How Mike Colter Got Ripped for ‘Luke Cage’

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These days when we hear that an actor has gained 35 pounds of muscle to play a superhero role, we envision a bullpen of Hollywood trainers and a round-the-clock nutritionist feeding them meals by hand. Not so for Mike Colter, who plays the title character in the new Netflix series Luke Cage, who got massive with a bit of googling and a whole lot of time in the gym.

“The first day I went to the gym to train I was technically on vacation in Paris, but I wanted to get started right away because I knew it would be a lot of work,” says Colter. Before getting cast, the 40-year-old actor had avoided building too much muscle around his 6-foot-3 frame, in a calculated effort to keep the door open for a more diverse set of film roles. “I'm always eating right, but I wasn’t really training, and I was walking around pretty slim,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I needed to be popping out of my shirt.” 

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Colter took the first steps by opening up his laptop and devouring all of the fitness knowledge he could find online. From there, he pushed through late-night sessions at the gym, all while powering through back pain due to sciatica. The result is undeniable, with fans warmly embracing the series and the portrayal of its protagonist. So much so that Netflix’s streaming service was shut down by the amount of traffic after its release. Colter shared with us how he survived a year of training himself and how he’s preparing for the potential of a second season.

How was it to walk into that audition room?

I knew that going in there I wanted my take on the character to either be dead on, or dead wrong. Sometimes you get a second chance at a role, but I didn’t want to go in with that mentality. They had a good idea of what they wanted, and when I walked in, it all just sort of clicked. I really don’t know how to articulate how it happened.

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How did you approach your training once you got the role?

Listen, I am not walking around looking like Luke Cage does at all. I knew that I needed to gain some weight to get the right build. The physicality for Luke Cage is important because the base material you’re dealing with is graphic novels, which are really all visual.

Had you ever taken on an endeavor like this in your career before?

You could say that I had. Before I starred in Million Dollar Baby, I wasn’t really a boxer. I just worked hard to learn as much as I could before we were there on set. This was similar in the fact that it was another physical role, and I knew that I was going to have to put in the same kind of work that I did back then.

How did you get started?

I kept it pretty simple. I knew that I had to eat right, get into the gym and put that work in. Some people act like there is so much mystery in getting fit, but the only secret there is to making it happen is time. I knew it was going to be a hard battle, and I was ready to put the time in.

You were training while you were also on set filming. Did it get difficult to find the moments you could get a session in?

Sometimes I would step off the set and it is 10 at night. Sure I’d love to go home, and study my lines for the next day, but that is when I had to train. And though it may be hard to get in there, being in the gym alone is great. There is no one to bother you, and I was able to truly focus.

What were the exercises that allowed you to get the right gains?

It was really all about the fundamental workouts. I was doing a lot of deadlifts. I did squats when I could, but I also have sciatica, which can really kill me sometimes. It makes it difficult to pull them off without getting pain. So sometimes instead I would get the same sort of results by doing some heavy leg presses or lunges to keep the stress off my spine.

Did your diet change greatly?

I usually eat pretty clean. There are a lot of vegetables and lean protein. The mornings I stick with an egg white omelet, and in the evenings something like a lean fish, such as salmon, with a bunch of veggies on the side.

How do you think you managed without a trainer or nutritionist?

You need to find that drive. You need to know what you’re working toward. But I think if we do more I may actually work with someone. It is just that I’ve been playing this role for over a year now. I’m really starting to get bored with myself, doing the same workouts. “Oh here we go again.” I need someone to crack the whip. I need someone to kick my butt, because sometimes I can end up taking it pretty easy on myself.

So can we hope for a second season?

You know we have to let the fan response happen first. But the showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker actually already has a few ideas, and they’re great. Funnily enough we were brainstorming recently at a hotel during a midnight workout together. I’m just hoping that Marvel and Netflix allow us to do some more.

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