Colter spoke to The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs about becoming Harlem’s reluctant bulletproof superhero.
This interview has been edited for length.
Q: Luke Cage is a character that is very out in the open. He has no mask to protect his identity. Whenever he is out there to help, it seems like there’s always consequences [for residents of Harlem]. How can Luke be a hero with that constant retaliation, especially when he is reminded that he’s the one who is bulletproof, not the city of Harlem?
A: [Luke Cage] is reluctant to step forward because of those exact things. He knew that there would be a fallout and there would be collateral damage [from taking on Harlem’s crime boss, Cottonmouth]. People’s lives would be at risk. Him not having a disguise, not having an alter ego where by day he can just be someone else and by night turn into another person and get away with [being a vigilante] and keep those things separate, that’s just who he is. So it does add to the dynamic of his character, because he can’t run and he can’t hide. He can’t put a mask on. [Bad guys] can actually find him. They know where he lives. They know he hangs at the barbershop. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out going forward.
Q: So much of Luke Cage’s history is tied to his debut in Marvel Comics, kind of a ’70s Blaxploitation era for the character. This show has stayed away from that. The character has been modernized in the comics. Did you have material you could dive into to prepare for your approach to the role?
A: I relied heavily on the version [of Luke Cage] that was told in Alias/Jessica Jones comics. [That version of the character] was sparsely written, but what the writers were able to do for me as an actor was to round him and find a very thoughtful, nuanced individual that seemed to have a great depth of concern for the people around him and at the same time knew when to fall back and take a back seat when he wasn’t needed. He doesn’t have an ego that demands that he is the center of attention. He didn’t seem to put up with a bunch of nonsense and that was something that I can identify with.
Q: Are you aware of what it means for this black hero to come to life, and what it’s going to mean to a lot of people?
A: I’m very aware of it. I’m reminded of it on a daily basis by fans out in the real world who I come into contact with. … People have been asking for it or thinking about this character for a long time. So you have this built-in anticipation and eagerness that I’ve never felt for anything else I’ve ever done so far. While I wasn’t close to the material in the beginning, I think I’ve arrived to the point where I understand how important this character is.
Q: On this series you guys don’t shy away from the n-word. Your character, Luke Cage, is a character that says many times it is a word he doesn’t like, but he’ll dish it out if necessary. Did you have any input on what Luke’s approach to that word would be?
A: The word [when Luke says it] comes out of frustration, [with Luke] dealing with a young man that’s lost. Anytime you’re dealing with an individual who is so careless with human life, coming around with a gun, who would kill someone for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — you’re talking about a guy who is a teenager and here you are holding a gun to somebody’s head, so Luke is frustrated [because of tragedies] he’s ready to blow. I talked about [the n-word] with the showrunners. It’s just not who [Luke] is. He wants to be bigger than that. I think the word is beneath him, to be honest. I don’t think that’s something he uses on a regular basis.
Q: This series is a lot more than just you being bulletproof. Were you impressed with the depth of the story the producers put together with introducing so many new characters and each one having a different backstory?
A: Absolutely. Surrounding me with some talent and giving them some journeys of their own makes for a very good, meaty series. I was very adamant about that. I would say the first two episodes are a slow build, but I don’t think there’s any other way to tell the story. Luke is a very reluctant hero. It takes time to get Luke Cage to take action. He’s not the kind of guy who does it lightly, because he knows the ramification.
Q: You weren’t going to wear Luke Cage’s outfit from the ’70s, but you guys managed to find a way to pay homage to it [in a scene in which Colter emerges from a tank wearing a metal tiara and gauntlets, a nod to Cage’s ’70s comic look]:
A: We wanted to pay homage to the fans. This for me felt really organic and felt right, to have that be the way [the look] unfolded. I think the fans are happy that we have moved on past the Blaxploitation version of Luke Cage, but they also would like to pay homage to that and we do that when we can.