Mahershala Ali on How He Humanized Cottonmouth, Luke Cage’s Villain

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

More than your traditional superhero adaptation, Netflix’s Luke Cage is really a visceral crime drama about modern black identity. But with gangsters as such a well-worn staple in the crime genre, how can an actor put his own stamp on it? As Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Mahershala Ali plays up the vulnerabilities of the main villain, and in the process, creates a fascinating portrait of black masculinity and power dynamics. Vulture spoke to Ali about what drew him to the role, working with the legendary Alfre Woodard, and why diverse writing rooms matter.

What attracted you to the role of Cottonmouth?
I’d always wanted to do a Marvel project and I’d always imagined getting to play one of the superheroes because it’s such a hard thing to get. It’s the parts that only go to a few people. The flip side of that is the antagonists are pretty awesome. So when I was offered that, I was really excited.

In thinking about it, the villains often have a little bit more range because their morality is different. You can have just a really good time as an actor and there is just more there that you can explore on that side of the story. I was excited about it. And just getting a sense as well with what they were trying to accomplish with Luke Cage and the significance of it all — to have the opportunity to sign up for that was pretty exciting.

My favorite moments from your performance as Cottonmouth aren’t when he’s outright violent or posturing as a badass, but when he’s vulnerable.
Mine, too.

Especially when he learns of Pop’s death. Your facial expression slightly changes and your eyes darken — then you toss a man off the roof. How do you find the humanity in a character like that and find ways to put in vulnerable moments?
Well, you have to think about the violence, the anger, the rage. Those things are symptoms of the person not feeling connected to who they really are, or feeling frustrated about things they are experiencing that are the opposite of what they want or not necessarily connected to how they see themselves. If you go into playing these people and put your energy toward the anger and the violence, you disconnect yourself from the root of who these people are, who any character is. I was really starving for and looking for crafting the moments that aren’t villainous. It gives you a shot at connecting with an audience and real people who need to see themselves in these characters in some way. I hope none of us are people who would throw someone off a roof or shoot someone. [Laughs.]

But I do believe that we all have real moments when we feel really weak or exposed or afraid or end up running up against certain things that are hindrances to attaining the life we see for ourselves. I really put my best energies into that stuff — the other stuff does the work for you. If you’re throwing someone off a roof, you’re throwing them off the roof. It’s there. You don’t have to do anything extra with that. The audience is obviously going to react to that because it’s such a heightened thing to do. But in the other moments you really look for ways to craft those because they’re more important, honestly. And that’s the task with villains more so than any other characters in these kind of pieces. The task is for you to humanize them.

One of Luke Cage’s biggest strengths is how Cottonmouth and Mariah front versus how they really are. Juxtaposing those different sides is interesting, and an honest family dynamic grows more intense as the show goes on. How was it working with Alfre Woodard and forming that sort of dynamic with her?
Working with Alfre was an education, and somewhat of an acting clinic. [Laughs.] She’s so good and easy and has really mastered her tools. She just did the smallest things. I remember the first day working with her. The dialogue has you saying things like “family first” and “hey, cousin … ” When she’s doing all this, she touches my arm in a way that reflects a familiarity between people. She created this dynamic physically that to me as another actor said family, said cousin, said friend. That’s something you can’t necessarily write in the script. It’s just something an actor has to be aware of going into the scene.

It was really great and collaborative. There are instances where you’re in a space with someone who has been extraordinarily successful and they don’t necessarily connect with you as another person. You can be a prop for them to deliver their stuff and you’re just another element in the scene. Working with someone like Alfre, she’s all about leaning on you and wants you to lean on her, so the sum is potentially greater than its parts.

One of my favorite moments between you two wasn’t a major one but it’s when you’re freaking out [in episode three] and you call her “Black Mariah.” Then she calls you “color struck.” I remember being like, “Yeah, a black person wrote this.”
The courage it takes to write that is very important. You can’t overlook that. Those details are what [showrunner] Cheo [Hodari Coker] brought to it, and his fairly diverse writing staff. That’s really important because you’re able to ground a show that points the camera to the black community. It has to really be grounded and have moments that give it that stamp of authenticity. And that is an example of doing just that.

The show is really steeped in black history and black art and black literature. I can’t remember the last time I watched a crime show that name-checked not only Walter Mosley, but Chester Himes, who I’m a huge fan of. You can tell the staff cares.
It’s funny when you have these writers and these academics turned writers. There is probably this inherent desire — because you write from what you know — when you’re on a show like this, having someone like Cheo and a few of the other people [with] a desire to really plant their influences into their work. You can see it come through in the writing.

One thing I have to ask you about is episode seven, which ends with a very bloody fight between Cottonmouth and Mariah. The show felt like it was leading up to that, and we get some flashbacks, too. How do you prepare for a scene like that?
It was the moment when I had to come to terms with it being time to let go of the character. And that’s different in every project you do. Sometimes that’s once you call it a wrap and the entire film is shut down. Sometimes you’ve found out you’re not going to come back to a series. But there is a process with a character like that, and there was a real residual tax with playing him. For me it was a little bit strenuous, so I would take it home at night, not intentionally. It was something that, at that point, it was really time to let go of. But sometimes even if it’s time to let go of something, you’re not always ready. It was hard but it was amazing because I felt it was a hell of a way to put an exclamation point on the arc. But I wouldn’t want to sign up for that again. [Laughs.]

I interviewed Alfre recently and she got kind of emotional about it, but was really eloquent when she talked about the dynamics of episode seven.
What she did I can’t even put into words and probably shouldn’t since it should be her talking about that. But what I saw her do over the course of a 12-hour day — the emotional stamina that took to capture that over the course of a full day was really breathtaking. That right there put the stamp on it for me. She’s absolutely amazing.

One thing I found interesting between Cottonmouth and Luke is that class dynamics figure in a lot. Pretty much every time Cottonmouth is around Luke, he reminds him he’s working class. I think my favorite insult was when you called him “Dishwasher Lazarus.” Why do you think Cottonmouth likes to remind him of his place, so to speak?
I think that usually comes from insecurity. In how that plays out in terms of story, Cottonmouth is in some way threatened enough by Luke, his response to him is to let him know his place. On top of that, he has these superhuman capabilities, which only adds to his sense of insecurity around Luke. So the only weapon he has is the insult.

What Mike Colter brings to Luke Cage is a sense of nobility. He could be a dishwasher or work for the sanitation department and Mike would still bring that sense of nobility and belonging. He has some wonderful aspirational qualities as a person and an actor. That’s not something you can buy.