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  • 12.11.15

“Fargo” Scene-Stealer Bokeem Woodbine On Playing The Role of a Lifetime

The veteran actor talks to Co.Create about working with “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley to make the character Mike Milligan unforgettable.

“Fargo” Scene-Stealer Bokeem Woodbine On Playing The Role of a Lifetime
Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan Fargo, (Season 2)

Before he booked an audition for Fargo’s second season, Bokeem Woodbine had never watched the show. Even though the actor now considers the role he eventually won to be his personal best in a 22-year career, at no point during filming did he go back and see what the fuss surrounding the original project was about.

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“I didn’t want it to influence any of my choices, even subconsciously,” Woodbine says. “Also, I’d heard the cast in the previous season had done such an amazing job, and didn’t feel like I needed any extra pressure.”

Nothing in the resulting show suggests that the actor was plagued by feelings of pressure in the lead-up to production. His character, helmet-haired gangster, Mike Milligan, has emerged as a fan favorite, with his distinctive speech and breezy cool demeanor. Woodbine has survived a lot longer than much of his competition on the show, both in terms of his character staying alive and in holding his own with a murderer’s row cast that includes Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Nick Offerman, and other heavyweights. As it turns out, though, it’s a role that was, at first blush, literally unbelievable.

“I thought it might be a mistake I even got the audition,” Woodbine says. “I wasn’t really sure I had a shot, to tell you the truth. The whole time gearing up for it, I was thinking this is probably just kind of a bizarre accident that this audition got sent to me. I didn’t see myself in the Fargo universe.”

After getting a call about the audition, Woodbine had three days to prepare for proving he belonged in the Fargo universe. He did not have much to go on. With the plot being kept under wraps, he was given less than a paragraph’s worth of context about the character and just a few pages of script from which to glean anything about the situation. Milligan was described as the smartest guy in the room and someone who is very self-assured, but beyond that, the actor was left to his devices to figure out how to make the character resonate.

At first, the audition went smoothly. Hawley responded to this take on the character, perhaps mentally fitting the actor for a bolo tie while he spoke. When Woodbine flubbed a line, though, he was sure he’d lost the part. It was as much a surprise to him that he actually landed the role as it was when word of the audition first came down the pike.

Although Bokeem Woodbine has tangled with mob figures on the small screen before—as a rapper in a royalty dispute on The Sopranos—this was his first time playing this type of gangster. After starting out in inner city crime dramas like Strapped and Dead Presidents, the actor has since appeared in everything from sci-fi flicks to Michael Bay movies, and even a Western. Despite this considerable range, however, casting Woodbine as a snow-coated mob member was still considered going against type. It was the right time for it too.

“At this point, I’m just open to whatever good stuff comes my way as far as working in different types of fields,” he says. “I’m encouraged that there’s still a lot of really cool surprises left in my career.”

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Once he had the role in the bag, Woodbine received the first six scripts of the 10 episodes. He was just as surprised at that moment as viewers eventually would be to find out just how large his character looms over the season. (Early on, his character seems like more of a subordinate than he turns out to be.) All that was left to do was perfecting how the character Mike Milligan carries himself and, perhaps more importantly, the way he talks. As it turns out, the series creator didn’t give Woodbine any directions for the unplaceable lilt the actor decided on.

“The voice was somethingI came up with while I was preparing for the audition. It just made sense to me at the time,” he says. “I figured I’d try it. And they let me get away with it the whole time. But for the first three episodes every time they came up to me to give a note or whatever, I kept thinking it was gonna be like, ‘Hey can you not talk like that?'”

Of course, the voice was just one of the actor’s many tools for quietly projecting an air of menace. Whether it was the glint of a smile cracking his all-business veneer while heading into a gunfight or just a knowing look at the sheriff played by Ted Danson that immediately strips that character of his claim to authority in the situation, Woodbine barnstormed the show and left what’s likely to be a lasting impression on critics and fans. (Somehow, he was snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press when the Golden Globe nominations were announced yesterday.)

If Woodbine is happy with the experience of playing Mike Milligan, though, whose fate will be decided on the December 14 season finale, there’s one aspect he won’t miss: Shooting in the city of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

“It was very, very cold up there,” he says. “Not as cold as the year before, I was told, but it was still plenty cold enough.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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