Like most Starbucks in and around Los Angeles, this one in Sherman Oaks boasts a full house on a weekday morning. Yet Mike Colter — the 41-year-old actor best known as Luke Cage, the bulletproof and lone black member of Marvel’s street-level heroes — isn’t daunted by the crowd when he strolls in for some coffee (regular, actual coffee).
“Here’s the thing,” he says, smiling as he leans his conspicuous 6-foot-3 frame in. “This is my neighborhood. This is an actor town. People give you space.”
If only Luke had that luxury. In the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage, Harlem’s hero is struggling with, well, being labeled “Harlem’s hero” after saving the community in season 1. Locals follow him around even when he’s trying to capture criminals — there’s literally an app for tracking Luke’s whereabouts — and Luke’s unaccustomed to the spotlight. (Hey, those hoodies can only hide so much.) As a symbol for an entire community, he’s more vulnerable to new threats, including a crime boss called Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who — sweet Christmas! — is also bulletproof. And though Luke has Claire (Rosario Dawson) by his side, he’s straining under the pressure to deliver. “He’s at a point where he’s going to have to figure out who his allies are and do things more with his mind and less with his muscle,” Colter says. “Luke is grappling with how to still be yourself while trying to use fame as a platform.”
The actor could give his fictional counterpart some tips. Colter has been comfortable exercising his, as he puts it, “wokeness” lately, both on and off set. In January, he joined Twitter, populating his feed with thoughts on everything from gun reform to politics, as well as calls to action against police brutality, racism, and more. Offline he’s choosing parts that have “something to say,” he explains. While on hiatus from Marvel-Netflix duty last year, he filmed a pair of roles for the big screen: Breakthrough, a faith-based film starring This Is Us‘ Chrissy Metz, and the indie drama Skin, opposite Jamie Bell (Fantastic Four) and Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel).
The latter in particular caught his attention for its timeliness. In the biopic, which chronicles the life of former white-power skinhead Bryon Widner (Bell), Colter plays real-life antifascist-movement activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins, who helped Widner leave his neo-Nazi circles. “This film is very in touch with the society we’re in now,” he says. “There are quite a few white nationalists running for offices around the country, and they’re vocal and demonstrative of their bigotry. When you have those kinds of cockroaches…” He pauses, noticing how riled up he’s getting, and takes a deep breath. “I had the advantage of growing up with forward-thinking white people around me, teaching me and taking care of me and helping me to prosper, but that is not always the normal situation.”
Indeed, the South Carolina native grew up attending diverse schools that encouraged his passion for acting. At 8, he played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet for a (rather ambitious) third-grade assignment. (“I had a grasp of performing,” he says matter-of-factly. “I did not have a grasp of iambic pentameter.”) In high school, he persuaded 10 classmates to join him in creating their first drama club. “I literally went around and was like, ‘All we have to do is read plays and memorize lines! And we get to stay after school and rehearse and borrow costumes!'” he giddily recalls. “I thought people would think I was weird. I got so lucky.”
Hollywood was a different story. “Regardless of how liberal the town was, there was still a divide,” Colter says of starting out in the industry in the early 2000s. “There were black roles and black television shows. Every job I went out for was very specific, very stereotypical.” Available roles tended to be either athletes or gangsters, and when Colter finally said yes to one of the former — boxer Big Willie Little in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby — he wound up receiving a flurry of boxing projects, which he rejected. He just wanted “something racially ambiguous,” he says. “I sat there for months and months and months saying no. A lot of the time it meant less work, but when I was going to work, I wanted to feel good about it.”
Good thing The Good Wife came along in 2010. Sure, his character, Lemond Bishop — which he reprised on The Good Fight last month — is a drug dealer, but he isn’t just a drug dealer. “I looked at him as a businessman who had an M.B.A. and was someone who, when you saw him, you would think he was one of the movers and shakers in town,” Colter explains. “I thought, ‘I can make this work.’ It’s even better to have people walk in thinking one thing, and you’re hopefully able to show them something else.”
The same went for Luke Cage, a role Colter has now embodied for three years, since his first appearance on Marvel’s Jessica Jones. From the start, Colter saw Luke as an opportunity to deliver a message. “He had to be a ray of light,” he says. “I wanted to make him someone black people can look at today and go, ‘I feel good about this character.'” It’s just time for Luke to feel it too.
Marvel’s Luke Cage returns June 22 on Netflix.