Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stephen Root

Illustration for article titled Stephen Root

The actor: Stephen Root, the ubiquitous character actor who's made a living stealing scenes as Milton in Office Space, Jimmy James in NewsRadio, Gordon in Dodgeball, the blind radio-station proprietor in O Brother Where Art Thou?, and others, not to mention his role as the voice of Bill Dauterive on King Of The Hill. Being omnipresent, he has a slew of projects out or in the works, from No Country For Old Men to Leatherheads, George Clooney's upcoming comedy about the early days of football.


Office Space (1999)—"Milton Waddams"

Stephen Root: Mike [Judge, director] was originally going to do it. He had done a two-minute pencil sketch of it, which he showed me, two minutes before we had to read it for the network. Because, I was reading for the Bobs and the psychologist, and then Mike said, "Read this. I was going to do this." Oh, thanks for the prep, Mike. So he said he had a pencil sketch he would show me. I gave him a little more of a lisp, and did whatever I do. That was fun, because you could throw in some stuff. It was a pretty tightly scripted movie, but we all had some decent adlibs in that movie.

The A.V. Club: At what point did you realize the film was catching on?

SR: Actually, not until a couple of years after it came out. It didn't do anything in the theater; we knew that we had made a nice little B-comedy that no one would ever see. But I didn't know that it would resonate so much with the underbelly of America. Mike did, but it was a shock that the DVD sales went through the roof.

No Country For Old Men (2007)—"Man Who Hires Wells"

SR: I don't even think [my character] had a name in the script. It was just "man." It's analogous to one of the first movies that I did, Crocodile Dundee II, where I was "Man In Toilet."


AVC: Yeah, IMDB just says "DEA Agent (Toilet)."

SR: There is a scene where he pulls a knife on me and threatens my manhood.

AVC: Obviously, you've worked with the Coen brothers a few times. What was this one like compared to the others?


SR: I would say with this, that Ethan directed a little more than Joel. During O Brother, Joel directed, mostly, and then during Ladykillers they were both there, but Ethan did a lot more in this one, which was interesting. I guess Ethan's feeling like he wants more input, which is great.

AVC: How long were you shooting?

SR: Oh, not long—three or four days. It really took a couple of days just to get the mask for shooting in the face. So I had to do a whole special-effects mask, which was a very big deal. That took more time than anything else. It's the same with Woody [Harrelson]—only took a day.


AVC: You've had a few roles with a lot of make-up.

SR: Well, actually I didn't do any make up for O Brother. I did a little hair for Ladykillers. But this is the first time I've been squibbed or shot in a little while.


AVC: Is that nerve-racking?

SR: It's a little nerve-racking, because once they do the blood, you have to keep going with the scene. So if they need to do anything again, you have to clean up and start from scratch. It can take hours. You've got to really prepare to do it correctly. I think we did okay. We were on schedule.


Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)—"Gordon"

SR: Dodgeball was an homage to Rick Moranis, basically. I basically said "If we're going to do this, then Rick Moranis should have this role." He's one of my favorite character guys.


AVC: That looked like it was a pretty relaxed shooting atmosphere.

SR: Well, it was a lot of hard work. It was like pitching 100 baseballs every day. We were all iced up by the end of the day. It's hard to throw overhand so many times. Vince started throwing with his left hand one day, because he was just done. It was a very physical shoot. It was fun, but it wasn't without its aches and pains.


King Of The Hill (1997-)—"Bill Dauterive"

SR: Bill is a sweet, sweet man, but a pathetic loser… As much of a sad sack as he is, he is still an army guy. He still has to have had some kind of military discipline at one point.


AVC: How did you come up with the voice for Bill?

SR: I have done a lot of Southern theater; I came out of the University Of Florida. I did do a lot of Southern plays in New York, and regional stuff on the East Coast, so I had done Driving Miss Daisy and all of these things. So it was kind of an amalgamation of those things. I actually auditioned for Dale first. It didn't feel right to me, so I said, "Let me try this guy." That felt a lot more comfortable.


[pagebreak] AVC: Have the show's requirements changed much over the years?

SR: No. We actually just finished recording season 12, even though we've only had five or six of them on the air. We're always nine months behind. It takes a while to get them up and running. We're hoping for another season, but it really kind of depends on whether the writers' strike goes another month or so. If it does, that might shut us down. If it doesn't, we'd have to start wrapping that up immediately.


AVC: Do you have a preference between the voice work or other acting?

SR: No. My whole career, I've tried to bounce back and forth between everything, and not get typed out. I've done a pretty good job of not getting typed. So I'll do a lot of comedy, and then I'll not do comedy for a year, do West Wing and then do something else. You have to remind casting directors out here that you don't just do one thing. There's a lot of people who do just one thing.


AVC: Do you feel like the label "character actor" is pejorative?

SR: Not a bit. To me, it's number one, because all the guys who I look for, who I emulate or respect where the character actors of the '30s and '40s—all those guys. Frank Morgan in Wizard Of Oz, Ward Bond in every movie ever done. I wanted to be like those guys. I wanted to be Lou Grant; I kind of got to be him on NewsRadio. But those are all character guys who populated a very thick universe in the '30s and '40s, you saw them a lot. They did a lot of work, and they got to do a lot of different work. That's more interesting to me than anything else. I've been lucky that I have been able to do that.


AVC: But it seems like being thought of as a character actor keeps you away from all the glory.

SR: I see what you're saying, but I didn't get into it for the glory. My goal as an actor was to work—to be a working actor, whether it was in theater, and, well, I didn't even consider film and television when I was in New York, but what came along, came along. So, in that sense, I have achieved my goal of being a working actor. And luckily enough, I have recognition to be able to do jobs that I want to do instead of doing jobs for money, which is an enviable position to be in. It's what you work for your whole life anyway, to take jobs that interest you and not jobs that are just crap.


Bicentennial Man (1999)—"Dennis Mansky"

SR: The movie where everyone had to loop the whole movie because Robin's suit was so noisy. It was supposed to be metal; it's plastic, obviously, but it squeaked like hell. Every scene we did in that movie we looped, because he was squeaking through it. Too bad. I'm a science-fiction guy, and I think that movie didn't work. But it was fun to work with him and be a bad guy.


AVC: Have you read the book?

SR: Of course. I've read all of Asimov.

AVC: It seems like people who are fans of the book knew it was going to be a tough one to adapt.


SR: Absolutely. I'm glad we made an attempt, but it's almost impossible. You can't do it. It's just too long.

AVC: Do you think the film was too sentimental?

SR: Yep, I do. But you never know how a movie's going to come out. It can look all right in the script, but when you see it put together, "Oh, too corny." And that's what happened.


AVC: When you're shooting, when do you know if a film is going to work?

SR: Well, you don't. Movies are an editor's medium. That's why the Coen brothers are so great, because they are edited in their head as they go. They're doing both—directing, editing, doing production design [laughs]—they do everything, which is the best way, to get more involved in it, to do more than just directing a film. Really, you don't know until you've come back, done some looping, seen a little part of the film, what they've done with it. There are so many things you can do as an editor to a film. You can make it a slow-moving film or a fast-moving film. It's really an editor's medium.


AVC: Have you ever come back and been totally shocked by what you end up seeing?

SR: No, not shocked. I've been saddened by lengthy cuts that I didn't think were necessary, but never shocked. You always expect that if you shoot eight scenes in a film, you might have five of them in there.


AVC: When you say "lengthy cuts," what comes to mind?

SR: I would say Bicentennial Man. Everything that I did is in that film, and it doesn't need to be, including Robin's stuff.


NewsRadio (1995-1999)—"Jimmy James"

SR:Well, it was the most fun I could have had. It was the zenith of what I had been able to do on television, because I came in with a character that I thought was kind of weird and bent, and Jimmy [Burrows] and Paul [Simms] said "Yes, let's write in that direction." So they made him weirder than even I brought in. It was fun. We had four great years, and then Phil left us, and we had another year that wasn't really the show.



AVC: How did the show function after he died?

SR: I was surprised we got to do another year. Just doing the fifth season, and getting to do a show about Phil dying—about Phil's character dying—was very tough. But it was a nice closure too. Then I got to do a couple of story arcs in that fifth season that I really enjoyed. On the whole, it didn't work. It wasn't the same with Jon [Lovitz], even though he tried, using the same rhythm as we were. But as I say, four years, and five with Jon, is unusual. Most shows maybe last one or two. I was on one that lasted five, and I was very thrilled about it.


AVC: Now you're on one that's lasted 12.

SR:That's my family, now. It's the same as going to NewsRadio every day. Hopefully, we'll get to continue. Every year we're surprised they let us do it again. We hope that it happens, but we don't expect it.


White Oleander (2002)—"Michael" (scenes deleted)

SR: I was sad about that. I had a lot of scenes, but it was a three-and-a-half hour movie, so the ended up starting the movie right after my five scenes. Too bad. It was some good, serious work that I was trying to do then. It's okay; I've put some of it on the reel, and people have called me because of it. Everything you do has consequences.


AVC: When did you know that your scenes had been deleted?

SR: When the director called me up about two weeks before. [Laughs.] "Uh, you're not in the picture anymore." It's a sad thing, but it's happened to me before. I was cut out of Kindergarten Cop. Every actor you talk to has been cut out of three or four movies.


AVC: Weren't you were cut out of Anchorman?

SR: Yep, I was cut out of Anchorman. I'm in the second, little movie [Wake Up, Ron Burgundy], but I'm not in the first one. It's okay. It was fun to go play with those people. I was one of the newsmen, a drunk newsman. I've been a lot of drunks lately. I don't know why.


AVC: You looking for those parts these days?

SR: No, but I'm playing one in George Clooney's new movie, Leatherheads. I'm playing one in Eva Longoria's new movie. They just came along at the same time.


AVC: Do you have any method-actor preparation to play a drunk?

SR: No, I lived through my 20s. I recall it very easily. [Laughs.]

AVC: Wake Up, Ron Burgundy seems to traffic in the same kind of circles that Idiocracy would, as far as cast members.


SR: Sure. You can see that in the Coen brothers' movies—they like to work with the same people—or in the Redford movies, or whatever. It's comforting to work with people you know. You know they aren't assholes, and you don't have to direct them.

AVC: In Idiocracy you just had a quick part.

SR: Yeah, that was a quickie. I just did it for Mike [Judge].

AVC: With that movie, were you thinking, "The studio must have learned from Office Space. They'll give this a chance"?


SR: Yeah, you'd think they'd learn. They didn't seem to. Mike had such a great relationship with King Of The Hill and Fox. Why that can't happen with the movie division of Fox, I don't know. But I will do anything for Mike, as well as the Coen brothers, because I think he's a really talented man.

Ghost (1990)—"Police Sgt."

SR: That was fun. It was one of the first couple of films that I did in New York. Doing Broadway, you are able to get in to some film auditions at the same time. I did Ghost and Crocodile Dundee II within two or three months of each other. It was great to work with Demi. We both had little kids at the time. We talked mostly about that. It actually showed recently on one of the HBO/Showtime things. I found out, because somebody called me the other day and said, "Wow, you're in Ghost?" Yes, I was young once, too.


AVC: You did a lot of television work around that time, as well.

SR: Well it was when I first came out to New York. I was on the national tour of Driving Miss Daisy, and all of the casting directors saw me here. So I wasn't just a piece of meat. I said, "This is the time, while they know your work. Come and jump into TV." That worked. I was guest-star boy for about three years, and was in a lot of things. Then I got a couple of series.


AVC: Murphy Brown; Eerie, Indiana; Night Court –

SR: Oh sure. Roseanne.

AVC: Home Improvement. Was any one particularly enjoyable?

SR: I enjoyed doing Night Court, because Harry [Anderson] actually wrote me a second episode that I came and did for them. They were all fun. I did a lot of [Steven] Botchco stuff—Civil Wars, NYPD Blue. It was all fun. I got to do Star Trek. I was a lawyer one day and a Klingon the next.