Heed Exclusive: ‘The Good Wife’s’ Mike Colter
Since Mike Colter’s debut in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, he has starred in blockbuster films such as SALT alongside Angelina Jolie and Men in Black with Will Smith. Colter has been reinventing himself on the Broadway stage, primetime TV, and in the new movie America is Still the Place, which is based on the book by Charlie Walker. The movie examines racial tensions that emerge during a 1970s oil spill on Stinson Beach, after a tanker collision near the Golden Gate Bridge.
A graduate of Rutgers University, he has a keen sense of longevity. Colter has starred in roles that stretch his audience such as the kingpin Lemond Bishop in The Good Wife and he just captured a reoccurring role on American Horror Story: Coven in which he co-stars with Angela Bassett and Jessica Lange. And most recently he has been cast in TNT’s action-drama pilot, Agent X, penned by William Blake Herron. With all of this we managed to get a few moments with Mike Colter to get a sense of his recipe for success.
Heed Magazine: When did your love for acting start?
Mike Colter: I was young, growing up in the South and basically I was fascinated by television -that was my escape in a small town. I looked at television as a real art form and I just started watching everything that was available to me. I remember HBO in the early 80s and that was like the best thing since sliced bread for me, growing up. When we got HBO it was like, “Oh my God!” there was nothing better. I don’t think I missed one television show from 1980 to 1995 – I think I was glued to the television. I spent a lot of time by myself and my imagination just kind of took off. So, as a child – I didn’t want to be a child actor – but that is kind of where my love for acting started.
And also my mother wanted to be an actress. She told me that when I was younger. She never got a chance –so, in many ways, as I take this journey she can live vicariously through me.
HM: HBO today has pretty advanced story lines. You were watching HBO as a youngster?
MC: Yeah, but you gotta remember that HBO in 1981 – 82 was in its infancy. It didn’t have the Sopranos. There was no Game of Thrones. It was essentially a home box office installed in every television– we didn’t go to the movie theater that often. I lived in a small town. So for me, I had to wait until it aired on HBO. That was what I was getting my hands on – movies that I would not normally see at the theater. The television dramas and original programming is kinda recent. They showed everything that came out from at least the 1970s.
HM: Ok, well since you were watching HBO at such an earliest age, I am sure that you have a very sophisticated taste in actors. Who would you say are some of the great actors?
MC: Oh! It is a wide variety. I would say the classic actors –when I say classic I mean the old school actors. People that came about in the early turn of the century, onward. But if I have to name any, I was watching Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert Deniro, Denzel Washington. – I remember seeing Denzel in Carbon Copy. I remember seeing A Soldier’s Story. I just knew that that was something I wanted to do. I didn’t know what they were doing exactly but certain people stood out to me. I have a lot of respect for character actors such as Gary Oldman, who reinvented themselves over and over again. I watched a lot of people growing up that were generations ahead of me.
HM: What would you say was your pivotal point as an actor? Some people call it their big break or turning point…
MC: I could probably point to a couple of turning points. Obviously, I think that people would point to Million Dollar Baby as a turning point in my career because it placed me on an international platform or at least it is a big film and big release. There are rewards fro being in it – people find out who you are and that really changes things a bit. I mean walking into some casting offices. Seeing some casting directors who did n’t remember me before or know anything about but all of the sudden when I walk into their offices they are like, “Hey sweetheart.” It became a different thing. All of the sudden it was eye contact. You know, I got attention. It was a bizarre thing. That basically put me on the map a little bit.
If I were to say my turning point, I did a play in New York that really helped to introduce me to the New York casting director and the theater scene there. We did a revival of A Soldier’s Play, which was from the 1981, when Charles Fuller won the Pulitzer for it. It was really an intense drama. Our cast was a bunch of key film actors who were a little brave to do a play and I got a chance to do a great role. I had to submerge myself a little. I had to transform myself into a blues singer overnight, in a sense. I had to pretend like had played the guitar my entire life. I remember that I was the only person who auditioned and did not know how to play the guitar at all. I had my work cut out for me. It was a success! We had a great run. It exposed me to real theater people and people looking for really great talent. I remember I got a really review –It helped me as an artist that I am not just what you see. I can do things more things than what you assume is on the surface.
HM: I like the point that you made – Well, where I am from, we call it when people become “brand new.” They recognize you all of the sudden…You might recognize it as “back then they didn’t want me. Now I’m hot, they all on me.”
MC: Yeah, yeah, yeah quoting Mike Jones, absolutely.
HM: Exactly, how did you deal with your reception? Or how are you dealing folks knowing who you are now?
MC: I don’t assume people know who I am. If I assumed each person knew who I was, that would be pretty narcissistic or pretty self-centered. I don’t think about it much. So when someone comes up to me or says something to me, I am usually caught off guard. I mean I don’t expect it. And I don’t anybody should expect it – I don’t care how famous you are. When people say, “I really don’t know who you are.” It is an honest answer and you should be prepared for that.
You shouldn’t fall in love with the reception of someone appreciating or not appreciating your work. Some people just may not like your work. They may not like you. You have to be prepared for that. I think that it is a humbling when someone appreciates your work. By the same token, you should go about your business and try to do whatever you were doing before because as quickly as you have been appreciated and recognized –you can’t allow that influence who you are. When that attention is gone, what do you have left? I think that you are always the same person but how people treat you is all about how things seem. It is perception thing.
HM: How do you define success as an artist and public figure?
MC: I think when I was young, I was just an aspiring actor. I wanted to work, get training, and get myself out there. For me, success is maintaining a strong work ethic, staying in the game. I have worked with a lot of great actors and big names. Sometimes you meet these guys and talk to them, they can really add a lot of gravity to your perception. This business is a long haul. It is a game of attrition. It is not a sprint. It is not like you have a great year and then all of sudden you have arrived. You are as good as the last project. What have you done? There is always a younger version of you or an older version of you. It’s so competitive.
So, to me staying in the business is the definition of success. Remaining who you are – you know, appreciating success but when the praises flow, just know that they are not going to stay that way. You have to constantly remind yourself, find places to be positive, and enjoy your time when you are off. There are ups and downs. You can’t control the roller-coaster.
I try to find and continuously work in projects that I enjoy. When I do get a roll, I try to make the most out of it and then on to the next think. That’s kinda how I do it.
HM: You were raised in the South. As you choose your roles, is there a particular manhood or masculinity that seek like to portray?
MC: For the most part, like most artists, you are trying to define yourself but not just in one facet. I am not trying to do one kind of character. One you find a niche and people are a little comfortable about what you present to them, it is all about perception. I think that you can afford to play with that. I think you can find options, things that will take them out of their comfort zone…
Because as an artist you wanna constantly be evolving. I grew up with the same fundamentals that most people grew up with in the South. I had the same kind of moral upbringing but to that degree I like to kind of bend. There are characters that are very interesting to that are nowhere near – there are not even close to where I am from.
So characters like Lemond Bishop, I don’t anything about where this guy is from. I don’t relate to him in that way but I just see him as a character that is fascinating and kind of interesting to play. We don’t really have much in common. It is one of those things that I just try to find something unique, interesting, and that opens the character up.
I like for my characters to have a certain amount of intelligence. A natural ability to think, be a leader, and pulls their own weight. A smart character. He can have any financial background. He can have any upbringing. The only thing that I like to require of my characters is mental acuity.
HM: How are you feeling about your reoccurring role on American Horror Story?
MC: You know, before getting on the show, I didn’t know about it. I knew it was a big show and that people liked it a lot. I hadn’t watched it because my wife does not like scary things. So, she has control of the clicker for the most part –you can’t watch anything that the other person does not wanna watch.
I’d have to sneak around and watch stuff like to Walking Dead to catch up on it. For the most part, I knew that it was a very popular show. But then when I got the job, I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was that the people involved were people that I really admire. I am a big Jessica Lang fan – I have been a big fan of hers…I am a huge Angela Bassett fan. It was a good opportunity to work with some great people, sign me up.
I am really happy about the show –and that is another thing about my career. I am not always looking for bigger roles. I am not looking for bigger roles as opposed to better projects. I am more of a quality kind of guy. I would rather associate with really good, high quality projects, than to have a bigger part in something that have good quality, per se. I just look at it that way.
When I saw American Horror Story, I saw that it was really unique, interesting and I’d like ot be a part of that.
HM: A lot of people are more focused on celebrity as opposed to really thinking about their legacy. I love the focus you have on quality. What are your future projects?
MC: I’d like to reoccur on American Horror Story as time presents. I have a film that starts in January. It is an independent film and I play an interesting character. The script is unique; He is a blue collar guy and somebody that I really relate to and find very amusing. He’s a smart. I look forward to that lead role.
HM: You have shared your requirements for the roles you select. They should be smart and stretch the audience… What advice would you give to other actors in selecting their characters? How can they make a plan for their career in the industry?
Always go your own way. Take the road less travelled. Never worry about trying to define yourself as the way people see you. Always choose what you want to do and work toward that goal. No one may see the direction you are going in but you will find your own course. I remember going to some auditions – I am a 6’3″, African American, baldheaded guy, I mean automatically, if I am a certain size people are going to look at me a certain way. I understood that there are lot of people who can do this kind of thing. So my little interpretation of this that if I really try to navigate my career in a different, perhaps I can find unique success. I knew that was an issue, so I decided to stay away from the weight room. I like to work out but I knew that if I look 225 lbs., well you know visually it would put me in a certain category. I couldn’t see myself doing those kinds of roles.
For Million Dollar Baby, I put on some muscle for that. I had never boxed before but I knew that people would see me… They would assume that was what I did or who I was.
So for a while, after that movie came out, I was like I don’t really know what I want to do. My agent tried to get me for other athletic roles or that were kind of the same things: athletes, people kind of had that physicality. I was frozen for a while. I didn’t want to do anything that was like that again. I just wanted to make that was who I was going to be defined as.
It took a lot for me – my agent at the time didn’t like because I was kind of sitting on my hands, trying to figure out what direction I wanted. Then the play came along and it was completely different than the movie. It was not a big film project but people who know and are in the business saw me in a different light. It kept them off balance. That was a risk. It was scary. It was frustrating but I don’t think that now when people see me they will think, “Oh, yeah he is the guy from Million Dollar Baby.” I think that I have shaken that a little bit.
I would say make sure that you always give yourself the chance to make that you are in charge of your own career. Have a clear definition of what kind of roles that you will take. Don’t fall into traps. Do what you have to do make sure that you are on the course that you have to be on to fulfill your destiny.
HM: Thank you so much for interviewing with Heed Magazine. Once again, congratulations on all of your success and we look forward to chatting with you about your next project.
BE SURE TO CATCH MIKE ON CBS’ “THE GOOD WIFE” MARCH 9TH!
All Photos © 2014 Sierra Prescott www.sierraprescott.com
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