Theo Rossi is best known to his fans for playing “Juice”—the tatted up, mohawked, and hopelessly troubled underdog—on FX’s long-running TV series Sons of Anarchy. Now the Staten Islander is set to attract an even bigger fan base as the Marvel Cinematic Universe soldiers on with Netflix’s Luke Cage. The setup? After a sabotaged experiment leaves a wrongly accused man with superhuman strength and bulletproof skin, he breaks out of prison and attempts to find a semblance of normality in modern day Harlem, New York City. But it’s not long before his many adversaries pull him out from the shadows—among them Rossi’s own supervillain Shades Alvarez—forcing him to confront a past he tried to bury. Luke Cage is the latest in a string of shows leading up to Marvel and Netflix’s event series The Defenders set to premiere in 2017, which will see Rossi’s comic book world collide with that of Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Iron Fist.
F: So you’re obviously big on tattoos. What’s happening with that these days?
TR: Back in the day, you got a tattoo and that was that. You weren’t thinking about where to put it and just got something that meant something to you. As I got older, I got crazy about symmetry and making things even. I want to tell a story by linking the tattoos I do have, especially after having my son. This tattoo artist and I just spent a couple of hours talking about how to put it all together in a really cool way. I’m really excited about it.
F: You’re a family guy. You’re big on your Staten Island roots. Was it nice to shoot Luke Cage closer to home after being on the West Coast with Sons of Anarchy?
TR: Without a doubt! Luke Cage was predominantly shot in Harlem. I would say the heavy majority of it was shot on the streets and rooftops around there. All the stage work is done in-studio in Brooklyn, and that’s where Daredevil and Jessica Jones also shoot. I lived in Los Angeles, on and off, for 15 years. I think we were in season five of Sons when [Hurricane] Sandy hit Staten Island and that’s when I decided to move back to the East Coast. I knew that Sons was going seven seasons and, more importantly, I was going to be on for all the seasons. So I created an exit plan. It just so happens that a month or two before I got back to New York, Luke Cage came into my life. To come back to New York City and do Luke Cage—you can’t write a better book than that for me.
F: Were you hesitant about joining another TV show after such a long run on Sons?
TR: My agent and everybody were asking me, “Do you want to do another TV show?” There are so many TV shows and people don’t realise this. There are like 400 TV shows on the air. I told them, “The only way I’d go back to TV is if it had a Comic-Con type of audience.” That’s what I felt we had with Sons. I felt that passion. There’s a giant difference when you look at something like the fans’ passion for Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Jessica Jones. There’s a fanboy type of love that is so intriguing to me as an actor. Once you feel it, you only want that in TV. I wasn’t interested in doing a procedural on network television. I have a lot of friends who do it, but it’s just not for me. In this day and age, it’s all about Netflix and Marvel. They’re at the top of their game.
F: There’s a lot of secrecy surrounding your character Shades Alvarez on Luke Cage. He has been described as “the ultimate opportunist.” Could you elaborate on that?
TR: Well, he’s from the original comic book Luke Cage, Hero for Hire from 1972. Shades has a massively long history with Luke. And since he has this history with Luke, it makes him very dangerous. There’s constant purpose in every move, look and decision that’s made, so he’s the ultimate chess player. He’s the ultimate opportunist because he uses humans as pawns. He’s always shifting things around to his advantage, whether the other characters know this or not. He’s just so patient. I’ve never played a character so patient.
F: How often do you get asked about the challenges of acting with sunglasses on?
TR: All the time! [Laughs] I didn’t think it was a big deal at first and then you’re in these dark clubs at night. The dark Ray-Bans are such an important little aspect of Shades, not just because it was derived from the original comic book, but it also really does make him that much more—for the lack of a better word—shady. Anyone who wears sunglasses at night in a club is either on peyote or just a little “off” like Shades is. As we started doing more episodes, I was like, “Am I not communicating?” The thing is, I act so much with my eyes. The eyes are everything. With some of the best acting I’ve seen, nothing is spoken. So to then take that away, that was a really big challenge. Amazingly, the person who I had to study was Charlie Cox on Daredevil. I was like, “How is this kid doing this and still getting his emotional points across?” Shades does take them off sometimes…
F: I know you played a bunch of sports growing up. You’re an obsessive runner these days. Did you have to take up additional physical training to prep for Luke Cage?
TR: I feel lucky because we kind of covered the gamut of physical activity with Sons. I just finished a race last weekend for Nike and I’m training for the New York City Marathon. Running started for me when I had to lose a bunch of weight for a role I took on. What I found was that it’s the easiest way for me to escape life for a minute and go reset. I could also do whatever task was at hand while running—memorizing lines, and figuring out how to excel in one of my businesses and move it into its next phase—because I’m so competitive and always want to test myself. You’re waiting all the time as an actor. When they say you shoot all day, you don’t really shoot all day. You actually shoot about 45 minutes of footage total. I used to come home at three or five in the morning after a shoot and just start running. I just had to get moving and get my brain working again.
F: Do you think about mortality a lot? And where do you think that comes from?
TR: I’ve had a lot of people leave around me, either by their own hands or just the roll of the dice. It made me very aware of it from the first person I saw go that I was super close to when I was very young. I knew that this isn’t forever, and whether people want to admit it or not, it’s terrifying! Things get real short, real fast. You blink and the day is over.
F: What is your FAULT?
TR: I want to do everything. I want to do absolutely everything and my mind is constantly jumping from one thing to another. It’s like that [Dylan Thomas] poem: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” I’m going to rage into the light. [Laughs] I’m very, very aware that I have a very short time on this Earth. This is why I try to be as clearheaded as possible and do everything possible. The only reason I say this is a FAULT is because there’s not a lot of rest living that kind of existence. But I’m more than okay with that.