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Although Stephen Root is recognized most often for a particular pair of roles—quirky office outcast Milton Waddams in Office Space and billionaire/radio-station owner Jimmy James on NewsRadio—those are only two of hundreds of parts he’s played over the years. Having learned to love the lifestyle of a character actor, Root has racked up appearances on numerous films and television series, with either his face or his voice turning up everywhere from Diagnosis: Murder to Adventure Time. With his return to Justified on the horizon (Judge Mike “The Hammer” Reardon comes back to the show on Feb. 21), Root spoke to The A.V. Club about how his red Speedo is always awaiting him in his trailer, the experience of working with his wife on an episode of Fringe, and some of the secrets of his success.
The A.V. Club: If our math is correct, you’ve appeared in 22 features, 22 different TV series, and a short film since the last time you spoke with The A.V. Club.
Stephen Root: [Bursts out laughing.] That’s frightening. I need to retire!
AVC: Some actors bristle at the use of the term “character actor,” but—
SR: But no, I embrace it. That was my goal all along: to become a working character actor. I’m thrilled that I’m still working, uh, every once in a while. [Laughs.]
AVC: Relatively few people go into the business saying, “I want to be a character actor.”
SR: Well, I think probably when I first got in the business, I wasn’t thinking of being strictly a character actor. But I knew I wanted to be a working actor, and as the years have gone on, I just naturally evolved into that. Because, y’know, I’m not a leading guy. Never was. It was just a natural progression to keep doing this. I mean, Betty White’s, what, 90? And she’s still working! [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you find your way into acting? Did it run in your family?
SR: Oh God, no. [Laughs.] No, my dad was in construction for a union power plant, so I was like an Army brat. We moved every year and a half, or whenever he would finish one of those. So I grew up all over the Midwest, and then sometimes we’d jump down to Florida for a job, but by the time I got to high school, we were in Vero Beach, Florida. So in 1970, it was really cheap and easy to go to the University Of Florida, because it was an in-state school for me. I went there not really knowing what I was going to do, doing just general stuff for a couple of years under the heading of journalism. I said, “Well, I like writing,” so I stuck with that for a little while. But then I took a directing class as an alternate, and when I got to act for the student directors in their scenes, that’s literally when it clicked. I just went, “Oh, I can do this. This is fun!” And I switched majors when I was a junior, and from then on…
AVC: But your first film and TV roles weren’t until the late ’80s.
SR: Sure. But I’d been doing theater for 15 years before that.
AVC: What led you to make that jump?
SR: If you’re going to jump, you always want to jump into a medium that’ll let you work. As opposed to waiting tables, or bartending. [Laughs.] At that point, I’d done a couple of Broadway plays and a lot of Off-Broadway, and I really wanted to… I knew there was some kind of film scene I could get into in New York, so I had to find a casting director who was willing to send me in on auditions and have them not say, “Oh, this is his first one.” The first film I got was Monkey Shines, a George Romero film, and my agent made me swear… She said, “Before you go into this thing, I’m telling you, you cannot tell them that you haven’t done a film before.” And I got it anyway. [Laughs.] You know, at some point, you need to break into it. That was my point there, and that obviously led to other TV stuff for me. Once I’d done a couple or three films in New York… You know, then you’re legitimized to the point where you can go into television-show auditions. Then it’s okay.
AVC: Once you finally got in front of the camera, was there anyone who proved to be a mentor either intentionally or incidentally, just from watching them work?
SR: Y’know, some of the directors over at L.A. Law, all the [Steven] Bochco people, when I would go in there to audition, they were very patient with me as a new actor from New York who’d done mostly theater. I’d go in and do it as a theater audition and get very big, and they were very patient, saying, “Uh, no. No, just come back in and… just talk to me.” “Oh, you mean no acting?” “No, no acting.” [Laughs.] So I would say it helped. I mean, there were a lot of people who were really patient with me for a couple of years. Because you have to get it quick, or you don’t get work anywhere.
AVC: As a character actor, how do you find your rhythms? There seems to be a fine line between wanting to blend in with the existing cast while also needing to differentiate yourself from them.
SR: Well, it’s different with film and TV. In TV, when you’re doing guest roles, you’re gliding into a zone where people are already very comfortable. They go in and go to work every day. You’re coming in, and it’s a brand-new environment, so you have to get it… and then you’re gone again. [Laughs.] It’s an odd environment to go into, where everyone knows who you are and you don’t know who they are. Not anybody. They’re looking at the camera guy, going, “Oh, hey, Steve, how’re you doing,” because they look at him every day. And there’s several hundred of them. Unless you’ve been there for a couple of weeks, you’re not really going to know anybody’s name. So it’s an interesting and kind of hard thing to do as a guest actor on a television show. On a movie, it’s not as bad, because everybody’s the new guy. So it’s a little easier to jump into that family.
AVC: Have you ever been called in for an audition because someone was specifically looking for “a Stephen Root type”?
SR: That’s never actually happened to me, although it’s happened to almost all of my friends, and they go into them and they don’t get the role. Wayne Knight, for one, has gone in for “a Wayne Knight type,” and they said, “Nah. No, thanks.” [Laughs.] He’s, like, “Really? Oh. Well, okay…” But, no, I don’t think that’s ever happened to me. I specifically try to mix it up between comedy and drama. I’ve tried really hard to do that, to not stay on something too long, because casting directors don’t have long memories. Even though they know you, they go, “Oh, he’s done three comedies in a row, he just wants to do comedy.” That’s not the case. I’ve desperately tried to maintain a comedy/drama mix. [Laughs.]
AVC: The variety’s probably nice, but do you find that mixing it up like that also helps to keep your performances fresh?
SR: It does keep the performances fresh. But the main thing is to do things that you’re scared of, things that are outside your comfort zone. I didn’t know what being a gay vampire was going to be like. [Laughs.] So True Blood was a leap into the unknown, and that’s good for me. It’s good for you to go somewhere that you wouldn’t normally go.
AVC: You’re just about to pop back onto Justified as Judge Mike Reardon, a.k.a. The Hammer.
SR: Yeah, I’ve done three or four of ’em for this season already, so the first one should be coming up pretty soon.
AVC: Your character’s signature wardrobe is… distinctive.
SR: [Laughs.] Well, they keep my Speedos around in the hopes that they can fit them into an episode. I don’t know whether we’ve done that this year, but I do have them, and they do lay them out in my trailer just in case I might need them. So that’s definitely an ongoing thing.
AVC: What did you think when you first learned that a red Speedo would be part of his ensemble?
SR: You know, I wasn’t worried about that as much as having to dress and undress during the scene. [Laughs.] Because having to put stuff on and take stuff off at precisely the same time as you’re saying such and such a word every time is actually hard sometimes, especially when it comes time for them to match it up in editing. So I wasn’t worried about being seen. I was more worried about, “Where did I put my arm last time when I was saying this?” [Laughs.] It’s a thing that people don’t think about when they think about acting: You have to kind of get close enough in each pass of the performance so that the editor can edit the piece. It has to be somewhere in the same place. And it’s hard to think of all that at the same time. Especially because I’m old now. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Hammer has become a recurring character, but was he always intended to be one?
SR: Yeah, he was always intended to be recurring. I was a huge Elmore Leonard fan, anyway. I had just read “Fire In The Hole” when I read the script, and I went, “Oh wow, there it is right there!” And had I had the chance, I would’ve loved to have read for Nick Searcy’s role [Art Mullen]. But I was very happy that my buddy Nick was going to be playing it. He’s a great actor.
AVC: You mentioned Wayne Knight a moment ago as a fellow character actor. Is there anyone you regularly go up against when you’re auditioning for parts, perhaps a friendly rivalry?
SR: I used to. When I was doing a lot of guest spots in the ’90s, I’d go up against the same guys. [Stephen] Tobolowsky is one. A whole bunch of people. But these days, it’s more offer-oriented, so I’m not, first of all, auditioning as much, and as I age to a certain area, my physicality’s a little different than it was when I was in my 30s and 40s, so… not as much these days.
AVC: Which is a good thing.
SR: Which is fine. [Laughs.] I’m always happier when they say, “Why don’t you come over and play?” As opposed to proving I can still act.
AVC: It probably helps that you’ve developed a considerable track record of doing repeat business with many different directors and producers.
SR: Sure. Which is nice. You know, you just try to be nice, you show up on time and don’t bump into the furniture. [Laughs.] But I think that’s how you develop longevity in this business, anyway: Do your work as well as you can, be a nice guy, and have people want to work with you. As I say, you’re going into a family that’s already established. You don’t want to upset that family. [Laughs.] So just be a nice guy and do your work well. It goes a long way.
SR: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. Kevin… I mean, he’s the greatest. I love Kevin. He’s really fun to work with. But we’ll see if and when that movie gets done. And if all the people who are attached to it are in it. [Laughs.] There’s no actual, official offer or anything at the moment.
AVC: He’s always so self-deprecating onstage or in interviews. When he’s on the set, does he suddenly shift from “funny guy” to “serious director”?
SR: Um… no. [Laughs.] Kevin is always Kevin. He’s pretty much sure of what he wants, and he’s always funny. But he’s serious about what he wants to do, and it usually doesn’t take him long to get it. I mean, he casts you because he thinks he knows what you can do, and he wants you to bring that to what he’s doing. He doesn’t over-direct in any sense. He’s great.
AVC: You and your wife Romy Rosemont were originally both supposed to be in Red State.
SR: [Laughs.] Ah, yeah, we were. That’s a shame, too, because it would’ve been fun. I mean, I wouldn’t have gotten to work with Romy in the part she was going to play, because she would’ve been John [Goodman]’s wife, but it would’ve been fun for both of us to be in the same film. Fortunately, though, we got to do a Fringe together. [“And Those We’ve Left Behind”]
I really enjoyed watching her process, which is different from mine. She’ll write down all of her lines first. For her, that’s the best way for her to get into character, to sit down and copy out her lines. Mine is to listen to the cues and just play with my lines in between them. I’m more interested in knowing my cues than my lines. If you know what your cues are, then you know what your reaction is going to be to them. Acting is about reacting, and if I can kind of purely react, that’s easier for me. But she’s one of those people who can, like, cry on a dime and say, “Which eye would you like me to start with?” [Laughs.] She’s the Joan Crawford of our generation. It’s pretty amazing. And she’s so grounded.
That was great, getting to do Fringe. I think Wayne Knight was jealous. [Laughs.] We’re both sci-fi fans. He said, “You get to do Fringe? I watch that! I love that!” I would’ve loved to have done Battlestar Galactica, but it went away before I could do it. But, yeah, I love well-done sci-fi. It’s really fun for me.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you’ve read all of Isaac Asimov’s work. Are there any authors that leap out as your favorites?
SR: I’m all old-school, because that was my generation: Asimov, [Ray] Bradbury, [Arthur C.] Clarke, and those guys.
AVC: Are there any classic properties from their work that you could see yourself in an adaptation of?
SR: You know, I actually read a pilot that was going to use some of the Asimov Robot series. Y’know, the Three Laws and all that stuff. I don’t know how closely it followed it, or if they can even say it followed it, in case they’re getting into copyright infringement. [Laughs.] But there is some sci-fi stuff out there that interests me, and if anything, that’s one I would gravitate toward, because I love that whole Robot universe of Asimov’s.
AVC: Speaking of science-fiction TV, you were fortunate enough to play a Klingon in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Unification.”
SR: Yeah! I had to use all my Shakespearean training just to talk over the teeth. [Laughs.] Who knows what it was by the end of the series, but in those years of Next Gen, they put heavy-duty dentures in for the Klingons, and [enunciating each word precisely] you really had to open your mouth to speak. [Laughs.] So it helped to fall back on Shakespeare in that sense.
AVC: Were you a Trek fan?
SR: I was always a Trek fan, yeah. When I got to college, it was over, y’know, because it was the early 1970s. All the geeks gathered at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the area there where we were living to watch Star Trek reruns. [Laughs.] And I think it happened all over the country. That was our little Bible back then. That was the only adult-oriented science fiction that happened at the time, because The Twilight Zone was well off the air by then as well.
AVC: Not that you had any scenes with him, but given the episode you appeared in, did you at least get to meet Leonard Nimoy?
SR: I did. As you say, I didn’t really get to work with him, but he was on the set, so I did get to meet him, and he was a really nice guy. And, yeah, that was a thrill. Just being in the same episode as Spock was a thrill. [Laughs.]
AVC: Much more recently, you were in a film that was just nominated for an Academy Award: Rango.
SR: I did! I actually got to do three voices in Rango. That was a blast. Gore Verbinski is a great guy. He really knows what he wants, and he did a great job of making a very different experience out of this animated film, because we shot the whole movie on a soundstage. In rehearsal clothes. It was very unique. And interesting. Nobody understood it or believed it. [Laughs.] “Uh, I thought we were coming to do a voiceover, but, whoops, we’re doing a movie. In rehearsal clothes.” But it turned out great, because they were able to use a lot of the physical actions we gave them. I certainly saw some of the hand movements that I made in a couple of the characters. So it worked out well. It was an interesting process.
AVC: When I interviewed you for the film, you described it as “amateur theater.” Lovingly, of course.
SR: [Laughs.] Yeah, and it was! But the best part was that it was with great actors. You know, when else are you going to get to do amateur theater with Ned Beatty? How great is that?
AVC: To touch briefly on Office Space, what’s it like to be part of such a cult phenomenon?
SR: You know, it’s the kind of thing that is just ongoing. And I love it that people love it, but more and more… When I got to the Justified set, I think I found five red staplers. [Laughs.] When I go to places now, people are ready for me. They’ll have staplers out and all their Office Space stuff ready to roll. But I’m proud to be part of something that still resonates throughout the country. Because, as I say, it’s an ongoing thing. People are never not going to be in cubicles, I don’t think. People are never not going to go through those sorts of things, so I think it’s something that’s going to continue to go. Mike [Judge] wrote such a great script, and the actors he got were fantastic. I actually just did a Vanity Fair shoot with Gary Cole as part of a “Character Actors” picture they’re going to use for the Oscars issue, I think. It was great to see him again, along with a bunch of really good character actors.
AVC: The next time you worked with Mike Judge was on King Of The Hill, where you originally auditioned for the role of Dale Gribble.
SR: Right. But that never felt… I never clicked into that. And I think Mike really wanted Johnny Hardwick, anyway, who’s an Austin native that was actually living in Austin at the time, whereas I did my audition over the phone with Mike. So I picked Bill. [Laughs.] Because he was easy to click into, and it was fun and easy to play. It probably wasn’t until the middle of the first season that I got to do Buck Strickland, Hank’s boss. I think they were going to get a name for him, a bigger star, but it didn’t work out, so they said, “Would you read Buck at the table-read?” And they liked it, so they asked if I’d do it from there on.
AVC: It must be rough on the throat to do both Bill and Buck in the same episode: One’s all about partying, and the other’s such a sad sack.
SR: Yeah, I did have a couple of episodes where I was heavy on Bill and heavy on Buck, and I had to record all of the Bill stuff first, then all of the Buck stuff. Now, Mike doesn’t have to do that. He can switch from Hank to Boomhauer, like, in a second. He doesn’t hesitate. His brain is just click, click, click. He doesn’t have to stop and re-gather or anything. It was easier for me to do one character at a time, because I could stay totally immersed in one character for a while and then go do the other character. But Mike’s brilliant, there’s no way around it.
AVC: Was King Of The Hill the first voiceover work you’d ever done?
SR: Yeah, pretty much the first I’d done. I think I’d maybe done a Saturday-morning cartoon thing before that, when I was in New York. But, yeah, I was lucky to break in. It’s very hard to break into the animation stuff and get into that world of their casting directors and people that they like, but once I started doing King Of The Hill, a lot of offers came for other things, so I was really lucky to break in through that. It was pretty much that show that got me in.
AVC: It’s notoriously rough for onscreen actors to gain the respect of the professional voice-acting community, but you seem to have done that successfully.
SR: Oh, yeah. It’s rough to get into the inner circle, because voice actors… they’re unbelievable. I only pretend to be one. [Laughs.] But there are some really, really amazing ones that can do anything. Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, and all those guys. They really can do anything, any character. I can do a few. And I really enjoy doing it. But, I mean, they’re the real guys. I’m just glad to be able to work with them.
AVC: What are some of your favorite animated series you’ve done?
SR: You know, I really enjoyed doing Tripping The Rift. It was really fun and really raunchy. [Laughs.] I liked doing The X’s for Nickelodeon. That was great. But, obviously, King Of The Hill was the most fun. I mean, we did it for 13 years. I like doing the animated movies, but they’re not… I mean, it’s almost harder work. It’s four hours of a session by yourself, as opposed to reacting with other actors. It’s pretty tough work. But it’s still great, because movies live probably longer than TV stuff. Besides King Of The Hill, which seems to be on every time I turn around. [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned that this whole acting thing started when you took a class in directing, but there’s not a single credit listed for you on IMDb as a director. Or as a producer or a writer, either. Does working behind the camera interest you at all?
SR: I’m in the process of trying to produce an R&B musical at the moment, a stage play that I’ve been working on with a friend of mine for a few years. So producing, yes. But I’m not really interested in the directing aspect. As a producer, I like putting people together. But as far as getting down and saying, “Let’s go teach you to act,” or trying to tell a cinematographer what to do? It’s not my field of expertise, so I wouldn’t want to… I don’t feel any great need to jump into being a director.
AVC: You had a long run on King Of The Hill—13 seasons—but you haven’t had a series-regular role since it ended in 2010. And if you go back to live-action work, it’s been since Ladies’ Man, which ended in 2001. Are you actually on the lookout for a full-time gig, or are you just enjoying the variety of roles you’re getting at the moment?
SR: I’m enjoying the variety. I’m not discounting a full-time gig if something crazy-amazing comes along, but to be able to do arcs on really good shows and then go out and do a Clint Eastwood movie [J. Edgar] or a Robert Redford movie [The Conspirator]… I mean, as a character actor, that’s pretty much what you hope to be able to do. [Laughs.] It would be hard to give that up for a regular gig.
AVC: Lastly, rather than spend the entire conversation asking NewsRadio questions, there’s just one about the universe as a whole.
SR: [Laughs.] I’m ready.
AVC: From a scientific standpoint, do you believe it is feasible for a macho business donkey wrestler to actually own a super karate monkey death car?
SR: I believe that an event on that level of awesomeness would cause the earth to spin off its axis. [Laughs.] Oh, that was such a fun episode to do. And it’s one of the three or four that are recurring when people talk about the show. Just so fun to do, and… [Sighs.] Yeah, I miss Uncle Phil. I just got a picture of him the other day, from when he and I… he was doing the episode where he did the Blue Genie jeans commercial within the show [“Security Door”]. So now I’ve got a picture of Phil as the Blue Genie and me as Jimmy James. It’s one of my favorites.