You probably see yourself as a New Yorker but you’re always somewhere else. You travel the world. Do you feel like you have a home? Or do you like being a nomad?

MS : Definitely there’s some nomadic, gypsy tendencies for sure. I enjoy that, I enjoy being in different places and doing different things. It definitely satisfies my need for variety and prevents boredom. So that’s great.

Having a home – I always think of Harlem as the headquarters but I don’t like to just go sit there that often. I’m starting to think – do I need some land? To answer your question, I don’t really feel like I have a home but I feel like I’ve got touch points that make me feel pretty grounded. That’s enough for now.

MC : When you said ‘land’ that made me think to myself. Would you think about moving off the grid and living off the land? Or are you a city guy? Because you do well on your own, I know that about you. I don’t mind being alone, but I think you even more so can be alone for a long time and still be completely content.

MS : Yeah, it’s definitely one of my superpowers. For sure. So much of a strength it’s a weakness sometimes! Going back full circle to the villain, good guy thing – it’s all about balance.

I am a New Yorker. And when I go in there I feel that charge. It ain’t nothing like spring and autumn in New York. In the city, that collective energy is something I really appreciate that you can’t really duplicate if you’re off the grid.

But I do feel like being off the grid gives you the chance to get back to yourself. So I feel like between the two is where my sweet spot lies.

Mustafa Shakir

MC : I’m gonna wrap it up with this question. Well, it’s really a comment and a question. I know you have a project coming up with Will Smith. I worked with him years ago; he’s obviously a generous guy. You’re working on a project called Emancipation right?

MS : Yes.

MC : So this is a movie set during the time of slavery, correct?

MS : The Civil War, yes.

MC : Who do you play in the story?

MS : I play a real dude. He’s also playing a real dude. I play Captain André Cailloux, who was one of the first Black captains in the Union Army.

He was a swaggy cat from New Orleans; he was a businessman, went to school in Paris. He’s educated well. It’s a pretty cool character. Basically, he’s leading this regiment in the Civil War. And that’s pretty much what I’m doing in the movie.

MC : This story sounds like a unique twist on a recurring theme. Do you feel these stories are very important? With these stories, do you think there’s a desire for it, a hunger for it, and should they be told as much as possible?

MS : You know, I had mixed feelings about it. For me, I was like, ‘I never want to do a slave movie, ever.’ I was so dead set on it. They sent me the script, it was for a particular role – I actually got pissed and I’m so diplomatic, man!

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MC : But you throw the script back, you were like, don’t send me this! You didn’t even read it, you were already telling them – how dare you!

MS : Man, I read the whole thing for this character, but I was, ‘nah, I’m good!’ And then the agent came back and asked, what character would you do? I went through and I was like, ‘the only one that I would play, other than the one Will’s playing, is this guy Cailloux – but apparently he’s bi-racial or some shit.’

The twist on this is that it’s a thriller. It’s a different pace completely from a lot of other slave movies. I dug that. I dug everybody who was involved in it. With Cailloux I felt if anybody, ever, in that realm of storytelling, this is the role to play. It is a good script. The thing is, I didn’t like the role they initially wanted me for.

In terms of this story being told? I feel like we might be done. You know? Not that it can’t be told again in a different way – I mean, how many Holocaust movies have there been? How many takes on other historical events? If we want to do that till we’re blue in the face, fuck it, let’s just do it.

But I feel like there’s stuff that predates that time, and stuff that actually happened after that time – a lot of powerful stories that haven’t been told yet. In order to flush out the lexicon of who we are, we need to broaden the focus. So, yeah – I don’t think I’ll ever want to do another slave film. This is my quota.

MC : Never say never. Cos you know we’re having this conversation and it’s recorded!

MS : They’re gonna offer me a role I can’t turn down!

MC : Just because you said this! Oh, he said what he said – OK, let’s just ship him this plumb superhero slave! And they whip him and he beats everybody up! And you like, OK, fine! It must be done!

MS : If you put it that way…!

MC : Look, man, I ain’t gonna keep you. I enjoyed this conversation because I haven’t talked to you in a minute but it’s funny because I’m getting a lot of information that I wanted anyway. I’m just happy I got a chance to connect with you, man.

I was talking to somebody the other day, and they were like, ‘yo man, you’ve got some really nice skin.’ And the weirdest thing – it reminded me of you! I go, ‘you know, there’s a friend of mine. He’s a vegan, the same age as I am. I saw him one day, and I go, wait a minute – the cat’s the same age as me by five days and I’m looking at him going, ‘uh oh. What’s he doing that I’m not doing?’’

And I realised that you were living a clean life – OK, he’s not eating meat. The influence is still with me, so thanks for that. You keep me on the straight and narrow a lot of the time. OK, I can’t put that in my mouth and I can’t drink that because this is not what Mu’s doing – and I gotta keep pace!

MS: I’m glad I’m the angel on your shoulder. I like this format. So, cool.

MC: Cool. We gotta get together at some point when you staying put one day. Or we gotta work together again, that would be even better. Get paid and hang out! Paid to play!

MS: This is the dream. This is the dream. 

Cowboy Bebop is currently streaming on Netflix.