Ask actor Mustafa Shakir how he feels about being a part of Netflix’s streaming Marvel universe with his role on “Luke Cage,” and the actor will tell you he’s entered his second childhood.
Few things entertained a younger Shakir like comic books — and the shows inspired by them.
During his career as an actor, Shakir always held out hope that one day he’d land the role of someone “gifted.” Not Bobby Fischer, Steve Jobs gifted. Shakir had been looking for a role with something a little more “super.”
He finally got it when he walked into the audition that eventually landed him the role of Bushmaster, the not-at-all intimidated antagonist by way of Jamaica who makes his debut in Season 2 of “Luke Cage,” which is now streaming on Netflix.
“I am happy that I got to be a part of the [Marvel] universe,” Shakir told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “And I love playing the villain.”
When looking to cast the role of Bushmaster, “Luke Cage” showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker had his work cut out for him. He not only needed someone charismatic enough to follow the performance of Season 1 villain Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), but he also required an actor who wouldn’t be drowned out by Alfre Woodard’s stellar performance in Season 2 as Black Mariah, who goes to war against Bushmaster for the soul of Harlem’s criminal underworld. Coker admitted to seeing many great auditions for the role, but says he knew it was Shakir’s to have after hearing him deliver his first line.
“You could tell there was something special about him. His look, his charisma, his physical build — but everything else was just a deeper surprise,” Coker said. “The way he committed to the [Jamaican] accent. His physical moves. Everything about it was just, like, wow, this guy is incredible.”
Bushmaster isn’t a who’s-who Marvel villain. Hardcore fans of Luke Cage’s comic book adventures may have been familiar with the character, but Bushmaster wasn’t in the Red Skull/Loki/Thanos category of Marvel’s evil elite, and with the character never previously developed for a live-action series, Shakir saw a chance to mold Bushmaster in the image he felt best.
“There’s not a lot of information out there to make you have prejudices” about him, Shakir said. “Being able to start from the ground up [with the role] definitely gave me a leg up, so to speak, in creating a character that’s all my own.”
Following the acclaimed performance of Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther,” Shakir is excited to have the opportunity to introduce a black Marvel villain who could bring about comparisons, as he sees Bushmaster as a twisted reflection of what Jordan accomplished.
“It felt like an extension of Black Panther in that it widens the scope of the story of the African diaspora,” Shakir said. “You’ve got Wakanda and you’ve got this African nation and you’ve got Oakland, and it expands to the Caribbean and Harlem and Brooklyn. I feel like there’s more attention being paid to the diaspora, but to see it as not monolithic, because there’s a lot of different voices in it, and so I feel like between ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Luke Cage,’ a lot of different people within the diaspora will feel heard and represented.”
“Luke Cage” also gives Shakir a chance to shine the spotlight on the neighborhood he’s from, Harlem, and he has been appreciative of the authentic look Coker and his crew have given his home town, both in terms of black pride and gentrification.
“To be a part of a show that shows the change in Harlem is definitely [great] being that I grew up there. It gives a voice to this mythical place that has been undergoing a lot of changes,” Shakir said. “I feel like the show will bring some more pride to the residents that are currently there, and that’s always a good thing. Being that I’m from there, it’s that much more magical.”
The fights between Shakir’s Bushmaster and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) have the feel of a heavyweight boxing match. Cage spends so much time showing off his super-strength and invulnerability that it’s a jolt to the eyes to see him taken to the ground by anything, let alone anyone. Shakir is the villain but gets to be just as super. Bullets don’t kill Bushmaster, and he’s too fast at times even for Luke Cage.
Having had a chance to show off his villainy, Shakir says he hasn’t ruled out going after a role a little more heroic in the future.
“I love playing the villain, but I also wouldn’t mind playing a hero, as well,” Shakir said. “For me, the point of acting is to explore . . . to have as many experiences in other peoples’s shoes while not actually having those experiences. Being a hero would be great.”