Nora Dominick ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Executive Stage Editor
Luke Cage is no doubt one of the biggest Netflix and Marvel series to date. It’s garnered major success across the board as it tells the story of Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a wrongly accused man with superpowers who escapes prison to become a superhero for hire.
Emertainment Monthly recently caught up with Emerson College alum Justin Swain, who portrays NYPD cop Bailey in the hit Netflix series. Swain previously appeared on Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU.
Alongside his acting career, Swain has written for film and television. He has developed pilots under the guidance of Christina Wayne (Mad Men and Breaking Bad) and Academy Award and Emmy winning producer Cary Brokaw (The Player and Closer). He is currently producing his first feature film, Penance. His work in Luke Cage marks his first major recurring role and he’s loving every second of it.
Justin Swain chats about the audition process for Luke Cage, how it feels to create the character of Bailey, working in New York City and much more!
Check out the full interview below!
Emertainment Monthly: How did you get started with Luke Cage? What was the audition process like?
Justin Swain: It was really, really fun! And it was really, really crazy and unexpected because Marvel is so secretive about everything that they do, I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for. It was pretty neat because I got the sides and they basically came unlabeled and kind of on a Word document. I’d been in for the casting people before for other things. Julie Schubert, who is a fabulous casting director in New York City, worked with me on Boardwalk Empire. I got cast on Boardwalk through her. So, I’ve known her for a few years, so I’d gone to an audition earlier that day and it was for a network show. It really didn’t go well, so I was in this somewhat hilarious mood.
When I was in with Julie we started talking about goofy stuff and eventually she was like, ‘Are we gonna do this?’ And I quickly did the audition, she gave me an adjustment, I went through again and she was like, ‘Great! Have you ever done anything for Netflix before?’ And I was like, ‘No, not yet.’ Julie was like, ‘Well, maybe you will soon!’ I left and then I was kind of like the guy in the audition that everybody hates. I was walking out just goofing with the casting director. These guys are looking at me and glaring. It was just one of those days. So, I was nice and relaxed.
Then, I still didn’t even know what it was for, all I knew is I had to sign a non disclosure agreement. So, I was going North the next day to catch up with my family, it was Labor Day weekend, and I was in a car and the top was down and so I couldn’t hear when my agent called. He told me, ‘You booked it!’ I was like, ‘What?’ I thought he was talking about the bad audition. He didn’t know which one it was though and he told me it was the one with Julie. We don’t even know what the show is at this point. I got to my house in Connecticut and I did some fishing around and figured out the code name and that’s when I realized it was for Marvel.
Then, when I officially booked the role, Marvel sent me an introductory email that was kind of like, ‘Welcome to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!’ I then had access to a website where I could get the scripts because everything is so secretive. That’s when I realized it was Luke Cage and it was for Marvel, it was for Netflix and it was recurring. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It was really cool. That was the auditioning process and even at that point I didn’t know how much the role was going to change or grow over the course of the season. They dole it out only when they need to. It was really exciting and every time I got new pages, it was a surprise. That’s what it was like to book the show.
Were you a fan of Marvel’s Netflix series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones before booking the role?
I was a big fan of Daredevil and I was big fan of the movies. Jessica Jones hadn’t come out yet when we were actually filming Luke Cage. I was watching that premiere with anticipation and when it did come out, which was cool, was I would hang out in the dressing room on the set and be with my laptop watching Jessica Jones and then go an perform in Luke Cage. So that was really kind of fun. It helped me get in the headspace of the world. The worlds are related but not the same. You’re getting in the headspace with Jessica Jones and then you’re kind of going up town to Harlem when you step on set. It was really cool to watch it and feel all moody and then do it.
Were you a fan of Marvel comics too?
I definitely have a new appreciation for the comics now. The funniest part about the whole thing is that my wife’s Dad was a huge fan of comic books. He had like hundreds of comic books. So, when we found out it was Luke Cage that I booked he was the one that was like, ‘Hey! This is Luke Cage’s entire backstory!’ He told me all about it.
How was it getting into the headspace of playing Bailey?
It was really cool to play Bailey because when he first came on the scene, it was a little interaction between me and Simone Missick, who was fantastic as Misty Knight. She was just a joy to work with and she made me feel really welcomed and really comfortable on set. It was really awesome to watch her work. So, she really helped me relax on set and get in the headspace. With Bailey particularly, one of the things that he had was after we shot that first interaction there was actually a scene in episode 5 that they cut.
We shot this scene and I was walking out of the house and the sides said, ‘Bailey takes off his glasses.’ So, I needed glasses so I grabbed my wife’s glasses on the way out of the house. I got to set and we were shooting and I was looking at something close through my wife’s prescription and I started to get dizzy. So I took them off and that became this character thing that Bailey did. He would look up and quickly take off his glasses. Just that gesture got me into the headspace of who this guy was. This analytical guy who spends so much time and attention to what the details will show. Misty has her vision, but with Bailey, he’s like ‘This is what the evidence is.’ This became this somewhat frustrating thing with Misty, especially at the end.
So, that’s what it was like to be Bailey. You have the glasses and you have the evidence. He’s very analytical, argumentative guy. One of my fantasies is if they bring back Bailey and we get to do some more is that he’s a secret badass. He takes his glasses off and is just blowing people away.
You’ve done a lot of TV before, is Bailey like any other character you’ve played? Or is he a new challenge?
It was definitely a new challenge for me. I’ve played a lot of roles that were really fun. I got to do an Irish accent and accent work and I’m good at that stuff. It’s really fun for me to do that type of character and to use a different voice and to really feel different from somebody is really fun. You feel more like a character with that stuff. For Bailey, it was a much larger role and a bigger part and because of that I had to get comfortable with parts of me that were more like him and more close to me. I really had to concentrate on the chemistry and what was going on between me and Simone that day on set.
So, there was a certain degree of preparation of knowing that world and doing the cop stuff, but there was also an edge with the humor that was brought to the script. It was close to just having a conversation. I had to get comfortable with what parts were like me and what parts were like Bailey. You have to get comfortable with yourself and then yourself and the character. It’s a huge learning process.
You have to bring small portions of yourself to this character.
Yeah! Because you feel the moment with the other actor and whatever is happening in the moment and then you also do it through the veil and the mask of the character. It’s how you get attached to things like I was attached to his glasses and his analytical nature. There was also something in my body. There was like this walk that i found for Bailey. He’s a little bit caved in, in the chest, because he’s really interesting in figuring out the analytics of things. It made me feel like this caved in feeling. It’s almost like he’s ducking underneath the information.
One of the awesome things about Luke Cage and the other Marvel shows is you are filming in NYC. What’s that like?
It was awesome! It was really cool to film in NYC. When I first moved to NYC I lived in an area called Greenpoint in Brooklyn. A lot of people know that area now, but when I first moved there is was desolate. I was way out past a little park and we had to walk maybe 15-20 blocks to even find a cash machine. When I booked the role, they gave me the studio location and where to meet. It’s basically around the corner from where I first moved when I lived in New York. It was this interesting full circle moment. It’s become all of these TV studios down there now.
So, going back out there it was a sense of coming home, but also to do what I came to NYC to do. It was a really cool feeling to go back out there and be able to act and get that privilege. It’s a blessing whenever anything works out, it’s such a hard thing to run after. So, every time I went to set it was like taking a vacation. I loved it. So, filming in NYC that’s what it was like. You’re used to the neighborhoods and you find a little door and see that they’re filming stuff here. In LA it’s everywhere.