By Shirley Li
October 04, 2016 at 03:14 PM EDT
Nathaniel E. Bell; Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

A year ago, Mahershala Ali — a.k.a Cottonmouth on Marvel’s Luke Cage and Remy Danton on Netflix’s House of Cards — found himself working seven days a week on three projects scattered around the country, a grueling task that left him wary of how he’d keep everything straight. “The thing I was really nervous about in that period of time last year was [having] these characters blend together,” he says. The solution, as it’s always been for the actor? Mixtapes. 

As a student of music — the actor worked at a record industry trade magazine during his year off after college — Ali likes to package together different artists and sounds to match the varied roles he plays. On set or in his trailer, Ali would listen to music that was what he calls “a sonic match” to the role he was playing. Some playlists encompassed everything he thought that character would listen to; others, he says, captured individual moments. “For my characters, it’s important to get really specific about what they listen to,” he explains, “because it affects how they move in the world.” With that in mind, EW asked him to put together lists of artists that helped him prep for his two major Netflix roles.

First up: House of Cards‘ Remy Danton. “Remy would listen to Bon IverHiatus Kaiyote, Jay Z, and Rakim,” Ali lists. “I think that range captures who Remy is… when I think about what his experiences are and who he’s been exposed to. [Music] is affected by who you’re around, who you date, who you go to college with, who your roommates are… There are little pieces that you pick up from people.” As a former Chief of Staff to Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) who becomes a lobbyist and whistleblower after leaving the White House, Remy’s D.C. dealings would definitely expose him to various types of tunes. 

And as for Cottonmouth on Luke Cage, an obvious artist comes to mind: “He would of course be into Notorious B.I.G.,” Ali says. But aside from Biggie Smalls, classical music would have influenced the tortured villain (and talented pianist) as well. “He’s a musician, so I think he’s grown up around music,” Ali explains. “You need to think about Howlin’ Wolf and the blues, and you have to think about jazz artists like McCoy Tyner or Yusef Lateef, [and go] all the way to D’Angelo and the likes of Erykah Badu. I think his range has to be one that really reflects someone who loves the production side of music, but also lyricism and voices.” The actor goes on to list Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, adding that Cottonmouth would have appreciated artists from older periods. “He’s gotta have a love for music that goes well beyond his age and his own era,” he says. “He’s an old soul in that way.”

Marvel’s Luke Cage and House of Cards are streaming on Netflix.