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Luke Cage’s Breakout Star Simone Missick on Playing Misty Knight, the Politics of the Show, and Improv On Set

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

There’s a lot of great acting on Netflix’s latest Marvel show Luke Cage. While there is a lot of buzz about Mike Colter returning to the role he debuted on Jessica Jones, and Mahershala Ali’s fascinating turn as the villain Cottonmouth, there is one actor who steals nearly every scene she’s in: Simone Missick, in a star-making turn as the dynamic, tough, and highly intelligent detective Misty Knight. Primarily known to comic readers as a private detective with a bionic arm thanks to Tony Stark, Luke Cage shows Misty before then. She’s a deeply dedicated cop navigating a world full of cutthroat criminals and bulletproof men. We spoke to Missick about the politics of Luke Cage, black history, and improv on set.

What attracted you to the role of Misty Knight?
When I read the sides — you know Marvel is so secretive I didn’t get a script — I had no idea this was Misty Knight, that she was a superhero. That she had a bionic arm. It was just some woman named “Missy” who was a detective. A lot of times when we look at drama, which it came off on the page as, it’s very one way. She’s a cop. She’s just spouting out dialogue. With this there was so much humor. And “Missy” was so funny. She was sarcastic and she was smart, she was sexy and she was strong without trying to be. It didn’t feel like a bravado she was putting on. It just seemed like it came from who she was. I felt like Misty keyed into all those things I identify with myself.

It’s interesting to see how much Misty trusts the system and believes the system can be good even though she’s surrounded by bad cops. And things don’t always work out like she wants them to. Why do you think Misty believes so much in being a detective?
It’s interesting the way she comes about even entering into the police force, because she didn’t feel like the system works. Instead of looking to be a part of the problem, she decided to be a part of the solution, but to change it in her own way. She’s had years of working herself up as a regular cop. Now she’s ascended to being this decorated, highly respected detective because she’s watched herself work it in the way it’s intended — and that’s with compassion toward your community, but an unwavering sense of doing things the right way.

I think being a police officer is no different than being a lawyer is no different than being a doctor or a teacher. If you don’t cut corners and you’re honest and have a sense of morality, then the system can work. That’s why she’s so committed to her brand of justice, which she believes is the idealized version. But she’s not an idiot. She knows there is corruption everywhere. There is corruption in politics. There is corruption within the police force. But when she’s handling the job she believes that she can do it accurately and properly and protect her community and those she’s serving. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Up until this point she’s watched the system work for her over and over again. So it’s not so much her trusting the system, but trusting herself.

I think a lot of tension she has with Luke comes down to the fact that he’s pretty much a vigilante working outside of the system. Which causes a lot of trouble for her.

But there is also some tension between them and even some animosity because in the first episode we see them hook up. Which I was very surprised about — it was a great scene. But it surprised me because it isn’t usually a part of their history or dynamic. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it thing that happened in a Heroes for Hire issue a while ago but was never an actual relationship. How do you think their first meeting and attraction shapes their relationship within the show?
I think it’s first of all the perfect dynamic for a woman in power to have to work against. So often when we watch typical shows, a woman meets a man, they have sex, and now her entire being and existence is dependent on his opinion, how he looks at her, how he treats her. [Showrunner] Cheo [Hodari Coker] and our writers did a really good job putting Misty in a position of power. Where she’s like, “I’ll call you. I know where you work. We’ll see each other later. We can keep this casual.” [Laughs.]

As a detective, as a cop, it’s difficult to trust people. Every time you do any kind of investigating about a person you find out their dark and dirty secrets. For her, it’s like, if she can keep him at a distance for as long as possible, she can continue to protect herself. It’s what happens next that makes it difficult for her to do her job and protect herself, emotionally and physically. There is that undercurrent of sexual attraction and chemistry, but it’s not something that would cause her to stop doing her job. It creates a nice dynamic that develops over the course of the season into something that is very different, and I think, beautiful. It can’t just be that combativeness. Behind every hate relationship there is love at some point. Misty does have an admiration and a love for Luke, in what he’s doing. It’s just the way he’s going about it that she doesn’t identify with.

One thing I’m wondering, and probably many fans are: What would you like to see for Misty Knight in the future? Obviously many of us are hoping she’ll get that bionic arm and go to the next level of badassery.
Of course, I want every one to get what they want which is to see the bionic arm. I can neither confirm nor deny if that happens. I would love for everyone to see that relationship with Iron Fist. I can neither confirm nor deny if that happens. But I really want to delve into Misty’s background and her family and where she comes from. You see in Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones these backstories that are really rich and let you see who these people were before they became special people with abilities. That is something you don’t necessarily see in the comic books so much — Misty’s backstory. It starts when she becomes a cop then a private detective, and you see her from adulthood on. It would be really strong and give the fans a lot more than they’ve ever seen by delving into who she was growing up.

Luke Cage has a really great, raw energy to it. Was improvising ever allowed on set or did you and the other actors stick pretty closely to the script?
You know, with Frank Whaley, who plays Detective Scarfe, my partner, our directors really gave us a lot of freedom to improvise. Although the writing is amazing, it is a superhero show. So the cops are there to push the story along. Frank and I, as actors, recognized what’s interesting to see is humor. So we’d come on set and you’d think we were trying to do a sitcom. We’re like, “What can we say here? Let’s do this!” Every day it was something. He would decide I want to eat in this scene. It would build things that were already on the page to make them more organic.

But then also there is this episode that was probably my favorite to shoot, which was episode nine, and it really goes into Misty’s background. Our director, Tom Shankland, came to my trailer and said, “So I’m thinking we’re going to do some proper theater.” I was like, “Those are the best two words I’ve ever heard.” I’m a theater actor.

We’re doing this scene, which was really tough emotionally. And he’s like, “All right let’s just improv it.” Just throw the words away and go for the emotion. He was willing to take that journey, as well as the other actor in the scene. It was such a freeing time. There is a little bit of improv on the show. But we do stay in line with these scripts, which are already amazing.

Luke Cage also feels very timely. A lot of superhero shows and films try not to be that political, in a way that can disconnect them from more rich themes. Luke Cage delves into politics and talks a lot about black history, which I thought was interesting. I’m a huge fan of crime writers like Walter Mosley and Chester Hines, and this is one of the few mainstream shows where I’ve heard them name-checked. I’m wondering how you feel about how Luke Cage handled these themes? And what does it mean for Marvel and pop culture as a whole for a show like this that isn’t afraid of being political as well as very visceral and fun?
I think it’s a sign of the change we’re seeing in television. Marvel and Netflix are on the forefront of doing that. It also comes from having a writer’s room with people connected to the community. Cheo is a lover of history, of all things music and art and black culture. Having his voice as opposed to someone outside of this community is evident. There is an attention to our culture that holds it up to the high standards it should be held to. That treats our writers and artists the way they should be recognized in the canon of history and art. It’s not just talking about those literary visionaries and musicians and artists. It’s also talking about the climate that created the need for that art to be created.

We live in a racially imbalanced society and we always have been. Black people have been traditionally disenfranchised and abused and misused in this country. It’s nothing new. And yet, it still feels timely, unfortunately — when it comes to not just talking about police brutality and Black Lives Matter, but gentrification and the misuse of politics in order to take advantage of small communities. It’s not just the Man. Sometimes it’s people within your community who are taking advantage. All are things we know, but we haven’t really seen them talked about onscreen. It’s important because it gets a dialogue going. I don’t think this show is aiming to cure all these social ills, but it is opening up a dialogue in the same way Colin Kaepernick taking a knee is opening up the dialogue. The show’s ability to do that on a global scale is very powerful.

I did notice that attention to detail, especially in how Luke Cage shows the importance of the church within the black community. Biblical references are interwoven throughout it. In a lot of ways Luke Cage feels like a 1970s crime drama but it sort of reminded me of these weird 1950s film noirs that dealt with blackness. The one I immediately thought of was Odds Against Tomorrow with Harry Belafonte. I was wondering, did Cheo give you guys any film and TV references for what the show was going for and inspired by?
Every single episode. [Laughs.] He’s such a lover of a film. Yes, absolutely he was inspired by all these strong references. None of which I will name because none of which I was listening to when he was talking about it. [Laughs.] As an actor you just want to know why you’re in this moment. You don’t need to think about Don Corleone and The Godfather Part II when you’re trying to get these words and emotions onscreen.

Good point. What kind of roles are you interested in going forward now that you have a very badass Marvel hero under your belt? Where do you go from here?
I love comedy. That is my first love. I would love to do a great, female-driven comedy. I also love really small, quiet, independent-film stories that tell a slice of life. But I’m honestly ready for it all, if I identify with it and feel like it’s the right fit.

What do you want audiences to take away about Misty as a character and Luke Cage as a show?
That black women can be strong and opinionated without being emasculating. We’re fully capable, as every man is, and should be treated as such. To recognize it’s okay to be strong and sexy and smart at the same time. Not just for men to recognize that, but for women to recognize that. We don’t have to shrink ourselves down in order to make the men around us feel capable. We can be fully in our power as women.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Luke Cage Breakout Star on Playing Misty Knight