Q & A: Stephen Root on Working with His Wife, Choosing Roles and How Shakespeare Training Helped When He Played a Klingon

If someone asked you to name your Top 5 favorite character actors and Stephen Root isn’t on that list, then something is wrong with you.

My keyboard would explode from typing too much if I started to list his credits, but from roles in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dodgeball, and of course, Office Space, he has never turned in a bad performance. As I told him in the interview, every time he’s on screen he is just so interesting to watch.

In this week’s episode of Fringe, Stephen and his wife, Romy Rosemont, guest star as a couple  who may have answers to the team’s investigation of time loop anomalies.

I got a chance to talk to Stephen about working with his wife for the first time, choosing his roles, how his Shakespeare training helped him when he played a Klingon and more.

Fringe airs tonight at 9/8c on FOX

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

I walked past you at Actorfest last weekend.

Stephen Root: Yes, I was happy to do that. It’s always good to come and tell your horror stories to the younger actors and tell them not to do it unless they really love it.

I was going to ask you, I’m sure you said this there, but what’s your advice to actors?

Stephen Root: That you shouldn’t be doing it unless you have to do it, not to do it because you think it would be cool, or you think you’re going to make a lot of money, but because this is an artistic expression of yourself that you have to do.

You have to be able to stick it out for a number of years. It’s a hard thing. I think probably determination is the greatest thing and talent isn’t. I’ve seen a lot of talented people go by the wayside who couldn’t stick out the day-to-day. It’s determination and guts and luck—have a lot more to do with it than anything else. 

You’re one of my favorite character actors and everything you do when you’re on screen is just so interesting. Do you ever get bored with some of the things you’re offered? Like, “I don’t want to do that.”

Stephen Root: Those things I don’t take because I’m in a place where I really love not being pigeon-holed to do one thing or another. I’ll do a comedy and then I’ll do a drama and then I’ll do a sci-fi and then I’ll do an animation. I’m in a hugely lucky place to be able to work in a variety of things which kind of define the words, “character actor.”

What was the worst audition you’ve ever had?

Stephen Root: Worse audition I’ve ever had? Nothing jumps to mind. I’ve been horrible in so many. It’s hard to pick out a single one. But no, I couldn’t really do that. I just know that at this point when I come into a room, if I’m able to do what I want to do, I really don’t care whether I get the job.

If I’ve presented what I want to present in the room, then I’ve done that job and then it’s not up to me. But, if I haven’t done that, then that’s when I get upset. It’s like anything else, you want to be able to present what you want to present. Let it go from there.

What’s it like for you to appear on Fringe for the first time with your wife?

Stephen Root: It was a great opportunity to be able to work with her. We have been able to do readings and things like that for films, but never in front of a camera. It was tremendous to be able to work together. I think the first day that we worked, was just the two of us and the director and the crew. It was a joy. It was tremendous.

Can you tell us a little bit about it how this came about? Was this something that the two of you were actively looking for? Or did Fringe pitch it to you?

Stephen Root: It came through—actually Romy had went to Northwestern with one of the executive producers and we were actually at a party and talking to him. They were saying, “Would Stephen be interested in doing a Fringe?” And Romy popped up, “Well, yes, if you invite me.” And strangely enough, Mr. Pinkner a while later said, “Yes. Please. Come on and do the show.”

We were just more than thrilled to be able to work with each other and come on a quality program.

Since you guys are a couple, as an actor, does it make it easier to know, “Okay, I’m working with my wife here?”

Stephen Root: I think to play husband and wife and be real husband and wife, it’s easier to emotionally connect quickly to a big emotional place, since we’re actual husband and wife. You don’t have a lot of time on television to do that usually. There is not a lot of rehearsal time. Us knowing each other so well—we’re probably knowing where the other person is going to go emotionally, was a help.

With guest starring roles versus a series regular, was there anything particularly challenging about that for you? And which do you prefer?

Stephen Root: Yes. I think there always is. You’re always the new kid on the block when you come in as a guest star. Their series has been going on for four years and they’re a well-oiled machine. They know each other emotionally and intellectually and then you come in and go, “Hi. Here’s my episode. I want to play with you guys.”

I always feel like it’s the first day of school for me when I’m doing a guest star thing, but it’s kind of good because you jump; you’re pushed to an emotional high quickly. On TV, there is not a lot of time to rehearse, so it was nice to be able to work with your wife, somebody you knew so well.

At first glance, you’ve done a variety of projects that would seem to have nothing in common. But, all of the major ones, from Office Space, NewsRadio, True Blood and Justified, have a core of really fierce fans.

What draws you to these projects, and if maybe your reasons for doing these things might be the same reasons that they get such loyal fans?

Stephen Root: I think you’re right. I’m hoping that I’m picking projects that I believe are really well-produced, well-written, and star people that you want to work with. At this stage in my career, I pick projects according to who you want to work with, how well it’s written, and the director.

All those things that you’ve mentioned are the criteria for what I’m working with now, which is why I was thrilled to work with Eastwood on J. Edgar. I was thrilled to work with Redford on The Company You Keep and The Conspirator. You try to keep working with people you think are better than you, or you want to work with because you really admire their work. Yes, that’s pretty much the criteria.

You’ve done a lot of great TV shows and movies. What would you say, aside from Fringe, was the one that you enjoyed the most?

Stephen Root: That’s an impossibly hard question. Because you do so many things, probably series work has got to be your most favorite because you’re going through a family situation. I did King of the Hill for 13 years. Brittany Murphy was 18 when she started that project and by the time we finished we’d been through births and deaths and marriages.

I would have to say something like that or the run on NewsRadio were really your most favorite because you’re dealing with what has become your family.

Your time on True Blood. That’s probably the most out there thing I think I’ve seen you do. Was that difficult at all?

Stephen Root: You got to do things that scare you every once in a while. This was pretty far away from me. I really wanted to tackle it and see what it was like. I was really, really pleased with the way it came out. I was happy to work with those people.

Yes, I think you have to challenge yourself. You really have to stretch every once in a while. Sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it does. But, unless you’re challenging yourself, then I’m not doing my job as a character actor.

Is there any one role of yours that people still stop you in the street and say, “Hey, you’re…”

Stephen Root: Yes. It’s pretty much—has to be Office Space. I’m currently in Georgia at the moment to see a friend of mine in a play and that’s pretty much what I get stopped for. It’s okay. It’s like the little movie that continues to be seen by people. Every couple of years they’ll discover that. I think it really speaks to mid-America. It just stays current.

Do you get a lot of fans sending you red staplers in the mail?

Stephen Root: No. They want me to send them red staplers and they cost a lot so I can’t do that. I’m happy. If they send me one I’ll most certainly sign it, but yes I still get a lot of requests for that.

Which of your roles have presented most of a challenge in terms of getting to a comfortable level where you can stretch?

Stephen Root: I think that True Blood was farthest away from me in the recent past. I think back in the beginning of the 90s when I was doing a lot of guest star stuff, it was fun doing a Klingon because I could actually use my Shakespeare training to talk over the dentures. That was interesting.

Anything you do you approach from, “What would this character be?” How would you make him interesting to solve the problem that has to be solved? I’m just happy to work.

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