"If you're gonna fight crime, have you considered wearing a mask?"
"I’m 6'3", black, and bulletproof. You really think wearing a Lone Ranger mask is going to keep people from figuring out who I am?"
In season two of Marvel's Luke Cage on Netflix, the favorite bulletproof and unbreakable hero of Harlem sees his fame rising along with the responsibilities of keeping his neighborhood safe. We soon see Luke Cage meet his match, in the form of Bushmaster, his new adversary armed with mysterious powers of his own, challenging our hero in a hoodie. Bushmaster is set on a deeply-rooted vengeance and to take over Harlem, and still in the mix of the city's violence is Mariah and her thirst to crown herself the queen of Harlem, no matter what it takes. With more villains and anti-heroes fighting Luke and fighting for the heart of Harlem in this season, we're given even more meat to chew with its outstanding peformances and complex storylines, all served with a strong shot of hip hop.
During a visit to Manila, Cheo Hodari Coker (creator, executive producer, and showrunner of Marvel’s Luke Cage) was joined with actors Mike Colter (Luke Cage) and Mustafa Shakir (Bushmaster) in a sit-down exclusive interview to talk about the second season of the show, the importance of music, and how much their lives have changed now that they are part of the Marvel family.
Question: Mike, in this second season, Luke Cage is more vulnerable than ever. You meet a guy who is equally or perhaps even stronger than you. We see that Luke is actually afraid. He seems shaken in this second season. What was that like?
Mike Colter: That was great. That's what's fun, you know. As an actor you're looking for something to do, and for us, we wanted to challenge the character, challenge the audience, change what people's perceptions of superheroes are, what it means to be tough and have them relate to somebody. You know, it's fun, but if you can't hurt him, then what's the point? So we find ways to hurt him, emotionally or physically, to figure ways how to get to him. That's what we did in the second season.
Cheo Hodari Coker: One of the things that we did in terms of the writers' room in general is boxing metaphors were huge this season. Mike Tyson said very famously, 'Everyone's got a plan 'till they get hit in the face,' and that was kind of the metaphor for what happened between Luke and Bushmaster. But the other thing, honestly, the reason that Ali is my favorite boxer of all time, is because he doesn't have a perfect record. I think if you have a perfect record as a boxer it means that you didn't challenge yourself. It means that after a while, you didn't keep pushing the edge. Ali, you know, lost some critical fights, and he always came back and defeated whoever beat him.
Mike: Which is why... You gotta lose to win. You have to lose to set the record, you know?
Cheo: Exactly. And that's the thing. With Luke, it's like, yes, he is vulnerable. Yes, he can be beaten. But he will not quit till he wins again.
I wanted to ask about the music, because music is really part of the DNA of Luke Cage. How is the selection process when you're featuring musicians and artists in every episode? Is there any chance in the future for the characters to actually be singing?
Cheo: Well, you know... [laughs] Actually, sometimes between takes, Simone Missick [Misty Knight] will sing. Mike, I've heard sing...
Mike: [laughs] You've never heard me sing, man!
Cheo: I've heard you croon! And you know, and the thing is, there are enough actors. Because so many of our actors have had actually been on broadway and everything else. I would love to do a musical espisode. I mean... [everyone laughs] You know, to do a musical episode would seem crazy, but then I saw Hamilton. And I said, you know what? It would be an interesting challenge to try to do something like that.
Mike: So I'll be fighting too? So I'll fight and sing?
Cheo: Yeah, man! You can do it! Okay but here's the thing. It's like when you actually get down to it, for me, I've always seen the show as a concept album with dialogue. So that's why I've always called it the bulletproof version of [Beyonce's] Lemonade. You know? Where it's basically, we pick the song titles first, and we thematically try to--it's weird, it's one of those things in building the themes in each episode, in a weird way they always fit the titles? And when we get to the actual songs, it's a combination of needle drops--meaning pre-recorded songs, because I pick every single needle drop that we do on the show. This comes directly from my record collection.
It's one of the most fun things that I do in the show, is to pick the songs. But then, at the same time, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, it's their score. As soon as we finish the scripts in the writer's room, they read the scripts. So they are already thinking conceptually about what music is gonna fit the themes. And in a weird way, they are just as integral to the writing of the show and conception. You do the music, you do the scripts -- that's already all built in. And then, by the time it gets to these guys [points at Mike Colter and Mustafa Shakir], by the time it gets to Mike, by the time it gets to Mustafa, by the time it gets to you know, Alfre [Woodard] or Simone [Missick] or Rosario [Dawson], they just elevate it. Acting-wise, they take it to the next level. And the challenge is trying to write as well as they act. Because they just... man, when you see what they do? Mike's looking at me like I'm crazy but it's true!
Mike: [laughs] No, I'm listening, man! I was just thinking, how it starts in the page, you know?
So we've seen Luke Cage with Jessica Jones, with Misty [Knight]...
Mike: What are you trying to say? I get around?
Mike, who is your favorite lover for Luke Cage?
Cheo: Ooh! Okay, I'm here for this one.
Mustafa Shakir: Ooh...
Cheo: Who do you wanna piss off the most? [laughs]
Mike: See, Luke is a man that believes is variety is the spice of life. [everyone laughs] You have mocha frappe on Monday, you have your basic flat white on Tuesday, or you're gonna have your hot chocolate on Wednesday... [everyone laughs]
Mike: It's all good, you know? We don't have to have one. You know, he's just, he's sipping. He's sipping, man!
Mustafa: You're a barista!
The first season has received positive ratings, and this has carried on to season two. How high is the pressure right now to keep on evolving?
Cheo: You just have to stay good, you know? The thing is that when excellence is not just the requirement and is the norm, you can't really focus on anything else. And we just keep working, and we just keep pushing. We're lucky that we are the show that broke Netflix, we're also lucky that of all the Marvel shows, if you look at Rotten Tomatoes, we are cumulatively the highest Marvel show, critically. It's something that we're very proud of, but we don't rest on our laurels because it's gonna be even harder, if we get a season three, to match that. But you know, we're going to try the damndest to do it.
Season two is also Reg E. Cathey's final perfomance [as James Lucas, Luke Cage's father]. How has his passing affected the cast?
Cheo: On every level. One of my greatest regrets is that after knowing that he was sick, I think we were in denial about how sick he was. Because he was always, even towards the end, he was always optimistic that he was gonna beat it. I really wished that I just hopped on a plane and just showed him the episodes on my laptop.
Cheo: Because the fact that he didn't get to it still burns me because he was so good. Like I always say, the first table read that we did for season two, episode one, is the best table read I've ever been a part of. And his voice is the first voice you hear in the season, and the last voice you hear on the season. And just hearing him do 'Everybody talk about Luke Cage...' he just set us off. We just had a spirit from the table read that the whole season, we were so enthusiastic. It was the fact that, you know, if you see new characters like his character [nods to Mustafa], and if you see Mustafa, like come on, you know, man... He's not even a villain, he's an anti-hero. He just really elevated the season. But then at the same time, we never lose Luke Cage. Luke Cage is always manning Mike's character, is always evolving. And to see his evolution the entire season, the thing that I'm really proudest of is the fact that there'll always be new characters and all these new moments. We never lose Luke.
Mustafa: I felt that with Reg, the beauty in it, of course it's always difficult to see someone pass, but it's a part of life that we have to embrace. I just felt that like, sort of a blessing on the season, you know? He made it through, he did it. Because he could have left mid-season.
Mike: Yeah, he could've stopped. We could've stopped, he could've said, 'I can't come to the set, I don't feel well.' He powered through.
Mustafa: Powered through and got to the end. Sort of like how I feel with 'Ray.' The movie got done, then Ray Charles passed. You know what I mean? Sort of a blessing for the entire project. Rest in peace, Reg.
Cheo: There are moments in episode nine where I think that he knew that he wasn't gonna act again for a while. And there was an emotion there that it was scripted that way, but there was added emotion to it.
Mustafa: Oh yeah.
Cheo: Particularly the conversation between father and son, at the very end at the ambulance. There was definitely real emotion in there.
Speaking of not losing Luke Cage, where do you think is Luke right now? And is Bushmaster coming back to the show?
Cheo: Well, here's the thing. I would love to answer those questions, but first they gotta order season three. But if they order season three, those are the some of the first questions that we would strive to answer. What I can say is that Bushmaster has left an indelible mark on the show. And at the same time, the moral place that we left Luke gives us all types of possibilities, should we get a third season.
Is 'Heroes for Hire' happening, with that episode with Iron Fist and what not?
Mike: We already shot eight episodes... [laughs]
Cheo: Don't do that! [laughs] You know what it is? The problems for Heroes for Hire we shot in episode ten. I think if we're lucky enough to ever get a show from that, we would love to match the spirit of that episode. It was just, you know, Akela Cooper wrote an incredible episode, and Andy Goddard [episode director]. Really a combination of writer-director, because that was also the same combination of writer-director that was responsible for episode seven of season one. The death of Cottonmouth episode was the bane of my existence, because people still on a daily basis are giving me grief about killing Cottonmouth. [laughs]
But that's the thing, we always try to pair combinations together that elevate the entire process. And that's what's always great about Mike and Finn do a different Danny and a different Luke than what we've seen. It was really kind of like forty-eight hours of kind of, buddy-cop. But at the same time, very much the spirit of the comics but done through the prism of our show. And it's really one of those great things, and hopefully at some point, we get a chance to expand on that. But you know, the powers that be have to agree on that because I never lose sight of the fact that it's not Cheo's Luke Cage. It's Marvel's Luke Cage on Netflix. So those two superpowers have to kind of come together and decide if the rest of what everybody else wants will happen.
Mike, now that Luke took over Harlem's Paradise, as music is a huge part of it, who'd be the first person you'll call?
Mike: First person? There's a lot of people I would call. First three? Nas, Redman in there, and I want to bring someone new to the table. It has to have a new flavor, something new.
Cheo: It's funny you mentioned Redman. I always wanted to do like a bottle episode with you, Redman, and Method Man. Just call it 'Whatever Man,' and it will literally just be, Luke would basically be bodyguarding Method Man and Redman, and they'll go on this crazy, one-shot adventure.
Mike: Yeah and I'll be like 'Not now, I'm working, I'm on the clock.'
Mustafa, most of the viewers have never heard of Bushmaster prior to season two. But now everybody knows who he is. How does it feel bringing the character into the universe?
Mustafa: A lot of fun. It's one of my dreams to be inside a Marvel comic book character. It's a joy. But to take an obscure character and bring it to life is kind of a once in a lifetime situation that I'm really thrilled about, and Cheo gave me all the leeway to just have fun. So what you see is a natural depiction of what I wanted to do.
Cheo: And also, you know, it's funny. If you look on Instagram to Dorian Missick's Instagram -- Dorian Missick plays Cockroach this season and is actually the husband of Simone Missick who of course is Misty Knight. He's got this great throwback Thursday photo of him and Mike Colter and Anthony Mackie and all the actors that were part of 'A Soldier's Play.' So many of them. To see old friends that are now part of the Marvel universe. [to Mustafa] And also, because you and Dorian go back so many years too.
Mustafa: Yes, since I was eighteen!
Cheo: It's crazy for me and also for the writers to just like create something and all of a sudden see people that have such a natural chemistry as friends come together and do this. It's just so much fun!
How has your life changed ever since you all joined the Marvel family? Mike, how many times have you been asked out for coffee? [Everyone laughs] I just had to ask that, of course.
Mike: I'm gonna pass on that question! I'm gonna keep my mouth shut on that one.
Mustafa: Life's changed quite a bit. I have 45,000 new followers. [Everyone laughs]
Mike: Yesterday? Since yesterday.
Mustafa: Like in a couple of weeks! I'm like, wow.
Cheo: What's funny, I remember I was like half joking to Mustafa. I said to Mustafa, man, get it out of your system now, because once this thing hits on Friday, your life is gonna change. And I don't think he believed me. This is actually the first time we've actually been able to hang out since the New York premiere! But okay, here it is -- were hanging out seven thousand miles away from the United States! And it's just the fact that a show can bring us here just shows the impact. And just watching literally how many fans are digging what you digged, and how many fans continue to dig Luke... It's just amazing.
Mustafa: It is! I mean, all the fan art is amazing.
Seasons one and two of Marvel’s Luke Cage are now available to on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com, like Netflix on Facebook (/netflixph), and follow on Instagram (@netflixph) and Twitter (@Netflix_PH).