“You will find there is something in common with the rappers, the moguls, the politicians and the hustlers that come to Paradise looking for something,” Mariah Dillard said to her mentee.
Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a councilwoman known for navigating Harlem’s underworld of seedy crime bosses and shrewd businessmen, offered this prophecy in a ritzy office on the second floor of her club, Harlem Paradise.
“Clock that,” she said, imploring her mentee to use all tools at her disposal to climb to the top.
In its first season, “Luke Cage” focused intensely on its hooded, indestructible black hero (Mike Colter) and his encounters fighting crime in the storied streets of Harlem. But the second season grants a window into how these Harlem streets became what they are: culturally potent, historic, familial and rife with characters hoping to capitalize on all those traits.
Woodard’s character is uniquely centered in the 2018 iteration of “Luke Cage.” She capitalizes on her lineage and hypnotic ability to persuade to do what’s best ― occasionally for Harlem, and often, for herself.
Woodard joined HuffPost to discuss how she created Dillard, the complexity of her character and how Dillard’s uninhibited sexuality establishes her dominance.
Mariah is a complex character, and it seems like we’re moving — at least when we talk about black actors — beyond the expectation that they offer a positive representation of blackness into a realm where we’re looking for an honest representation. Do you enjoy playing complex antagonists like her?
When Mariah starts out, she is Momma Mable’s granddaughter and she is the one who is always sent to the other room when things happen; she knew everything that was happening. They were living in a brownstone! She knew the family business. But Momma Mable sent her to expensive schools in Manhattan, she went to Howard, she went to Wharton, and we see, in Season Two, she is using some of that business acumen.
So she comes back and wants to legitimize the family business. You know, there is a belief that most big American fortunes — the original ones and probably now, too — are based on nefarious machinations, if not downright illegal things.
I understand. That’s pretty profound commentary: how the accumulation of wealth in America, which so often eludes black people, has frequently occurred through unsavory means.
Yes. She says the power is in money. You can always find ways to clean it, but the power is in money, not guns, or drugs, or prostitution. And what happens to her is that she knows there’s power in politics. You can set policy that will not only benefit the average man but also people like her — people who are dealing in big money. And slowly, as she becomes more involved with politics, she realizes sometimes you have to make deals.
She suckled at the breast of one of the biggest crime bosses in Harlem, her grandmother. And if her grandmother was in a different time, she would have been kicking ass on Wall Street. But she used what she had at her disposal as a woman — as a black woman. And because she was smart, she knew there were things that would always make money, and she provided it to the city fathers, to legal business. So the people she was in business with, if she couldn’t have their power, she knew how to control their power. I’ll just say that.
Absolutely. And this season really does ambitiously explore Mariah’s motivations behind things. She’s doing things that may be perceived as untoward, but she’s doing them in part to maintain the look and feel of Harlem, where she lives.
Yeah, and she does believe in Harlem. And she wants to be the queen of it. I don’t think these things are opposite each other. She thinks, “If there’s money to be had, we need to have a whole lot of it.” And what happens is that family is the thing that rouses her passion most.
And in the show, whether it’s Claire (Rosario Dawson) constantly trying to get her mom in a better position, or Luke (Mike Colter) and his dad going toe-to-toe after all Luke endured growing up, there are human stories there, but people are driven to violent episodes because of family. I think it’s complex and it’s wonderful.
People had to believe she is a legitimate person who is well-schooled, but they have to know that eventually, she will cut you and anybody else. Alfre Woodard
This season also delves deeply into the ethnic, intracity dynamics in New York City. We see feuds between blacks in Harlem and Dominicans in Washington Heights, but there’s also animosity between blacks in Harlem and Jamaicans that’s pretty central to the plot. Do you think it’s important to examine these tensions?
Oh, yeah. We are not a monolithic people. The diaspora is in full array this season. That’s what I love about [director] Cheo [Hodari Coker], he’s just so smart. He covers every base, so you’re seeing a story that sort of externalizes the whole rift between African-Americans, Africans who become Americans, and between Jamaican-Americans. So I love it. It’s the little things we suck our teeth to, roll our eyes about, or say about each other, playing out on screen. [Laughs.]
Right. Like when Cockroach, one of the henchmen in Harlem, speaks to Mariah about keeping Harlem —
Yes! Oh, yes! That’s one of my favorite lines! Keeping Harlem “black black” — I love it! It’s so exciting.
Yes! That’s the thesis of this season, it seems.
And again, it’s Cheo Hodari Coker. I would do anything he asked me to do and, actually, the reason I got to do this is because of Cheo. If everybody knew where Mariah was going this season, they never would have hired me to do it in the first place. But Cheo believed that I could do it. He believed that I had the depth to go there, because people had to believe she is a legitimate person who is well-schooled, but they have to know that eventually, she will cut you and anybody else.
I definitely get that vibe. [Laughs.] Are there any aspects of Mariah that you relate to personally?
I only ask because I saw your “Watch What Happens Live” interview, and there was one point, I think, when they asked a question and your response was something like “I like sex, too.” And that led me to think about this season and the particular ways Mariah’s sex appeal is on display compared to last season. Was that your doing, or was that written up in the writers’ room?
OK, I have to say this: When I said, “I like sex, too,” they kept asking Mike Colter sexy questions! And then they asked me something about an Emmy statue or something. I was like, “Ehh…”
Ahh, I see, I see.
But here’s the thing. Something was hinted at in the first season. One of our writers wrote that my character kissed Shade (Theo Rossi) on the lips, and then they took it out at the table read. And the whole cast booed them! [Laughs.] They said, “We want them to kiss!” So he waited until the very last episode and when Mariah and Shade are standing in front of the Biggie picture, the writer said, “That’s when you should kiss him lightly on the lips.”
So I decided — I bit his lip and then I tapped him on the butt when I left. But that’s what he wanted to have expressed.
I understand. You ended up carrying the original vision through.
You know, women of mature age, they’ve been doing wild longer than the young girls. So we have this idea that once you turn 40, walk into a room and don’t turn heads, you don’t have a sensuality or a sexuality. But I must say, the things I chose to do came from me, because I’m a mature woman. And, like I said, you know stuff.
I can dig it.
You have to think of things. Can you do stuff — the calisthenics they do in all these other videos and love scenes. We all know you don’t make love like that. First of all, you can’t get it done with the way things are shot, so Theo and I had to come up with ways that you would believe they had an active — not only sex life, but passion. They’re committing crimes together and they’re business partners, and a lot of the testosterone is coming from Mariah. The more we throw interesting ways of expressing that into the mix, then you can let the audience run with it.
We have this idea that once you turn 40, walk into a room and don’t turn heads, you don’t have a sensuality or a sexuality." Alfre Woodard
Sure. It’s interesting to hear from you how calculated those scenes were.
I did want that in there, because I’m around Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and they talk about it all the time. Like, everything you’re doing … it’s been done before, girls. And why not go to an older woman, because she’s been doing it longer and probably knows a lot more tricks? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I hear that. I’m so glad I was able to pick your brain about that. Speaking more broadly, you have a record of playing characters across the spectrum of personalities and stations, from doctors to space cadets. Has this resistance to typecasting been intentional on your part?
I’ve always felt that if I’ve done something before, I just don’t want to do it again. I’ve already discovered it. And I like to work to discover things. So yes, maybe I’ve played people from the same period, but I think about how that character is different from any other character I’ve played. If I get bored as the artist, I know my audience will be bored. If I know I can do it, that’s a real snoozer.
In that vein, considering you’ve had that sort of autonomy throughout your career, you seem to wield a unique degree of power in your industry. With that, you’ve lent your voice to various movements, including Me Too and other social causes. Do you feel compelled to make art that responds to our social circumstances? Do you think that’s your responsibility?
You know, it is a privilege — not a responsibility — to be an activist, and I’ve been an activist since I was 14. I didn’t even think of acting until I was 16. So it’s my impulse to make sure I stand with people who are standing; to amplify people’s voices when they aren’t heard a lot.
The reason we do this is because we are storytellers, we are griots. Since we first stood on two legs, the role of the griot was to keep the lore and hold a mirror up to the tribe for the betterment of the tribe; to know who they were and to know where they’re going. I think that’s what I’m still doing.