Luke Cage’s Gabrielle Dennis on her secret role and what she hopes to see next season

*Please note this article contains ALL the spoilers for the second season of Netflix’s Luke Cage. 

Trigger warning: article describes the sexual assault of a character. Please read with caution.*

Luke Cage returned with its second season this past Friday. Fans have been waiting to watch the powerful man from Harlem since we last saw him last summer in The Defenders. With this season out in full force, we are introduced to Tilda Johnson, played by Gabrielle Dennis, a medical doctor who specializes in holistic measures who has a unique connection to Mariah (Alfre Woodward) and a new villain, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir).

In the comics, Tilda Johnson is a crimelord named Nightshade who eventually turns her life around to become a heroine. In the comics, she battles with Luke Cage and his team using her knowledge of chemicals to create concoctions to transform people into wolves and have control over them. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tilda is able to create concoctions and potions, but none as extreme as werewolves. She provides a potion to give strength and intense healing capabilities, as well as poison someone with a kiss.

Of course, we learn so much about the character throughout the season and learn more about her intentions. It comes to no surprise she is a part of Mariah’s shady past and sets her up to be a force to be reckoned with for a possible third season. Who are we kidding… there will be a third season.

We got to chat with Dennis about her role, what she knew, how she felt about the twist in episode 10, and get all the details on what she hopes to see for her character next season.

Nerd Reactor: First off, when you were approached for this role of Tilda Johnson, did you know the details of the character?

Gabrielle Dennis: Oh no. Even when I auditioned, I don’t remember the character name. It wasn’t even Tilda. You know, everything was very coded and just kind of top secret. My first audition there was the thing from Mother’s Touch where you first meet me – when Mariah and I had our first conversation, but that was one of the auditions. And then, I had to sing, we didn’t know why, but they wanted to know if I could sing. That was a part of the audition and then later, once I got cast and speaking to [showrunner] Cheo Hodari Coker, he wasn’t quite sure how and if and when the singing would ever play, but obviously, you saw in the show, that it did play. He wanted to make sure to use it because the family had ties to music. That’s a big part of the show. And, it was an amazing experience because I got to write that song.

NR: Wow.

Dennis: Yeah, I wrote that song and performed it. It was just like, I was over the moon. Like even watching it, I was like ‘oh my god, I wrote those lyrics, this is so cool.’ But, there was just so much I didn’t know when I walked into it, other than the obvious. I wasn’t familiar with the comic books at all. But you know, having looked up Tilda Johnson and figuring out like ‘oh OK, so Tilda Johnston is Nightshade.’ This should be interesting you know. I just thought I’m playing someone’s daughter. I think that, for me, is kind of what I’m hoping the journey people will also go on. I know a lot of people will be familiar [with the character]. Even though they are familiar a little bit more with Tilda Johnson, I think what’s interesting is to see how the show has created [her story] and where we find her and how they start with Tilda. It’s just kind of like “oh she just, you know, this holistic doctor trying to do good in the community. You know she just recently moved back to Harlem. Oh wait, she’s Mariah’s daughter. Oh wait, they have a history that is weird and we’ve got to connect the dots. Oh wait, she might not actually be a Johnson, Oh wait, she’s very familiar with this plant called Nightshade. Oh wait, she’s now helping Bushmaster. Oh wait, she took Mariah out.’ You know, there’s just all of these moments you just don’t expect this new character [to be] – the way we first find her to be and that journey that begins where she ends. But, I think that’s most exciting even for me as an actor, it’s just kind of like everything I reveal to you up front, but you know you file the information bit by bit, little pieces here and there and you’re just like, your mouth is just open like ‘wait, what?!’ You know, when I found out from Cheo that I was going to be the one to take Mariah out, I was like ‘What? Me?!’ It was just so hilarious, the way that being a part of this top secret mission. But, what I love about it is that I feel like the same amount of excitement and surprise that we as actors get throughout this journey is what the audiences offer to us along the way. And there are so many twists and turns – even with the father situation. Yeah, you know, I don’t know, it’s just very exciting.

NR: What do you feel like was Tilda’s mindset when she discovered she was actually a Stoke instead of the Dillard and the result of a rape?

Dennis: I mean, it’s just a such a painful one. It’s gut-busting. It’s heart-wrenching, It feels like your entire inside has just been yanked out. I love that it happened on camera and onscreen. That was a long scene to get there. I love that the show didn’t cut that scene. I think that was a nice long scene and it was a very emotional one. I packed a lot of information and I think it just punched everyone in the face – it punched Tilda, for sure. I just think it can really affect someone’s psyche once you realize, wait a minute, nothing about me is real. Like, nothing about my origin story and how I’ve lived my life feels real to me anymore. I don’t know who I am anymore. All of a sudden, you wake up one day and you feel like a different person and you feel strongly affected by the darkness of that. Sometimes, some people will run away from it and try to find light and then some people embrace it. You know, I think she was at that crossroads, like what do I do with this information? You know, it’s one thing to just tuck your trousers between your legs or just go hide in and not deal with it, but then when you have a mother like Mariah freaking Dillard, who’s on this rampage. You realize okay, this is in our D.N.A. This is the problem. This is a part of our legacy. Somebody has got to stop it, you know. Somebody’s got to be that change. [Somebody has to be] that turn for things to be better. I was like if there’s going to be one last standing Stoke, then it should be me. I’m just saying, because at the end of the day, I just kind of think, she did what she did with good intent you know. It was just someone has gotta take her (Mariah) out, but at what cost? How many more people would have had to die? How much more pain would have been caused because of that? Who else would have got close to her in that way other than me?

NR: You sang beautifully for the season finale. I know you played your own music, it was beautiful. Also, what I got from watching you perform, I notice you were more a Cornell than you were Mariah. Do you feel like that reflected your relationship to be closer to Cornell as a leader versus Mariah?

Dennis: Interesting. Yeah, I mean, I was closer to Cornell growing up. He was like the one family member that I had a close relationship with because, you know, having been sent away at such a young age. Any time I came back, Cornell and I always had a closer connection. The fact that he would introduce me to music and art and things like that, I just always felt that there was just a stronger connection there. [He was] one of the family members that I actually looked up and trusted. I had some form of respect for [him]. It’s interesting that you say that I will be connected more to him and relate more to him as a leader. I think that’s very interesting. I would like to see what Tilda’s journey is for season three? Will she be the leader like Cornell? Or, will she be a leader like Mariah? Or, will she be infold a Stoke, that the neither of them ever could have been. It’s very interesting to see what direction she’s gonna go in.

NR: I was a bit perplexed that your character helped Bushmaster. I mean first, they took you captive, but then you ended up helping them out. Misty made a Patty Hearst comment and it made me wonder like why did Tilda help them after they did horrible things like killing people too.

Dennis: I think part of her appeal and her reasoning of being in the lore to Bushmaster’s character is that the whole magic and the voodoo and the nightshade. I think there was just something that attracted her to that because, at the end of the day, her brain is always on holistic healing powers and the science and the medicine and all of that. So, I feel like there was just something very intriguing to her that there is this person that has this ability from a plant and the way that he went about getting there. [She] starts to like [learn about] his story. Like you said, they both have killed people, but I guess her version of it her – her interpretation is he did it because he had to, whereas Mariah is doing it because she chooses to. This is his payback from all of the pain and hurt that [was caused] by my family. I almost felt like I owed him. It was just like listening to a story of them burning his mother, stealing the family business, and just kind of really just doing them all dirty. You know, him being shot!

All of these things that have happened were because of my family. It was just kind of being in this situation where I didn’t trust my mother. She completely just abandoned me at the warehouse. You know we’re in this freaking shoot-out, she looks at me when she could have saved me. She just chose to go on on her own. That was the moment when I felt like there’s this difference between the family and blood. We’re related by blood, but we weren’t family. You choose your family. You choose your friends. You choose the people in your circle. It was like if I’m going to choose one evil force over the other, I felt I could maybe start anew with someone that I personally didn’t have a history with. So, for me, it was just part of like making amends for all of the bad things that my family had [done] to his family and that’s what brought him to Harlem and why we’re all in this situation to begin with. I feel like it all started and ended with Stoke and it will continue with Stoke, like someone like Mariah.

NR: I noticed in the last episode when they reading Mariah’s will, your character seems really disappointed that she did not get Harlem’s Paradise. Would you say Tilda was disappointed not getting Harlem’s Paradise? How do you feel like that will affect your relationship going forward with Luke Cage?

Dennis: Definitely. It will affect the relationship. I definitely feel like, because of the last thing that her mother said, she was definitely like you know – go to Harlem’s Paradise, walk around, and really take it in. This is your family legacy. This is your history. Now it’s unknown as to what she would have done with Harlem’s paradise, you know. Would she had continued in the way that previous Stokes had got on or she had tried a new chapter and tried something totally different, but it was such a slap in the face to sit down next to this man, that I’m not related to, to find out that he gets everything and I got a freaking keyboard. You know it’s just kind of like a wow, that really stings. Tilda wanted to be the one. She understood – she finally stood up there and walked around that office and looked down from the crown jewel of Harlem’s Paradise and really understood that whoever stands here hold the power. And, she wants that power. I mean, most people want power of some sort and be in control of something. She felt like at this point she was left with nothing. This will be a way for her to rebuild and not sure that will be rebuilding it differently or rebuilding more of the same, but now Luke Cage is now a problem in her eyes or he can be an ally. I think that’s kind of like this big question mark we leave, she just kind of walks in and looked around. We don’t know what’s going on in her head, but we know she’s there for a mission. You know, Luke Cage is obviously in her sights.

NR: Well we could tell by the end that she kind of she resented her mother but at the same time, it was still her mother. Do you feel like she regrets killing Mariah – her own mother?

Dennis: I would like to think that she would because, at the end of the day, where we found Tilda – how we found Tilda at the beginning – is full of heart and kindness. So I think because that didn’t go away, it just might be buried in the moment. I don’t think it’s gone away. I feel like we’re going to find the moment where she wants to sing her redemption song and where she wants to feel remorse for her actions because, ultimately, she might also feel was that all for nothing. She did this act and what good did it do. Is it going to stop the violence? Are the killing, all the guns, and all of it going to stop? And, it probably won’t. And that, in turn, is going to make her probably feel guilty and upset that she hurt the only other living family member from that part of her family that was left. Everyone else is gone. So I think that’s a huge pill to swallow. At some point, she’s a human being at the end of the day and then I think she will have to face the music for that.

NR: Hopefully, there’s going to be a Season 3. Most likely, because Luke Cage is so popular and well loved by everyone. What do you hope for your character, if they announce season 3? Do you hope that she actually becomes the Nightshade that we see in Marvel Comics?

Dennis: I hope so. I would just like to see if she’s going to become an ally or an opposition to Luke Cage. Or if she will be to an ally or an opposition to Bushmaster. Let’s not forget, Shades is somewhere out there needing somewhere to go. He needs a home because now he’s this criminal who’s known as a snitch on the street. We don’t know. So he’s locked up, but he could eventually be a source of good insider information. You know, I feel like there are so many ways that she can go, but I would like to see the Nightshade element come into play in season three and see how mostly it will mimic that of the comic book.

NR: Do you feel like she will have superpowers? Do you hope to have superpowers?

Dennis: I always would love to have superpowers. I just feel like in my mind, I would assume she would just be more surrounded by power. I don’t know if that’s my way of her creating some concoctions that are turning people into werewolves. I don’t know if that’s just maybe taking the same a concoction that Bushmaster took. I’m not sure, but I know one thing, I will love to have some fighting scenes. That’s definitely something I love to do.

NR: There’s a scene I felt like Alex and Tilda had so much chemistry. You’ve built this friendship. Do you feel like she has guilt for what happened to him?

Dennis: Oh, for sure. I mean, she basically didn’t help him. I got mad when I watched that. I was like, why are you mad now!? You could have helped him! I mean there’s not much she could have probably done to protect him, but she didn’t even try. She just kind of turned him away. I think a part of the reason she did it that way is that she was just so upset with him. He should have known better. She knows he’s this good guy and she was like ‘why did you put yourself in this situation? Why were you ever in her cycle to begin with? Why didn’t you leave sooner? You should have known better.’ And, in that, she missed an opportunity to possibly redirect his ultimate faith. I think the fact that she saw him lying on the ground and watched his loved ones scream for him, that was just a lot to take in. On top of everything else, this was at the hands of her mother and it just, kind of, got too much. I think maybe part of that was a little bit for Alex. He represented the innocent. He represented those that definitely shouldn’t have to die, but did because Mariah was just too afraid to leave any loose ends and didn’t trust anybody. She ultimately no one – not even her own blood. So Tilda was just feeling bad for Alex and all those that lost their lives at the hands of this villain.

NR: OK, just one more, I know you have to go but just one more. Do you feel like that Tilda sees herself as the hero or the villain?

Dennis: I think everyone sees themselves as a hero. I don’t think anyone looks at themselves as a villain. I think they look at themselves, at least initially, as saving the day. I think her initial act was, ‘I’m going to save the day, she [Mariah] couldn’t be stopped. Bushmaster wasn’t able to succeed.’ I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I believe what he is telling me. Like she [Mariah] actually has to be stopped. If he couldn’t do it, no one else can. You know, Luke Cage didn’t have the heart to kill Mariah. So, who’s going to do it? I feel like Tilda thought she was a hero at the end of the day. At that moment, she thought this was a very brave sacrifice and a heroic thing to do. She was not feeling like a villain in that sense. But I think, eventually, you have to face the music and realize that you’re no better than that because you are doing the same thing.

Season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage is available now on Netflix.

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Laura Sirikul
Laura Sirikul 1824 posts

Trekkie. Jedi. Whovian. Sherlockian. Hobbit. Sanrio. Comics. I am Spartacus. Warrior Princess. Superhero. Nerd. Follow me @lsirikul