Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones had larger-than-life villains for the titular heroes to combat for a full season. The villain in Marvel‘s Luke Cage is Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes, played by Mahershala Ali. The 42-year-old actor, who was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, is best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as Remy Danton on Netflix’s House of Cards. He also just received an Oscar nomination for his incredible portrayal as Juan in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.
Here’s a look at the character of Cottonmouth and Ali. The actor is married to artist Amatus Sami-Karim.
1. Ali Was Born in Oakland & Went to St. Mary’s College of California on a Basketball Scholarship
Ali was born in Oakland, California and raised Christian by his mother. He later converted to Islam and changed his last name in 2000.
Ali went to college at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga and earned a degree in mass communication in 1996. He attended under a basketball scholarship, but his interest in acting grew while in college. In February 1997, he auditioned for New York University’s graduate acting program.
“It had to have been an act of God, because I was invited to NYU in March for the Top 50. 50 students, hoping to be one of the final 18. And I got in,” Ali recalled in an interview with SMC. “It was three gut-wrenching, soul-searching, tortured years of self expression and exploration. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I can confidently say that I would have never gotten there if it weren’t for the guidance and love I received from the professors at Saint Mary’s College.”
2. Ali Earned a Primetime Emmy Nomination for House Of Cards, but Don’t Expect to See Him on the Show Again
Ali played Remoy Danton in 33 episodes of House of Cards and earned a Primetime Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama in 2016. Even though it’s his breakthrough role, he’s walking away from the show.
“It’s time to go. I want to do more,” Ali told GQ. “There’s only so much space for you to stretch and develop and grow because there are so many characters. I think this is a good time to be an African-American in this industry. I think that the opportunities are shifting and changing because people have spoken out.”
Ali began acting in House of Cards in 2013, but his career started back in 2001 when he played Dr. Trey Sanders on 19 episodes of Crossing Jordan. His other TV credits include NYPD Blue, CSI, Threat Matrix, The 4400, Treme and Alphas.
3. Ali Played Boggs in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Ali was a member of the Hunger Games franchise, although he only appeared in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 and 2. He played Boggs.
In a 2014 interview with Indiewire, Ali explained why he felt a connection with Boggs. He said that the character wanted to see a free world before he dies, like Ali’s grandfather hoped to see a Black president before he died.
“That’s something that he would have always wanted to see happen but, did he really expect that to happen? So in that way it’s not dissimilar in that you’re fighting for that, you’re hoping for that, and trying to create that reality and carve out that freedom for yourself,” Ali explained. “It was something that I found myself hoping for, but I wasn’t necessarily stuck on that revealing itself. So if anything, more so living and believing that I’m going to die fighting for this. That was more so what I found myself resolving.”
Ali’s other film roles include Predators, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Place Beyond the Pines and Free State of Jones.
He also starred as Juan in the first part of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Despite only being on screen for a short time, his performance weighs on the rest of the picture and makes him a front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
4. Ali Says the Writers of Luke Cage Have Made Cottonmouth Completely Different From Daredevil‘s Kingpin & Other Mob Boss Characters
Since Cottonmouth is a gangster, it might be easy to compare him to Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. But in an interview with The Independent, Ali said that Luke Cage‘s writers, lead by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, have ensured that Cottonmouth is specific to Luke Cage’s Harlem.
“If you look at Daredevil, there are different showrunners, different voices,” Ali explained. “Cottonmouth is specific to the world of Luke Cage, someone who organically comes out of Harlem. A lot of that work was done for me, he felt unique on the page. I didn’t have to do a lot of work to make him different to Kingpin, they come from different circumstances, they even – in some ways – want different things.”
In the same interview, Ali said that Cottonmouth’s biggest motivation is simply survival after Luke Cage ruins the normal order of things.
“As Luke Cage becomes a threat to the world he’s created and built, things begin to crack around him. It’s a threat, a deep threat, so he quickly becomes about trying to hold it together, trying to survive,” Ali said.
5. Ali Creates a Mixtape for Every Character He Plays, Including Cottonmouth
In his GQ interview, Ali revealed that he loves hip-hop and and he always creates a mixtape for the characters he plays.
“For Cottonmouth I used a wide range of music because he is a musician,” Ali explained. “I also wanted to be mindful of the fact that he was from Harlem. So some of the hip hop I used was specific to artists from uptown and the Bronx: Big L, Diamond D, Brand Nubian; as well as D’Angelo, Mobb Deep, Kanye, and Erykah Badu.”
Music has a key role in Luke Cage. Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest wrote the music with Adrian Younge. The musical themes are “unapologetically black,” Younge told Time Magazine. “He’s a black superhero, but he’s a different type of black alpha male. He’s not bombastic. You rarely see a modern black male character who is soulful and intelligent.”
“I never wanted it to feel like a cliché: Let’s use hip-hop because it’s black urban social,” Coker told Time. “No, it had to be hip-hop from a certain area that resonated.”