Mike Colter Interview: ‘Evil,’ Playing Luke Cage, and the Impact of ‘A Soldier’s Story’

Luke Cage Star Mike Colter
Mike Colter stars in ‘Luke Cage’ (Photo Credit: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

The first question Mike Colter, who currently stars on Paramount+’s Evil, was asked was something his fans are dying to know: Would he reprise his role as the superhero Luke Cage?

“I will if they (Marvel) give me a call. We can talk about it,” said Colter, 46, at the Motor City Comic Con in Novi, MI earlier this month, marking his first time in Michigan.

Created as a response to the trend of Blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s, Cage, alias Power Man, debuted in 1972’s Luke Cage, Hero for Hire No. 1. Published by Marvel Comics, Cage is the first African American superhero to star in his own comic book series, which ran from 1972 to 1986 (and underwent several title changes, most notably Power Man and Iron Fist). In the 21st century, he has been featured prominently in Alias, The Pulse, various Avengers titles, as well as another Power Man and Iron Fist series and another Cage series.

“I see why he’s significant,” said Colter. “I see why people like him. He’s one of the first Black superheroes in comics. He’s got a significant place in the history of comic books. It was a pleasure to get to play him.”

Not Actively Seeking the Role He was Destined to Play

Mike Colter debuted as Cage in a supporting role during the first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones in 2015 before graduating to his own eponymous series, Luke Cage, for two seasons. He later appeared on The Defenders, which consisted of other Marvel superheroes that were part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) appearing in their own respective Netflix series, including the aforementioned Jessica (Krysten Ritter, Breaking Bad), Daredevil (Charlie Cox, Boardwalk Empire), and Iron Fist (Finn Jones, Game of Thrones). By 2019, Netflix cancelled all its MCU series.

Colter wasn’t too familiar with Cage since he didn’t read the comics. He spoke about what attracted him to the role.

“I feel like it found me in a sense,” he said. “When I went in, there wasn’t much material. They wouldn’t show me a script, but I felt really good about it. There was something about this role that felt right. A month later, they had me come in and test some more. I still didn’t see the full script because Marvel is so secretive. I feel the people at Marvel have a real specific sense of what they want when it comes to casting. I felt like I was on their radar for a while. I felt like it was destined for me. I didn’t know too much about Cage; I didn’t read the comics, so I definitely wasn’t seeking the role.”

By his own admission, Colter didn’t become an actor to play a superhero. This would be a way to branch out and diversify himself as an actor.

“This came along and I got lucky, you know? Timing’s everything. They’ve been working on this project for a few years. So many things have to fall into place to work out and it did for me,” said Colter. “I got on the elevator with (Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television) when I went up to read. I didn’t know who he was. He knew me, I didn’t know him. I said ‘hello,’ he said ‘hello.’ We went into the room and eventually I read. I saw him back there. He told me later (that he said to his colleagues), ‘I just got into the elevator with our Luke Cage.’ He even told them that (I got the part) before I even read, so it was that kind of momentum.”

Mike Colter Knew Krysten Ritter Would be Jessica Jones

Colter also had an instinctual feeling that Ritter would be cast as Jessica.

“We first met at the chemistry read. She was there with a few other girls in the waiting room. Honestly when I first laid eyes on her, I thought immediately, ‘That’s the girl. That’s Jessica Jones.’ The reason I felt that was there’s something innate when you meet someone, when you cast someone,” he said. “She’s an incredible actress who knows what she’s doing. I felt that she’s edgy and had a lot of the ingredients needed for Jessica.”

When the two met and read, they meshed pretty well.

“There was something about it that worked. I can’t put my finger on it but when it works, it works. I’m really happy she was cast. I knew she was gonna get it,” said Colter. “When you work with her, you know she’s gonna bring her A-game – that’s all you can ask for when you’re working with such an actress.”

When it was confirmed he got the role, Colter put on 30 pounds of muscle. He also read the comics, particularly from the 1970s. However, the way Cage would be portrayed in the early 21st century would be much different from the 1970s.

“I knew we had a chance to do something unique and special, so that was something I was excited about,” said Colter. “I was excited about the opportunity… and actually being the first Luke Cage ever cast. I just needed to be certain of the direction of the character and that we were doing something unique, not clichéd. When I saw the scripts, I thought, ‘This is something I can really sink my teeth into and something I’d really enjoy.’”

A Full Circle Moment

The youngest of four, Colter was born and raised in South Carolina. After graduating from Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, SC, he attended Benedict College in Columbia, SC for a year. He transferred to the University of South Carolina, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in theater. He later obtained his master’s degree in acting from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

It was 1984’s Oscar-nominated A Soldier’s Story, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 play called A Soldier’s Play, that inspired Colter to become an actor. The movie follows an African American military officer and lawyer named Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr., King) investigating the murder of an African American sergeant (Adolph Caesar, The Color Purple) in Louisiana at the end of World War II during a time when being an African American officer in the U.S. Army was unprecedented. The movie also featured future Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Training Day, Glory) in one of his early roles.

“I always had an interest doing what I saw on television. That’s all I could really relate to in a sense… As I got older, I realized I didn’t want to grow up and stop playing pretend. It was a good place to put all my energy because I had a creative urge and felt (acting) was a good fit for me. I just didn’t know how to get there,” he said. “I saw A Soldier’s Story on television one day. A lot of things piqued my interest at that point, but I saw a lot of people in this film that reminded me of myself… a lot of young Black men doing something that seemed really cool and seemed like it was real – it moved me. So, when I saw it, I thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’ And since I saw a lot of people like me do it, I thought I could do it too. So that was a lot of the inspiration there.”

Colter starred in a 2005 theatrical revival of A Soldier’s Play.

“It was full circle. I remember what I felt when I saw the film,” he recalled. “I couldn’t play the guitar and I thought, ‘It’s a long shot.’ My agent approached me, and I said I believed I could do the role, so I went in and auditioned. I had a good audition. I had to sing a cappella because I didn’t play the guitar – I remember being the only guy who came into the audition who didn’t have a guitar… so it was sink or swim. I think I swam. I did okay.”

“Who Do I Have to Kill to Get Into This Movie?”

Mike Colter’s film debut was playing Big Willie Little in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby starring Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood (who also won an Oscar for Best Director), Hilary Swank (who won an Oscar for Best Actress), and Morgan Freeman (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). He has fond memories of that experience.

“It was great because I remember going on set and meeting Clint for the first time because I never auditioned in person – he does everything through video,” said Colter. “I put myself on tape and the casting director, a wonderful woman named Phyllis Huffman – God rest her soul – said to me a month before it was being cast, ‘Clint Eastwood is doing this movie. He’s got a part in it that’d be really good for you.’ I almost rolled my eyes. Talk about somebody blowing smoke up my… you know. I’m like, ‘Really? Whatever.’”

However, Colter got the role. The first time he read the script, he was in tears.

“I was like, ‘This is great. There’s no way this doesn’t win everything there is to win, whenever this comes out.’ I told my agent, ‘Who do I have to kill to get into this movie?’ I didn’t know who was playing anything – all I had was just the words on the page,” he said. “It was one of those unique opportunities that comes along every so often and if you’re lucky to be a part of something like that, you just enjoy it because it doesn’t happen very often… It really created a lot of (opportunities) for me – I’m really appreciative of that.”

Colter went on to appear on the Law & Order franchise, as well as the movies Zero Dark Thirty and Men in Black 3. He was a regular on the short-lived Sarah Michelle Gellar series Ringer. He also had a recurring role on The Following, as well as The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight. The latter two shows were created by the husband-and-wife writing team of Robert and Michelle King, who created Evil.

“They’re great. I’ve worked with them on three shows now… They’re great writers, and they make my job really easy,” Colter praised the Kings.

Mike Colter in Evil
Mike Colter as David Acosta in the Paramount+ series ‘EVIL’ (Photo: Elizabeth Fisher / CBS © 2021Paramount+ Inc)

The Catholic Church Version of The X-Files

On Evil, Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers, Westworld), a forensic psychologist, and seminarian David Acosta (Colter) try to explain strange phenomena. Acosta believes supernatural elements are involved, whereas the skeptical Bouchard seeks to debunk his theories – even though she experiences unexplainable, disturbing events herself. Their roles are similar to Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) roles on The X-Files.

“I was looking for something different than Luke Cage. It was hard to find (a next project) that was really exciting because Cage’s a superhero, so where do you go from there in terms of another television show?” he said. “Evil was perfect for me. I was looking for something that was more cerebral, something that was more interesting in a way I couldn’t put my finger on it. I read the pilot and thought it was great and saw the potential, but I didn’t see where it was going. But I trusted the Kings. I knew them, I knew their writing, I knew how they developed characters.”

When it debuted, Evil aired on CBS. However, it moved to Paramount+ for its second season due to its graphic content. The show will return for a third season.

Colter couldn’t comment on the third season. At the end of the second season, which recently concluded, Acosta becomes an ordained Catholic priest. Kristen comes to him and confesses her sins, which include murder and infidelity. After forgiving her sins, Acosta breaks his vow of chastity and kisses her.

“We have such a gifted, talented cast on Evil. Katja’s a phenomenal actress,” said Colter. “We did the read together, we were cast together, and offered the roles. It’s a good chemistry. It is what it is. Most times when you have chemistry reads, they’ll test you to see if people get along… sometimes, you don’t have it; sometimes, you do. We naturally seem to have it. We try to use it to our advantage.”

When he first took the role of Acosta, Colter didn’t know much about Catholicism, which prompted him to do some research.

“The whole thing about science and religion – that was particularly interesting because everybody stands on one side,” he said. “Ultimately, I love the fact the creators had written something they could debate about and respectfully argue and still be on two opposite sides of it and still be a couple. That was weird because you see it in the writing. In some ways, they said (Katja’s) character and my character are (the Kings). They argue their points of view in a very respectful way.”

SIDEBAR: Burning Questions

At Mike Colter’s panel at the Motor City Comic Con in Novi, MI, fans lined up to ask him some burning questions.

QUESTION: Did Thanos (Josh Brolin) snap you and the other Defenders away (when he achieved omnipotence at the end of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, obliterating half of existence with a snap of his fingers)? Can you take your best guess?

MIKE COLTER: If they didn’t give us a scene, you can’t snap us away. (The audience replied with thunderous applause.)

QUESTION: Can Cage take Blade (Wesley Snipes)?

MIKE COLTER: I don’t know enough about Blade. He’s half-vampire, right? So he can die, right? Well, then, there you go. (The audience laughed.)

QUESTION: What about the Black Panther (the late, lamented Chadwick Boseman)?

MIKE COLTER: I won’t let him get his suit on. (What would he say) ‘Wait right here. I’m gonna go change. Then I’m gonna come back’? ‘No, you’re not gonna go. I wouldn’t want you to go to the trouble. I’m not gonna stretch while you go get dressed. I catch you without your clothes, it’s over.’ (More laughter.)

QUESTION: What about Spider-Man (Tom Holland)?

MIKE COLTER: Spider-Man’s pretty tough. It’s hard to get your hands on him. He’s a slippery little fella.