When Luke Cage hit Netflix two years ago, the villains of Marvel's third Defenders series seemed pretty cut and dry. There was Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali), the nightclub owner doing some shady dealings, and his slippery sidekick Hernan "Shades" Alvarez (Theo Rossi). But as Season 1 of Luke Cage progressed, Alfre Woodard's Mariah Dillard became tougher to pin down. At first she seemed to be a complicated politician with a heart, someone who was essentially good at her core despite her familial connection to Cottonmouth. She rejected anything that would have tied her to crime and even advocated for Cottonmouth to go legit. But midway through the critically lauded season, Luke Cage flipped the script and Mariah Dillard brutally murdered Cottonmouth and took his place as the crime boss of Harlem. It was a huge twist, and it directly shaped the rest of the season, and the upcoming Season 2 (streaming June 22 on Netflix).
But to hear Woodard tell it, Mariah isn't all bad. Nor is she all good. In a sit-down with Bustle at a recent Netflix event in Hollywood, the veteran actor reveals she delights in playing Mariah as a real woman, a human being with all her flaws and imperfections, because that's authentic to the human condition. And though Mariah's sexual relationship with her much younger crime partner Shades may have come as a surprise to some viewers, Woodard made sure to play that up every chance she got in Season 2.
"It was very important and I made these decisions early on that when you do see them together, I found ways to be physically intimate with him because they were never going to show us in bed anywhere," Woodard says with a quick laugh. "They didn't want to see my body — not that I wouldn't have shown it — but it was important to find ways to show that they had an active physical relationship."
"But your sex life, people think that it stops at a certain point. But no, it gets deeper and richer because you know you've found the G spot 50 years ago. You've been going there."
Woodard didn't want to imply anything about Mariah and Shades' relationship — she wanted to outright show it because of what it would mean for viewers to see a woman in her mid-60s having a healthy, active, and pleasurable sex life.
"You hear Jane [Fonda] and Lily [Tomlin] talk about it [on Netflix's Grace & Frankie], they crack me up," Woodard says. "But your sex life, people think that it stops at a certain point. But no, it gets deeper and richer because you know you've found the G spot 50 years ago. You've been going there."
And with the introduction of Mariah's estranged, grown daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) in Season 2, Woodard felt it was extra important to emphasize that Mariah's sex life hasn't disappeared with age.
"With mothers, we don't want to think that," she adds. "We want to say a woman's time is up at a certain point, like their eggs are drying up. You get a certain age and the heads don't turn when you walk in a room. We're constantly being told what our expiration date is. I thought it was important in terms of power, in terms of the ability to call the shots, to pull the trigger and to make that man holler, it's important to know that women of a certain age do that better than anybody else."
Luke Cage fans have already seen Mariah as the dutiful politician, the reluctant crime boss, the violent murderer, and now as a sexual being, but one thing viewers have yet to see is her as a mother. She helped raise Cottonmouth when she was younger, sure, but it was more as an older cousin than his mother. Her reunion with Tilda this season will conjure up a new dynamic and role for Mariah as she tries her best to act how she thinks a mother should. But with her traumatic past — it was revealed in the first season that Mariah had been sexually assaulted by her Uncle Pete (Curtiss Cook) when she was just a child — that may prove harder for her than she realizes.
"We either deify mothers or demonize them, but mothers are people. They are human beings and they're all as different as their fingerprints are."
"Mariah really wasn't a mother, that's the thing," Woodard says. "She was an abused teenager. Her baby was taken away from her and she got to still carry on in her timeline as a teenager and a twenty-something all like that. We wanted to idealize moms so that everyone with a vagina can rock and nurse somebody, because that's just not true. Motherhood gets expressed in a lot of ways."
And according to Woodard, Mariah "gets surprised" by how her relationship with her daughter is re-established this season when they do reunite. "But how it plays out, the actuality is that she wasn't grown up, so she still reacts the way a teenager would and still makes those missteps, even though she has a grown child," Woodard adds. "She is still not mature in a maternal sense. She's living in her own hurt and her own woundedness. So I don't think she is a mother in the sense we expect from mothers. We either deify mothers or demonize them, but mothers are people. They are human beings and they're all as different as their fingerprints are." We'll see exactly how this relates to Mariah when Luke Cage Season 2 drops June 22.