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Fargo's Bokeem Woodbine speaks softly and steals every scene

Fargo's Bokeem Woodbine speaks softly and steals every scene
 Bokeem Woodbine and Brad and Todd Mann in Fargo. Courtesy, Chris Large/FX

From the beginning, actor Bokeem Woodbine could hear Mike Milligan’s voice in his head.

He had no control over what Mike Milligan said, of course. On the Alberta set of Fargo’s second season, the precise, eccentric dialogue that creator Noah Hawley and his writers’ room created was “the Bible.” Actors didn’t improvise, they didn’t need to, Woodbine says.

But the soft, friendly and almost singsongy way of delivering Milligan’s lines was something the actor brought to his very first reading for producers, fully expecting it wouldn’t last if he landed the role.

“It’s just something that occurred to me when I was getting ready for the audition,” say Woodbine, in a conference call interview with journalists. “I could hear him in my head talking. That’s how he sounded. When I did the audition I did it like that. I got the part. 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 ‘OK, that worked in the audition but we’re going to do it like this.’ But they never did. So I just went with it. To me it was very organic. The character really spoke to me like that.”

It would be hard to imagine Mike Milligan, the verbose and seemingly fearless enforcer of the Kansas City syndicate, sounding any other way. Flanked by the towering and mute twin Kitchen brothers, Milligan clearly likes to talk. He clearly likes the sound of his voice and clearly likes to get philosophical (“I don’t want anything to do with your fakakta metaphor,” says his exasperated boss, played by Brad Garrett, after attempting to untangle one of Milligan’s rhetorical musings.)

But while Woodbine may have delivered his audition in Milligan’s calm and controlled manner, he thought he blew his chances after flubbing a line. The actor has been acting steadily in film and TV since his breakout role as an ex-con trying to go straight in HBO’s 1993 film Strapped, but he saw huge potential in gangster Mike Milligan. He hadn’t seen the first season of Fargo, but always thought the 1996 Coen Brothers dark comedy that inspired it was a “perfect film.” So when he got the call, he spent the three days he had before the audition working on the material and getting very little sleep.

“In the television world, generally speaking, if you mess up a line in an audition you might as well stop right there and get up and apologize for wasting everybody’s time,” Woodbine says. “It’s been my experience that they suffer no fools during the audition process for television … I left the room thinking it’s not going to happen. But I had one of the most wonderful surprises of my life, probably the biggest surprise of my career to date, when my agent sent me an e-mail saying ‘You killed it in the room today, you’ll be getting the offer in a few hours.'”

It was inspired casting. Woodbine has proven to be a scene-stealer in a season full of scene-stealers. As an enforcer in the Kansas City syndicate, he is at the heart of a battle between the big-city mafia and the rural Gerhardt clan in a snowy Midwest of 1979. The tense but funny standoff scenes between Milligan and nice-guy sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), or Milligan and war-vet state trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), rank among the most memorable in the early goings of Season 2.

In a show that offers such menacing creatures as icy matriarch Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) and her brutal eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), it’s Milligan who seems to have emerged as the true successor to last season’s Lorne Malvo, the soft-spoken and creepily self-assured killer played by Billy Bob Thornton. Like Malvo, Milligan likes to think he is the smartest person in the room and, like Malvo, he seems to take perverse pleasure in playing people off each other. One gets the feeling that the audience is only getting a glimpse of his ambitions in these first four episodes.

“The only thing that would ever scare Mike is not reaching his full potential; is not getting everything he can get out of life given his attributes and given his skill sets,” Woodbine says. “Mike doesn’t want to be an old man thinking about ‘Well, if I had just pushed a little harder.’ He doesn’t want to be Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman.”

Still, Woodbine admits that playing it cool wasn’t always easy in the freezing cold. While the winter he endured was relatively mild by Alberta’s standards, he said it still seemed distractingly cold to him.

“It had it challenges,” he said. “Sometimes you had to fight hard to maintain your concentration during such a cold climate. You had to try to do your best to stay warm and stay in the zone. For me, in my career, it was a unique challenge. I had never really worked in that sort of weather before.”

But Woodbine had high praise for the Alberta crew, particularly the team that would fit him with Milligan’s trademark hairdo and sideburns every day..

“I loved the wig, right away,” he says. “I fell in love with it. They wouldn’t let me keep it, but I fell in love with it. But those sideburns! Those sideburns to me were like a character unto themselves. They just fit perfectly. Our makeup team was incredible. They were meticulous. It had to be just right and it took so much time. It took about 40 minutes to get ready every day but the time flew. There’s a lot of great people out there and they are a lot of fun to talk with about anything under the sun. So they made the time go quick.”

Fargo airs Monday nights on FX Canada.


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