RISING STAR

‘Luke Cage’ Star Simone Missick on the Magic of Misty Knight

The journeywoman actress opens up about her breakthrough turn in the Netflix superhero series, its Black Lives Matter message, and much more.

10.04.16 7:44 AM ET

Simone Missick eases into her first scene in Marvel’s Luke Cage with a Cosmo in hand and a knockout blue-sequined dress. As Misty Knight, Harlem-bred detective, she’s undercover staking out a crime lord’s nightclub. As a human woman with eyes, however, she’s distracted by the massive man in the too-small jacket serving up drinks behind the bar.

“That jacket’s a little small,” Misty says, matter-of-factly. Bartending superhero Luke Cage, slightly embarrassed, observes the same about her dress. “Touché,” she says.

He calls her an “oldhead”; she calls him “no spring chicken.” (They’re both in their thirties.) He calls her “beautiful”; she leaves soon afterward. They end up back at his place and have rough, passionate sex. In the morning, after an urgent call from the station, Misty excuses herself without leaving Luke a number—or even her real name.

There’s been a shootout in Harlem. She hasn’t got time for all that. Misty Knight is, after all, a hero herself.

And so a beloved Marvel Comics character known on the page for her bionic arm, distinctive ’fro, and kung fu mastery makes her live-action debut 44 years after her introduction in Marvel Team-Up #1. Onscreen, Missick makes a memorable impression as Misty: She’s wry, self-possessed, and seemingly wise beyond her years.

And in the pantheon of Marvel Cinematic Universe heroines, Misty is also so far one-of-a-kind: a heroine of color with a fully realized story whose actions run parallel to—but are not dependent on—the titular male hero’s. Is it any wonder then that the internet has embraced her?

“I wanted Misty to be a real woman,” says Cheo Hodari Coker, creator and showrunner of Luke Cage (now streaming on Netflix). “I wanted her to be assured and confident and a character that wouldn’t necessarily be self-conscious. Someone that could be a good detective but at the same time also be sensitive about what it means to be a detective in a place like Harlem.”

The question of what it means to be a good cop in a black neighborhood bears extra weight in Luke Cage, which deals explicitly with issues like racial profiling, gentrification, and the biased justice system. Each disproportionately affects Americans of color—which is why, as Missick explains, it’s “difficult to tell a story about a black person in America without getting political. Our very existence is political.”

Not that Luke Cage shies away from that.

The show’s hero, a bulletproof black man, wears a hoodie in place of a “costume,” a symbolic reference to Black Lives Matter and the death of Trayvon Martin. When filming for the show in 2014 coincided with the Staten Island killing of Eric Garner (whose death at the hands of police incited the Black Lives Matter rallying cry “I can’t breathe”), that symbolism became all the more powerful.

“You feel honored to be dealing with these things [through the show],” says Missick in a phone interview the week of Luke Cage’s premiere. “But then there’s a part of you that hopes that when the show comes out that we’re not still dealing with the same issues. And unfortunately, we are.”

“Eric Garner was murdered while we were filming,” she continues. “And to be just a week or two since the murders in Tulsa and Charlotte… it shows that unfortunately this problem is not going away. And there needs to be actual action done, not just all this national rhetoric.”

Missick, who marks her first TV leading role with Luke Cage, brings the weight of personal history to the role of Misty Knight, and experiences she’s used to make the character all the more authentic.

For 20 years, Missick’s aunt served in Washington D.C. as a detective. She has a close friend in her adopted home of L.A. who also works as a cop. Both women became sources of inspiration, helping Missick grasp what it takes to “survive in a profession that is male-dominated, aggressive, violent, and potentially deadly, while still maintaining your sanity, wit, and humanity.”

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Screen legends like Pam Grier (a childhood hero of Missick’s, whose roles in ’70s blaxploitation films actually inspired the original Misty Knight) and iconic performances like Geena Davis’s in The Long Kiss Goodnight also seeped into Misty’s DNA, Missick says. But it was the chance to simply present herself as she is, full-figured and thirtysomething, that convinced Missick the role was meant to be.

“It was really great to not have to be concerned with aging myself down for once,” Missick laughs, remembering Luke Cage’s now-famous “I ponder a woman” line (delivered to Misty in the first episode and held responsible by the internet for spontaneous births across America over the weekend).

“Simple things like them wanting my hair to be natural,” she says. “Nobody asked me to lose weight for this role, nobody wrote that I needed to look 22 years old and get a lot of sleep every day in order to make that look real. It seems like a small detail, but as a woman, being told that you are good enough just the way you are, there’s a freedom to that.”

Luke Cage comes as a well-deserved breakthrough for Missick after nearly 10 years spent doing commercials, short films, and theater throughout L.A. She remembers her first day on set at her “first big job” as a nerve-wracking exercise in piecing together what she’d been taught about filming techniques—where to look, in what direction, which marks to hit.

It was Mike Colter, aka Luke Cage, who took it upon himself to give Missick a few pointers. “I remember Mike just saying to me, ‘You know, if you look in my right eye, then the camera can catch more of your face,’” she remembers. “And I was like, Thank you, Michael Colter, No. 1 on the call sheet, for taking the time.

Missick’s work pays off in a humanized portrait of a cop—one whose loyalty to the community she serves is rooted in a lifetime spent there. That intimate knowledge of her home neighborhood is what makes her inclined to distrust the villainous Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and his politician sister Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard).

Mariah gains influence in Harlem largely through appropriating the language of social progress (“Keep Harlem black”) and misusing public funds—an abuse of power that hits particularly close to home for Missick, the daughter of a Detroit schoolteacher.

Marvel's Luke Cage star Simone Missick.

Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

‘Luke Cage’ star Simone Missick as Misty Knight.

“I grew up in Detroit, which is a predominantly black city,” she says. “And it has been run by predominantly African Americans throughout my life. And I’ve watched people misuse funds. I’ve gone to schools where we didn’t have toilet paper. I’ve watched my father [a teacher] speak out about the misappropriation of funds and be railroaded and unjustly fired.”

“And it’s not to say all politicians are crooked and it’s not something that’s singular to black politicians,” she continues. “But I think that a lot of times when we explore these injustices, we only look at them from outside the community. So to have someone like Mariah Dillard, who is a spokesperson for the people and yet who is also stealing and robbing and taking advantage of those people, it’s important to show that too.”

In examining what it means to be black in America today, Luke Cage also presents a deeply layered take on the N-word. Which characters use it, which don’t, and which become slowly accustomed to it depends largely on what age they are, who they associate with, and how they perceive themselves.

“I think that there is a time and a place for anything and everything,” Missick says of her own opinion on the term. “The appropriation of that word on black people was at a time when it was used to dehumanize us. There were times when you could not think about a black person without calling them that word. And it continues to this day. It goes on behind closed doors, it goes on in national media. It goes on everywhere.”

“There are some people who continue to use it in order to fight against those who want to make them feel lesser, and then there are others who look at the history of it and say there’s too much pain behind it and to continue to use it is ignorant. But I don’t have an opinion on the way anyone has the right to speech. The only opinion that I have is that people who are not black should not use it without expecting to receive the repercussions of it.”

That a superhero like Luke refuses to let the word be used on himself, she says, will hopefully “at least open up people’s minds to think about their usage of the word.”

As for Misty—who will next appear in Netflix’s Iron Fist series before street-level superhero team-up series The Defenders—fans are already campaigning to crown her the next solo star of a Marvel TV show. If Missick had her way, that contract would already be signed, sealed, and delivered.

“That’s from your mouth to God’s ears,” she says excitedly. “That would be absolutely amazing. Amaaazing!”