Bokeem Woodbine on His Perfect 'Fargo' Role: "It Was Like I'd Written It for Myself"

Bokeem Woodbine Fargo still  - H 2015
Courtesy of Chris Large/FX

[This interview contains spoilers from Monday's season two finale of FX's Fargo.]

As Mike Milligan, silver-tongued enforcer for an ultra-professional Kansas City crime syndicate, Fargo turned Bokeem Woodbine into the most peculiar of overnight sensations, specifically the kind of overnight sensation who has worked steadily and visibly since Panther and The Rock in the mid-1990s. Woodbine has appeared both prominently and fleetingly in dozens of movies and in regular or recurring roles on TV shows including Southland and Saving Grace.

But Woodbine recognizes and appreciates that Mike Milligan earned him the best reviews of his career and may be the role that opens important new doors, though he says he's being very careful which doors he opens based on this opportunity. 

Given the amount of bloodshed that he both caused and participated in over the course of the Fargo season, it's remarkable Mike survived at all, but is his "promotion" in Kansas City actually a promotion? Is Mike Milligan still Mike Milligan if he changes into a dark suit and cuts his hair?

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Woodbine to discuss Milligan's Fargo fate, the character's key decisions and how appreciative the actor is to have had this role at this moment in his career.

Given the choice, would Mike Milligan rather go out in a hail of bullets or a hail of accounting in an office with a view?

Interestingly enough, given his druthers, I think Mike would actually prefer to be in that office, only because it gives him, in his mind, the opportunity to plan his escape.

Obviously Mike is a chameleon of sorts. If you had to guess, does he find a way to make this "promotion" work for him? Or is this the end of Mike Milligan as we know him?

I would like to think that Mike would find some way back into the field. The thing about coming out of the field is, when you go back in, if it's been too prolonged an absence from that type of lifestyle, you can get rusty from that. So whether or not it would work out for him after an absence from that type of activity, whether or not he would come out on top again, is questionable, but I think he would find a way back into the arena that he loves so much.

You say "come out on top again." When you assess the role that Mike played in all of this season's carnage, did he do a good job on his mission up North? Or did he do a really bad job?

I think he did a great job. He did a fantastic job given the limited resources and the amount of time that he had. I think he pulled off a miracle. He can only take but so much credit for it, because circumstances and the ironic goings-on were certainly helpful for him, but he delivered what he said he would deliver. In his mind, he broke the family.

Given the mismatch of sensibilities at the end, is Mike Milligan a man in the wrong criminal organization or is he a man in the wrong era?

Well-said. He's definitely in the wrong era. He's a man out-of-time. He's ahead of his time and he's also, in a weird kinda way in my mind, a throwback to another time. I think he was definitely born in the wrong time and, as far as the wrong organization, I think for that time period, there would be no more fitting place for him to be, than the KC Mob. The Mafia, typically, is not big on working with African-Americans so directly. They generally would hire out African-Americans to do some of the dirty work. but they were never allowed to be part of the inner-circle. There's a history in Harlem, many many years earlier, during Prohibition Era, when there was the quote-unquote "Sixth Family," which was basically a group of black gangsters that got their orders, if you will, from the Italian Mafia on how to run predominantly back neighborhoods that they were a part of, but they, in many cases, took their orders directly from the Italian Mob, so they were the Sixth Family, almost as kinda a joke, because they were never going to be full-fledged Italian Mafia members, but they were relied upon to work with the black communities as far as numbers-running, prostitution and dissemination of drugs.

I love that link and I wonder if that's only something that Bokeem knows, or do you think it's also something that Mike Milligan knows?

I think so. I think it's something that both Bokeem and Mike Milligan are aware of and it probably informed Mike's decisions, to an extent, on how to navigate his ongoing precarious situation and he knows he's in deep water with sharks and he considers himself a killer whale. That's how he thought of things.

This is a show on which probably the majority of characters meet a grisly end at some point. Had you expected Mike was going to survive the season anyway or did you read every script expecting death?

The one thing that I knew, and this was just contractually speaking, is that I was lucky enough to have 10-out-of-10 episodes, so I knew that I would be working in every episode to some extent. My only concern was that the last couple episodes, I might just be a corpse, so I'd have to come to work and lay down and the camera might just visit me as a body somewhere.

As Mike enters the farmhouse in the finale, he makes the "People of Earth" joke, but how do you think Mike views the UFO-of-it all? How does he process the extraordinary thing he just witnessed?

Mike is so pragmatic that he does the math in his head, quickly, but he's incapable of taking his eyes off the prize and it's a situation where he's like, "Yes. This is other-worldly. This is incredibly bizarre. This is something I didn't anticipate. However, I am Mike Milligan and the smartest thing for me to do now is go back to the empty castle and assume my position at the throne." All in about two seconds, I think he factored that all in.

Does any part of him consider occupying the castle, as it were? Or is he always going to go back to KC, is he always planning on going back and getting the praise he thinks he deserves?

He had every intention of going back to KC and reporting in to follow protocol, but in his mind, "I'll stay here overnight, maybe 48 hours, and I'll be dispatched back to my comfortable throne and maybe even do some decorating, because all of these dead animals and the decor needs to be changed." He has a whole plan about how to make the Gerhardt compound a little bit more up-to-date aesthetically and he's got ideas about trimming the grass and, "That barn over there, is that really necessary? And maybe this should no longer be a farm. There's all sorts of things we can do to liven the place up a little bit.The Kitchen Brother can have the corner room on the second floor and I'll have the other three."

How much of a backstory did you and Noah work up for this guy? He seems not to have a past that we know about, but obviously something brought him to this job and this point. How much do you know?

I developed a backstory and I shared it with Noah and he cosigned it. Basically, Mike is not from Kansas City and Mike was not always someone who had criminal designs. What we decided is that Mike is from somewhere up North and his familial circumstances brought him to the South and Mike had been involved in some dastardly deeds, but just because he's a sociopath, not necessarily from making a living, but circumstances brought him to the South, where he had to deal with some family things. The way he dealt with them caught the eye of some people from KC and they basically recruited him, because he's got a knack for doing things that other people might find distasteful and undesirable. 

Over the course of the season, Mike had run-ins with many or most of the show's characters. Was there anybody you regretted not getting to work with or not getting to work with enough?

I regret not getting any scenes with Jean Smart. I'd hoped right up until the end that I would have an opportunity to share some screen time with her, because I've always been a huge fan of hers and after meeting her, she's such a wonderful human being. I really hoped that we'd have a chance to work together.

Mike is barely in the first episode. When you started seeing scripts when you were auditioning, how quickly did you realize this was a character you HAD to play?

When I got the job, I only had a few pages to go by and it was a scene from episode two, the typewriter scene, and from there I was hooked. Then, when I got the gig, they sent me the first six episodes and I read episode three and I said, "You know what? Everything has to go on pause. My whole life is about Mike Milligan right now. If nothing else in my career comes along that's this prolifically written or this well cast or that has such an enigmatic and illustrious history as Fargo, I'm gonna put everything I have into this one, because something like this may never come along again, so I've gotta give it all." So the initial audition, even though the typewriter scene was engaging and definitely caught my interest and made me say, "OK, I want this part," it was episodes three, four and on that made me realize how fortunate I was to have this character. Every time I read a new script, there were moments where I said, "I can't believe that I get to play this character. This is a dream come true." I literally couldn't have conceived or conceptualized such great moments for a character, such unique and wonderful dialogue and such bizarre yet completely, in my mind, realistic scenarios. It was almost as if I went to the future and I said, "OK. I'm gonna write you the perfect part for you that you'll never forget and you'll always look back on fondly" and then I sent it somehow (he laughs) into the past and into my own hands. It was like I'd written it for myself.

For an actor, that has to feel remarkable. But what does that then do when you finish Fargo and you have to start looking at future scripts to have to go back to work on other things?

It's spoils you. There's no question about it. I've been on only a few auditions since Fargo, because it's something that Noah and I discussed and he said, not quoting him verbatim, but he said basically, "After this, you have to be really smart about picking only the good stuff." I kinda understood what he meant at the time, but I think we were only up to episode five or six when we had that discussion. I really understood what he meant when I wrapped out of the show. It was an interesting feeling going back home and celebrating with the wife. I'm like, "Hey babe, I did it. I think I might have actually pulled it off." And then juxtaposing that feeling of victory with thinking, "Whoa. How am I gonna follow this up? How am I possibly going to follow this up?" Since I've been back I've turned down or not even gone to probably about 15 auditions because even though I could always use more screen time and more money, I said, "This is not the kind of opportunity that you squander by just jumping into whatever else comes your way."

I would liken it to being a single man and having a wonderful relationship with the girl of your dreams, that ends, and then you say to yourself, "I can't just date any old girl after that." So where do you find that girl that is equally engaging, equally beautifully, equally exciting, how do you do that? You might find after a situation like that, you don't even want to go to the club or wherever you go to meet a beautiful young lady. You're just over it. And your friends are like, "Hey man, come out! Let's go hang out!" And you're like, "Nah, you know what, guys? What for? I'll never meet a girl like that again." (He laughs.) Is that an analogy that makes sent?

Oh, absolutely. And I wonder if that's a maturity that comes from the 20-plus years you had working in the industry previously. Could you have had that restraint if you'd had this role 15 years ago?

No, absolutely not. I would have approached it completely differently. I'm glad that I have a certain amount of tenure in this business, because 15 years ago, given the same analogy, I would have thought that every girl is going to just be as exciting as that one. I wouldn't have known the value. The thing about my career, that I have been so blessed to have been able to have participated in Fargo, is that for the most part, I've gotten some playtime, if we're gonna use the analogy of being an athlete. I've gotten to play in the game. I've gotten play in the Super Bowl. I've gotten to run some interesting plays and make some good catches, but for the most part, I would be the guy who throws the block that allows the star running back to make the touchdown. Nobody really remembers the guy that throws the block. Even though it might have facilitated the touchdown, people just tend to focus on the guy who made the touchdown and that's quite natural. So for a long time and for a large part of my career, I've been a guy that sits on the bench a lot and once in a while I'll get called in to make a play. It might be an important play, but I'm not the star running back. The thing about sitting on the bench a lot, is that you get a different perspective of the field than if you're the star running back. If you're the star running back, you're making most of the important plays and you're in there all the time and that's a great thing and it's a great experience and you learn a lot from that, but there's something about sitting on the bench and seeing the entire field and learning from people's mistakes without necessarily having to make them. You'll make your own mistakes as well, but it just gives you a more rounded, large perspective. So I was lucid, I was aware to the umpteenth degree, of just how valuable this role was and how important it was for me to perform to the highest ability that I possessed. And I've also seen people who have come off of really, really great jobs and their decision making was skewed, in my opinion, because if you do a great job and you're not careful about what you do back, it's almost a setback in a weird kinda way. It's almost as if that was the heights, it's not going to get any better for you than that, but only because of a lack of patience on your part and not waiting for the right role to follow it up.

All season long, I feel like a lot of us have been watching you and even if we'd been following your career before, there's been a sense of, "Wow. I didn't know he could do that." Was there anything that you got to do here that surprised you at how good or comfortable you were with it?

Man, I wouldn't even know how to answer that. Oh! I would say the reserve. I've played a lot of characters that emote in a very dramatic fashion a lot of the time. They can be loud. They can be boisterous. They can be violent. I hadn't ever really had the chance to interpret a character in such a reserved fashion, but Mike is such a reserved guy that the role demanded that I play him fairly reserved a lot of the time. I guess I wasn't quite sure if I had that in me until this role came along.

What did you think of the Fargo finale? Sound off in the comments below. Click here to see what co-star Zahn McClarnon had to say about it.