Bokeem Woodbine On Life After ‘Fargo,’ His Mysterious ‘Sopranos’ Character, And His Hazy Wu-Tang Memories

Like the first season, the stellar second season of Fargo featured a plethora of quirky, eccentric, and memorable characters, arguably none more interesting than Mike Milligan, the cool, cold hatchet man for the Kansas City mob. So, it should come as no surprise that the actor who portrayed Milligan, Bokeem Woodbine, is having a bit of a moment. After working steadily for years without really breaking out, Woodbine is suddenly in demand, and for good reason; his turn as Milligan was, at times, riveting, with scenes that made you feel compelled to rewind to watch again because they were just so damn good. (If you’ve yet to watch the show, Fargo season two is now available on Blu-ray & DVD via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.)

We spoke to Woodbine recently and discussed Fargo and how the show has affected his career, his role on The Sopranos that seemed so promising, but ultimately went nowhere, his friendship and collaboration with Wu-Tang, and how the Fargo hair and makeup team got him ready on set each day, among other things.

I’d seen you in quite a few things previously, but Fargo is probably the most memorable thing that you’ve done. I’m kind of curious as to how it’s changed your life and career, to play a part that was just so visible in such a big series?

It’s just been all positive. There hasn’t been one negative thing that’s come out of it, particularly in regards to my career. Without being braggadocious in the least. Just to give you an example how things have changed, I remember when there was a Friday not too long ago where I literally… My agent called me three times in about three hours with three offers for roles as a series regular that I didn’t audition for or even know about. They just came in. That’s like night and day. That’s never happened to me before, ever. That gives you an idea of just how things have changed.

Talking about not having to audition for stuff suddenly, I read somewhere that Mike Milligan was originally supposed to be a fat, bald, older Italian man and your agent just said “fuck it” and sent you in anyway to audition for the role. And then you nailed the audition and (Fargo creator) Noah Hawley changed his mind about how he envisioned casting the part.

You know what, though? That was a myth that was going around about that. As cool as that sounds, I have to tell you what really happened. That was a misinterpreted statement that I made in an interview early on, but basically what I said was that normally after seeing the material, I would call my agent and say, “This is the type of thing that is usually written for a pot-bellied Italian cat,” and normally my agent would say, “Go in anyway and just do your best.” And somehow…

It got twisted.

Exactly. It got twisted. It got misconstrued. Even though it sounds great, it’s not what happened. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get this straight, so I’m glad I got a chance to clear the air. I’ve been trying to figure how to do so.

Well, you just did it.

Yeah, Noah always intended for the character to be African-American. So, yeah.

What was your favorite aspect of playing Mike Milligan on Fargo?

I have to say the freedom, because we were married to the text, but outside of that, you really had the opportunity to just do things your way. There really weren’t too many times that I got a note. In fact, I never got a note that was so contrary to my interpretation of the scene that I had to do a restart or reshoot. Every adjustment that was given to me only enhanced my idea of how to approach the moment and everything just coincided with how I felt, and I felt free to do what I wanted to do. Like I said, the text is the bible and I wouldn’t want to mess the text anyway. It was perfect as it was. But everything outside of that was really up to you.

So, the rhythm and the cadence of the way that he spoke, that was entirely your invention?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s a good example of what I mean. They just let me get loose. It was exhilarating because it was such a big stage compared to some small indies I’ve done, or even I’ve been on mammoth projects like $200 million budget type stuff, where it’s basically, “Stand here, do your thing.” Well, not necessarily do your thing. “Stand here, do what we want you to do,” and then, “Thank you very much.” That’s great, it’s good to work on that kind of stuff, as well, but this was working on a huge stage, but still having the freedom to do things my way. That was just amazing.

When I first saw you on screen in Fargo, my initial thought was, “Oh that’s the guy who played the black gangster in the first season of The Sopranos.” Massive Genius was his name. I really thought that when your character was introduced back in the first season that it might have turned into a recurring thing, because there was so much potential for conflict with the Tony Soprano crew there. Whatever happened with that? Did you ever get any feedback from anyone with the show as to why they never brought Massive Genius back?

I never got a reason why, but it’s interesting; I ran into fans from the show a lot a year or two after it aired and apparently people were saying, “Where’s Master Genius?” Fans of the show were wondering what happened to Master Genius. I never got an answer on why I didn’t come back, but yeah, no, you’re not alone. There were plenty of people wondering and, for a while, I held out hope that maybe they’ll bring me back, because I agree, I thought that there was an opportunity for some cool stuff to be done there.

Something else I’ve found sort of amusing about your career, is that you were in what some people think is the best music videos of all time, Wu-Tang’s “Gravel Pit.” I think it was you that gets eaten by a T-Rex at the end of it?

Yeah, that was me.

How did this come about? Are you friends with those guys?

Yeah, RZA is my big brother, man. RZA asked me if I would be in the video and of course being a huge Wu-Tang fan, I was honored to participate.

Well, of course.

It was just a tremendous blessing. RZA is family. I’m always there anytime he wants me to be in something that he’s doing. If I got the time, I’m there.

You’ve done other Wu-Tang videos, haven’t you?

Yeah, we did like three. I also did one for a solo project that he did, a song called “Chi Kong.” We shot that in Hong Kong. That was crazy. It’s an ongoing thing, it’s not the last time. Definitely not the last time.

You said Hong Kong was crazy. Do you have a great Wu-Tang story from any of these projects that you can share?

Some of them are kind of hazy. Some of them are kind of hazy and some of them are definitely not necessarily for consumption by the general public.

I would expect nothing less.

I would say the Hong Kong one was the most interesting, though. It was a very interesting time and that was just a solo project, so the entire Wu wasn’t there. Just me, RZA, Beretta 9. It was just cool shooting with them dudes because over there, the stunt teams in Hong Kong are so disciplined and so incredible. I wouldn’t necessarily say I have a dramatic crazy story to tell, but it was just interesting to see how efficient they can do things in Hong Kong cinema. When you’re working with Hong Kong stunt teams, and things of that nature, it’s amazing how quickly they can put stuff together and build up a set. Just work cohesively together and make things happen in such a short amount of time and it turn out good. I love Hong Kong. I’ve been there like three times, and it’s always such a wonderful experience. It was great shooting out there with the RZA and just having a great time.

Finally, there’s something I’m curious about: Was that your hair for Fargo or did they put a wig on you for the show?

They put a wig on me. That was just incredible because they really paid attention to detail and were serious, quite serious about making sure that it looked good. Like, they would not let me get out of that chair if anything was askew, and they were all over me on set, too.

How long each day would it take for them to get that hair piece and the sideburns just perfectly aligned so that it was consistent on a day-to-day basis?

The first couple of days, it was probably about 45 minutes, but then after a few days, they had it down to science. They could do it in like 27 minutes.

Twenty-seven minutes? Interesting. That’s a very specific time estimate.

Yeah, twenty-seven minutes.

Season two of Fargo is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.