Exclusive: Spotlight on Stephen Root

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We love character actors here at ComingSoon.net, because they often can make the biggest difference between a good movie and a great movie. It’s certainly why most of the Coen Brothers movies have had such an impact on modern filmgoers, because they tend to give character actors some of the best lines and scenes.

Easily one of the top character actors working today has to be Stephen Root, and he’s a classic case of an actor that you see or hear everywhere, from movies to television to cartoons, but you’d have to be a true film fan to know him by name.

Of course, most people will probably remember him best for the sadsack role of Milton in Mike Judge’s Office Space or for a number of voices on Judge’s “King of the Hill” or possibly his long-running role as Jimmy James on the popular ’90s sitcom “NewsRadio” or Gordon in Dodgeball… and that barely covers everything he’s done up until 2003! Root has literally appeared in dozens of movies and television shows every year for years, most notably that of the Coens where he had key roles in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men but that’s just the tip of an enormous iceberg.

This year alone, Root has already appeared in the comedy Cedar Rapids and played three roles in Gore Verbinski’s animated Western Rango. On Friday, April 15, he can be seen in Robert Redford’s The Conspirator in a more serious role as a witness in a trial to convict a woman of conspiracy in the Lincoln murder, and next month, he’ll be in Will Ferrell’s indie comedy Everything Must Go, both which appeared at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Root also plays a funny role in Kevin Smith’s Red State, which has been touring the country following its Sundance debut, and later this year (presumably), he’ll be doing another serious role in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.

That’s a lot of movies in one year, even for Root, but ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to him about the amazing year he’s been having during a phone conversation we had with the actor a couple of weeks back.

ComingSoon.net: So this is a pretty amazing year for you. You’ve had three movies already and you have three or four more movies to go.
Stephen Root:
Yeah, it looks like I’m actually in films now. (Laughs) It’s weird.

CS: It’s funny because a lot of times I see a movie and it’s not always advertised that you’re in a movie, but it’s always a nice surprise when it’s like, “Oh, there’s Stephen Root.”
Root:
Yeah, they let me into them once in a while. Yeah, it’s funny. You just make them and then you never know when they’re gonna come out and it just happened this year that they come out like one a month.

CS: Let’s start with “The Conspirator” because you have an interesting role in that one. It’s a little bit more dramatic than we normally see you, but you bring a sense of humor to the role. How were you approached to play that role and what was it like shooting that?
Root:
Well, it was shot in Savannah, which is a beautiful, beautiful place. I mean, it really evoked the era and the time, especially when you’re outside. I think all of us did research on our own, read books, read internet stuff. It’s funny. The one guy they don’t have a picture of is John Lloyd, my character. They had photographs of almost everybody in that trial and in and around conspiracy. So I just did research on that. I was always interested in the story anyway, but as with every case on many things I do now, “Do I like the script? Do I want to work with the people in the film?” Both of those were a big “yes,” especially for the script. I really, really wanted to work with Mr. Redford.

CS: Did he send you the full script, did he kind of just contact you about playing a role and did you know the story a little bit beforehand?
Root:
You know what? I had auditioned for him for “Lions for Lambs.” He had cast me in that. I wasn’t able to do it because I was doing another movie at the same time, so he basically just remembered me and offered me this role, which I thought was great. I think he’d seen the kind of extreme characters that I can do and it just kind of fits that mode.

CS: Yeah, I’ve got to say, at this point, I’d imagine most filmmakers would know your work and have seen your work and know the range you have.
Root:
You’d be surprised. (Laughs)

CS: Do you still have to do a lot of auditions for roles?
Root:
It’s always – there’s no issues ever. Some of them don’t watch television so they don’t know that work. Some of them see my work in just little drips and drabs, but mostly, the people’s minds you have to change are probably the casting directors. You’ll do a comedy for a couple of times and say, “Oh, well he just does comedy.” Then you have to turn down comedies for a while (Laughs) and do dramas until like, “Oh, he just does dramas.” It’s hard to educate them sometimes when it’s like, I’m a character actor, I can do both of those things. It’s more of a challenge to get casting directors on the page that you can do more than one thing.

CS: You mentioned the term “character actor,” which is a question I wanted to ask you anyway, but do you consider that label a bane or a blessing? How do you feel about that?
Root:
No, I think that’s just a fact, you know? I think some of the reason you wanted to watch movies before was because you saw those character actors and you went, “Oh, I love him, I want to watch him in this movie, I want to watch him in ‘Sierra Madre.’ I want to watch dah, dah, dah.” So that’s what I grew up with, loving to watch the character guys. I was never really good enough or good enough looking or taller to be a lead guy anyway, and it wasn’t my passion. I really enjoyed taking a part and immersing myself in it, basically I have no personality. (Laughs)

CS: I highly doubt that.
Root:
Ah, it’s true. (Laughs)

CS: What kind of research did you do for this? Was there a lot of stuff out there on that character?
Root:
Yeah, go ahead and pull it up. One of the first things they’ve got is the trial transcripts and there’s all sorts of really good stuff just on the internet. You don’t have to go to the library really. I did read a couple of other books, but it’s all pretty much out there.

CS: Do you generally try to do a lot of research and prepare in some ways?
Root:
Yeah, it depends on the role. If I’m gonna do a Georgia sheriff, I don’t have to do any research on that. (Laughs) I’ve done that 150 times, but yeah, it really depends, especially if you’re playing a real person. Like, I just finished filming the “J. Edgar” movie about J. Edgar Hoover with Eastwood. That’s a real person. That’s a guy who was a wood expert who basically convicted the (Lindbergh) baby kidnapper, because the ladder was built from wood in his garage. If you’re doing an actual person, you have to find out as much about him as you can. But then if you’re doing a comedy–if you’re doing “Dodgeball”–I mean, you just have to stay physically fit. (Laughs) You don’t have to do a lot of research on that.

CS: They showed a bit of footage from “J. Edgar” at this CinemaCon event in Vegas last week.
Root:
Oh, no kidding?

CS: They just showed a little clip to give you a little taste, and I did a bit of research to find out who you were playing and I realized, “Oh, he’s going to be doing more courtroom scenes again I imagine.”
Root:
Yeah, we did some courtroom stuff and some stuff in the laboratory. It was great. I mean, working for Eastwood is like working in a very quiet library. It’s the quietest that I’ve ever been on an empty set, because you’re really focusing and doing your work well with the whole crew quietly going about their business.

CS: I understand he doesn’t say “Action!” or anything like that, he just kind of says, “Okay.”
Root:
No, he says, “Go ahead,” and “That’s enough of that.” (Laughs) It’s great. It’s a really great way to work. It’s kind of how the Coen brothers work as well.

CS: When you were shooting your scenes from “The Conspirator,” I imagine James and Danny had already been there shooting courtroom scenes for a few weeks before you came in, so was that strange?
Root:
No, you have to remember that I’m there anyway watching it, the courtroom, so I saw a lot of the courtroom stuff as a spectator and my character.

CS: Oh, I didn’t realize that your character was in the background the whole time.
Root:
Yeah, absolutely, so I got to see a lot of that stuff—great, great work all the way around.

CS: You mentioned before about being selective in terms of doing a comedy or a drama and you’re going back and forth. I mean, is it possible to do something like that?
Root:
Yeah, it is possible. I mean, I basically stopped from taking sitcoms in 2002 because that’s all I was being seen for, all I was getting offered. It was like, I loved doing it, but I’m in the business to do more than four-camera sitcoms, so I had to stop doing it for a few years and take only more serious stuff. I would do “CSI” and “West Wing” and “The Path to 9/11” and that stuff. Occasionally I’d do a comedy, but it would be a film comedy and not so much TV. You can chart the course of your career if you’re able to pay the rent, which I was able to do at that point, so that’s kinda what I do.

CS: What’s your general week like? I feel like when I look at all the work you’ve done just last year, I feel like you must be working every single week on a different project.
Root:
It’s just like any other actor, I mean, you’re looking for a job every day. You go out. I don’t audition for TV really anymore, but I audition for film and I audition for animation things, so it’s an ongoing life of looking for work. You’re always doing something interesting every week, whether or not you get the job. You’re doing another character or attempting another character all the time.

CS: You worked with the Coens and with Mike Judge… I would think Milton is the character you’re still best known for…
Root:
Yeah, yeah, I think my obituary will be “Milton dies.” (Laughs) That’s okay with me, because it really resonated with people and it keeps being discovered every couple of years by a new generation of 20-something office workers, and that’s great because it still speaks to them.

CS: It must be crazy because at the time it must have been one day going in to play another funny character Mike has come up with. Did you have any idea how popular this character would be?
Root:
No, no, we just thought it was a funny movie. We thought it was well-written and we all had a great time doing it. We all kind of knew each other. I knew Paul (Wilson), I knew John (McGinley). We’d all worked with each other in different television projects, so it was a very comfortable working situation. I’d worked with Mike for years on “King of the Hill,” so that was easy, too.

CS: You had already been doing “King of the Hill” when you did “Office Space”?
Root:
Yeah, we’ve been doing “King of the Hill” since ’96.

CS: Wow, that’s a long time.
Root:
Yeah, I was doing “NewsRadio” and that show at the same time, which would get hairy when I had three projects going at the same time. (Laughs)

CS: So what’s it like when the Coens contact you? I’ve talked to them before specifically about the character actor stuff because it’s such a huge part of their movies. So how do they contact you when they have a role for you? Do they give you the full script or just have you come in?
Root:
Well, the first time I ever met them was in a straight audition. It was like everybody else, you want to do a Coen Brothers film, so I went and auditioned for them and scared them sufficiently. (Laughs) They cast me in “O Brother,” and it was a great experience because I was working with George as well and then I got to work with him later in “Leatherheads.” So as I say, work begets work, especially if you really enjoy the people you’re working with. But that was a straight audition and then the other two roles, they said, “We like you for this guy,” and I said, “Oh, I will show up anytime anywhere for you.”

CS: You mentioned how familiar you are with doing the sheriff roles since you’ve done that before and you worked with Kevin Smith before, but when he called you up to do the sheriff in “Red State” were you like, “Oh, no, not again”?
Root:
Well, yeah, again what comes into to play is the script. Do I like the script? And I loved the script. It was strange, scary and an Evangelical horror movie? Great, when are you going to get to do that? (Laughs) I liked the movie and to be a sheriff again, it’s okay, but with the people you’re going to be working with, working with John and well, everybody in the film. I mean, to work with Melissa. I get to work with her. I get to be around her, watch her stuff. It’s great.

CS: I think Kevin’s threatened that his next movie “Hit Somebody” is going to have all the same cast as well. Is that true?
Root:
Yeah, he’s talked about it. He’s given us some pages to look at and we’ll see where that goes. It’d be great. (Laughs) But again, I think as all character actors or all actors, it’s like, we actually believe the job when we’re in costume and you’re on the set (chuckles) then I’ll believe that I have the job. Not to say that, of course I would do Kevin’s movie – I love Kevin and I would be thrilled to be able to do that.

CS: Did you have a chance to go out on the “Red State” tour?
Root:
Yeah, I was able to go to the Radio City screening, which was amazing, 4,000 people, 4,000 Kevin fans and John, Melissa and a couple of the kids. We had about 10 of the actors there for a Q and A afterwards on that stage, which is like being on a football field, a huge stage. So that was great. Then I went down to New Orleans and did one there. Melissa and I did a Q and A down there. I’m not going to be able to do the final one here in LA because I’m doing the premiere of “The Conspirator” and the Ford in DC.

CS: That’s where they’re doing it?
Root:
Yeah, how cool is that?

CS: That’s pretty cool. Are they going to set up a screen and everything?
Root:
Yeah, it’s gonna be Sunday night. I was thrilled; that’s the perfect place to premiere this.

CS: You just mentioned being on set in costume, and I recently talked to Gore Verbinski about making “Rango” and he really brought together a lot of great character actors for that.
Root:
There were tons of great ones, I’ll tell you that.

CS: What was that experience like? You’ve done a lot of animation voice work before, but this was kind of like doing it onstage and performing.
Root:
Well, we filmed the movie basically. We filmed it in rehearsal, but we didn’t film the whole thing. I mean, we had little costumes we put on. We had little fake sets on the stage and we basically filmed the movie, camera set-ups, which I think nobody was really thinking of when you walked in (laughs), but it helped because you’re doing a scene with Johnny (Depp) or whoever you’re with and you finish that scene, then you immediately go next door and put it down in the VO booth so that you’ve already done the character work you need to do so it’s fresh in your mind what you just did. I think probably they used some of the wild sound that we did on the camera stage so it was an interesting way to work.

CS: I didn’t get the impression that you actually had a VO booth. I got the impression he recorded all the voices on the stage.
Root:
There was still some specific VO booth that we’d walk over and did on the site if he wanted something specific. How much of it he used, I have no idea, but we did do that as well.

CS: What do you enjoy about doing the voiceover work in animation because you’ve done it quite a bit over the years.
Root:
Yeah, I’m still doing it. I think it’s in lieu of doing straight theater sometimes you can do a lot of–of course, in theater you do a lot of characters that you wouldn’t normally get cast on as a film–and that’s kind of the same with animation. You’re able to kind of free yourself and do lots of weird characters that you wouldn’t normally be able to do on camera, so it’s a nice way to keep your muscle going and it’s fun.

CS: You’ve developed a great relationship with Mike Judge over the years. Do you have any idea what he’s up to? I talked to him maybe two years ago for “Extract” and haven’t heard much since.
Root:
Yeah, I haven’t talked to him for a long time. Last I heard he was doing some more “Beavis” stuff. I was actually supposed to get down to South by Southwest to see him and Johnny, but I didn’t. I wasn’t able to do it. But yeah, that’s the last I heard.

CS: Do you have anything else interesting coming up that you’re either shooting soon or looking forward to?
Root:
On-camera, not so much. I just did another episode of “Justified,” which I really enjoyed doing that show, but right now I’m looking at other film scripts and some HBO stuff would be interesting to do, we’re talking about, but just as I say, we’re looking for a job every day.

CS: Is the HBO thing something that would be a long-term regular type thing?
Root:
That doesn’t appeal to me so much because I did it for so long in the ’90s and through the early 2000s. Obviously if something was just insanely good I would consider it, but doing 23 or 26 shows a year cuts you out of a lot of film work. I don’t want to not be available, so doing arcs like the “24” or “True Blood” or whatever, that appeals to me and doing projects with a shorter term length appeal to me. But that doesn’t knock out the possibility of doing something, maybe a cable show for 13 (episodes)? I would still be interested in that, but right now, I’m happy with my little arcs and my film world.

CS: Actors I speak to keep citing HBO as television that’s comparable to making movies. You’ve done a lot of big budget movies, and a bunch of smaller ones, so it is always very obvious the size of a movie while you’re doing them?
Root:
Sure, craft services is a lot worse. (Laughs) But, no, again, for the majority of actors, I mean, you want to do it for the work, because the work is interesting and if you can get them to pay you a lot of money, that’s good. But, there’s a lot of things I would do for nearly free because we like it. Case in point being Kevin’s movie. I think that was a four million dollar movie. So I’m happy to work for something that I want to work on, work with people that I want to work with, it’s all about that.

CS: So last question: you have a pretty significant birthday coming up this year. Do you have any thoughts on what you want to do next? Do you want to keep things going pretty much the same? Do you have one thing you want to do? If there’s one thing you do in the next decade of your life, what would you like it to be?
Root:
Wow, what would I like to do? I would like to golf in Scotland. I guess I’m saying that because the Masters is on today. (laughs) Yeah, no, I’m a crummy golfer, but I sure enjoy going out there hitting the ball and I would love to go out there and walk Carnoustie, something like that and play.

CS: Hopefully someone will give you a movie to shoot there so you’ll have an excuse to take a day off and play.
Root:
Wouldn’t it be great? I’d love to work over on the island, that would be great.

The Conspirator opens on Friday, April 15, Everything Must Go opens on May 13 in select cities, and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is yet unscheduled; Rango and Cedar Rapids are currently playing in theaters.