Justin Swain can currently be seen as Bailey in Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix. Luke Cage follows the story of Carl Lucas / Luke Cage, a former convict with superhuman strength and unbreakable skin who now fights crime. Swain plays Bailey, Misty’s NYPD colleague. The first season premiered on Netflix on September 30th, 2016 and has received much acclaim from viewers and critics. Swain’s additional credits include HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU. He took time out between auditions in New York to chat with Tai Freligh from Flickering Myth about season one of Marvel’s Luke Cage and some of his upcoming projects.
A lot of your roles are in law enforcement. Is there anything behind that or is it just what you ended up getting for roles?
It’s kind of a happy accident in a way. I was always just like, I want to do that. I like playing cops, detectives, things like that. I’ve been lucky enough to go out for those roles and get the chance to play them. But the only cop person in my life is my brother in law who is a state trooper from CT and that’s the only connection to law enforcement that I have. It’s just a kind of a happy accident that I play cops.
Your audition for Luke Cage was a blind audition. What was the casting call for that and what did they have you do when you got there?
That was really cool. It was a real funny experience because that day I actually went in for two different roles. Earlier that morning I went in for a network show and when I was doing that audition, it wasn’t really fantastic. I was in the waiting room for a long time and I was wearing a suit and it was a hot, hot day. So when I left that audition I was kind of grateful that it was over with and I could like get out of my suit and everything. So, I was in a kind of devil-may-care mood when I went for the second audition, which ended up being Luke Cage. It was being cast under a code name called “sierra” and they just strung together like three different scenes from three different episodes in basically a word doc. You could tell that it was semi cop oriented and procedural, but there was a bit of a bite to the dialogue, so it was a little more spicy than a normal cop show, which I thought was really cool. So when I went in to meet with Julie Schubert who is just an awesome casting director, she brought me in on Boardwalk Empire earlier in my career and I feel comfortable with her because I’ve known her for a few years. So we were kind of talking a bit before the audition started and then I was like, hey let’s do this. Then I read through the scene once and then she gave me an adjustment. There was a little bit of sarcasm in one of the lines and she was like, that was great, so it wasn’t easy-peasy, but it felt comfortable and relaxed and I felt calm in the role. It was a really fun audition and I left that one feeling the polar opposite of the one in the morning. I was really happy. I didn’t really think much of it because I thought it was some sort of goofy, weird cop show on Netflix. I had to sign an NDA, I didn’t know what it was for. Then I was driving with my wife to hang out for the Labor Day Weekend and then I got a call from my agent and I couldn’t hear what they were saying because we were in a convertible and I had to pull over. He was like, hey, you got it. I was kinda confused because I thought he meant the first one. I was like, are you sure? I don’t think so. I’m shocked. Then he went back and said, oh no, it’s this one, Sierra. I went home and did some digging and eventually got an email welcoming me to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that was when I was like, OMG, what just happened? And then it was really exciting from there. I figured out it was Luke Cage and then I talked to my father-in-law, who is really into comic books. He told me all about the backstory of LC. The part really grew as the season progressed, which was a surprise and really kind of awesome.
Did you have any idea about Luke Cage before you got the brain dump from family?
I didn’t know anything about the character or the comic book before I booked it other than that I was a fan of Daredevil and I keep up with the trades so I knew that they were going to be doing a big thing with Marvel and The Defenders and I knew the name, but I didn’t really know much more than that. And then I got the brain dump from my father-in-law who loves comic books and who told me the whole backstory of Luke Cage and where the comic book came from, it originated in the 70s. I thought it was very cool and timely having a bullet-proof superhero of Luke Cage. It’s really a cool experience to be a part of it.
Tell me in a nutshell about who your character of Bailey is?
Bailey is an NYPD detective that in the second half of the season kind of comes on and becomes a bit of an analytical partner to Misty Knight in the series. I think that he’s a bit of a geek. He’s an analytical guy. He pays a lot of attention to the details and the evidence. He definitely wants to go over the details before jumping to any conclusions and I think that he can be a bit frustrating to his partner, Misty Knight because she, especially in the last episodes is like, just tell me what’s going on, you don’t need to give me all the details. So he can be a bit of a foil to her because she goes with her gut and he can be a bit of a foil and slow her down because he wants to look at the evidence for clues. So he’s kind of a geek, but I’m hoping that if we do a season two, they can make him a secret bad-ass where he takes off his glasses and he’s able to do something really cool. That’s Bailey in a nutshell.
Are we going to see Bailey in a second season of Luke Cage or on The Defenders?
Everything Marvel does in the future is kept on a very hush hush and only Marvel is allowed to reveal what’s going to happen, so I can only talk about what has transpired and not what is going to transpire. Everybody’s hoping that there’s a lot of really cool opportunities on the horizon and everyone is looking forward to what they decide to do next.
Out of the six episodes you did, what was your favourite scene and why?
There’s a few. When I got all my scenes for episode 10 I was really excited because I had this big thing where I went over all the evidence with Misty and I tried to figure out if it was Luke Cage hurting people or not and the director of that episode was really fun to work with. There was a lot of camera movement and a walk and talk vibe to it when they were shooting it, so they had to choreograph the traffic of me entering the scene and picking me up off of Karen Pittman, who was fantastic actress and I had known for a little while. So it was cool to shoot on set. There was a cool vibe and a lot of energy on set that day, so it was really cool to film those scenes. I think another moment I like is on episode 8 where Bailey jumps up and shows that he knows Misty and wants to protect her. He jumps up as she’s going out of the office to catch Luke Cage and he’s like, you’re going to do something stupid, don’t do that. She responds, look, don’t tell anyone. I liked that he worried about her. It was a little character moment.
All the Marvel series, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage are darker, grittier shows on Netflix. How different is it to shoot episodes for this series versus a network show or HBO?
I shot an episode of Blacklist while doing Luke Cage and it was interesting doing a network show and the Netflix shows where as the HBO and Netflix shows are alike. You get the feeling that you are filming more of a giant movie and there’s a looseness like you’re doing a film and you’re not beholden to fitting in that time frame of a network show where you have to make sure you’re hitting your act outs and it’s only this long and this is the schedule. Whereas on the set of Luke Cage where there were certain points where Cheo, the showrunner came over to me in the beginning, so that was really cool of him to be there for people to interact and talk about the show with him. He was like, we’re going to turn the shot around on you and maybe we can ad-lib some stuff and put some things here and there and see if it works and if not, we’ll play with it a little, so there was a little bit more of a sense of play and input that I noticed in my limited experience with them, from the network shows to the Netflix and HBO stuff. That stuff is a little more fluid and you can add a little more character to it in some ways and I really like the character development in those as opposed to pounding out a Law and Order or something like that. Not that those shows aren’t high quality as well and I’m grateful to have done them, but that’s the difference…more looseness on set.Credit: Jason Setiawan
Netflix has pioneered this whole idea of bite-size binge-watching where an entire season is released all at once. What are your thoughts on doing original programming that way?
It’s a double-edged sword. One thing that’s cool about doing a series that’s released over time is you kind of have that anticipation of watching the next episode and the next episode and that’s a different sort of anticipation than when you get all the episodes at once. So, in a way it’s kinda like you shot a film and you wait for the entire film to come out in one day and you get to see everything and have your friends see you and do the work and have it all come out at once where as if you do the normal model, it’s getting released over time so there’s a bitmore of a stretched out thing in terms of your performance being seen over a long period of time. So, I personally when shows that I like on Netflix come out, like House of Cards or Bloodline or Daredevil, I’m a binger. I sit down and have my time during the day to watch it or at night before I go to bed and I get to the series end pretty quickly and I love that I’m able to do that. But at the same it’s over so quick and you have to wait so long for the next one to come out. It’s kind of a double-edged experience, but I do have to admit that I love to binge-watch and love seeing the shows all at once.
You’re an actor/producer/writer/director/playwright, jack of all trades. If you were forced to do only one thing, what would it be and why?
That’s interesting. I really do love being able to write and direct and do things like that and work with people. I worked with a writing partner Kevin O’Donnell, who’s a wonderful fellow. You know some pilots and shopped them around and that’s great because you get to do it that way, but I think that getting a chance to work with other actors and be an actor and collaborate with so many people. It’s not that writing is a lonely experience, especially when it gets to production and you’re able to incorporate everyone, but it’s really fun to go and kind of as a character live out these different lifetimes within your lifetimes, you get to play multiple people and do different things. I think it was the playwright Shaw who said he was jealous of actors because they’d get the chance to make all they can be like in the moment. They get to take the writer’s words and get to live it. So I think in that regard, I think acting would be if I could do it and only do it. Right now in the current climate in the same way you’re doing Broadway, you have to be a triple threat. You have to sing, dance and act. I think in the feature television world you have to be a triple threat. You have to write, produce and act. That way you can continue to work. You have to be able to do all of that.Credit: Jason Setiawan
What projects do you have coming up next?
Something that’s really cool is a short film I did with Kevin O’Donnell. We actually did a promotional piece for a pilot script we developed together called The Darkline. It was recently accepted to a horror film festival in New Jersey and it’s going to be playing next week. We’ll be going out there to do a Q&A afterwards. It’s gotten into a few festivals. There’s a pilot project we’re working on about the drug trade from Los Angeles all the way up to Alaska called The Dark Ones and how these gangs are very ferocious and in Alaska they’re bringing drugs out to the bush. It’s a kind of horror crime drama that we’ve worked on together. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re also doing a piece on the fisherman in Gloucester, MA that are being over-regulated by the government so they’re turning to smuggling to survive. That’s another piece that Kevin and I are working on together. We’re working on doing an episodic virtual reality project which is really an awesome virtual medium. A bit of the wild, wild west.
What’s something that nobody has asked you yet, that you wished people would ask you?
I’d like to give a shout out to the costume designers and the costume people on Luke Cage because they pulled me some pretty awesome clothes, some awesome boots. I don’t get asked much about that kind of stuff. A shout out to the crew and how awesome and welcoming they were, to Cheo and his team. You don’t really see them, but there was a really awesome pair of boots that I got to wear that I wanted to take with me. From Cheo all the way down to the PAs that worked with us, everybody was just spot on and super professional. I really enjoyed the whole process.
We thank Justin for taking the time to chat with us here at Flickering Myth. Season One of Marvel’s Luke Cage can currently be watched on Netflix.
Tai Freligh is a Los Angeles-based writer and can be found on Twitter.