'Luke Cage': Theo Rossi Talks His "Cerebral" Marvel Villain, 'Sons of Anarchy' Comparisons

After playing out Juice's tragic backstory on the FX drama for seven seasons, Rossi explains why he chose Marvel's latest Netflix series as his next long-term project.
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers from Luke Cage season one, episode five, "Just to Get a Rep."]

Theo Rossi is done playing the victim.

After inhabiting the role of Juan Carlos "Juice" Ortiz for seven seasons on the FX drama Sons of Anarchy, Rossi was ready to turn in his leather in exchange for Ray Bans as Hernan "Shades" Alvarez, the newest Marvel villain on Luke Cage. While episode four revealed that Shades and Luke (Mike Colter) knew each other in the past while they were both serving time at Seagate Prison, it wasn't until the end of episode five that Shades realized that the bulletproof, super strong man causing him so many issues in Harlem in the present was none other than presumed-dead inmate Carl Lucas, his old prison nemesis, living under a new identity and trying to hide from his past. 

"This is really the origin of Luke's story, and as we find out more about him, we find out more about Shades," Rossi tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They've both shaped who each other is. When we first met Luke, we were looking at it through Jessica's eyes [on Jessica Jones]. There were never scenes with Luke without Jessica. It was all through her vision. Now, we're seeing Luke step into this world, his world, and all these nefarious characters that come with it around him and how they affect his journey."

While the ruthless, dangerous Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) may seem like the villain to watch out for on Luke Cage, Rossi argues that it's actually Shades who poses the bigger threat.

"Shades is this guy who has been there from the beginning, has a total agenda the second he steps in, and for anyone who's there or gets in his way or happens to be a part of it, how he uses that, he's a chess player," Rossi says. "He's going to get to where he has to go, no matter what."

Rossi echoes a sentiment he says that Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb told him about the series: "For a hero whose true vulnerability is the truth about his past, to have someone in the story who knows that truth is someone who is extremely dangerous."

While many view Rossi's previous role of Juice as a good-guy-turned-villain, he doesn't agree with that assessment, and believes that Shades is a much different kind of character for him to take on. 

"Shades is a bad guy. I don't think Juice was ever a bad guy," Rossi says. "I just found out recently, someone told me that he actually had taken more lives than almost any character and you never think of him like that. Not counting any of the giant shootouts, but he did single-handedly take out the most people, which is so weird because I always looked at him like a victim. He was the nice guy, so it's shocking that someone said that. I'm going to have to fact check that and see when I go back in 20 years and rewatch the entire run."

According to Rossi, who was unable to comment on the long-rumored SOA spinoff series Mayans, comparing the two complicated men reminds him of the reason why he signed on to play Shades in the first place.

"Where someone like Juice was kind of side-stepping and moving backwards and everything was happening to him, this is a guy who is so incredibly intelligent and a giant chess player," Rossi says. "I love how [executive producer] Cheo [Coker] compared him to Littlefinger [Aidan Gillen] from Game of Thrones. He's dictating. He has a plan. He does his best to execute those plans. He's very cerebral. He's such an interesting character to take on because he's doing so much sometimes, and when you start to see it all come together as this giant story, you realize just how smart and calculating he's been this entire time."

He pauses to smile, then continues, "That's why I was so interested in this role. I guess if it's a word, the cerebral-ness of the character, the fact that he's thinking and he's more the leader as opposed to the follower. That's a very big difference from something I just came from playing for seven years. I played a guy who was really trying to hold his breath and keep up rather than control the situation."

In order to remain in control, Shades often relies on throwing around the name of his boss, Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), to strike fear in the hearts of his inferiors and peers. But will things change when Diamondback actually shows up to take the reins of Cottonmouth's Harlem operation?

"Things will definitely change when Diamondback arrives," Rossi says. "There's been a lot of talk and everything is for a reason. Everything is calculated. But Shades 100 percent has his own endgame. What parts of it you see and what parts of it are coming from Diamondback, all will be answered by the end of the first season. But you've just seen the opening of a few pages of the book, and these seasons are like chapters. Sons of Anarchy was a seven-chapter book with an opening and an ending. Who knows how many chapters this will be once you add in all the other shows. So for certain characters, this is just the beginning."

And from the sound of things, Rossi is along for the ride no matter how long that might last.

"It was groundbreaking in '72 and it's groundbreaking now," Rossi says of Luke Cage. "I love the reaction it's been getting. And this is just such a rich world, not just the characters but the music, the backdrop, the scenery, the clothing, everything. It's an extremely cool show. Everyone's going to feel very unhip if they don't watch it. You have to be a part of it and you're cooler for just being a part of it. It's the best material on television right now."

Luke Cage season one is now streaming on Netflix.