Spoilers ahead for the first seven episodes of Netflix’s Luke Cage.
One of the biggest draws of Netflix’s Luke Cage is the morally complex and mercenary antagonist Mariah Dillard, played by the legendary Alfre Woodard, who brings complexity to one of the most fascinating female characters ever in a Marvel adaptation. Vulture spoke with Woodard about the history of Harlem, that scene at the end of episode seven, and why she believes Mariah isn’t a villain.
You’ve had such a long and varied career. At this point, how do you choose roles?
I choose them the way I’ve always chosen them. I read it, and by page 20 if whatever character I’m supposed to be paying attention to, if I start to feel something every time that character speaks, then something organic has taken hold. If I can read that script like I’m reading the paper and nothing moves in my belly, then I haven’t been hooked by it. It always has to do with the written word for me. I know a director or the filmmaker shapes it, and it doesn’t come to life until actors do a lot of work fleshing out the characters, turning them into real people and all the other disciplines that come into being. But if it’s not on the page, then for me it’s a no-go.
What attracted you to play Mariah?
What attracted me was Cheo Hodari Coker, our brilliant showrunner, is one of the smartest, most creative people I have ever met. I fell in love with his story and vision for all of this. He's been a Marvel fanboy since he was a little boy. To watch him talk about it and his handsome face light up with this openness and excitement, I was drawn into that. Also, he’s literary, he’s cultured, he’s conscious, all that comes together. And there is a bulletproof guy … I had to come along with that. [Laughs.]
I could definitely tell that Cheo is incredibly well-read and knows his art. Especially when I heard in an early episode Walter Mosley, Chester Himes, and other crime writers I love being name-checked.
Yes! He doesn’t just name-drop. For people who have a love of the culture and history of Harlem, people who have a hankering for the streets of Harlem, for people who need to be introduced to how fabulous all that — what Harlem has been, is now, and will become — is, this takes care of all of that. And it’s because of Cheo. It’s so woven naturally into everyday life. Honestly, I think he’s brilliant and would follow him anywhere.
Watching Luke Cage, one thing I really noticed especially compared to the other Marvel shows is it feels very lived in and organic, which helped flesh out the world of the show.
Yes, definitely. It also shows you how deep the spirit and the actuality of Harlem is. You bring up that neighborhood and it has layers of flavor and texture that you can’t help but [let] inform the story.
A lot of people are describing Mariah as a villain, and I think that’s a little limiting for her character. What she wants is arguably similar to what Luke or any other hero in Harlem would want — to keep Harlem like Harlem and protect the community. She just goes about it in sometimes very unexpected, sometimes underhanded ways. How do you find the humanity in a character like that?
Well, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “How can I be an asshole today?” [Laughs.] Although we think they must have thought that. People wake up and say, “I’ve got a bright idea, and this is how to do it.” It is conflicting intentions that makes it all go haywire. When you’re speaking of comics, people want to identify the hero and the villains. But all of our life is lived in the gray, no matter who you are. Everyone is using whatever is at their disposal to move forward.
Now, you’re going to cross paths with people who will say, That’s unethical, or maybe it’s illegal. But that person can say, Look at all the good that is coming from this, while you’re strictly going by the book. We all get to make ethical decisions moment by moment. I certainly think Mariah operates in the same lanes that successful people in our world operate today. All I know is I found her reality, and that’s what I brought to it.
How did you prepare for the role?
I have been a political and social activist since I was 14 years old. I have been around City Council people, governors, presidents, rabble-rousers, community organizers. I’ve been around those people all my life. That’s what I do when I’m not telling stories. So I know the language, I know the landscape, and I know those types of people. What I needed to do was just understand Mariah’s history. Mariah is from a family that some people would call a crime family. And I’d say, you know what, most American wealth is built on questionable legalities.
Her grandmother, Mabel Stokes, was an assertive, smart woman. And back in the day the law did not include her. So the whole idea of operating outside the law becomes a discussion in itself. But her clientele were the moneyed class, law enforcement. She was that smart. That was what our money was built on. Mariah was sheltered. She was sent to good schools in Manhattan. She went to Howard. She went to Wharton. Her whole pitch to her cousin Cornell is that there is a new way to do business and have power now — and it’s politics. [And] he’s stuck in doing business the same way it was. They love each other dearly, and it’s always family first — but that’s where the conflict lies and difference in approach comes up between them.
Episode seven has a very bloody fight that ends with Cottonmouth’s death. What do you think this says about Mariah? And how did you prepare of this scene?
Mariah loves her cousin so much she never faced whatever happened — she had to put it somewhere where she put her uncle’s discretions against her. As an actor, it’s too emotional to talk about. I’m going to tell you something during the time when we were at odds: I just wept and wept and wept whenever we had a table read. I also love Mahershala [Ali, who plays Cottonmouth] so much. I blocked that because it was too much for me to keep conscious.
The scenes between you and Cottonmouth are very powerful. They're probably the most emotional scenes within the first seven episodes. Then learning about the backstory adds even more layers.
In African-American culture, your cousin is the one who gives you the most joy, who is your home base, who can cut you the deepest. There is still always that rivalry. Your cousins — like your siblings — help you learn how to be in the world. It was very easy to do that with Mahershala because he is one of the best men ever and a very special actor.
One of the strengths of the show is how political it gets. How do you feel about how Luke Cage handled these themes and what it means for pop culture at large to get a bulletproof black man as a superhero?
Life is political. Luke Cage does not deny that. Black people don’t get to decide if life is political. Our very presence in this country is political. It’s every day. It’s comfortable to us. If you’re doing a street-level hero, you have to talk about what happens on the street otherwise you’re being dishonest and your fans won’t believe you anymore. We deal with the scenarios that people face every day in Harlem.
Luke has superpowers, he’s bulletproof. But we see him in a space where most people [feel] reluctant to help. Our neighbors are always calling out to us. Hopefully it will inspire the street-level heroes in all of us to create community.
This interview has been edited and condensed.