They say a hero is only as good as his/her villain, and Marvel’s Netflix shows serve as stellar examples of this. The first season of ‘Daredevil’ was simultaneously about the heroic rise of Matt Murdock as well as the villainous fall of Wilson Fisk. Likewise, the first season of ‘Jessica Jones’ was simultaneously about Jessica dealing with her horrific trauma as well as her victimizer Kilgrave coming to grips with his humanity (or lack thereof). And hopefully, that trend will continue with ‘Luke Cage’, as ‘Hunger Games’/‘House of Cards’ actor Mahershala Ali brings Cornell Stokes, AKA the villainous Cottonmouth to life.
Ali was interviewed by Deadline about his accomplished career, as well as his Emmy nomination for ‘House of Cards’. At the end, Ali discusses ‘Luke Cage’ and why villains (if they can even be called that) appeal to him.
I’m still very much in a place of looking at the things that come my way that are the most interesting, and as you get to grow as an actor—as the industry looks at you as having more value—I think your opportunities would obviously expand. As mine have begun to expand, some of the more interesting characters have just fallen into that quote-unquote “villain” kind of aspect. If I were to play a hero, I would want him to be a little grey—to definitely be human, and be conflicted about something, as we all are. Even if you’re the most well-intentioned person, there’s something that you’re working on improving, or reshaping in some way, or letting go of.
In the comics, Cottonmouth is a notorious drug lord, who also possesses super-strength, sharp teeth, and an in-depth knowledge of poisons. While this take on the character may not be as comic book-y as the source material (we don’t exactly see him rocking a set of snake-like chompers), Ali’s “Godfather-type villain” still has the potential to be a formidable opponent for the Hero for Hire. Ali discussed the character of Cornell Stokes and how much dimension the material offered him.
With these villain characters, it’s about trying to make them human, because often they’re written in a way that is so slanted. And honestly, this really wasn’t the case with me on ‘Luke Cage’. Cottonmouth on ‘Luke Cage’—he’s really not a quote-unquote “bad guy”. It’s just being able to work against how those characters are often thought of, and sometimes written, to make them human; and therefore, making a character that the audience feels conflicted about. You can do a lot with those roles—you really can. I don’t want to only do that, by any stretch, but I definitely see the value in doing that, because it is such a challenge, and there’s a lot of runway in those characters for an actor.
In terms of series work, it’s definitely the most present I’ve personally ever been in a series, and the most demanding [experience], I would say. As much as it’s in that comic book world, and we’re all very aware that it’s a degree removed from our own reality, as an actor, playing a guy who is struggling with some of the things that he’s struggling with—who is trying to maintain a hold over his business, over his industry—there’s an aspect of family legacy, manhood, responsibility; these things that Luke Cage begins to be a threat toward.
Some of the most interesting moments of the Marvel/Netflix shows have been seeing the “villains” question their villainy. When these seemingly-evil archetypes reveal pain and regret, that lends itself to much more three-dimensional characters, and according to Ali, this will also be a major part of Cottonmouth’s arc.
I think you start seeing somebody who will do anything to protect what he has, and can justify that because he is so threatened by the introduction of this new person in Harlem, who is learning to take everything away from him. So the things that he has to do that are not necessarily par for the course, or what he would do everyday, I think it’s really trying for him—and therefore, it was hard for me, at a certain point, to go home and let that go at night. It was a stretch, but I loved it. What I’ve seen [of the series], I think is a really good offering for that genre.
‘Luke Cage’ premieres on Netflix on Friday, September 30th.