By Sarah Kuhn
Some thespians are uncomfortable with the term character actor. Stephen Root, on the other hand, wears it like a badge of honor. "That's what I am," he says with a good-natured chuckle. "I don't see it as pejorative, and I don't know why people do. To me, it's why I got in the business: to do a lot of characters."
Indeed, the roles he's taken on over the years have run the gamut, from NewsRadio's boisterous billionaire boss Jimmy James to hapless milquetoast Gordon in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Root makes a conscious effort to not play the same types of personas over and over. Perhaps that's why he's one of the most in-demand character actors around. "I kind of pride myself on mixing it up," he says. "I'm able to, financially, be a little selective. I'd rather have the respect of my peers than another layer of money. I feel a responsibility to continue to work on the craft and continue to get better. Doing the same role over and over again wouldn't do that."
He will, for instance, turn down "bespectacled nerd" parts because so many fans know him as Milton, the mumbly, stapler-obsessed dweeb from Mike Judge's cult classic Office Space. "I loved doing Milton; it was great fun," he says. "But if I took something else like it, I would feel kind of like a sellout."
Root began his acting journey at the University of Florida, where he initially focused on journalism. "I took an acting elective and basically carried a sword on stage in a show," he remembers. "All these graduate students said, 'I need an actor for this acting scene; you want to do it?' Once I started doing a lot of scenes for graduate students, I said, 'I really, really love this. I'm going to change over.' "
After honing his craft in the theatre, Root spent much of the early 1990s doing guest-star gigs and small film roles. He was a regular on the short-lived Western Harts of the West, but it was a pair of offbeat parts in the late '90s that helped him break through. In 1999's Office Space, Root turned dorky Milton into an unlikely fan favorite. And on the critically lauded ensemble sitcom NewsRadio, he stole nearly every scene he was in as the eccentric radio station owner. Whether the character was searching for a wife or running for president, Root invested him with a wily, off-kilter sensibility, making for a full-bodied comic creation. "They were looking for somebody older than me; I was in my early 40s at the time," he recalls. "I had to fight to get in. When I got in, I brought in kind of the guy [we] ended up doing. Then Jimmy Burrows, the director, and [show creator Paul Simms], once I did get the role, started writing for that."
Root still gets offers to play TV bosses. But he made the decision after NewsRadio to stop taking most sitcom work. "I had to, because if I didn't, then that's what I would be for the rest of my life," he says. "They wouldn't think of [me] in film roles; they wouldn't think of [me] in hour drama; they would just think, 'He's that guy.' "
This encapsulates much of Root's approach to his career over the years: Though his primary goal is still "to be a working character actor," he's passionate about pursuing a variety of roles and avoiding typecasting ruts whenever he can. He works closely with his representatives to achieve this. "I'll beat them over the head to give me early, good scripts," he says. "I'll keep on them about giving me stuff that's edgy, new, well-written. It's tough. There's only a small pool of people and a small pool of really good scripts, so early is better."
His strategy seems to have worked: Root has appeared in a diverse array of films, including Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, January's Mad Money, the recently opened Owen Wilson starrer Drillbit Taylor, and the upcoming Leatherheads, in which he plays "drunken sidekick" to George Clooney. He's also taken on challenging TV work, such as the dramatically hefty 2006 miniseries The Path to 9/11. And he's a favorite of many high-profile filmmakers—including Joel and Ethan Coen, who most recently cast him in No Country for Old Men, and his Office Space director Judge, who uses Root's vocal talents on the long-running animated hit King of the Hill.
Root says he's lucky enough to get many roles as offers these days, but he doesn't mind auditioning. "I'll audition for anything that interests me and the directors are not aware of my work," he says. "I'm happy to show them. I have no problems with that. But if they want me to come audition for, you know, a nerd in a sports movie, I'm not gonna audition for that. There's film of me on that."
Though Root has gained considerable recognition for his work in TV and film, in comedy and drama, he notes that it took a while for his career to become what it is today. "I'm an overnight success after 20 years," he says, laughing. "I didn't make any money for the first 12 years I was doing theatre and the first five or six years I was doing film and TV. It's a matter of tenacious hangin' in. Everything you do builds up on your résumé."