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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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?’”
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.
This content was originally published here.