It’s easy to tell when you’re watching a Bokeem Woodbine movie: You’re immediately drawn from whatever was holding your attention to whatever he’s doing when he shows up onscreen. Consider it an effect of his staggering presence, quiet mystery or seemingly effortless ability to illuminate the humanity of even the most morally depleted characters.
Joshua Alexander in “Jason’s Lyric.” Fathead Newman in “Ray.” Officer Jones on “Southland.” Those are just a few of his onscreen personas we’ve been lucky to watch.
But it’s his most recent work as a hardened drill sergeant in the military drama “The Inspection,” inspired by director Elegance Bratton’s deeply personal experience as a queer Black man who joined the Marines, that has people turning their heads this time.
Part of that comes down to the fact that, once again, Woodbine is low-key stealing scenes from the already-impressive lead actor (in this case, Jeremy Pope). It’s yet another example of how Woodbine, whether others realize this or not, is one of the greatest under-the-radar actors of his generation.
He’s not unlike the actors he admired when he was coming up: Sidney Poitier, Humphrey Bogart, Forest Whitaker, Robert Duvall and Bob Hoskins, to name a few.
Bratton certainly sees it in Woodbine. “I felt I had a chance to do something with him that should have been done a long time ago and will remind people that this man is an American institution,” the director writes in the film’s production notes. “He’s literally one of the best living, breathing actors on this planet right now.”
Talking to Woodbine on a recent call, though, he’s as cool as a cucumber about this kind of praise. Despite his lingering presence onscreen, he doesn’t give off main character energy at all. Being in the game for three decades now has apparently given him a humility and clear-mindedness unmatched by his peers.
“I think I’ve tempered my ambition over the years and just focused on trying to be as honest and thorough as I can in my preparation,” Woodbine said.
“So much of this is out of my control. I don’t have the aesthetic that is generally associated with a leading man, and just being at peace with that took me some time.”
That “aesthetic,” as the actor expounds, isn’t simply a reference to being a Black man in Hollywood and navigating the racism with which we’re all too familiar. As Woodbine said, “there’s plenty of leading men that are Black actors.”
For him, it goes deeper than that. “I don’t have the physical characteristics that most people would associate with the guy who’s the lead in the movie,” he continued.
He feels that other people’s perception of him, in an industry where that can make or break you, is just “what it is.” “It hasn’t stopped me from creating these characters that I’m proud of, to a large extent,” he said.
“It hasn’t stopped me from being able to put food on the table, travel the world and have all these wonderful experiences. It’s just an observation I think that one has to make in order to eliminate any misunderstanding about what’s going on in one’s career.”
Woodbine says these words with such zen-like clarity that they immediately remind me of the fact that he practices martial arts, something I only discovered when he popped up on a recent episode of “United Shades of America” and shared how he came to it. Or, really, who brought the Harlem native to it.
“My kung fu master is Shifu Shi Yan Ming, the abbot of the USA Shaolin Temple,” Woodbine said. “He’s a 34th-generation Shaolin Temple warrior monk who defected to the United States in 1994 and has gone on to teach many celebrities the beauty of Shaolin kung fu.”
He names a few fellow stars, including Rosie Perez, “my big brother” The RZA, Wesley Snipes (a fellow alum of LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York) and John Leguizamo.
“Countless other talented people have trained with him and find inspiration in his teachings — not only the physical but the mental.”
It makes you wonder if we’ll ever see Woodbine’s martial arts practice reflected on the big screen. Unsurprisingly, he already wrote a script he hopes will get off the ground one day.
It’s not that we haven’t seen him in certain action roles. The actor is clearly no stranger to “gunplay,” as he describes it. He can inarguably play a gangster like few others, as evidenced in part by his 2015 Emmy-nominated portrayal of Mike Milligan on “Fargo.”
“Normally, when I do action, I’m more of a pistolero, and I love it,” Woodbine said. “Because even though I hate guns in real life — I mean, I own several, but it’s a weird dichotomy because I hate them. I have them, I know how to use them, but I have an aversion to them. It’s very strange.”
He tries to explain that. “It’s like having a painting in your house that you don’t like, but it’s worth money or something,” he said. “But I do harbor hope that one day I’ll be able to do some kicks and punches and show some kung fu onscreen.”
It’s interesting that Woodbine mentions this distaste for guns because his “Inspection” character, Laws, is the guy who boasts about his “four confirmed kills” in Iraq and constantly intimidates recruits like French (Pope), often while toting a fully loaded weapon. But Woodbine was convinced that the role was meant for him. He called his agent immediately after reading the script.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t want anybody else to play Laws,’” he recalled. “My agent is a beast, but he’s very matter-of-fact. I call him ‘Mr. Spock.’ He was like, ‘Well, we’ll see what they’re talking about as far as who they have in mind and blah, blah, blah’ — basically, who your competition is.”
“And I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t think you understand. Nobody can play this but me.’”
Luckily, time, as well as his undeniable talent, was on Woodbine’s side. While Bratton searched for his leading man, Woodbine was able to finish the project he had been working on and jump over to “The Inspection” right after that. But what was it about Laws that made Woodbine so assured that he could step into the role?
“I just knew this guy,” he said plainly. “I knew who Laws was beneath the surface and what motivated him. And I was compelled to try to bring some honesty to the character.”
“Because here’s somebody that was in the field at one point and knew combat and understood what it means to be in that situation,” he added, “and how do you go from being in that situation to a decade later being somebody who’s trying to prepare other people for it?”
Woodbine’s curiosity led to several conversations with Bratton about the interiority of the character. “How do you turn it off? Can you ever accept the fact that you don’t do that no more — either because doing it maybe scarred you mentally, or maybe you’re getting older and you’re not as capable or … How do you still stick around?
The actor likened it to the guy at the gym who, as he put it, “could have been a contender” or a champion boxer and now trains others. “How do you not feel, if not resentful, maybe a little envious about the fact that now here is this young person who’s going to create their glory, and you’re not the dude doing it?”
These questions really help put Laws in perspective. While the character might say he’s “toughening up” his young recruits — to the point that he’s actively antagonizing them and pitting them against each other — he has an antiquated understanding of how to do that. And there’s a bitterness about him that points to something else.
“He thinks that maybe for whatever reason, they’ve gotten a little soft as a generation,” Woodbine said. “Now he feels it a responsibility to try to remind them about some things that he thinks are important. I guess this is true of a lot of generations as time goes on.”
“People tend to think that they had it tougher or they were tougher, or this, that and the other. How much of that is true — I mean, I guess it’s up to the person who’s feeling that way.”
Certainly, Woodbine can provide some of his own perspective here as an actor who came up through a very different, but in some obvious ways similar, Hollywood where there was a clearer path to success, even if it wasn’t available to everyone. Today, particularly with social media, those lines are blurred. So are the motivations of young actors.
“When I was first doing my thing in the ’90s and was first having the opportunity to try to appear onscreen and bring life to characters and stuff like that, [there] is such a difference between just 1992 and, say, 2006,” he recalled. “It’s a completely different world.”
He remembers feeling totally “alien” in the then-new era of filmmaking. “Fourteen years isn’t an incredibly long amount of time,” he said. “It’s this snap of a finger in the annals of history. But from ’92 when I first started making films to 2006 was all these new faces, new talent, new energy, new disparate notions that left me feeling like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
And it’s no less discombobulating in 2022, 16 years later than that.
So, how do you release a character like Laws — one Woodbine embodied so thoroughly in “The Inspection” — who in some ways shares your mindset, but in other, more caustic ways is a departure from who you are?
Typically, Woodbine takes off at least two months after wrapping a project — perhaps retreating to his adoptive home in Hawaii. But it was around six months later, and after finishing a whole other project, that he realized that he had been holding on to Laws for much longer.
“I can’t remember what the catalyst was, but I just remember thinking, ‘I’m done,’” Woodbine said.
“I hadn’t had an experience like that since I worked on a film many years prior to that, which, ironically, also had a military basis,” he added. “A film called ‘Dead Presidents.’ It was not easy to snap out of that one for some reason.”
That’s understandable. The 1995 drama follows a young Black man (Larenz Tate) who returns from Vietnam and, along with his crew (among them, Woodbine’s Cleon), turns to a life of murder and other crimes when faced with few other options. And it’s an absolutely visceral watch.
As much as Woodbine takes advantage of his downtime, one look at his IMDB page reveals that he has at least two more projects coming up. So, relaxation, even with the best of intentions, can’t come easy.
But — and you can almost hear Woodbine smiling on the other line as he says this — “Hawaii has a way of just cooling you out.”