Bokeem Woodbine is not an actor you’d necessarily expect to see on Fargo, a very good FX series that happens to be rural and midwestern and therefore very white. And the role is not one you’d expect Woodbine to fill. He plays an Afro’d Kansas City mob enforcer with a stereotypically Irish name, Mike Milligan, who travels with two mute henchmen known as the Kitchen Brothers. Starting with his breakout performances in films like Jason’s Lyric and HBO’s Strapped, Woodbine often played brooding or hot-tempered men who carry guns — mostly criminals, some cops — so that aspect of his Fargo performance isn’t new. But everything else is. Mike Milligan is not merely a criminal, but a Coen-esque eccentric who happens to be involved in criminal activities. He has a singsong way of speaking that Woodbine has termed “Milliganese.”
“Isn’t that a minor miracle, given the state of the world today and the level of conflict and misunderstanding, that two men could stand on a lonely road in winter and talk calmly and rationally, while all around them people are losing their minds?” Mike asks during a tense exchange with Hank Larsson, Ted Danson’s character, one of two lawmen investigating a mass murder.
It’s the kind of sentiment that Burt Lancaster might have spoken in Atlantic City — or John Goodman in almost any Coen brothers movie. As conceived by showrunner Noah Hawley, Mike is an upbeat and curious person who knows a lot, has opinions about the world beyond crime, and seems to be working out a philosophy. He ruminates, provokes, probes, asks rhetorical questions — always with hint of a grin, sometimes with a full-blown smile. He’s self-deprecatingly funny, too, at one point saying that Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers “sounds like a prog-rock band.” The material is wonderful, and so is Woodbine.
To paraphrase a scene from one of the great Coen brothers films, this is what happens, Larry, when you cast a good actor against type.
If you see Woodbine’s name in the credits of a film or TV show, you don’t necessarily think, I bet he’s playing a funny chatterbox autodidact whose very presence makes the audience grin. But that’s not Woodbine’s fault — it’s the industry’s. Woodbine, like a lot of actors, battles typecasting. (In Danielle Henderson’s interview with Woodbine, he jokes that a role like that is usually written for “a 50-year-old, potbellied Italian cat.”) At a recent Paley Center panel discussion about the new season of Fargo, he told me that when he was offered Mike, he spent several days staring at the title on the cover of the first episode’s script. He was a fan of the original Fargo film and was stunned that anyone would think of him for a role like that, given his long history of playing characters who are less eloquent and more volatile — brutes sometimes.
It happens all the time, typecasting. No actor wants it, but it’s a fact of life in show business. And who knows how many great, surprising performances we’ve been deprived of as a result of it?
Maybe 20 years ago, I asked an experienced character actor how typecasting happens, and he said it was because casting directors didn’t want casting failures to seem like their fault. If they cast somebody who’d never played a cop and it turned out to be a bad choice for whatever reason, they might be blamed, but if they cast somebody who’d played eight cops and it didn’t work out this time, they could shrug and say, “I don’t know why he didn’t work out — he’s played eight cops.”
But when you don’t take the safe route, you might end up with a performance like Woodbine’s. Or, for that matter, Danson’s performance as Hank, a reassuringly kind, wise, and gentle man who has nary a trace of the weirdness or volatility or sexuality that Danson has brought to roles stretching from Cheers and Cousins through Damages and Bored to Death. Or Jean Smart’s chilling performance as Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch of the Gerhardt crime family, who takes over for her stroke-addled husband and brooks no nonsense from her blustering, macho sons; Smart has played dramatic roles before, including serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a 1992 TV movie, and First Lady Martha Logan on 24, but she’s more often typecast as tart-tongued sitcom oddballs, as on Designing Women, Frasier, and Samantha Who? On Fargo, she’s playing the sort of role that Margo Martindale got typecast in after her breakout performance on Justified, which, ironically, we never would have seen if that series hadn’t decided to take a chance on Martindale instead of handing the part to somebody better known.
Hawley and FX are taking casting cues from their guiding lights, Joel and Ethan Coen — and good thing, too. The Coens’ achievements include basically handing certain actors their careers, or opening doors to new phases of careers that seemed locked into a certain track. They cast actors in modes that they weren’t already well known for mastering (George Clooney’s first self-deprecating dumb-ass role was in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and look at what he’s done in that vein since) or handed them lead roles when they were unknown or barely known: See Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man, Josh Brolin and Kelly MacDonald in No Country for Old Men, Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona — eight months before her Oscar-nominated turn in Broadcast News — and John Turturro as the title character of Barton Fink.
Throughout film history, and TV history, casting against type has yielded not just some of the best performances of certain actors’ careers, but some of the defining moments of the show or movie they appeared in. Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola — and, for that matter, any filmmaker worth getting excited about, in any era, from any country —r outinely cast against type or against experience (by putting “new” actors in major roles). Television has also benefited from against-type casting and casting that puts an unfamiliar face in a prominent role. Bruce Willis was barely known when he got the lead role on ABC’s mid-’80s series Moonlighting opposite Cybill Shepherd; according to legend, he won the role over competitors because the lone female network executive in the room made an observation that none of the men there would have made: Willis looked like “one dangerous fuck.” He’s reinvented himself at least four times since then, as a motormouthed wise-guy action hero, the strong silent type, and finally as a beleaguered, world-weary leading man of the sort that French directors would’ve adored in the ‘70s.
For more examples, just look at one of TV’s greatest dramas, Deadwood. It’s filled with counterintuitive casting that made stars of up-and-coming actors or revealed new aspects of established actors’ talents. Brad Dourif, who was mainly known for playing naïve innocents and psychopathic killers, shined as Doc Cochran, the conscience of the town. Robin Weigert, then known mainly for playing cops and forensic scientists, was ferocious and pitiable as the foulmouthed alcoholic Calamity Jane. The show’s co-star, Timothy Olyphant, is now typecast as Clint Eastwood–style stoic badasses (he even played a Clint Eastwood–type in the cartoon Rango), but prior to playing that sort of role on Deadwood, he was being groomed for a different kind of typecasting slot — as a talkative, Jack Nicholson–styled, funny bad boy in roles like the drug dealer in Go. Ten years ago, Olyphant told me on the set of Deadwood that he wondered what prompted creator David Milch to cast him as the furiously violent sheriff, because there was little in his previous roles to suggest that he could convince in a role like that.
Then there’s Keri Russell on The Americans. At this point it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part, but when the series started, even fans of the actress were skeptical that adorable Felicity could convince as a Soviet spy who’d seduce a stranger and break his neck if she thought it would help the Motherland.
Who would have thought that Michael Chiklis would be perfect as a murderous, corrupt cop on The Shield until the show’s producers decided to read him for that part? Who would have thought that Terry Crews, who looks like the sort of guy who might’ve gone 15 rounds with Rocky back in the day, would be such a marvelous, light comedian?
There might be no better TV example of the shortsightedness and circuitous stupidity of typecasting than Bryan Cranston, who in the mid-aughts was being sent mostly comedic material because of all of his great years on Malcolm in the Middle. Showrunners and directors and casting people saw him pratfalling on a domestic sitcom and thought that was the sort of role he was put on Earth to play. Cranston was a surprise choice as Breaking Bad’s Walter White — to everyone, that is, except series creator Vince Gilligan. Gilligan knew Cranston from his terrifying pre-Malcolm guest spot on The X-Files, as a man who had to keep moving westward at high speed for fear that his head would explode. In a 2008 interview, Gilligan told me that he always thought of Cranston as a Robert De Niro–type Method actor and was taken aback when he got cast in a Dick Van Dyke–type part on Malcolm. Now people remember him as Walter White and want to cast him as grandly ambitious, arrogant men in dramatic roles. The truth is much simpler: Cranston always had range. A lot of actors do. And it frustrates them when they aren’t asked to prove it.
This is what happens when they are: Career realignment. Elation. Revelation.
About 15 years ago, I talked to Tom Selleck for one of the umpteen zillion Westerns he was doing for cable. Near the end of the interview I asked him if there was any role, or type of role, that he always wanted to play but hadn’t yet because nobody would cast him. He told me he always wanted to play “a real rat bastard of a villain, and I know I’d be great at it, because nobody would see it coming after all the good guys I’ve played.” (He was recently accused of stealing water during California’s water crisis, and the headlines said things like “Alleged Water Theft Lawsuit Casts Tom Selleck as Villain of California Drought,” but that’s not what Selleck had in mind.)
Your move, Tarantino.