Mahershala Ali on Playing the Villain in ‘Luke Cage’: “The task is for you to humanize them”

Mahershala Ali in Luke Cage

“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.” – Mahershala Ali

Actor Mahershala Ali might be best known for his role on the science fiction series The 4400 and for House of Cards, but he is now being recognized for playing the villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Netflix’s TV series Luke Cage. Speaking with Vulture, Ali talked about finding the character and working with co-star Alfre Woodard.

Ali spoke about why he tried to find the non-villainous side of this villain:

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 Ali’s favorite parts of Luke Cage was working with Alfre Woodard, who plays Mariah on the series. He talks about their collaboration:

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.

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