'I don't look at him as a villain,' actor Erik LaRay Harvey says
WARNING: The following contains spoilers from season 1 of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Read at your own risk!
Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) slithered his way onto Luke Cage halfway through the season, and if it’s even possible, chewed more scenery than any of the other villains combined. Conniving and cruel, the comic-book bad guy grabbed hold of the latter half of the season, ensnaring Luke (Mike Colter) in his quest for vengeance over their past.
As it turns out, Diamondback, né Willis Stryker, was Luke’s half-brother — and unlike Luke, his time in prison transformed him into a trigger-happy psychopath, intelligent enough to craft weapons and armor that could pierce even Luke’s seemingly indestructible skin. Along with unveiling the exclusive character poster below, EW spoke with Harvey about taking on the role — and what that final scene between him and Dr. Noah Burstein (Michael Kostroff), the doc responsible for Luke’s power, means for the future of the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get the role, and how much did you know?
I got the call from my agent saying Marvel wanted to see me. And, of course, they’re so secretive, so I knew it was Luke Cage, but I didn’t know the role they wanted to see me for. They just gave me a general audition script, and then once I did my initial audition, they called me back. They had the Diamondback character in mind for me, but at the time, they couldn’t tell me exactly who I would be. [Laughs] They just assured me that it was going to be a wonderful thing, and would I like to be a part of the project and, of course, I said yes. I knew the project would be relevant, and I wanted to be a part of it.
So they revealed very little. Did they tell you at the time that you wouldn’t arrive until more than halfway into the season?
They did. That’s why they couldn’t tell me too much. They wanted to keep it under wraps, so I think one of my first instructions upon accepting the role was, “Keep your mouth shut.” [Laughs] And truly, it has been a sort of lesson in patience, because I think we wrapped in March, so while filming and even after filming, when I wasn’t working, I wanted to say something and I couldn’t. It was really interesting. I had to maintain my anonymity, in a sense.
What was it like to come onto set halfway through with a cast that’s been working together for seven other episodes? I know you’ve jumped onto shows with established casts in the past, but what was it like for this?
That’s happened to me a couple of times even in stage and theater work, when someone bows out or they get replaced or whatever… but [on Luke Cage], they all knew, all of the cast members knew that I wouldn’t be coming in until episode 7. We did an initial cast dinner before they even started episode 1, you know, at this really secretive restaurant in Brooklyn. [Laughs] I met everyone there and was like, “Okay, see you guys in a couple of months! You guys go first!” [Laughs]
That was sort of a blessing in disguise too because in a new show, there’s always working out the kinks and getting familiar with everyone, so when I stepped on to the set, that process had already been explored. It was just a nice environment to work in and everyone was really gracious.
It sounds like everything behind the scenes worked out well, but in the story, you — as Diamondback — come in guns blazing. There are several memorable fight sequences between you and Mike Colter as Luke. What was it like working on those? Did you have to do any specific training for those?
I did in a sense. The fight coordinator wanted to know my ideas on the style of fighting, and I said, “Well, I am playing a [character named after a] snake, so…” [Laughs] I was pretty much like, “How do I develop the character? What qualities should I bring into him?” [We decided on] quick, really fast dabs and slithers, because he’s very elusive. We worked all of that into the style of fighting and from my theater background. I’ve taken many fight classes, so it was something that I was well-versed in.
Tell me about the research you did for the role. Were you ever a fan of the comics?
To be honest, while I was a fan of comics growing up, the comics I read weren’t Luke Cage or the standard [superhero comics]. I was raised overseas, so my comics were more like Tintin or Asterix [laughs], but I’ve always been fascinated by [superhero] comic books. Growing up, I read some of The Flash, but I guess I shouldn’t say that. That’s not Marvel! [Laughs]
Then, instead of reading the comics, what did you do to prepare for the part?
I worked closely with Cheo [Hodari Coker], the showrunner, and once we initially started talking about the process of Luke Cage and how they wanted to portray Luke Cage in 2016, I knew I did not really need to read the comics, you know? The original Luke Cage, from that time, would just interfere with what we were trying to do and cloud my judgment. So I was like, you know what, let me stay away from the history of the ’70s and just work with Cheo and adopt a more modern view of these characters. And in discussing that with Cheo, we came upon the history of Willis and Carl [Lucas, Luke Cage’s birth name], and once Cheo revealed his direction with Willis, I think the fact that he was his brother was so interesting. I mean, it’s like, whaaat? [Laughs]
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Right, there have a shared bloodline.
Yeah! That just brings on a whole new set of dynamics to work with. My character had been called a bastard his whole life. How does that make a person operate? How would you feel if your childhood was illegitimized and ignored and swept under a rug? That’s what drives Willis and that’s the backdrop of this story and that’s where a lot of pain comes from. You know, he’s a very pained guy. I don’t look at him as a villain, I just look at Willis as a man who’s going through a lot of painful and traumatic experiences. He gets sent away because of his father’s actions and then once he’s in the jail system, he just gets tortured. After all that, his mind’s been twisted and warped, and he’s developed this sensitivity that’s almost psychopathic.
When he finally appears in this series, he’s almost always smiling, even as he commits murders and drags Luke’s name through the mud. What’s running through your head when you have to play Diamondback at his most nefarious?
Well, in a sense, this is a game to him. I think truly deep down, inside, he still loves Carl. That’s the funny thing about family, right? You hate ‘em but you love ‘em. You love ’em but you hate ’em. [Laughs] It’s one of those situations. He remembers a loving time they had before they had the mess, so [the thinking] is partly like, “I really need to hurt him but I don’t want to kill him.” So it becomes this game, and I think the smile is just the mask he wears with everyone. It’s not genuine. He’s not trying to be nice or to befriend anyone. It’s just his way of dealing with his pain. He smiles through his pain.
I’m curious about your final showdown with Luke, when you don that green and yellow supersuit, and that wild-looking mask and visor. I know you didn’t read the comics, but what did it feel like to be stepping into such a bold, comic book outfit?
They were trying to incorporate as much of the original character as they could, so the color scheme is the same. In the comics, it was just, like, his regular clothes. He went out every day in that green jacket, that was just his look! Lookin’ like a pimp daddy. [Laughs] But this suit he wears in the show is more armor. It allows him the ability to go into a fight with Luke and not get hurt. He can be punched, but he can hit as well, you know? Once he’s got that suit on, he gets on equal terms [with Luke], which is something he’s always wanted to be. He’s always wanted to be seen as an equal and he never had a chance. Anytime he does, he really enjoys it, and he’s a happy man.
Your final scene, at the very end of the finale, shows you at the hospital being treated by Dr. Burstein, who operated on Luke. How much do you know about Diamondback’s future? Do you have any clue about what’s next?
I do not. Marvel is secretive. They left it open-ended — I’m just so glad they didn’t kill me off! [Laughs] But I think it’s been a challenge to Marvel, because here we are talking about how this story is about family. What should Marvel do with the brother of Luke Cage? That’s a good question, and I don’t know [the answer], they haven’t told me. All I know is I’m in a hospital bed. What is [the doctor] going to do? What’s he there for? I’m really interested to see if any of those questions will be answered.
Fingers crossed! Now on a separate note, Cheo has spoken about how this Luke Cage isn’t just a superhero show, it’s a superhero show with relevant social commentary, especially in the age of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’m curious, did that ever factor into the way you worked with Diamondback, or did you think about that when it came to Diamondback’s story?
You know, [the character of] Luke Cage deals with those issues, and I think the show focuses on how Luke deals with all of that, about if there is going to be a change… He represents that movement. As far as Diamondback is concerned, I don’t think he’s concerned with that at all. This is the problem with psychopaths, you know? They’re just so single-minded, they focus on one thing, and Diamondback’s will is to put his brother in as much pain as he has experienced in his life. And that’s really all he thinks about… And so you see how obsessive and dangerous a single pained person can be.
If anything I think this show explores the damage that can be done by family. It all starts there. Cornell, you know, [had his] breakdown as a young kid wanting to play the piano, but couldn’t because of the familial struggle. That led into this direction of destruction, and the same thing happens with Diamondback. Through his family he went down this path of destruction, and that became a single purpose.
I know it’s been months since you last played the part, but are there any Diamondback moments or even lines that stand out to you? Any favorites?
[Laughs] Actually, I have several. I just watched the entire show, I just finished it a couple of hours ago so everything is still fresh [in my mind], and there are a lot of moments. But something that really stood out and defined Diamondback for me was in episode 8, at the end, where he says, “N—-, I am your brother.” I think that just says it all. It’s something that Carl didn’t even know… It touches on the pain of the character and the damage that can be done to an impressionable child. This all started in childhood, and it haunted both of their lives. So when that’s revealed, everything falls into place.
Now that the series is out, and you’ve already finished binge-watching it, do you have any thoughts on the reaction or any more thoughts on the show in general?
I just hope that fans enjoy it. I did reach out to Cheo and tell him it’s wonderful work, from the music to the story to the look of it. I’m just really, really happy to be a part of it.
Marvel’s Luke Cage is streaming now on Netflix.