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After 20 Years on the Grind, Bokeem Woodbine Finds Mainstream Success with ‘Fargo’

There’s nothing more frustrating than being a hidden gem.  Though precious and valuable, a hidden gem is not independent.  It is dependent on being discovered by others through sheer luck or dauntless determination; it isn’t an ideal existence.  This is the existence of many Black actors and actresses in the film industry.  If there was ever a poster boy for late career recognition and renaissance, it is the unearthing of Bokeem Woodbine.

In recent months, Woodbine has generated major static for his acclaimed role as Mike Milligan on this past season of Fargo.  Woodbine was nominated for his first Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Movie Made for Television or Limited Series.

“I literally couldn’t have conceived or conceptualized such great moments for a character, such unique and wonderful dialogue and such bizarre yet completely, in my mind, realistic scenarios,” Woodbine stated in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “It was almost as if I went to the future and I said, ‘OK. I’m gonna write you the perfect part for you that you’ll never forget and you’ll always look back on fondly’ and then I sent it somehow (he laughs) into the past and into my own hands. It was like I’d written it for myself.”

This is a dream role for Woodbine, but in reality, he’s getting a chance to break out on the mainstream stage and make good on the talent he’s constituted over a 20-year career.  Like many Black actors and actresses, he has been grinding his way up the ladder, with his most visible parts coming in the early 1990s with roles in Dead Presidents, Panther, and most notably Jason’s Lyric.  Woodbine has built an extensive filmography as a reliable character actor.  He makes the perfect analogy concerning his career.

“So for a long time and for a large part of my career, I’ve been a guy that sits on the bench a lot, and once in a while I’ll get called in to make a play. It might be an important play, but I’m not the star running back,” he said to The Hollywood Reporter.

Woodbine’s journey parallels those of recent award winners Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis, who have persevered through small parts for over a decade before landing a signature role.  In absolute irony, Woodbine’s breakthrough role as Mike Milligan was not even made for him.

“When I first heard about the role and I got the e-mail saying I had to audition for it, I thought it was a mistake,” he said in an interview on TheThrillist.com. “I called my agent and said, ‘Hey, this is an audition for a 50-year-old, potbellied Italian cat.’”

Woodbine understands the magnitude of this blessing.

“I really understood what he [Noah Hawley, Fargo showrunner] meant when I wrapped out of the show.  It was an interesting feeling going back home and celebrating with the wife. I’m like, “Hey babe, I did it. I think I might have actually pulled it off.”  And then juxtaposing that feeling of victory with thinking, “Whoa. How am I gonna follow this up? How am I possibly going to follow this up?”

Bokeem Woodbine won’t have to wait very long for his follow-up.  The Hollywood Reporter has reported he will co-lead a potential new show for A&E called The Infamous.  Set in the backdrop of the early 1990s L.A riots, he is set to play Shannon, a reformed ex-gang member turned hip-hop producer who becomes the target of an LAPD detective.

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