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Scene Stealer Bokeem Woodbine on Life Before and After ‘Fargo’

Bokeem Woodbine got his start as an actor working with such directors as Spike Lee, Forest Whitaker, Mario Van Peebles and the Hughes brothers, but 22 years after his screen debut, Woodbine reintroduced himself in a major way with the second season of FX’s “Fargo.” As a charming, cunning, mob henchman in the 1979-set limited series, Woodbine’s smooth-talking Mike Milligan stood out among an incredible ensemble cast. As he says, he’s now thinking of his career as “everything before ‘Fargo,’ and everything after ‘Fargo.’”

“Fargo” (FX)
Season 2 episode 10, “Palindrome”
Written by Noah Hawley; directed by Adam Arkin

BOKEEM WOODBINE: “‘Fargo’ was something I didn’t see coming. It was kind of like dreaming with your eyes open. From the moment I first saw the audition sheet, throughout the entire process, up till now, it almost doesn’t seem real. I pride myself on being able to see things coming and being able to anticipate the next move. I’m from New York and I’ve been doing this 27 years now, that makes me pretty savvy. I generally know what’s coming next. It’s hard to sneak up on me. This came out of nowhere and really knocked me for a loop in the best possible way.

“The scripts came one at a time, and by the time episode 10 rolled around I was definitely on the edge of my seat. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I was pleasantly surprised and also mortified to see what happened to Mike.

“There are a lot of surprises, a lot of wonderful, unexpected things that come along with the blessing of being able to act in this industry.”
Bokeem Woodbine

“One of the things that was not necessarily a big scene but really stood out to me was when he spared Wilma’s life, the cook for the Gerhardts. I thought that was a really intelligent choice. And when he’s pleading his case to Hamish at the end to go back in the field — when he’s trying to make sense of all that — there was a definitive limit to how far he can push and how aggressively he can petition Hamish for his freedom. I thought that was written in a very subtle fashion and the challenge was to try not to be too big in that moment. It was a very interesting opportunity for me to try to find those notes. Those two moments were subtly complex for me.

“The material, the dialogue is so perfect, the challenge was to make sure I didn’t just take advantage of this great dialogue and not put any real serious effort into expressing it. It would be so easy to just say those words and appear to be working hard. The words, if you’re not careful, can do the work for you. I had to make sure I put energy and time into being present in the moment while Mike was expressing himself. Noah [Hawley] had done so much work ahead of time conceptualizing the character and crafting these wonderful things for Mike to say.

“[Adam Arkin] was a very perceptive director. He had a lot of energy and enthusiasm on set. I give him props for actually shaving his head [for his cameo role]. When I first saw him I thought he had a bald cap on. I remember saying, ‘They did a really good job, it looks like a real scalp,’ and he said, ‘It is my real scalp.’ I had to give him all the praise he was due for going there as an actor.

“When it was all over it felt like it went by in a flash. I definitely felt a little sad, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to stop, I didn’t want to let it go. But I was also proud to have been part of such a great cast and something that was so fulfilling on a lot of levels ‘Fargo’ taught me something about this industry that I’d forgotten. There are a lot of surprises, a lot of wonderful, unexpected things that come along with the blessing of being able to act in this industry. For me, I’m just a lucky, lucky cat because some people don’t get these kinds of surprises, they just keep plugging away.”

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