'Imagine grenades going off around you': Halo's Mike Colter on acting for games and being a Marvel hero

As "Daredevil" lands on Netflix, we meet the next Marvel superhero to talk Luke Cage, Marvel's web of secrecy, and why actors shouldn't be fanboys.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
10 min read

Mike Colter, star of "Halo" and Marvel's new comic-based series' on Netflix. Mike Pont / FilmMagic

Gaming fans and comic fans are a vocal bunch. An actor might think twice before taking a high-profile role in either sphere -- but this year Mike Colter, currently known for his turns in "The Good Wife" and "The Following", takes on two massive geek-friendly roles. Not only is Colter the new face of the Halo gaming series, he also steps into the super-shoes of Marvel superhero Luke Cage.

I caught up with Colter to discuss the web of secrecy inside Marvel, the challenges of video game acting, and why actors taking on roles like this shouldn't be fanboys. Plus, he discloses the high-jinks he got up to with Chris Pratt.

The character of Luke Cage will headline his own show as one of Netflix's four Marvel-based shows, which kick off with "Daredevil" on 10 April. Filming of "Luke Cage" hasn't started yet, but in the meantime we'll meet Colter's Cage in the next Netflix show, "A.K.A Jessica Jones" -- perhaps not surprising given the history between the two comic characters.

"I don't want to give too much away about how much he's involved in the 'A.K.A Jessica Jones' show," says Colter, "but Jessica and Luke Cage have a history and a relationship. I don't how much will be revealed in the actual series, but yes, I play an integral part."

Colter appears alongside Krysten Ritter, who plays superhero-turned-private-eye Jessica Jones in a standalone Netflix series. AMC

Despite this crossover, the four shows will have their own individual flavour. "You might see any characters in the series from one series to the next, but they're stand-alone shows. Each series has their own storyline. It's not a spin-off. People like to use that word or they like to try and connect the two shows but every character that Marvel planned on developing to series -- Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Cage -- are all separate and they hope to then reunite them in their 'Defenders' miniseries. But that's way down the road."

The four shows are exclusive to Netflix, with each series appearing in a binge-friendly block of episodes for people to watch whenever they like. Like Kevin Spacey, star of the first Netflix original show "House of Cards", Colter reckons the online streaming service has the right idea. "Netflix shook it up, brought this whole new generation of people who said: I watch things when I want to watch, how I want to watch, where I want to watch, and that's something that no one's going to ever forget. This has changed the game completely and I think it's the tip of the iceberg."

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As well as being one of Marvel and Netflix's headliners, Colter is the new face of the Halo Xbox gaming franchise -- his character Jameson Locke appears in the prequel series " Halo: Nightfall" and in the forthcoming game "Halo V" too. Essaying a playable game character required a lot of effects work, including motion capture and voice-over. "I did a lot of motion capture, and I've spent a lot of hours in the booth laying down the vocals for the game because there's so many different variations. You have a director in the booth who's telling you what to do and putting you in the moment because there's so much in the game that's not actually written."

Colter plays Jameson Locke, the protagonist of "Halo: Nightfall" and forthcoming game Halo 5. Microsoft

"It's really helpful for them to guide you so you're on point when you start to lay your vocals down," Colter explains, "so it matches what they'll eventually put in to the game because they have other actors who are not in the room with you. Very rarely are we all in the booth at the same time... That's difficult but it's a technique. You have to turn on a different muscle."

He describes the complications and variations involved in any take. "Direction is key. It could be great but the person then tells you, 'Listen, that take was great, but just imagine that grenades are going off around you, you're running, not full speed but half speed, and you're trying to stay in control but at the same time things are really coming unravelled around you.' They've given you four things to deal with. You do it all vocally -- you're not really going to be able to run but just sound like you're running, sound like you're kind of winded, but don't be out of breath. Grenades are going off so that's a volume thing. 'And action!' It's always about taking in direction and then trying to give the director what they want, and not just taking things too seriously because they need it right now. You have to just go with it."

As a drama student did he see these kinds of innovations in acting come along? "I remember when I was an undergrad this motion caption thing was coming about and people were talking about it, but I didn't understand what they were talking about -- it seemed like crazy talk to me. But now here we are, we're doing a lot of it."

Juggling all these technical considerations must make it tough to create a character too. "I think when you really look at it, all of it's the same -- it's still acting, it's still taking one moment at a time and basing everything in realism. I've studied with Bill Esper and Maggie Flanigan, who were Meisner teachers, and the whole thing is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances which covers pretty much everything. So you could be talking to a dragon, you could be talking to anything -- it doesn't matter. How do you react? How are you able to convince yourself that it's real as much as you can so that the audience can then go on a journey with you? They're trying to suspend disbelief for a moment and you have to ground yourself in realism."

Despite revolving around a blind vigilante, a former superhero and an indestructible man, realism is a watchword for the Marvel Netflix shows, all of which are set in the Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of New York. The shows will certainly be more street-level than the colourful, super-powered, gods'n'aliens histrionics of the "Avengers" movies. "We hope to not rely heavily on special effects and CG. You've got some things that are special effects, some stuff that's done to make sure the audience is entertained, but I think a 'less is more' approach will suit these shows.

Marvel's Luke Cage (left) teamed up with martial artist Iron Fist in the comics, and now the pair could be reunited when they get their own Netflix shows. Marvel

"There will be action in it but these characters are trying to live normal lives, unlike some of the other characters in the Marvel cinematic universe. Those [Marvel movie characters] are first and foremost superheroes that are on a large platform. They've saved the world. But these [Netflix TV show] characters are really trying to focus on their neighbourhood and New York City. It's a smaller story we're trying to tell."

They may be smaller in scale, but the long-form TV format gives the stories more breathing room than the movies. "There's not a lot revealed right away," says Colter of his experience so far. "It takes time and they peel back layer after layer and episode-by-episode. It's a slow burn, I like that approach."

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The shows might have something in common with the character of Luke Cage himself. "I wouldn't say he's the strong and silent type -- he does talk when he has something to say, it's just that he plays things close to his chest and he's not one to reveal too much right away. From what I've read, he seems to be a nuanced character with a lot of layers and a lot of secrets."

Cage's first appearance, in "Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #1", from 1972. Marvel

First introduced in 1972, Luke Cage has a long and rich backstory. Colter wasn't previously a huge fan, however. "I didn't sit around thinking, 'I'd love to play Luke Cage,' but when the character was presented I did my research and I was just like, this is a real gift, he's a great character and I'm happy to have a chance to take a crack at him."

Cage, also known as Power Man, was one of the first major black superheroes. But Colter plays down the significance of his part in the new series. "I never think about him as being a black superhero. I don't look at it that way -- that's not to say I don't see the social significance of it and the relevance of it, it's just that when I look at this character I want him to appeal to other ethnicities and cultures and peoples, so he's not just a hero for the black man or the black woman. I think anyone in New York City could look at Luke Cage and say, 'Hey, this guy could help me out.' I don't want him to just seem like a relevant hero for only black people."

Questions of race and gender inequality in Hollywood have been in the spotlight recently when the Sony hack revealed female stars were paid less than male stars, and the Oscar nominations were distinctly devoid of people of colour. "This year was a strange year," he concedes. "I would like to think that we as African-American actors have done quite well at the awards over the years. I think sometimes we get wrapped up in awards... ultimately it's just a moment in time and it passes.

"I was in 'Million Dollar Baby' in 2004, 10 years ago. That won best picture, but I don't think if you ask anyone, 'Do you remember what won Best Picture in 2004?' they could tell me. That's not to say that they weren't paying attention, it's just how relevant it is."

With a bunch of Marvel movies already out and tons more on the way -- not to mention TV shows "Agents of SHIELD" and "Agent Carter" already winning fans -- there's an ever-expanding fraternity of Marvel stars. "I've known some of these guys before," says Colter, "but that was prior to me actually getting this gig, through other work or just meeting them in passing. There's been no official introduction to all the people from Marvel cinema per se." Aw, I was hoping there was a special club or something.

One of his fellow Marvel-ites is "Guardians of the Galaxy" star Chris Pratt, who Colter appeared alongside in "Zero Dark Thirty" when they both played Seal Team Six DEVGRU commandos. "I was really happy for him," says Colter. "We had a lot of fun behind the scenes on 'Zero Dark Thirty' just trying to pass the time and really getting into the whole thing of special ops missions, because honestly we were out there for quite a long time and boys will be boys. A lot of arm wrestling, drinking and...rabble-rousing, you might say."

According to Colter, being part of the mighty Marvel machine doesn't necessarily mean you're party to what's coming next. Netflix has named Cheo Hodari Coker of "Ray Donovan" and "Southland" as showrunner for "Luke Cage", but scripts are yet to be written.

Asked whether the story for "Luke Cage" is nailed down, Colter replies, "I have no idea! I hear talk and chatter in the hallway, that's how secretive Marvel is. I get my permissions from eavesdropping and from hearsay. They're so secretive. Really, you ask questions, you get vague answers. You get ideas, you get these knowing glances, but for the most part, if you do get any concrete information you're sworn to secrecy."

Even less is known about the final hero to be brought to Netflix, martial arts expert Iron Fist, who made his comics debut in 1974. With this final member of the Netflix quartet still to be cast, I asked Colter if he has any advice for the person who takes the role. "I think the person that they'll cast as Iron Fist will be someone hopefully who is not a tremendous fan. I like the idea that the actors that are cast in these iconic roles aren't so close to the material and they're not such fanboys that they're wrapped up in the idea. Because the idea of it and the actual execution of it can be so far apart."

Colter believes that this gives a sense of perspective in an actor's performance. "I would like to think that every time someone starts to put something on screen that's based on a comic book they are actually trying to create really three-dimensional characters that can't necessarily be created in a comic book. If you're a really big fan, you create a lot of things in your head of how you think the character should be and that may not serve you well."

Despite his high-profile roles drawn from games and comic books, Colter does not consider himself a fan of either medium. "I've dabbled. I did read comic books growing up and I did play some games but I don't spend copious amounts of hours doing either. I'm a man of moderation. I think a little bit of everything is OK but when you do too much of anything it becomes dangerous."

That moderation applies to social media too. "I don't have a presence on social media at all. It's not for me. I think there are a lot of people that it helps a lot, like Nathan Fillion from 'Castle' who was able to actually raise so much money for this film that he wanted to do. I texted him the other day to say congratulations and to say it made me think to myself this is what's good about social media. When you want something you can actually rely on your fan-base to help you to get these things done. I'm not going to actually join social media, but I do feel that's something relevant.

"Just on an individual basis, I can't get involved because it doesn't suit my lifestyle. I don't even know how it works. I'm not one that wants to share my thoughts with the masses. For me, it would be a horror, a nightmare, burn me out. I just know that people enjoy it but I do not, so I stay away from it."

The first Marvel show, "Daredevil" is on Netflix from 10 April. "A.K.A Jessica Jones" is expected to follow some time this year, with "Luke Cage" after that. "Halo: Nightfall" is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and on-demand and Halo 5 is due out later this year for the Microsoft Xbox One. Colter will also appear at some point in new series "Agent X" -- no relation to the Marvel comic of the same name -- in which Sharon Stone plays the first female president of the US.