As the title character from the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” Mike Colter brings a charismatic swagger to every scene he inhabits, but it is the supporting cast of characters who surround the hero with the unbreakable skin that helps to create such a unique and engaging world. With Season 2 recently dropping, fans of the Marvel Universe are getting an extended look at many of those characters, including Detective Bailey, played to likable perfection by Justin Swain.
We recently sat down with Swain to discuss finding his place in the Marvel Universe, understanding the complexity of its continuity, and why as an actor he’s always trying to be the best blue possible.
TrunkSpace: When a full season of a series that you’re starring in drops all on one day, is that a different experience than being a part of a show that releases a new episode week after week?
Swain: Yeah, it’s like having a gigantic movie explode over a weekend… all at once. It’s pretty crazy. It’s quite an event.
TrunkSpace: Because it’s within the Marvel Universe and part of a world where fans are so involved in every aspect of the storytelling, they must also always be looking for small details that even you might not expect them to be looking for?
Swain: Yeah. The response so far has been just incredible. People have been reaching out, on Instagram and everything, just picking up, like you said, on the little details along the way, showing how much they like it, and also at the same time, asking questions about the plot. I’m like, “You’ve got to keep watching. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen at the end. I’m not going to tell you what’s going on with Nandi, or what’s going to happen over the year with Misty. You’ve got to keep watching.” (Laughter) But it’s cool, the interaction on social media as people get into it over the weekend, has been really neat to watch.
TrunkSpace: When you step back and let it sink in, is it still sort of a pinch me moment to be able to say that you’re a part of the Marvel Universe?
Swain: Yeah. The whole thing, the whole ride of this, it has been extraordinary. Becoming a part of it, not knowing in the beginning what I was auditioning for, not knowing what I was getting into, seeing it grow, and then being able to work with such incredible people, it’s a real special experience. The way the people receive “Luke Cage” particularly, is flattering, and you also feel like you’re part of something really unique. That’s kind of what this whole weekend was about. We did the big launch premiere party on Thursday night. We got to watch an episode, and all the artists who performed at Harlem’s Paradise were performing at the premiere party, and there was the red carpet and everything… it was just overwhelming, and a pretty unique and fascinating experience.
TrunkSpace: What’s really cool, especially on the TV side of what Marvel’s doing, is that each project has its own feel and tone. Although they all go together, they all feel separate. Not to take anything away from the other shows, but “Luke Cage” really has a unique vibe to it, something that is entirely its own.
Swain: Yeah, not taking anything away from the other shows, but you’re right, I think they each have their own personality, and “Luke Cage” has a swagger, man. I think they use that word a few times when you’re watching it, and I think you can feel that swagger watching the show in the way that it’s put together, and the way you watch it. It almost has this kind of really cool retro feel to it – a little bit of a ‘70s vibe. If you watch closely, through the whole season, there’s a few different homages to a lot of those great ‘70s films and other filmmakers. If you really pay attention you can see specific shots. There’s something that happens at the end of the season that’s a direct homage to a great, great film, and a very specific moment. I think they use it so well. Props to the director, and to Cheo (Hodari Coker), and everybody putting that together.
TrunkSpace: You’re a writer as well. Can you appreciate just how much continuity the Marvel creators have to juggle, not only with the “Luke Cage” world, but for the overall Marvel Universe?
Swain: Yeah, as a writer, like you said, you look at everything you have to balance out, and so many different elements that you have to look at, make sure are represented, and maintain. You’re also balancing against a larger Marvel Universe. The amount of work and effort and planning that goes into that, and then to have it all coordinated from the top down by Jeph Loeb – he is the top of the pyramid – in the television world, to be able to do what they do, at the level they do it, it’s not easy. They make it look easy, and that’s what’s really cool about what they’re able to do.
TrunkSpace: And so when you first signed on, you didn’t know that Detective Bailey would be involved in the larger, longer overall story?
Swain: That’s right, it was like “The Princess Bride.” You’d go and you’d shoot an episode and, “Good night, Westley, sleep well. I may have to kill you in the morning.” (Laughter) That’s what it was like going to work, and luckily they kept bringing Bailey back. They were digging what I was putting on screen I guess, and also just the interaction with the rest of the cast. Every time they brought me back, I was like, “This is a privilege to be here.” And then to be able to take it into the second season, and to have Bailey change as much as he did, that was just the coolest gift, as well. I loved how they changed him, I loved what they did with him.
TrunkSpace: So knowing then what you know now, would you still have approached your performance of Bailey in the early going the same way?
Swain: I think that with more and more information, it’s good to be able to put that together, but Bailey himself as a character is learning about the world of this superhero almost in real time. It’s the same thing. That was an origin story, so Bailey was learning about it as it went. Again, it’s a testament to the writers, the natural evolution is for him to do what he does in the second season. You always want those little details that change up your performance. You can always look back, “Oh, if I only knew then what I know now,” but I think that’s in life, also. I like where they took it. What’s cool is, I think it’s a back and forth. I think it’s a dialog, whether you know you’re having it or not, with the writers’ room in some way, where I’m doing something one day on set, and maybe they see something they can build on or maybe they don’t, but hopefully they do and then they build on it and it comes out of the kernel of the character that you brought anyway. I think it’s a testament to them that they picked up on that, and they built it, and I followed their lead.
TrunkSpace: Does acting on a successful show like “Luke Cage” equate to more opportunities in your career as a writer and producer? Do the two help each other out?
Swain: I think that those worlds are quite separate in the entertainment industry. I think the biggest success that comes out of that is, each art form informs each art form. It’s like you’re looking at things as an actor and you say, “Okay, I know I’m playing my role here, and I know this is the approach to the character.” Well that informs how you’re writing multiple characters if you do get the opportunity to write something for a different program or a different show. The way you interact as an actor, you can transfer that when you’re writing characters. You’re playing those characters as you write them, and then vice versa, where it’s like you know when you’re writing something how everything fits, and it plays its own part in that gigantic puzzle piece. That helps me think as an actor, look at it and say, “Okay, what’s my puzzle piece in this particular project?”
It’s like painting, right? You mix together all these colors, you make something beautiful. When you’re an actor it’s like you’re going to be the best color blue you possibly can be, because that’s the part you play in the gigantic portrait. In that case you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to be the best color blue in this particular painting.” So I think the art forms inform and help each other, and helps you learn and grow as an overall artist.
Season 2 of “Luke Cage” is available now on Netflix.
Follow and interact with Swain on Instagram here.