‘Fargo’ Season 2: Bokeem Woodbine Interview on Playing Mike Milligan

Bokeem Woodbine Fargo Season 2
Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen, Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, and Todd Mann as Wayne Kitchen in ‘Fargo’ (Photo by Chris Large / FX)

The battle between the Kansas City Mafia and the Gerhardts of Fargo continues to drive the action in season two of FX’s Fargo. The critically acclaimed series is set in the 1970s and features a stellar cast that includes Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Jean Smart, Brad Garrett, Jeffrey Donovan, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Bokeem Woodbine. Not everyone will survive the full season as the body count builds due to a war between the two criminal factions, so it’s best not to get too attached to any one character. Still, it’s difficult to not have a few favorites to root for and Bokeem Woodbine’s “Mike Milligan” has become a fan favorite. Milligan is a ruthless enforcer with the KC Mafia who delivers some of season two’s most memorable lines.

In support of season two, Woodbine took part in a conference call to discuss the series, the scripts, and playing Mike Milligan. The Q&A was spoiler free so even if you’re not completely caught up on season two, it’s safe to read on.

Bokee Woodbine Fargo Season 2 Interview:

Can you tell us how you got cast in the role and what drew you to the part?

Bokeem Woodbine: “I got the audition last December, early December, I would say. 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 there were only maybe two people cast at that time who I was aware of. Where the audition was, what have you. It really took me by surprise. I would have never, in my mind, imagined 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 were 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 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 and auditioned, and actually kind of flubbed one of the lines. I rearranged the sequencing and I figured when I left the room, I said, ‘Okay, that’s not going to happen.’ In the television world, generally, if you mess up a line in an audition, you might as well just stop right there, get up, and apologize for wasting everybody’s time. It’s been my experience that they suffer no fools in the auditioning process for television. I think the logic being if you can’t get your lines right for an audition, you might waste time on the set, and TV is a very time-orientated filming process. They have a very strict and very tight schedule. I left the room thinking it’s not going to happen, but had one of the most wonderful surprises of my life – and probably the biggest surprise of my career to date saying, quote, ‘You killed it in the room today. You’ll be getting the offer in a few hours.’ It was just a thrill, and it remains a very thrilling experience.”

Mike is so fascinating, but we really know absolutely nothing about his backstory. Are we going to learn anything? What do you know about him?

Bokeem Woodbine: “There might be some glimpses. Viewers might be able to extrapolate a little bit of a sense of where he’s from in later episodes. The backstory that I developed, I shared with Noah [Hawley] and he co-signed. He said, ‘Well, if that’s his backstory, that’s his backstory.’ I really don’t want to give too much away about that, but Noah Hawley, aside from being a genius, he puts a lot of faith in his actors and he kind of lets you do your thing. Every once in a while he might give you an adjustment or a note, but he really gave me free rein as far as creating Mike Milligan. I just went with what made sense to me at the time, as far as who I believe Mike Milligan to be. Nine times out of ten, he was okay with my choices.”

Do you prefer that way of working, of not knowing that much about the backstory?

Bokeem Woodbine: “I always develop a backstory. Whether or not there’s time or I feel comfortable sharing it with the director, it’s a situation by situation scenario. I love when me and the director can collaborate. That’s always great. Things being the way they are, there’s not always time.

I’m a mercenary, so I just get the lay of the land, per se, which would be the script. I get certain specifics as far as who’s working on my side or who the ‘enemy’ is, just to use that as a metaphor, and what my weapons are, if you will, what I have working for me, what I have working against me. A lot of times, that’s all the information I have.

You might find out you have a job on Monday and then you’re in another country on Wednesday, get off the plane, get right on the set. There’s not always the time to formulate a backstory or to confer with the director or the creative entities, the writer, what have you, to get on the same page about the backstory, so you don’t always have that luxury. Generally, of course, I would prefer to have the time that I had with Fargo. I had the gig and I didn’t shoot for five, maybe almost six weeks, so I had plenty of time to talk with Noah, to work on things, to develop my sense of the character, and that’s always a blessing and a preferable situation. But you don’t always get that.”

Is there any room to improv while you’re on set?

Bokeem Woodbine: “All 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.

As far as the way Mike Milligan speaks, it’s just something that occurred to me when I was getting ready for the audition. I could kind of hear him in my head talking, and that’s how he sounded. When I did the audition, I did it like that and I got the part. 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, ‘Okay, that worked in the audition but we’re going to do it like this,” but they never did. I just kind of went with it. It was organic. The character really spoke to me like that. That’s how I imagined him talking from the very beginning when I got the material initially for the audition. I could hear that voice in my head.”

Can you talk about about working with Brad Garrett?

Bokeem Woodbine: “It was a true pleasure. Brad’s a pro. He’s got a great sense of humor, even when the cameras aren’t rolling. The only challenge was, there were a few moments where he would just say something hilarious. The cameras would start rolling and I had to try to get myself together in time to complete the scene because I would just be laughing 10 seconds before we start shooting. I’d be laughing so hard. I’d be like, ‘Okay, can you stop because I’ve got to try to get back into character now?’

I think that his approach to Joe Bulo is magnificent. It was obvious that he spent a lot of time preparing for it. He’s laid back, easygoing, a lot of fun to work with, no pretension. He’s just there to work. I actually learned some things about comedic timing from him, not so much when we were shooting, but just how funny he is when the cameras aren’t rolling. I really do think he’s a comedic powerhouse. His dramatic turn in this is going to surprise a lot of people. I think he’s doing a great job.”

How would you describe your time filming in the cold climate?

Bokeem Woodbine: “The landscape and the weather are a character unto themselves. They really play an integral part in the show. I’m not the biggest fan of cold weather. The challenge can be sometimes to try to figure out how to stay warm. We have these little hot pocket things. They’re like these little squares and they give off heat. You put them in your sock, you put them in your jacket, and in between takes, you put your hands in your jacket. It had its challenges even though, for the region, talking to the locals they explained to me that this last winter was considered a mild one. But it was still cold to me. It wasn’t quite as snowy as the previous year and that created a little bit of a challenge, but they worked that out. They’re very industrious and resourceful, so sometimes we require bringing snow from places rather far away and dumping it, creating the snowy background with the lack of snow.

It had its challenges. Sometimes you have to fight hard to maintain your concentration during such a cold climate. You had to try and do your best to stay warm and stay in the zone. I think for me, in my career, it was a unique challenge. I’d never really worked in weather like that before.”

Is there a particular aspect of this show that you’re drawn to?

Bokeem Woodbine: “The surrealism. There’s something that Fargo captures quite well that’s very hard to describe with words, but I’ll do my best. It’s the, I call it the humor of the gods, whereby we have the strangest incidences in our life occur that almost seem like it would be in a movie. It’s just so off the wall. Truth is stranger than fiction. I think we all have those experiences in our life at different times. Fargo manages to capture the feeling that we all get from time to time that maybe we’re being watched, or this is so crazy there has to be a camera rolling. What are the odds that this would happen? I think we’ve all had those kind of sensations, and Fargo captures that, the surreal nature of life, at times. To me, that’s my favorite part about it.”

Noah Hawley and the writers have a particular language that they write where there’s a certain rhythm and rhyme to it. How do you casualize that language?

Bokeem Woodbine: “You just spend a lot of time. A lot of time. It’s true that there is a cadence to an extent. There is a certain rhythm. The vernacular is what it is. How does one try to make that honest was the ongoing challenge. Every 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 not a formula; it was just many many hours. Fargo is the kind of piece, the scripts have the kind of dialogue that you’ll literally obsess over. You’ll obsess over it. You won’t think about anything else. Then when you think you might have solved the riddle or unlocked the treasure chest, there’s no feeling like it. The reward is 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 technical lines. It was an amazing challenge. I only attribute putting time into it.”

Is it important for you to understand every component of this show, whether it is your lines or just the show in general? Do you need to understand everything about the entire storyline and other characters to play your part?

Bokeem 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, what they were going through. And a lot of times you’ll get material and you’ll 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 in the next episode, but how it fits in the show as a whole. I was really swept up with the individual stories and it carried me along for a ride. My character’s 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. 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 in its own category. I try to be as informed as I could about the whole thing.”

Bokeem Woodbine Ted Danson Fargo Season 2
Ted Danson as Hank Larsson, Todd Mann as Wayne Kitchen, Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, and Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen in ‘Fargo’ (Photo by Chris Large / FX)

The scene with Hank Larsson (played by Ted Danson) confronting Mike and the Kitchen brothers on the road was incredible. What was it like filming that and did you have any idea it would be so tense when viewed on screen?

Bokeem Woodbine: “That scene was nerve-wracking. I hope Mr. Danson doesn’t mind me saying this…I’m sure he wouldn’t…he was kind of nervous, too. He told me so. I kind of confronted him like, ‘Man, this material…’ I was like, ‘I’m kind of nervous.’ And he’s like, ‘Me, too.’ I didn’t know if it would resonate with the audience. I spent a lot of time preparing for that scene and all the scenes, really. That particular one for me, it had a lot of challenges insomuch as it’s getting towards the end of the day for Mike and the Kitchen brothers and they really don’t want to be stopped by the Sheriff. They want to keep going and end the day. They get pulled over at a bad time. I think one of the challenges for Mike was to try to keep his temper. I don’t think that he was scared for even a second. I think that it was more about, ‘Let’s get out of here without having to kill this guy.’

I didn’t know it was going to be so tense. When I saw it, I was like, ‘Wow! That’s what we shot?’ It looks great, in my opinion. I was like, ‘This looks fantastic.’ We were so in the moment, all of us, just speaking for myself, I didn’t think about how it would come out. I just wanted to do the best I could in every moment.”

We never see Mike’s fear and it’s almost as if he’s performing for those around him to disguise any emotions. Has that been a challenge to navigate as an actor?

Bokeem Woodbine: “Absolutely. Absolutely. Mike is a natural showman. At the same time, as an actor you’ve 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? That was 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. Not just that particular scene, but all the material has a certain Fargo-esque 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? For me, there was no formula. It’s just one scene at a time.”

How do you feel about the role comedy plays in this season of Fargo?

Bokeem Woodbine: “I just started watching the first season not too long ago, the first five episodes. They all have a sense of humor. I think this season is no different. It’s just an aspect of the Fargo-verse – humor. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this season is funnier, but I would say that there are so many comedic moments in this season that I’ve seen this far that I didn’t even necessarily realize were going to play as funny as they did until I saw them. Humor is an incredibly important part of this season, and with Fargo in general, in my opinion. I don’t think we ever really try to be funny, per se. There were some lines, there was some material that is obviously meant to be funny, then there’s so much other stuff that’s just funny by accident, almost. I don’t think anybody ever tried to try too hard to hit the joke. It’s just kind of in there. It’s on the page. It’s in the text. It’s already written there. I think we just did our best to honor the material and that means being funny sometimes, whether you know it or not.”

More on Fargo Season 2: Episode 1 Recap / Episode 2 Recap / Episode 3 Recap / Episode 4 Recap / Episode 5 Recap