“What defines being a hero?” Cheo Hodari Coker and Theo Rossi on ‘Luke Cage’ S2
In S2 of Luke Cage, the lines between hero and villain are more blurred than ever and the scramble for power more ruthless, devastating, and emotional as a result. If S1 fixated on the everyday struggles of a bulletproof black man and the impact his powers have on an entire community, S2 looks at the role of power itself and the impact community, family, and loved ones can have on how that power is wielded. Film Daily was lucky enough to speak with Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and actor Theo Rossi (who plays Hernan “Shades” Alvarez in the show) about the second season of the Marvel Netflix series and what Luke Cage says about power, identity, and being a hero.
Warning! Spoilers for S2 of Luke Cage coming up!
Film Daily: There’s that amazing quote that’s repeated at the end of the show from Luke’s Dad (Reg E. Cathey): “Science, magic, God. That power flows from within. From inside. What comes out when that pressure is heaviest? That’s the real magic. That’s what defines being a man. That’s what defines being a hero.” In the world of Luke Cage, what does it mean to be a man and a hero?
Theo Rossi: To be a man and a hero in any world – not just in Luke Cage – is to be an example. You have to be the example and your actions have to reflect the world you want to see. So where that really gets kind of muddy in Luke Cage is Luke as our hero has to set the example of what he wants to see in the rest of the world and I think Luke right now is just as big as a conundrum emotionally as those we could consider the villains are. He doesn’t know what right or wrong is any more. And now, maybe he’s been trying right for so long and it’s not working so he’s going to try wrong for a little while and see if that works.
Cheo Hodari Coker: On the one hand, Luke is delusional in the finale by expecting any kind of change, and then when he walks away there’s a quiet moment where he’s wondering to himself. What was in my mind while I was writing was, “Am I really the man that is not going to reconcile with my father? Am I the man that my father raised me to be?” Because remember in episode one, he says, “Saving souls my way, walking the righteous path on my terms” – or a variation of that. It wasn’t necessarily scripted but we knew that ending would take us somewhere. The moment with Luke (Mike Colter) sitting at the desk is great and visually it’s beautiful, but I felt like you didn’t necessarily know what Luke was thinking within the scene.
Rossi: I don’t know if Luke can be considered a hero any more. Just like I don’t even know if the villains can be considered villains because Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) didn’t seem like he was doing anything wrong to me. His family was massacred and he wanted justice. And Shades, heartbreaking stuff was happening and he just wanted to exist in his criminal world and do things to other criminals. He wasn’t doing anything to innocent bystanders – it was Mariah (Alfre Woodard) that did that. When she does that, it’s why he says that great line “there’s rules to this shit” and she wasn’t following the rules. So that was her demise. I think being a hero in this world is that you have to be like him.
At the end of S2 it seems like Shades has gone and Hernan Alvarez is back. What does that criminal alias mean for the character?
Rossi: It’s funny you say that – at the end you think Shades is gone and Hernan is there and you could say when he marched in and gave his big whooping speech to Luke Cage that he should be the one in power. That is actually more Shades than he’s ever been because what he’s doing is continuing his quest to put someone in power that he’s placed there. Which is kind of what he does. After all the trials and tribulations in season two – all the humanization of his character and the emotionality that he went through and the roller coaster ride of seeing two people he loved die – he ultimately gets himself back up and goes right back to what he’s doing, which is putting someone in power and putting someone there that might ultimately fulfill his best interests.
Speaking of which, Shades’s arc felt very Shakespearean this season. He’s almost like Iago from Othello, very manipulative and self-serving in his pursuit for power. Did you feel that vibe yourself and did it help to inform your performance?
Rossi: You know Sons of Anarchy, the show I came from before this was based on Hamlet and ultimately we’ve got a lot of crossovers. When he kills Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) who might just be the love of his life, we see him aggressively washing and rinsing his hands to get a stain off that doesn’t even exist, which has been done many times in Shakespearean writing. He’s also a puppet master in a way, which has been used now in a couple of shows. Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) is a very popular one in Game of Thrones, as someone who doesn’t want to be the King or Queen, but someone who wants to control from the shadows.
Usually where the true power lies is not the power you see in front of your face – it’s whoever that power is being directed by. I think Shades is the ultimate chess player, and I think that for him, my finding of the character is only as good as the writing that was given to me by Cheo. Cheo is the smartest guy in every room. He’s got a vast knowledge of everything in this world and he likes his characters in a specific way and I think what we were able to do in season two is have a true ensemble show, where with each character we go really deep into who they are.
So with Shades we learn more and more about him. It’s not just that we humanize him; we make him four-dimensional. We feel for him more – we might not even consider him a villain, you know. We have some kind of attachment to him because of what he goes through. I got really lucky because when you’re given a rich history of the character, you have a lot to work with. And that’s what they did this year.
S2 seemed to have an ongoing theme exploring the power of money versus the power of having and using knowledge for leverage, which are two recurring themes of modern and classic hip hop. Was this a conscious thematic choice?
Coker: It’s not much of a choice as it is just black men being obsessed with manhood. And manhood from a black standpoint is about having control. Being able to dig deep where you live and who you’re with and being able to protect yourself and your people. It’s no different than any other expression of masculinity, but because black men for so many years were subjugated, you see them take it more personally than most, or at least differently. That’s why in hip hop being a man and being the man is always one of the most important themes, because the whole exercise is about the power of expression, of having the power to name oneself and proclaim oneself a champion or whatever it may be.
S2 offers a tremendous exploration of what it means to be a black man, but it also examines what it means to be a black woman in modern society and features some of the best female characters currently on TV. Has that been important to you from the start of the show?
Coker: Here’s the thing – it’s important that many women are not only treated as equals, but that from a storytelling standpoint you also treat them with complexity. I always remember that James L. Brooks joke from As Good as It Gets where a woman walks up to Jack Nicholson and says, “You write women so well, what do you do?” and he replies, “I write a woman like a man and I remove accountability and reason.” I always felt even though that is a sexist joke, people really think like that. And so really in some ways it’s a reaction that outlines not to treat female characters any different. Give them the same wants, the same desires. You have a middle-aged man with some 20-year-old girl chasing after him. And everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s cool!” You have a beautiful woman in her prime with a younger man and all of a sudden people are put off. People don’t settle at the same age – deal with it. I think doing that is empowering.
That’s one of the reasons we had so many female directors because it’s a myth that female directors can’t lead action. Like, the Bushmaster flip kick in episode four was Sally Richardson-Whitfield’s idea. We’re making a TV show and nobody has anything to prove – gender has nothing to do with it. But you have to give people the opportunity to prove other people wrong.
Shades has an intense relationship with Mariah and he didn’t seem too happy to be in the background as the king to her queen in S2. Why do you think that is?
Rossi: He wanted to be the number two and he had no interest in being the number three, you know what I mean? He has no interest in having someone else in there between them, so when you have a Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) or even an Alex (John Clarence Stewart), or anyone who is going to come in, what they’re ultimately going to do is disrupt the influence he created. When Tilda comes along, it bothers him so much because he’s worked very hard to create the Mariah that he wanted to and now he finds out she has a daughter. So now maybe all that almost feels like a bit of a lie, because he didn’t know this one big thing about her.
Then it’s almost like an avalanche of bad things start occuring to him. Tilda comes around and he’s concerned about what kind of influence she’s going to put on her. What kind of emotions is that going to raise from Mariah? Is Tilda now going to be the number two? At the same time, you have Comanche in his ear, telling him that he should be the king because Comanche is also trying to self serve. He’s trying to push Shades to the top so that he can become the number two and they can rule together. So he has this (for lack of a better word) shitstorm happening to his brain and he has to figure out a way to navigate it, and I think that’s the only reason he doesn’t want to be in the shadows from Mariah. He has no problem with being number two, but not with all this other stuff going on.
Do you think there’s a chance that Shades could step up in more of a heroic role in the next season so we’ll see a slight role reversal between him and Luke?
Rossi: It really depends on how much of what we’ve learned so far affects him. If Shades shakes it off and it makes him twenty times more ruthless, well then that’s bad for everybody. But if he doesn’t – if he takes it as a warning sign and he has a kind of rebirth – well then we might just see a hero come out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.