Mahershala Ali Discusses The Thin Line Between Right And Wrong In Netflix’s ‘Luke Cage’

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If there’s two things that Netflix gets right with its Marvel series, it’s how to stock up on action-packed fight scenes and cliffhangers in merely 40 minutes or less, and how to create characters that tread the lines between good and evil. Up next to tackle that feat on the streaming service’s binge-watching roster, is Luke Cage.

Following his debut in the Emmy Award-winning series, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter) has been tasked with his own storyline. The typical fight scenes won’t be lacking, especially not with a man who’s literally bulletproof. But instead of helping his ferociously strong love interest fight her past demons, Luke will take on a few of his own. And at the head of the pack, is Mahershala Ali’s character, Harlem crime lord, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes.

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With a nickname like that, it’s clear Cottonmouth isn’t quite like any of the other villains we’ve seen thus far. He’s got the swagger of Jay Z on Reasonable Doubt, and the ability to chill a room of mobsters like an American gangster straight from the heart of Harlem. While he runs a respectable nightclub in the neighborhood, he might have to get his hands dirty in some illegal activity. But he’s okay with that; that’s just what being pragmatic in this day and age calls for. Cottonmouth holds the key to his city and operates it the best way he sees fit. It’s just too bad Luke Cage doesn’t see it that way.

Ali, the man behind the crown, graciously spoke with VIBE about what’s in store for Marvel’s next comic series ahead of its premiere on Sept. 30. Check out what he had to say about Cottonmouth’s conflicted, villain character, taking on the indestructible superhero, and the music that inspired him.

VIBE: Can you talk about your character in the series? 
Mahershala Ali: Alfre [Woodard] has said, if you look at families that are considered to be in the legitimate business, who can be looked at or deemed as old money, a lot of these older families have some foot in criminal or illegal activity at a certain point, be it prohibition or what have you. I think that’s the vein of Cottonmouth’s lineage. He’s somebody who has grown up in a home raised by his grandmother who ran a speakeasy and basically a prostitution house. There’s this mix of business that was above board and there was a legitimate side to it also. With that being what he knows, his nightclub, Harlem Paradise, is very much a staple and a hub in the community to convene and have a good time. There’s that element to it that he’s a legitimate businessman, but underneath all that, he’s also, for lack of a better term, a crime boss.

But what’s interesting to me, is there’s these little clues that allowed me to see how he’s viewed law enforcement or government. They all are a reflection of him in that there’s things that they do that are legal, and there’s also things that they do that are just flat out wrong. Therefore, he’s able to justify that in some way as just being the American way, and you would be foolish to think that you could have a certain type of success without being willing to cross those lines. The gift in that is he’s not this mustache-twisting villain; it’s very worked out in that he doesn’t really believe that he’s doing anything that anyone else in power isn’t willing to do or hasn’t already done. I think he believes that they all are criminal in some way; therefore, no one’s criminal. So it’s more of an exploration of somebody who is truly and purely human and operating from the standpoint of wielding his power to maintain a certain amount of control within his locality.

What is the dynamic like between Cottonmouth and Mike Colter’s character, Luke Cage?
The tension really stems from them having the opposite perspective of Harlem. Cottonmoutth has been there his entire life. Luke is more recently moved into Harlem, and he views Cottonmouth as being someone who is screwing Harlem up, when the reality is for Cottonmouth, people have run numbers and drugs and pushed guns and done all these things since the beginning of time, and specifically in Harlem. On top of that, you have the Harlem Renaissance, and all these poets and creatives that have lived there. That’s what Harlem is. Luke Cage just views Cottonmouth as being a criminal and therefore he has to remove that element from Harlem. It’s a conflict of ideology first and foremost. And then that leads into their own battle, in that Cottonmouth wants to remain as is and Luke Cage needing things to change for the betterment of Harlem. So basically any normal, sane person is going to be like yeah, that element shouldn’t exist anywhere. But for Cottonmouth, he doesn’t agree and almost doesn’t even understand how someone could come in with that mentality deciding to change things, who in his mind, doesn’t have the power or influence to do it, other than him having physical strength.

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Historically speaking, Harlem has this rich history of crime and the arts. How do you think the setting added to the authenticity of Cottonmouth’s narrative and influenced the type of villain he is?
I don’t know if it makes it authentic, I just think it makes it unique. We don’t really see a real effort to capture Harlem. It’s been a place that’s been overlooked. You see these stories that take place in New York or they take place in Brooklyn, but Harlem is specifically, traditionally a black neighborhood. Other than the Malcolm X film, stories aren’t really explored in Harlem. And so in that way, there’s elements that are unique. For me, it’s a place where it’s kind of like the soil that I get to root my character in and then certain specificities from that neighborhood can play out or inform me as an actor. He’s a musician and considering my own personal age, you just got to think about the influences for this character growing up in the height of hip hop and uptown of all places. It really helps inform my energy.

Just as a side note, my father was a New Yorker, and he lived in Washington Heights. What I love about my father was at the time, he gave me money and told me to go get some tokens and take the train down to Harlem. Get on the A train, get off at 125th, and explore and then come back. It was a place that I had a personal connection with because that’s where I really went to see a very specific type of culture and part of the world and buy mixtapes off the street. At this time, the singers were able to be on 125th and have a booth and selling stuff. I was being cultured and informed about a very specific part of the African-American community and experience in this country that I just didn’t see in the Bay Area. I’m not saying that the Bay Area didn’t have its own thing, but Harlem is the mecca of it for us. And New York has worked to clean things up in the eyes of the power that be, but it was a very rich and specific thing, especially as a kid growing up at the height of hip hop as a culture and movement. These things I feel like I could pull from. I had a place to start from, just with my own experience and try to make that specific to Cottonmouth.

Is it true you prepare playlists for all of your characters?
Yeah, I definitely do playlists for all my characters because along with some of the down time in acting – in just being on set or getting there at six in the morning and kind of waiting around – you end up doing stuff that doesn’t necessarily help me drop into character. So what I do is, I make these playlists that are specific to what I feel like my character would be listening to or things that in some way encapsulate the essence of a character. The reason I came up with that [was because] I was a huge hip hop fan and I remember when a Mobb Deep album would come out, I would play the heck out of that album, The Infamous album. And this isn’t a slight on Mobb Deep, but I just remember my energy changing. I felt affected by it. Then I found if I wanted to feel a little bit lighter or feel a different vibe, then I would consciously put on D’Angelo or Brown Sugar or Tribe. And Tribe has a different light in that music.  When I started acting and thinking about these characters, I got more technical about it and started to form playlists specific to each character. And honestly, it could just be something in my head, but if I start working on a job and haven’t made a playlist yet, I never really feel totally grounded. I feel like I get into the vibe and sound and feel of that character.

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Who made it onto your Cottonmouth playlist?  
Since he’s from Harlem, I tried to make these influences first and foremost be about hip hop that was more specifically Harlem and The Bronx. And since the story takes place in current day, I could have a whole range of people on there. So I had Big L, early Fat Joe, and KRS One. But then with him being somebody who’s a pianist, I felt like he would really appreciate D’Angelo, Badu, Bilal. So these are people who I worked in there, all the way to Biggie, and to people who are more underground like Rock Marciano. There’s some Wu-Tang on there, definitely some Jay Z because I feel like [Cottonmouth] has that vibe. But even heavier, there’s Nas on there, Brand Nubian, [and] BJ the Chicago Kid.

CREDIT: Netflix

In Jessica Jones, we get a sense of what Luke Cage’s weaknesses or fears are; he’s afraid to lose anyone he loves or hurt anyone without reason. What would you say is Cottonmouth’s weakness?
I think Cottonmouth’s vulnerability is, that he missed his call. He’s doing this because this is what he was raised to do. But his true talent lies in another area. I think if he was able to really explore and flesh that out and follow what really inspired him, he would have been a prodigy. I think his weakness at this point, is his ego. His ego is a blindspot. I think he believes in his own power and to some degree his invincibility.

This series is groundbreaking in featuring African-American characters as both the superhero and villain of the story. What do you think the significance is of showing black actors as leads and specifically sci-fi, superhero series and flicks?
I think the significance is that it’s an opportunity to produce content and tell stories that puts people of color in a position to be viewed as just as human. When you only see one race of people or one type of a person, they’re the only kind of people that can be considered to be fully human because in terms of the information we get as an audience, we’re only getting to watch a certain type of person have the largest breadth of human experience. When people of color come in, and say you’re the friend or someone just passing through and helping to push the narrative along, you’re not a three-dimensional character. That’s kind of what we’ve grown up seeing. Now, when you see African-American people, Latino, Asian, if you start to see them more frequently be in a position where they are leading these shows as well as supporting, you begin for the first time seeing them be as human as other people are portrayed, laughing and crying and having struggles and vulnerabilities to the same degree that other people have. Therefore, you become an equal because people look at you as having the same experiences. [Luke Cage] is one offering. It shouldn’t be the only one. All of entertainment and art and creativity is a mosaic, and this is just one more tile in that mosaic. And hopefully there will be other contributions that are even more diverse and nuanced. We just want to reflect the society that we as a whole live in.

What are you most excited for the audience to see?
Just seeing another dynamic contribution to the superhero saga. I think Luke Cage definitely has its own voice as a superhero. He has something to offer that is unique to Jessica Jones and Daredevil, but just as valid and interesting. So I’m excited for them to have an opportunity to get into Luke Cage’s world.

Luke Cage premieres on Sept. 30 on Netflix.