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"I never had any inclination of becoming an actor."
"I knew, if I was going to break, I was going to break with this character."
"People still come up to me to recite lines and it's been 10 years now. It's still the thing...that I hear the most."
"I stole the last one at the end of the film!"
"My character has to go through that in this film - being laid off and his frustrations in the process are very real."
"They're very much my heroes and anytime I get to work with them, I'm just thrilled out of my mind."
"I'm doing the character with my whole body even though you're not seeing it."
Stephen Root  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
October 2008

With over 50 films and 75 television shows to his credit, Stephen Root is easily, one of the most prolific and recognizable character actors working today. From "NewsRadio" to "Office Space" to "No Country for Old Men," he's done it all. Even lending his voice to "King of the Hill," "Ice Age," and "Finding Nemo." Yet, in spite of all the terrific roles, says Root, "I'm still hoping that my favorite one is coming up!"

Hailing from Sarasota, Root attended the University of Florida where his interest in film began, particularly in the area of directing. But he began as a stage actor, from the National Shakespeare Company to numerous off-Broadway and Broadway shows. After making a brief appearance in "Crocodile Dundee 2," his first big role came as a mad scientist in George A. Romero's 1988 thriller, "Monkey Shines." And then, a series of supporting roles, from "Ghost" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." All before landing one of his most recognizable roles - that of Jimmy James, the eccentric radio station owner on "NewsRadio." The comedic character caught the attention of Mike Judge, who subsequently cast Root as the eccentric Milton Waddams in "Office Space." And provided an opportunity to partner on a trio of George Clooney and Coen Brothers' films.

For his latest work in "The Soloist," Root plays a fellow newspaper reporter, opposite Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, in a heartwarming story about a journalist and his special relationship with a homeless musician. "It's just a poignant story that fits in with the LA landscape and the whole beauty of Disney." Another fine example of range from this unforgettable character actor, who kindly reveals his thoughts, his experiences, and the secret whereabouts of that cherished red stapler!

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

Sarasota is a long way from Hollywood. When did you first realize you wanted to be an actor? And how did you make the leap to Broadway?

You got an hour? (laughs). Well, I never had any inclination of becoming an actor. My dad was a construction superintendent and I worked a lot with him while I was in high school. By the time I was at the University of Florida, I was in general studies. And just picked journalism. Because for the first 2 years, you had to pick something. But by the end of the 2nd year, I realized that journalism wasn't my thing and I started taking some elective classes. I got into a directing class and started directing other students and I said: "Oh, I like this! This is fun!" Then, got into acting class and was completely smitten. I switched majors my junior year. And that's really the time.

There were no elementary school plays or anything like that?

No. My mom's an artist. She was an ad artist in a small town in the Midwest, which wasn't much. But she went to Pratt in the late 40's, early 50's. And had an artistic background. My dad was straight construction.

I really had no interest in acting until I got to college. I went to some regional auditions that got me onto a national Shakespeare company out of New York - a nine month tour on a bus. We were a 12 person company and traveled the country nine months out of the year doing three Shakespeare plays.

So, I did that for three years and then settled in New York, working as a waiter. After living in New York for 3 or 4 years doing a lot of off-off Broadway, I finally got my big break with a show I had done at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. And went on from there.

To television and film?

I never expected to do television from theater. I'm a theater guy who did regional theater. But after awhile in New York, you eventually go to any audition you can. The first television I did was a soap opera. I played a mental person and then got into my first movie - a George Romero movie called "Monkey Shines."

Also, at that time, Crocodile Dundee was big. And I did the sequel to that. Then, made the move to Los Angeles.

One of my favorite characters you've portrayed over the years has got to be Jimmy James ("NewsRadio"). Where did he come from? And how much input did you have in his evolution?

Oh, I loved that! Such a great group of people! A really smart, tremendous group of funny, character people. Phil (Hartman) had just come off Saturday Night Live and the rest of us were pretty much working character actors.

I was lucky to have had a lot of input in it. It came as a strange audition for me because at that point I had a series with Beau and Will Bridges. A Stephen King series.

But I knew, if I was going to break, I was going to break with this character. A character that was so well written. I didn't want to take it down and do the Boss from WKRP. I wanted to be stranger and more bent. I kind of brought that to the audition and while we were working on it, Jimmy Burrows said, "Yeah, let's go farther with that." And we had Paul Simms, who wrote more dark things about the character, which we incorporated into the pilot. So, I brought something and the writers brought something. It was just a very good coupling.

Describe your relationship with Mike Judge.

Strangely, Mike's "King of the Hill" show was starting just a year after "NewsRadio" started and he was looking for character guys and voice guys who had done a lot of southern stuff. And that was me. I'd done a lot of southern plays and a lot of southern movies at that point. So I came in. And he was a fan of "NewsRadio." He knew I was a diversified person and so, I tried a couple of guys. I tried Dale first but I wasn't the right fit.

Then, I did this interview over the phone. I had just finished doing a character read and I hear from the voice box, "Well, that's as funny as that could be." And so, I got the job. Who knew it would last 13 years? But it was just a fun cartoon like "The Simpsons" that we thought would go. We had no idea it would have that kind of life, but it has that kind of life because it's still fresh and the same people that were doing it in the beginning are doing it now.

We had been working on the series for about a year, maybe 2 years at that point, when he had written "Office Space" and he was interested in having me read a couple things. So, I said "Sure, I'd be happy to." We read the script for the Fox executives and I was going to read 4 parts. He was going to read the Milton character, but at the last moment, said "You know, I'd just rather watch it while you do it." And I said, "Thanks for the prep!" He showed me a 2 minute cartoon he had done with it and I read it for the Fox people and got it. It was a big turning point for me because it's probably my most recognizable character.

In fact, people still come up to me to recite lines and it's been 10 years now. It's still the thing, when I'm in New York or Los Angeles, that I hear the most.

Do you ever get tired of it?

At first, I was like, "You know guys? I've done other things." But then I realized how special it is to them. And I'm just thrilled that they celebrate it and I can do something for them.

For anyone working in a Dilbert like cube farm, "Office Space" has become "the" Bible. What do you remember most about the film?

We shot the film in Austin where Mike was living half the time. And it was a great town to shoot in. He was familiar with everybody and it was very easy to shoot, but it was very hot. It was in the spring and I remember any outdoor shot we would do, it was about 103 degrees. Mostly, I remember the extras watching the building burn. They were probably the hardest hit of anybody because they were baking all day and then, had to watch a fire. We'd run out and give them water and popsicles and stuff. Those poor guys!

Also, watching Mike direct Gary Cole. Mike knew a character that was exactly like the boss. Yeeeeaaaaah! He would literally give him direction by talking that way. And Gary took it and did a brilliant job with it!

What ever happened to the red Swingline stapler?

I have the actual one. It's in my house! There were actually 4 of them. We burnt up two. And I don't know what happened to the other one, but I stole the last one at the end of the film. Pretty much like my character. I said, "I'm keeping this stapler!"

"The Soloist" is based on the story of Los Angeles journalist, Steve Lopez, and his quest for a unique story. What is the unique story?

Well, it was based on a series of articles that Steve Lopez had done for his column, Point West. He happened to hook up with a homeless musician who was from Julliard, had very difficult mental problems, and had been living on the street for a while. And he had this idea of doing a story on this person. But it turned into an actual relationship.

He still goes bowling with his family even though he's on the street. And this character Jamie Foxx does is an ongoing thing for him. It isn't just a story he did and wrapped it up. It's an ongoing friendship, so I think that's interesting.

Mostly, it's just a poignant story that fits in with the L.A. landscape and the whole beauty of Disney. It's just a beautiful piece.

Were you familiar with Lopez' work prior to the film?

No. I had just read a couple of the articles. Then, when I heard about the job, went back immediately and read the whole series. It's great that he put all of it into one book (called "The Soloist"), which expands on the story.

And it's a shame I didn't delve into his work as deeply as I should have because he's such a tremendous writer. And it was a pleasure to work with him. I read him all the time now!

What is your character's role in the film?

I play one of the reporters at the Times. A friend of Steve Lopez. Rachel Harris plays another one and Catherine Keener plays Steve Lopez' ex-wife, who's his editor. In real life, that's not true. But we needed a female counterpart in it. And she was brilliant.

I play a reporter that actually mirrored the Times. They're downsizing all over the country in terms of newspaper editors and writers. And people are getting laid off. My character has to go through that in this film - being laid off and his frustrations in the process are very real.

Did you feel a strange connection between your major in college and your role in the film?

Yes, that was strange. But great in the way because it all came full circle. Talking to all the reporters around the cubicles where we were filming was interesting and engaging. It's interesting times. Hard times. And to see that we're all in the same boat. They have families. And they're hoping they're going to have a job next week.

What was it like on location? I read it was pretty unique?

We were able to shoot in the L.A. Times offices. A place where no one else had shot. And were able to get in there before it was renovated. So we got to shoot the way it was in the old times, before it totally went away.

Now, you've worked with a lot of Hollywood greats from the Coen Brothers to George Clooney to Ben Stiller. Who or what inspires you in the industry today?

People like the Coen Brothers inspire me. They're independent artists who get to occasionally do big Hollywood films. But they get to retain their independent spirit. They're very much my heroes and anytime I get to work with them, I'm just thrilled out of my mind. I've been in three of their productions and hopefully, will get to do another.

I also just finished a George Clooney film. And having worked with George three times now, I think I can say - he and the Coen Brothers get it right. You work with people that you respect and that you know have the kind of company that you can fall back on, in terms of relaxation in the work place and having an artistic vision. I think George is a tremendous artist. Everything from craft service on up. I think he's a brilliant artist who will only make you better.

With "King of the Hill" wrapping up this season, what will you miss most about the show?

Well, I hope it isn't "wrapping up." I mean, the season is wrapping up, but as to whether or not we'll have another one, that's a question for Fox. Every year, we hope that we continue. But if it doesn't continue, I would miss the family most.

I mean, we've been together for 13 years. I've seen people get married and have 3-4 kids. So, it's very much a family atmosphere. You go to work there and people bring their kids and we get tremendous guest stars come in and play with us for a week. It's always been a very, very loose spirit that's fostered from the top.

Is there more creativity in creating characters in voice over work versus film and television?

Nah. It's just a different process. You have to be a little more specific in animation, of course, because you're not being seen. And you need to coerce your body more. I'm doing the character with my whole body even though you're not seeing it. Because you can't just sit there and fall into a voice. I guess you could, but I couldn't.

So it's not really any different than doing on camera work to me, except that you just have to be a little more specified and not overlap as much. And it's great fun to be able to free yourself and do animation. A little easier, I think. Because you're not memorizing lines. And while it frees you up a little bit, you're still doing basic character work for every character.

Stephen Root Interview (CONTINUED)



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