‘FARGO’ Q&A: Bokeem Woodbine, the Man Behind the Scene-Stealing Mike Milligan

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FARGO_203_0804_CL_d_hires1 copyPreston Barta // Editor

We said this at the start of the season, but television doesn’t get much better than FARGO. Showrunner Noah Hawley and his writing team created an atmosphere and world that is beyond even most movies. This was especially visible in last night’s strongest outing, “The Gift of the Magi.”

Part of why FARGO is such a perfect storm of chaos is because of its characterization. When it comes to writing powerfully complex characters, look no further Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan, this season’s icy, new villain.

Billy Bob Thorton’s Malvo last season was only the tip of the iceberg. Mike Milligan is layered with intricate and elaborate qualities that are a sight to behold.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with Woodbine (RAY, DEVIL) recently to discuss his Mike Milligan’s dark nature, how he developed his voice for the role, and the genius complexities of the show.

Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan. Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan.
Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

I’m genuinely curious how you found FARGO? Did you audition?

Bokeem Woodbine: “I got the audition last December, early December I would say, and it was just a simple audition sheet outlining the network, the show, who all else was already involved as far as who had been cast. I think maybe there were only two people cast at that time that I was aware of– just where the audition was and what-have-you.

It really took me by surprise. I would never, ever in my mind imagine that I would be auditioning for FARGO. I have so much respect for the movie. To me, it was a perfect film. I hadn’t seen the first season, but I was aware of just how many people that I knew loved it and were going on and on about it, and actually giving me a hard time for not having watched it.

It really took me by surprise. I just dialed in for about 72 hours. I think I probably slept maybe seven hours in three days. I spent the whole time just working on the material for the audition and intermittently watching Kung Fu films when I needed a break. After three days, I went in, auditioned, and actually kind of flubbed one of the lines. I rearranged the sequencing and I figured when I left the room– I said, ‘OK, that’s not going to happen,’ because in the television world, generally speaking, if you mess up a line in an audition, I mean you might as well just stop right there, get up and apologize for wasting everybody’s time. It’s been my experience they suffer no fools in the audition process with television, I think the logic being that if you can’t get your lines right for an audition, you know, you might waste time on the set, and TV is a very time oriented filming process. They’re very strict and very tight scheduled.

I left the room thinking that it’s not going to happen, but I had one of the most wonderful surprises of my life and probably the biggest surprise of my career to date when my agent sent me an email saying, ‘You killed it in the room today. You’ll be getting an offer in a few hours.’ That was just a thrill and it remains a very thrilling experience.”

That’s great. Well, I’m glad it worked out. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part now. I really like the way that your Mike Milligan speaks and his mannerisms. There’s a line in the third episode, I believe, where you say something along the lines that the people in Minnesota are unfriendly, but it’s the way they’re unfriendly. I feel like your character’s voice is a lot like that line he says: it’s very proper and uninviting at the same time.

Woodbine: “Yeah, it’s just something that occurred to me when I was getting ready for the audition. I could hear him in my head talking and that’s how he sounded, so when I did the audition I did it like that.

I got the part and then when we were getting ready to shoot I kept waiting for them to tell me not to do that. I kept waiting for them to say that worked in the audition, but we’re going to do it like this. They never did, so I just kind of went with it. It was just organic. The character really spoke to me like that. That’s how I imagined him talking from the very beginning, from when I got the material initially for the audition. I can hear that voice in my head.”

How did you casualize Noah Hawley and the writer’s language? I feel like there’s a certain rhythm to the way they write.

Woodbine: “You just spend a lot of time, a lot of time, because it’s true what you said. There is a cadence to an extent. There is a certain rhythm and the vernacular is what it is. How does one try to make that honest was the ongoing challenge. Ever line, every word, every page, every scene had that same challenge: how do I make this as authentic and natural as possible? For me, there was no formula. It was just many, many hours.

The text is the Bible, if you will. We don’t mess with the text. To me, there’s no need to. There’s nothing I could have come up with on my own as far as dialogue is concerned that would have been better or even as good as what was already there. The scripts have the kind of dialogue that you will really obsess over. I mean you’ll obsess over it. You won’t think about anything else. Then when you feel like you might have solved the riddle or unlocked the treasure chest, there’s no feeling like it. The reward is… It’s just indescribable when you feel like you might have figured out the honest and true way to deliver these rather at times bizarre but yet quite sensible lines. It’s just an amazing challenge, and I only attribute putting time into it.”

L-R: Ted Danson as Hank Larsson, Todd Mann as Wayne Kitchen, Woodbine as Mike Milligan, Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

L-R: Ted Danson as Hank Larsson, Todd Mann as Wayne Kitchen, Woodbine as Mike Milligan, Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen.
Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

Is it important for you to understand every component of the show to do your scenes?

Woodbine: “I don’t know if it’s necessary, but I definitely made it a priority to understand where everybody else was going with their character and what they were going through. A lot of times you’ll get material and you just kind of dog-ear your pages and focus on your responsibilities, but this is such a great read and so much fun to be a part of that I really found myself being curious about not just what was going to happen with my character next episode, but how that fits into the context of the show as a whole, and I was really swept up with the individual stories and it carried me along for a ride.

My character is also trying to figure some things out, so in my mind he might want to keep an eye on other people and what’s going on, so I guess I did that myself by following all aspects of the story very closely. It’s a fascinating read. I have never seen a script like this. It’s just in its own category, so I tried to be as informed as I could about the whole thing as a whole.”

I think Mike gets a tremendous amount of pleasure from subverting the emotions that people have about black men in that time frame, and particularly in that region. He gets a kick out of it. He likes to feel as though he’s the smartest guy in the room. I think that to an extent it might be part of his goal, his ultimate goal. Part of it is just the way he is and another part of it is he’s having fun with people. That’s kind of the guy he is. As of right now we haven’t really seen too much of what he’s trying to do. He seems to be kind of more someone helping the Kansas City people, but do you think he has his own plan separate from that?

Woodbine: “I think people like Mike always have an idea of what they want out of life that they keep to themselves. He’s definitely a loyal member of the Kansas City Syndicate and he’s also incredibly ambitious. Those two things don’t necessarily have to work against each other and there doesn’t necessarily have to be a contradiction. He knows what he wants out of life. He has for a long time. He feels like he’s getting closer to crossing a line, to smashing through a glass ceiling, to being even more unrestrained.”

With the other baddies on the show, I feel like we’ve seen signs of fear with them. You don’t really see a lot of that from Mike, where you see a vulnerability or some sort of feeling that he isn’t consciously projecting into the world. In effect, it seems like he’s always performing or putting on airs for those around him. Has that been a challenge to navigate as an actor?

Woodbine: “Absolutely. Absolutely. Mike is a natural showman. At the same time, as an actor you got to temper certain things with reality. This show is so heavily steeped in reality, but yet it has so many bizarre, surrealistic moments, how do you do that? Those are a constant challenge. How do we deal with this bizarre, off the wall material and this crazy world and yet do it justice by being realistic and honest? How do you do that? It was a challenge every day on the set. All the material has a certain ‘Fargoesque’ flavor to it, and how do we respect the audience, respect ourselves, respect the craft and still bring it to life and still make it exciting? It was just one scene at a time.”

Rachel Keller as Simone, Woodbine as Mike Milligan. Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

Rachel Keller as Simone, Woodbine as Mike Milligan.
Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

In the fourth episode last week we saw that Mike Milligan is getting all this intel by sleeping with Simone (Rachel Keller). In a way he’s getting his hands dirty. Do you ever feel like you have to get your hands dirty in this business as an actor?

Woodbine: “On set I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll do whatever it takes to bring the truth. If that means getting dirty sometimes, I don’t bat an eye. This is what I do. But outside of the actual work, there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t allow myself … I’ve never allowed myself to do to “get ahead”. I don’t know, I think up until Fargo that necessarily hasn’t served me. I do not like to be a moralist per se. It’s just at the end of the day if I can’t look at myself in the mirror, I mean who cares about accolades or how far I might get or monetary compensation? I’ve got to dig me.

I pass no judgement on others, but I just feel grateful that I was able to be myself and keep some semblance of a code and still get the opportunity to work in Fargo. Yeah, when it comes to the work I’ll do whatever I need to. I’ll do whatever the character would do. I have no shame. But outside the actual work and the material, for twenty-three years I’ve just been trying to do my best as an actor and that’s about it. I’m not the guy that’s going to go to the party because so-and-so might be there. Maybe if I meet him and I say something really cool he might say, “Hey, you know what? You’re just the kind of guy I want to play this part.” There’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s just not something I can do.”

Obviously the viewers do not know what’s going to happen in the end of the show, but as the first season and even the movie has kind of shown us, it’s proved that it’s always been very satisfying. As an actor, would you ever abandon a project if you loved the journey but didn’t favor the ending?

Woodbine: “That’s a very good question. No, I would just try to find a way to work on the ending. I’ve been in situations like that, where I just loved the whole journey and right up to the end I’m not necessarily that crazy about how it turned out. I would never abandon a project if I liked three quarters of it. I would just have to try to make the last quarter work for me.”

FARGO airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. E/P only on FX.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.