Stephen Root: The Most Recognizable Man in Hollywood

Stephen Root is the guy you've seen in everything. He's most famous for his role as Office Space's creepy Milton, but his IMDb page is a whopping 150 items long. Back in the 90s, he starred as Jimmy James on NewsRadio, and he's been the voice of King of the Hill's Bill Dauterive since 1997; he's also done guest spots on True Blood, The West Wing, Pushing Daisies, and Louie, to name a few. You can even catch him playing a judge in the series premiere of The Defenders. I spoke to Root about his impressive career as Hollywood's go-to character actor. You've been in so many shows and movies! How do you do it? How do you navigate Hollywood?
Stephen Root: Well, I arrived to do film and TV in 1990 after doing 15 years of only theater and a of couple movies in New York. So it was just a matter of starting from the beginning [laughs]. Like anything else, you start at the bottom and you do guest spots. And, then you get a regular [spot] on a show and you continue from there. And obviously work begets work... The more you work, the more people see your work and would like to work with you, and vice versa.

How do you select your roles?
Well, I worked so much sitcom comedy in the 90s, so I kind of consciously let that go in the early 2000s, because I wanted to concentrate more on dramatic work and film. I didn’t accept any sitcom stuff for a while, which was good because that made me work more towards drama. That’s why I did The West Wing for a couple of years and some other dramatic 9/11 shows and stuff. And then of course I’ll do comedy in between. But as a character actor, you want to do different things. I like to mix it up as much as possible.

Why did you decide to steer clear of comedy?
If you know casting directors at all, if you’re only doing one thing, that’s all they’ll hire you for. You have to guide your own career in terms of showing them that you’re not just a one trick pony... That has been my goal since the early 2000s, to say, "Yes, I do comedy, and I love it, but I can do other things." I mean, I was brought up in theater. I did three years of Shakespeare to start out. So I want to do different characters. And that’s my goal as an actor, to do interesting roles with good people. That’s what makes me tick!

Is there a certain method you use to approach each role before you begin it?
Not really. It really depends on what you’re doing. If it’s comedy, it’s pretty innate for me and I can approach it as just putting on a character. Whereas if it’s a drama, I have to do a lot more research and find out about the subject and/or the person that I’m doing. I kind of go from the outside in with drama.

Which role do you get asked about the most and why do you think that is?
It’s always Milton from Office Space. Because I bet that struck so many people at the time when it came out. It was the height of DVDs, everybody had seen it through that. And it was the height of nerd office stuff. So it pretty much resonated with a whole generation of people... I get asked about that almost daily [laughs].

I just saw you playing a judge on the pilot of The Defenders! Are you planning to return to that show?
Well, that really depends on the producers. I mean, I’d love to come back and play the same judge. They do [that] on many shows like Criminal Minds and all those. They have people that come in and do judges for three or four shows a season. If that happens, that’d be nice. But that’s pretty much up to them.

My favorite role of yours was Jimmy James on NewsRadio! It seems like you had a lot of fun on that show. Which other shows were the most fun to be on?
Oh, thanks! That was one of my favorite things, ever. You know, almost everything is fun. But to get to do it on a consistent basis with a bunch of people that you love and respect—that doesn’t come very often. I loved going to work on that show because we were given a certain amount of freedom in terms of the writing. We would write for each other, we would re-write scripts and dialog. And the creator, Paul Simms, was pretty great about allowing that.

What was it like to play Eddie on True Blood? Was it disturbing, especially considering the brutal special effects?
No, it wasn’t disturbing. It was an interesting challenge to play a gay vampire [laughs]. I mean, I did a movie with Sam Jackson recently called Unthinkable, which is about torture. That was a little disturbing to watch while we were filming. But it’s film and it’s TV. Nothing’s completely disturbing until you see it later on all put together. When you’re doing it, it’s pretty workmanlike.

Which other roles were the most challenging for you?
You know, not a single thing jumps out, because there’s so much stuff. But it was interesting to play people who exist. I played Chris Kraft, who was the head of space flight in the 60s, in From the Earth to the Moon. I had to do research on him. And in The Path to 9/11, I played a real character. Researching real people and doing them, I think, is harder than anything else. You don’t want to do a caricature of them and you don’t want to do an impression. You just want to do the best you can, in terms of presenting their views and a general impression of the guy. That’s the hardest thing to do, real people.

Is there a real person that you’d like to play, that you haven’t played yet?
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Not off the top of my head. But, there are plenty of historical figures. Robert Redford just directed a movie called The Conspirator, [about the Abraham Lincoln assassination]. I played John Lloyd, the tavern owner who basically rats out one of the women, and she gets hung as a result. It was great to work for Robert Redford, because he was one of my heroes growing up, too. Again, that’s the answer to a lot of things—at this point in my career, in my late 50s, I want to work with people that I admire and work on projects that I think are well written. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do that. You’re certainly not when you start out—you’re making gold out of straw in a lot of cases, you know, bad TV [laughs]. But you have to make a living. So that’s a process you go through as you get older.

You've been a series regular, you’ve done multi-episode arcs, and you've been in single episodes. Do you prefer one experience over the other?
Right now it’s more fun for me to do arcs, you know, three or four shows, to have a chance to actually do the character in a show, rather than a single shot. But if it’s funny or interesting, then I’ll take that. I just did a Louie episode that was bizarre. But I prefer to do an arc on a show, like I did in True Blood or 24, whatever.

I noticed that you haven't been on Law & Order. Are there any shows that you'd like to be on that you haven't done yet?
Haven’t been on Law & Order, yeah! It’d be fun to do one of those, although they’re going away now [laughs]. Doing a Law & Order: Los Angeles is maybe a chance to do one of those... I would have loved to have done Lost. I was a fan of Lost. But, you know, there’s not too many regrets. I’ve been able to do a lot of interesting things.

Is there a particular type of fictional character that you haven’t played yet, that you’d really like to play?
You know what? I would probably have to say—although I’m pretty much too old to do it now—either a cowboy or a soldier [laughs].

Are there any roles that you’ve turned down that you wish you had done?
Gosh, I could think of a couple that I’ve turned down, but I’m happy it turned out that way. At this point in my career, I don’t really want to get stuck on a show that I don’t believe is incredible. When you sign on for a show, you’re signing on for seven years. And I could do a lot of different things in seven years, [rather] than one character. At this point, it’d mean more to me not to be tied to something.

You mentioned Robert Redford before—which other actors or directors do you admire?
Well, I got to work with De Niro once. And, I would love to work with Al Pacino one time. These are the guys that were big in the 70s when I was first starting out as an actor.You want to be able to work with your heroes, obviously.

When you first started out, which other actors did you try to emulate?
They were mostly character actors that I would follow. You know, the guys that you’d see in movies and go, “Oh, I love him but I never knew his name." [laughs] I basically was hoping, at some point in my career, to do something like an Ed Asner character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And I did! Jimmy James wasn’t Ed Asner, but he was a boss on a show and it was that kind of thing.

What are your favorite shows?
Let’s see, for comedy I don’t watch too much. Modern Family—I think that’s funny. I like this new show Rubicon, on AMC. It’s a kind of a conspiracy theory show, but I like it. I think the acting is good in it. What else do we watch? I like Nurse Jackie on Showtime. I like oddball stuff [laughs], I guess. I’ll go for shows where I really like the actors, as opposed to what the show is about.

What do you think of the current state of television? Do you think it's headed in a good direction?
Since I’ve been alive for so long, I’ve seen TV go through its—sometimes it’ll have too many medical shows, sometimes it’ll have too many cop shows and too many lawyer shows. It always goes in cycles. What concerns me is the inability of networks to find a way to make the three- or four-camera sitcom work anymore. It’s... pretty bad at the moment. Unless they can find a way to make a live-audience sitcom relevant, it’s going to die out, because it’s just set-em-up, joke, set-em-up, joke. I’m hoping that somebody will come up with something interesting. You can do it in single camera comedy, like Modern Family. But, to do a live-action one, like we used to do—they need to be rejuvenated somehow.

What about the "mockumentary" trend?
Yeah, it started with The Office. And it's been done. I don’t want to see people looking at the camera anymore, it’s boring now. You can do different things with single camera stuff. But that ship has sailed. Maybe it’ll come through shooting shorter shows, like web episodes. It’s going to come from left field, whatever it is. What they’re doing now is pretty stale. And people aren’t watching. People are on their computers more than watching TV, because you can only watch voyeur TV, which is basically what reality shows are, for so long.

Would you ever want to go behind the camera instead and direct?
I’m more interested in producing than directing. I’m pretty good at putting people together. I’m producing an R&B; musical at the moment. But I haven’t attempted [producing] yet in film. In TV I’ve tried to put together a couple of shows that haven’t happened, but I enjoy the producing aspect. The directing aspect, I have no interest in, really. It's too much work. It’s exhausting, I don’t like being the boss. I like being the titular head, but not the actual head [laughs].

And playing the boss?
Playing the boss is okay, too!

Follow writer Stefanie Lee on Twitter: @StefAtTVDotCom

Comments (11)
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Sep 20, 2010
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Sep 19, 2010
HELLO! Mrs. Lee! How can we recognize him on 'King of the Hill'? It's a childrens CARTOON!!
Sep 15, 2010
He was great in NewsRadio, but I also like his work for the Coen Bros in No Country for Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou? .
Sep 14, 2010
I am an actor too, and this interview was inspiring. I would also like exactly the kind of career he has had. Full of diversity and fun. Thanks, Stephen for keeping the character actor flame burning. You are the best!!!
Sep 13, 2010
Stephen Root was wonderful in Stephen King's GOLDEN YEARS too!
Sep 13, 2010
Should have asked some questions about King of the Hill.
Sep 13, 2010
He was great (like always) in Justified too.
Sep 10, 2010
They don't even mention Dodgeball, one of the all-time comic satire masterpieces!!!
He was great in that!
Sep 10, 2010
I liked Stephen Root best in Newsradio and From The Earth To The Moon.
Sep 09, 2010
Pretty good interview. Jimmy James was one of the greats. Mr. Root might check out some of the better episodes of Community, not live action, but not mockumentary either.
Sep 09, 2010
Good article! Thanks! I also remember him from O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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