Through two seasons of Netflix’s Luke Cage, several villains have come and gone in their brushes against the Hero of Harlem — some more permanently than others. But for every outgoing criminal like Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard), one person has managed to slip through the cracks: Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, played by Sons of Anarchy alum Theo Rossi.
Rossi, who played embattled biker Juice Ortiz through all seven seasons of Kurt Sutter’s FX series, has long talked about Shades as the Marvel Netflix Universe’s version of Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, a political animal akin to a shark, always swimming forward through overflowing chaos. In the spirit of that comparison, season two of Luke Cage finally revealed the Catelyn Stark to Shades’ Littlefinger: his childhood friend and fellow gangster Comanche, played by Thomas Q. Jones. Midway through the season, in one of the most memorable scenes of the entire series, Comanche and Shades sit back to back in a barbershop, ready for war, parsing through their history together. It’s revealed that Shades and Comanche had an affair while in prison together, and that love still exists between the two men.
The unexpected revelation becomes all the more tragic only one episode later, when Shades executes Comanche, who has been secretly working with NYPD against Mariah Stokes’ crime syndicate. It’s a moment where Shades prioritizes his life within the gangster world over his love for Comanche, and it paves the way for Shades’ second lethal break-up of sorts. Near the end of the season, Shades and Mariah, who have had an intensely passionate affair of their own, part ways on equally passionate terms. Indeed, Mariah dies by season’s end, while Shades himself is thrown into prison — but not before whispering in the ear of one Carl “Luke Cage” Lucas (Mike Colter), urging the hero for hire to rise up and become the new kingpin of Harlem.
What does the future hold for Luke Cage as a series? As of this writing, Netflix has yet to renew the superhero series for a third season. Whatever’s coming next, Rossi himself believes Shades will have a vital role to play in the Hero of Harlem’s future. As he puts it: “We’re just getting started.” Rossi, whose enthusiasm for playing the character speaks volumes on its own, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the big changes in Shades’ life throughout season two, playing out the ill-fated love story with Shades and Comanche, and what he sees ahead.
Shades undergoes some seismic changes in season two. What was the journey like for you?
I was really fortunate, because when I came on to season one, [showrunner and creator Cheo Coker] had written a film that I just did, my biggest film to date: Lowriders. Then, Charles Murray, who was an executive producer/writer on Sons, was also on Luke Cage, and I knew when I came on to season one that really it was going to be about season two. I knew the journey of season one, where he was going to come in, and you had Cottonmouth, and you had Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), and you had these other guys, and then at the end of it, you have Mariah and Shades winning, basically. Luke Cage is getting carted off to prison, and here these two characters are kind of standing at the perch.
I knew that season two was going to be something special. I didn’t know how special. Cheo and I always talk. Regardless of if we’re filming or not, we talk twice a week, three times a week. I had known that he had these things in mind, a lot of things that he wanted to do, and he basically did what Kurt used to do on Sons, which is laying out the benchmarks of where you’re going to get: “We want to get here, we want to get here, but you don’t really know how you’re going to get there.” I just knew that it was going to be extremely explosive with Alfre and I, Mariah and Shades. I knew that. I knew that Comanche’s coming back, and that there was going to be a really important revelation, and then I knew that people were going to feel indifferent about him at the end, because we were going to learn more about his history.
What Cheo does so well and what Marvel and Netflix does with a lot of these villains, is they layer them. You’re really going deep into their back history. That’s why you don’t know how you feel about them at the end. Are they villains, or are they heroes, because the more you learn about them, the more humanized they become. It’s like Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. You almost go, “Well, was he wrong? Was he wrong?” When you learn about Shades and you see his heart and you see kind of more who he is, that was the best part for me, and what I learned on this journey with Shades that I’m on is he’s just complex and layered, and he’s got so much going on, and I think that we got to show the audience a peek of it.
In a way, Shades is the most romantic character on the show, certainly at the center of two very powerful and tragic love stories: Shades’ relationship with Mariah, and his history with Comanche as well.
Yeah, and ultimately, those two love stories — his history, potentially the love of his life, his historic relationship with Comanche, basically knowing him his whole life — it shows that Shades’ love has no limits. He doesn’t categorize things in any way, and to see this new relationship that he embarked on, what people don’t realize is if you look deep into the story, Comanche was not supposed to get out of prison. He got out of prison because he worked a deal with [the police], so Shades is a different person. He’s gone on to create himself in a way outside of the Rivals, outside of who he was when he was in prison, outside of who he was in his childhood with Comanche, outside of that relationship in general, and he’s gotten colder. He’s probably more aggressive.
You look at his relationship with Mariah. Was it opportunistic? I’m sure that was part of it. Was it genuine? For sure. He says in season one that his admiration for the Stokes family, he always wanted to be part of it. He always wanted to be part of Camelot in a way, which was what the Stokes family was, and that they were personally like his superheroes that he looked up to. Being with Mariah is almost like him fulfilling a childhood fantasy in a way, where he’s like, “Oh, my God. I’m in the realm.” But at the same time, Comanche comes out of prison. Shades is trying to adjust his best friend, lover, and love of his life to his situation that he’s created for himself. When you get hit with that backstory and that relationship, I think the reason why it’s affected people the way it did so much is because that’s where you first see Shade’s struggle, right there, because he’s trying to explain to Comanche that life is different now, that this is bigger than all this, that we can do so much more. We can be so much more.
And then Shades finds out that Comanche has been speaking with the police…
Right, you add on top of it that he finds out he’s a snitch, and what does Shades have to do? There’s a code to the streets. Ultimately, that same code of the streets that he had to kill Comanche over is the same code of the streets for why he has to get Mariah off of the streets, and why he has to tell Misty about her. Because there are rules to the game. But what we start to see, and this is why it’s so complex in the gangster world, is he has to stay by this code of the streets, yet his moral code is deteriorating. He is devastated by what happened with Comanche, and yet he’s also devastated about what happened with Mariah. Then, what does he do at the end? In typical Shades fashion, he gets himself back together and he, under people’s nose, without them even knowing, convinces Luke Cage to take the mantle. Now, if we know Shades the way we know him, I’m sure he didn’t do that for no reason. It really is so incredibly layered and complex, that I think people are still unpeeling it.
The real history between Comanche and Shades first comes out midway through the season, at the barbershop. It’s easily one of the most memorable scenes through two seasons of Luke Cage.
There are a couple of scenes I’ve done in my career that are so incredibly meaningful, and when you’re doing them, it’s almost like you’re looking at a painting in a way. It’s almost like poetry. A lot of us in any type of relationship, whatever it is, any kind of relationship have been with people or been friends with people or been family members or been lovers with someone who you cannot be with anymore in that way, but this was even more heartbreaking, because I believe that at that moment, he didn’t know that Comanche was a snitch. He didn’t know anything about that. Who knows what would have happened if he wasn’t. Who knows if there wasn’t that revelation? It happened the next episode, so who knows? Would they maybe have both decided to take Mariah out and then, for lack of a better word, live happily ever after together while ruling the kingdom? I don’t know.
I think that only makes it that much more tragic, because [their love] was real, and how you know it was real, and why I absolutely love the way it was written, was in the next episode, the most important line in the scene [where Shades kills Comanche] is Shades says, “I was blinded. I love you, and I was blinded by it, because I didn’t see the snitch in you. What does that say about me?” What he’s saying is everything he thought he was, he isn’t, or he’s not at that moment, and for a guy like him who’s always in control, that fear of questioning himself? He never questions himself. He always has a plan. He’s always 10 steps ahead. He’s the ultimate chess player. In that moment, he lost control, and he didn’t trust himself. He starts to spin out of control, which makes him more relatable to everyone, because before that, he was basically a sociopath robot who was going around taking people out and moving forward. Now, all of a sudden, he became this complex character. That moment in the barbershop will always stand as the beginning of the humanization of Shades.
In his final scene with Comanche, is Shades deciding that he loves the game more than he can ever love one player?
I think it will stand as the hardest thing that he ever had to do in his life, as a character, but he says it multiple times: there are rules to the game. He says it to Mariah. He says it to Misty. He says it to everyone, because there are rules that trump even his own feelings. Once you start breaking the rules of the street, no matter what it is, you might as well be gone, and that’s why he says to Comanche in the barbershop, if you got to kill to get it, you’re going to get killed if you keep it. He’s well aware of that. He’s well aware of that, so what he’s doing there is he’s just still in this game, a game that he feels he’s better than everyone else at. He knew that he had to stick to his playbook, or the playbook of the street. Even [toward the end of the season, when he goes to the police about Mariah], he didn’t snitch. Mariah broke the rules, and he’s figuring out a way to write it that gives him the least responsibility. I think that the Comanche scene in episode seven, when he meets his demise, again, you’re still seeing the moment with Shades where I think in any other world, in any other moment, in any other time… I think that he had to do it because things were so out of control at all levels. He knew there’s another way.
There’s a scene before he [kills] Comanche where he knows [he’s working with the police]. The second Mariah says to him, “Who knew about Tone? Who knew about Tone on the roof?” He knows, and he looks at her, because now he’s putting it all together, and you see the way he walks out. He starts puzzling everything together, and that’s why he knows. When he takes Comanche out to lunch and makes the joke about this is us, he knows the whole time. Then, he just wants to sit there and look at him one last time. I mean, you want to make the story even more heartbreaking? Watch the scene with them two at the lunch. Watch that scene, and watch the way he’s looking at him, and watch the way he’s looking at his love of his life, best friend, childhood everything… look at the way he’s looking him, that he knows he has to kill him at that moment. That, to me, is tragic. Tragic.
At the end of the season, Shades is under arrest. What are you thinking in terms of where the character might go next?
I think that his final scene with Luke Cage is a lot more important than people understand. You know, when he marches into the barbershop and tells him everything, and basically tells him that you have to be the one sitting at the top. You have to be the one ruling the kingdom. It’s funny; a part of that that wasn’t filmed, due to time, and it was something that we had worked out, and then the day just got so crazy, because we were shooting two episodes at a time, was when you see him exit. Shades, when he exits the barbershop after having this really compelling speech with Luke Cage, and Luke says to him, “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you on the spot,” and Shades says back, “That’s how it starts. You’re not nice anymore.” He walks out. On the reverse of that, when the camera was on me walking through the door, you see a slight smirk on his face. It was almost like a tip of the hat: “Oh my god, he just did it again. He did it with Cottonmouth. He did it with Diamondback. He did it with Mariah, and now he’s doing it again.” It’s that Littlefinger mode. That’s what he does.
So, I don’t believe the story’s over. I believe there’s more to it. We just started cracking the shell a little. We’re just getting started. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s not over, what all these revelations about him, what all these layers that we’ve shown, what kind of head space he’s in… what does it do to him? Does he become more violent than ever? Does he become better? Does he become more heartfelt, or does he just completely become off-kilt and become a complete, straightforward lunatic? I don’t know. I don’t know. It could go any way.
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