By Sonya Jenkins
With an acting career that has spanned 20 years, actor Bokeem Woodbine has played some of the most colorful characters in television and film. His roles have ranged from the rough and rugged to the naughty and noble, and have given him an edge in Hollywood as a compelling actor who delivers with a punch.
With a repertoire of films under his belt, including STRAPPED, JASON’S LYRIC, GRIDLOCK’D, RAY, THE BUTCHER and several other films and television projects, Bokeem’s latest feature film TOTAL RECALL – in theatres August 3 – takes the Harlem born actor to a new level – science fiction. In TOTAL RECALL, Bokeem plays Harry, the friend and brother figure of Quaid (Colin Farrell). Bokeem admits that acting in a science fiction film was on his “bucket list.”
Bokeem took some time to chat with me – via phone – about his career. He also shared his tips for aspiring actors. Keep reading for our conversation.
Bokeem: Hi, Sonya. How are you?
Sonya: I’m pretty good. I saw the screening [of TOTAL RECALL] last night and I had no clue about your character, but I felt like I already knew your character. Do you know what I’m saying?
Bokeem: Not really. Is that a compliment? I’m not sure. What do you mean?
Sonya: I know, right. I should make myself clear. Well, I envisioned what type of character you’d play before seeing the movie. You tend to play bad boy roles. So, let me start off by just asking you about your roles. Do you like that you have an edge in being cast as a bad boy?
Bokeem: Not really, Sonya. Because I’ve got to tell you, over the last couple of years I’ve also appeared as a cop, a lawyer, a federal agent and things of that nature. But what I do find interesting is that certain people gravitate to certain roles that I play. So, I don’t know. There’s also jazz musicians, doctors and roles of that nature. But it all depends on what people like. So, I’ve got to ask you – ‘Do you like when I play bad boys or when I play a LAPD officer – like on a show like Southland?’
Sonya: I actually do like when you play a bad boy.
Bokeem: See, that’s a theory that I’ve proven correctly. But I’ll tell you this: I love every opportunity that I have a chance to get in front of that camera, no matter what the role is – if I can bring it to life. There are a lot of people who talk about it. There are a lot of people who wish they had the opportunity to do it, but I’m blessed to be in a situation where I’m actually making it happen. And I have heroes like Sam Jackson and Forest Whitaker. Sam spent a great deal of his early career playing junkies, drug dealers, thieves, killers – whatever – and at 46, he really started to pop – at 46 years old. I’m 39 and I have a substantial career under my belt and I feel confident it’s another step in the right direction. It’s another opportunity for a brother to express himself on screen, which doesn’t happen everyday.
Sonya: Exactly. And that’s a great accomplishment that you’ve had so many roles and a stellar career. And I want to congratulate you on that. How do you feel about your accomplishments thus far?
Bokeem: It’s just a drop in the bucket. I think so many of us struggle for so many years to be a part of this as black people. We’ll see what kind of ripple effect it might have or it might not have. There were a few pictures I did in my 20s where I wasn’t motivated by the character – didn’t care – it was just about getting paid. We have those experiences. These things happen. But I would say, generally speaking, as I look back on my resume in my mind, I would say 89 or 90 percent of the time, I gave my best. And that’s a step I took and that had nothing to do with money or box office or people’s perception of me. But as a source of personal pride I feel blessed. Every once in a while I give myself a little pat on the back.
Sonya: That’s great. What would you say has been your most rewarding experience as an actor?
Bokeem: My first movie with Forest Whitaker – STRAPPED – the learning curve. You’ve got to understand, I never had aspirations of being an actor. Forest Whitaker picked me at an open audition. It was almost like a joke. He hand selected me and gave me this opportunity 20 years ago almost to the day. What I learned from that experience – working with one of the greatest living actors in the world, I can’t even put into words. It was just a wellspring of information that the brother passed off to me. That remains the most eventful experience I’ve had to date. I’ve had so many wonderful experiences since then, but that remains the one ‘Wow.’
Sonya: Is it true that you were an extra or a stand-in for the movie, JUICE with Tupac Shakur and Omar Epps back in the early 90s?
Bokeem: Yeah (chuckles). That’s true. That’s really how I got my start. I was an extra in JUICE to make money for a tattoo. I was like 17. I needed a little bit of extra change for a tattoo. I was supposed to be an extra, but I used to have dreads and they said I favored Treach – back in the day – with Naughty By Nature. And they said, ‘He’s not here today.’ Of course I had no idea who he was. We’ve since become friends. That’s my ace now, but at the time I had no idea who he was. So, they said ‘Do you mind being a stand-in?’ And I said, ‘Sure, whatever.’ You get paid a little bit more money. So, I was a stand-in, and after that –about a year and a half later – the lady who cast me as an extra and stand-in called me up. I was still living with Moms. I was 19 – eating her out of house and home. And I got the call asking me to come read for this scene…and it turned out to be STRAPPED. And that ultimately was how things started.
Sonya: Wow. So, what advice would you give, being that you started out as an extra and stand-in? What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
Bokeem: There are a couple of things really. Don’t be afraid to spend time by yourself. That’s a big one. Because a lot of us come from big families or have strong circles of friendships – this, that or the other. But I would say, ultimately, you can’t be afraid to be with yourself and work on your instrument. And another thing is, if you don’t have an opportunity to get into a class, it’s okay. There are plenty of books out there that I find very helpful – maybe even more helpful than cinema class in studying some basic techniques and just using your mind to visualize how you would employ these techniques. Find out about open casting calls. Find out about open casting calls – open casting calls. The other thing is fitness. Now this is something that it took me years to realize. I’ve always worked out, but there’s a way to work out for a look on camera. You have to do a certain amount of cardio exercises. You have to. If they have to choose between two people who are equally talented in acting, but one is fit and the other one is not, they’re going with the person that’s fit. That’s one of the most underrated aspects that is so overlooked. But if you’re talking about getting a job, I want to help people get the job. I want you to get the job. If you’re not fit and the other person is, you can be a better actor and not get the job. Never overlook how important it is to be in shape.
Sonya: Okay, I’ve got to ask about the movie – TOTAL RECALL. How was it working on the film and how long did it take to film your scenes?
Bokeem: It was a dynamite experience. The whole thing – from the audition to actually shooting my part took about six months. So, for a long time, I wasn’t sure if I had the role and once I had the role, it was a number of months shooting .
Sonya: How was it working with Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel?
Bokeem: As far as working with Colin Farrrell and Jessi, they were both super cool. They are both addicted to crossword puzzles. I don’t know if people know that. Colin is very funny – always prepared. Jessica Biel is the nicest lady. Just a lot of fun to be on set with everybody. We had a good time. And everybody came prepared. It’s definitely worth the price of admission.
Sonya: Well, I appreciate you bringing your talent to the forefront. You’ve always stood out as an actor. I think I first noticed you when you did the movie with the pretty actress. I can’t recall her name or the movie right now – but I remember your acting. Oh, I think it was CAUGHT UP. You were a bad boy then too.
Bokeem: CAUGHT UP, right. Cynda Williams was in that. Cynda Williams.
Sonya: Yes, so, I noticed your talent then. So, keep doing your thing and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
Bokeem: Thank you so much, Sonya.
Sonya: Take care.
BOKEEM TALKS ABOUT TOTAL RECALL