Last year, like many publications, Paste published an endless amount of lists highlighting the “Best” in TV in 2015. It’s a tough job as an assistant editor, tallying the votes and often seeing some of your favorite characters or shows not making the final list. But there was one choice that I couldn’t argue with, and that was Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan as the best TV character of the year. Due in no small part to his brilliant portrayal of a gangster/enforcer, the likes of which we’ve truly never seen, Fargo had an incredible second season. Year Two is now on DVD and Blu-Ray with a host of special features for fans (including “Lou on Lou: A Conversation with Patrick Wilson, Keith Carradine and Noah Hawley,” and “Waffles and Bullet Holes: A Return to Sioux Falls,”), and Paste caught up with Woodbine to talk about his favorite Mike Milligan moments, crafting this wonderfully odd character and the importance of nuanced bad guy roles for black actors.
Paste Magazine: When I heard you were cast in Fargo, I was just so thrilled. I’ve been following you since the days of Jason’s Lyric and Dead Presidents. What was your initial reaction to being asked to take on Mike Milligan?
Bokeem Woodbine: I couldn’t believe I got the call. I can still remember that moment; it was mind-blowing. When I first got the audition, I thought it was a mistake. This is Fargo. Normally I’d call my agent and say, “What’s going on? I’m not gonna get this part.” And their argument is usually, “Just try—you never know.” Which only happens, like, one out of four times. Because things are written a certain way, right? So I decided to just commit to it, and I figured it was a guest spot—maybe one or two episodes. Which is cool, because it’s Fargo, and it was still exciting. But then when I saw that it was 10 out of 10 episodes, I said, “Wait a minute—this character’s here for the whole run? I definitely want this. I want this.” So I started focusing. And I got the gig, and it was unbelievable. I started to feel pretty confident early on, because even though I didn’t have the entire script, I got an inspiration early on about how I would play the role. When I found out that I got the role, I kept going with that inspiration, because it was such a clear epiphany. It was like, I know this guy. I just kept going with that, and they never told me to stop (laughs). They got it. We were all on the same page from the beginning and that doesn’t always happen, so it was great.
Paste: You’ve talked about how you see Mike Milligan as a man from another era. Was that a part of that initial interpretation you had?
Woodbine: Yes. I couldn’t define it as such, but it was definitely a part of it, and then I began to define it a little more clearly in a temporal sense, as things went on. I started to get down to the specifics of why he is the way he is. I always knew how he was, but I started to get the why—like, okay, he’s in the wrong era.
Paste: I think I immediately fell in love with Mike because of his unique relationship to language—which you’ve called “Milliganese.” It’s like he pulls out all of the strangeness and humor and even cruelty that’s inherent in the English language. Can you talk about how you developed this particular aspect of the character?
Woodbine: It’s not necessarily easy to relay, because it really did come to me in an inspiration. It was something where, as I was reading the text initially, I could hear him speaking like that. I started to give it some definition as time went on, but initially—as bizarre as it might sound—I could hear him talking in my head. I understood from the offset that he had kind of a fractured upbringing.
Woodbine: I don’t know if you know anybody who’s just lived in one place pretty much their whole lives.
Woodbine: The way they perceive the world is from a perspective of what they know. So I knew for a man of those times, he’d been a lot of places—relative to his contemporaries, to a lot of other black men. It might not be considered extraordinarily well-traveled by today’s standards, but back then, he’d been a lot of places. And he’d had some experiences that would not necessarily be considered normal, culturally. I just knew that. That can give one a different type of speech pattern, from a guy who grew up in the neighborhood and lived there his whole life.
Paste: You’ve also said that when you first got to look at the script, the typewriter scene really captivated you. Was there another scene from the season that you think will really stick with you over the years?
Woodbine: All of them (laughs)! All of them. There was a scene with Rachel Keller—who I think is gonna be one of the really strong forces in Hollywood—her character is like a young girl who’s not really experienced in the world. So she’s kind of happy with Mike and his swag, and who he is. It’s something that she’s never really encountered before. She wants to hang out with him, but he’s got other things on his mind—people are getting killed, they’re in the middle of a mob war, blase blah. He has this diatribe with her, basically like, “I will let you live, if you bring me information.” The director, Rachel and I crafted that scene, and I think you see a side to Mike that, because of previous scenes, you might not know existed.
Paste: I got to interview Joe Morton last year—he’s playing Papa Pope on Scandal—and we had a great talk about TV villains and how important it is for these complicated bad guy roles to open up to more black men and women. With such an excellent season behind you, do you feel a shift on a personal level? Do you see Mike Milligan opening up doors for other actors of color in a way?
Woodbine: Wow. If that were to happen, that would be great. I can’t make any predictions, but I hope so. The thing about the villain is that, people love the bad guy. It’s part of youth culture and it’s part of youth consciousness. It’s definitely part of black folks’ culture, because so often we are cast in that [bad guy] light. And it’s true for the best of us. My aunt is a nun. She’s a sweetheart, and she’s all about the Light and everything good. But she roots for the bad guys! She just gets a kick out of them. It’s the craziest thing. So I think we can definitely bring dimensions to that that haven’t been explored.
A lot of times when we play the bad guy, the powers that be—the people that are controlling the images, at least in my experience—prefer that we play them in a one-dimensional sense. It’s definitely time for more well-rounded bad guys, or bad girls, for us.
Paste: What’s next for you? What other projects do you have in the works that we should know about?
Woodbine: I’m getting ready to start shooting The Infamous. It’s going to be a show on A&E. It takes place in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, and it’s going to be about a reformed gang banger who becomes a record producer. He produces all of these hip-hop artists in the early ‘90s and there’s a white cop from the LAPD who’s hell-bent on destroying him. It’s got a really good cast so far. There’s me as the record producer, Wilson Bethel playing Officer Grant. Vanessa Bell Calloway as my mother. It starts shooting in a few weeks, and we hope to start airing sometime this year.
Paste: I can’t wait. I’m a huge fan of yours, so thanks so much for this!
Woodbine: Thank you.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.