“When you’re in a character, you should be able to think as that character and say whatever they would say.” – Stephen Root
Though Stephen Root will likely always be best known for playing Milton Waddams in the comedy classic, Office Space, the fact of the matter is that Root is extremely versatile and prolific character actor, from voice acting (King of the Hill) to horror (Get Out). However, surprisingly it wasn’t until this year that Root finally landed a nomination for a major acting award with his Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on the HBO series, Barry. On the show, he portrays Monroe Fuches, a former associate of Barry’s from his hitman days who incessantly tries to lure Barry back into crime. Root spoke to the New York Times about his career, including why he prefers his character work to more serious roles.
Root reveals that his varied roles came as a decision to branch out after his five-season run as a cast member of NewsRadio. He explains, “I wanted it that way after NewsRadio because all I was being offered at that point was sitcoms. And you know, for somebody who came from Shakespeare and theater, it’s like, ‘Guys, I can do something else.’”
While Root mainly stayed on television, he purposely avoided comedy shows as well as also avoiding becoming a main cast member of a series. He continues, “After NewsRadio I decided to make a concerted effort to do hourlong dramas and to not be hooked up to a regular show, but to do recurring roles on them. So I ended up doing West Wing and Justified and Boardwalk Empire — all recurring roles — but they’re maybe half of the year out of a real schedule. Contractually, then you’re able to do other things: independent films, whatever comes up and fits your schedule. And that was more attractive to me than being hooked up to an hourlong drama.”
Much of that direction was possible because of Root’s role on a popular sitcom (NewsRadio) and his voicework on King of the Hill. He explains, “I was in a place financially that I could pick and choose jobs. I wasn’t auditioning as much anymore. I would get calls from people and return-work from different directors — the Coen Brothers and other people — so that I had enough monetary safety to pick and choose quality work for hire.”
This has exposed Root to a variety of working styles — though some of them are styles that he isn’t entirely comfortable with. For example, Barry features a degree of improv because of its creators, Bill Hader and Alec Berg. On that approach to acting, Root says, “I can’t think of a time in the second season when we arrived on set and Bill or Alex didn’t go: ‘Nah, I don’t like any of this. What would you say here?’ Which is hard for me because I didn’t come up from improv — they did. That was a learning process for me, but a freeing one, because we couldn’t think about it. When you’re in a character, you should be able to think as that character and say whatever they would say. And the freedom to be able to do that is amazing and not normal. Normally things are very tightly scripted. West Wing, you didn’t change a word.”
Nonetheless, despite his desire to branch out, Root enjoys character work more than heavy dramatic parts. He confesses, “I’ve always characterized myself as a character actor. It’s not been my desire to go do Lear. I want to play the fool. To me, it’s a more interesting role… [Character actors] looking for interesting people to play. A lot of times, leads are… You’ve got a lot of lines, but they’re not very interesting. I’d rather play some kind of bent or strange human being than a guy who’s, you know, looking in the mirror.”