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Stephen Root On 'Barry,' 'Office Space' And Why 'Less Is More' In Acting
After appearing in nearly 800 TV episodes and 100 films, the noted character actor received his first Emmy nomination for his role as a handler to a hitman in the HBO series Barry.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. You might not recognize the name of our guest Stephen Root, but chances are awfully good you've seen his work. He's a character actor who's appeared in nearly 800 TV episodes and a hundred movies and sometimes brief appearances, like one as a bank manager on "Seinfeld" or his short but memorable scenes as the sad sack office worker Milton in the film "Office Space." He's had several recurring roles in TV series over the years, including "The West Wing," "NewsRadio" and "Justified."
After decades in acting, Root has earned his first Emmy nomination for his supporting role in the HBO series "Barry." It's about a veteran played by Bill Hader who, after returning home, becomes a hit man but is beginning to have second thoughts. The series has earned numerous other nominations, including one for best comedy series.
Well, Stephen Root, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the Emmy nominations - great to have you.
STEPHEN ROOT: Thanks. Appreciate it. All of us are just kind of gobsmacked with that, that the entire lead cast got a nomination. So we're just - we're thrilled out of our minds.
DAVIES: Right. Well, I've really enjoyed the series. And I thought we'd begin with a clip of your character, Monroe Fuches, and Barry, who's played by Bill Hader. And for folks who haven't seen it, he's a former Marine sniper, right?
DAVIES: And who has become a hit man. And you, Monroe Fuches are an old friend of his father.
ROOT: I'm - old friend of the father and the guy that thought he could use that talent for - you know, as a hit man.
DAVIES: Right. So you manage it. You set up the hits. You collect the money.
DAVIES: Barry's a little tormented by all this.
ROOT: No, Barry's a lot tormented by this...
DAVIES: (Laughter) A lot tormented.
ROOT: ...And tormented by me almost every day.
DAVIES: Well, let's begin with one example. I mean, this is early in the series, where you come and find Barry asleep in his room after a successful hit from a guy in Rochester, I guess.
DAVIES: And in the conversation, we will hear you gently chide him about running up expenses, spending a little too long getting the job done, in some cases. We'll hear Barry, played by Bill Hader, speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")
BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Fuches?
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Hey.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) How long were you watching me sleep?
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Money from the Rochester job just cleared - one less bad guy in the world. Nice work, as usual, Barry.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Oh, well, he was in bed, so it wasn't work exactly.
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Well, then why did it take two days?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I was doing a recon to make it clean.
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Or were you laying around the hotel room, like in Sioux Falls last month or St. Paul before that? All these extra expenses, they add up, Barry.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) OK.
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) All right. Oh, God, I worry about you, buddy. This [expletive] heap looks like the old Barry, before he had a purpose.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) No, I just - I think I'm just burnt out. You know, maybe I need a break.
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Hey, you know what I think?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) What?
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) I think what we should do is shake things up a little bit. You know, so instead of burning another small-town hood in some snowed-in Rust Belt [expletive]-hole, what do you say to a little trip out to sunny Los Angeles?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) You came here to give me an assignment?
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) It's the Chechen mob. A guy by the name Goran Pazar needs an outsider to handle something embarrassing. It's great money. Get us a lot closer to where we need to be to hang it all up some day.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) What - when do you think that'll be?
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Your plane for LA leaves in four hours. I will have a car waiting for you at the Ontario Airport.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) But Ontario? Wait - isn't that, like, a two-hour drive?
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) You can't just (laughter) fly into LAX; you got to cover our tracks, right?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Why, because it's cheaper or...
ROOT: (As Monroe Fuches) Because it is smarter, Barry.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) How much cheaper was it?
DAVIES: And that is Bill Hader and our guest Stephen Root in a scene from the HBO series "Barry." You know, I love the way you're just so enthusiastic and cheery about it all, and he's kind of, like, immediately seeing through it. Ah, so you're here giving me an assignment (laughter).
ROOT: You're here giving me an assignment. You don't care about me at all. But I still - yeah. He's - his character is - I mean, my character is such a bad uncle to him. We had originally taped the pilot, and he was much more yelling and just berating him all the time. And HBO and Bill and Alec Berg, the creator, decided we didn't really have a place to go with that, so we reshot some stuff and made him more into the bad uncle that he is now.
DAVIES: Right. There is kind of a softer - or seemingly soft side here.
ROOT: He's a guy that really loves Barry, but he's completely self-serving and basically evil (laughter). But you're going to see both sides, and you're going to see more of it as the show goes on.
DAVIES: One of the things that's funny about the series is, as it unfolds, at least half of your scenes, if not more, you play with serious facial injuries.
DAVIES: It's a rough world.
ROOT: That's Alec Berg. That's Alec Berg, the creator, said, I just like seeing you with a bandage on. I think it's funny. I said, OK, that's what we'll do.
DAVIES: Yeah, does it do anything to your performance to, like...
DAVIES: I mean, in one case, you've been bitten by an 8-year-old girl (laughter).
ROOT: Twelve. And she...
DAVIES: Twelve, OK.
ROOT: But she is - gosh, she's brilliant. She's the daughter of a stunt person. It was her first thing. She was absolutely brilliant in it. But, yes, that - I get thrown down hills. I get punched in the face. I get my teeth shorn in this. Everything that can happen to me happens.
DAVIES: Do you know how many films or TV series you have acted in? Do you keep a record?
ROOT: Oh, gosh, no.
ROOT: I mean, you can look at IMDB and say you got, you know, a couple of hundred or three hundred credits or whatever.
ROOT: But even that's not really - it's not representative of what you do because I can say I, you know, did a hundred "NewsRadios," I did 256 "King Of The Hills," yet that's two credits, you know (laughter). So I don't - it's a lot of stuff.
DAVIES: Plenty of work. Right, right.
ROOT: Plenty of work, plenty of good stuff.
DAVIES: Yeah. You - as a kid, your family moved around a lot because your dad was a construction manager, right?
ROOT: Yeah, he was a construction superintendent engineer on steam power plants. So we would be at a place about a year and a half, two years at the most. And then his company, Avasca (ph), would send him to a new place. So we would go from Muncie, Ind., to Sioux City, Iowa, to Wichita, Kan., to Kansas City, Mo., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Glenrock, Wyo. So I bounced all over. I was always the new kid.
DAVIES: Right. And you didn't get into acting until college. But do you think, you know, casting around the country all like that kind of enriched your, I don't know...
ROOT: It did enrich my just living experience, but also it prepared me for a life of a gypsy, which is basically what an actor does. You dip into different worlds. Every three days or so (laughter), you'll go do something else. So you're always the new kid on a set, and I think it prepared me for that.
DAVIES: So when did you pick up acting exactly? You were in college, right?
ROOT: Yeah, I was at college. The last high school I had gone to was in Vero Beach, Fla. So it was cheap at that time - 1970 - to go to a state college. So I chose the University of Florida and went there thinking I'd be doing something in journalism or something, since I was a school photographer, enjoyed photography and thought maybe journalism is the way to go. So did all the requisite two-year stuff, got an AA in that.
And then was taking some electives and ended up being a spear carrier (laughter) in one of the main stage shows. But from that, I was picked from a lot of the student directors to do their scenes. They said, will you come in and do this? I'm - what? Well, OK, I'll try it out - and immediately got the bug from that. Switched majors, and I was off to the races.
DAVIES: Was it the accolades, the attention, the fun of being somebody else?
ROOT: No. No, it was - it really was - it felt like home. It felt like a community, you know. Like, these are the people I would like to hang out with. They're creative. It introduced me to, you know, costume design and set design and everything that happens in theater. So it just was a community that felt - something that I hadn't had because I'd moved around all the time.
DAVIES: Right. So you did a lot of years of theater after that...
ROOT: A lot of years.
DAVIES: ...Were in the National Shakespeare Company, which was a touring crew, right?
ROOT: Yes, correct.
DAVIES: What kinds of parts did you have? What kind of characters?
ROOT: Well, you know, it was a 12-person company. It was the best job you could get out of something called the SETC's, the Southeastern Theatre Conference Tryouts, which I went to, got this job and it's a bus and truck with a 12-person company out of New York. You rehearsed three shows in Woodstock, believe it or not, put them on their feet, got in a 1963 Trailways, along with a very small set with pneumatic genies for your set and some curtains. And off you went to colleges all over the country. Easily the best training you could get because you played a small room in a junior college or you'd play a 5,000-seat room in West Point. And you were always triple cast in shows unless you were playing Othello or a lead. So I was Audrey the country wench and Corin the grandpa in the same show. It was fantastic.
DAVIES: Wow. Yeah - which I guess is training for being a character actor, right? I mean, you're just...
ROOT: Absolutely. It couldn't be better. You go - then I was dumped back in New York after a couple three years of that. And then it's like, oh, I only have to do one part? That's a piece of cake.
DAVIES: After a lot of years of theater, you did find your way into movies and television and...
DAVIES: ...I'm guessing you don't have to audition a lot these days. But I'm sure you did hundreds, if not thousands.
ROOT: Oh, sure, as we all did. And I got pretty good at it in the '80s and '90s. But it all comes out of that training that you had in theater where you have to be prepared to bring it for every audition, especially for a theater audition. So that was the best training you get, but it was mostly - in New York, it was mostly on the job. So I'd do a lot of, you know, off-off-off-off-off-Broadway shows for a token, you know, literally a token. They'd give you a token to get there. They'd give you a token to get back above 14th Street. Enjoy.
DAVIES: And a sandwich, if you're lucky.
ROOT: And a sandwich, if you're lucky.
DAVIES: But when you started auditioning for TV roles, for example, I mean, you're in there with lots and lots of people. And it always struck me as interesting that you'll - if you're looking for a relatively minor part, I mean, they're not going to have tons of lines of script. They're not going to be terribly well-developed characters in the material you're given.
ROOT: Mostly that's correct.
DAVIES: Yeah and I wondered, is that harder because you can't really - you don't know quite how they see the character? Or is it liberating because you can just start from scratch and do what you want?
ROOT: Yeah. I mean, you go in with your strongest gut reading, you know, but you're always turning - mostly, I mean, when you're starting out as a character actor, you're turning straw into gold for them because you're not getting the best scripts probably, not probably the best part. But it's liberating in terms of, yeah, I think I'm going to try something strange and go in and enjoy it. And I like that. I like that part where I could choose my strongest character that I thought would work and go in and just play.
DAVIES: Right. And if it's what they're looking for, fine, if - or whatever.
ROOT: If not, that's fine too. You know, that's OK. As long as you're happy with your work in the room, then you can't control anything but that.
DAVIES: Right. You know, I remember a little guest piece you did on "Seinfeld" - I think this is about '95 - where you're the bank manager, right?
DAVIES: And there's this thing that you get into with Kramer because he thinks he's owed 100 bucks because he wasn't greeted with a hello. I watched that again getting ready for this interview. It's, like, a minute and 45 seconds that you're in that scene.
ROOT: (Laughter) I think that's true.
DAVIES: But I remember it. It's more than 20 years ago. And I remember it because...
ROOT: Oh, that's great.
DAVIES: Well, there's something that you managed to bring to that character. How do you do that?
ROOT: Well, I appreciate that, but it's also working with great, you know - it's not going to happen unless you're working with, you know, a great actor. And Michael was a great actor - great physical actor. But "Seinfeld" is an iconic show anyway, so to go in there and do a nice relaxed performance with those guys was just a blessing. It was really fun.
DAVIES: Right. When you were going from theater to TV and movie casting, did you have to tone it down because you're used to projecting to the back row?
ROOT: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. I was very, very guilty of that. I think the first couple of things I got were sitcoms. So I could - you do an amalgamation of how much to do on a sitcom because you're still projecting for a 200-seat audience and you're projecting for the camera. So it's both. It's big and small. But when you get to an hour dramatic, that it's basically like doing a movie. So you have to be a lot smaller on camera. And my first, I think, introduction to that was "L.A. Law." I went in for an audition for that. I had big glasses on. I did a big theater audition. The casting director looked at me and said, OK, take those off. Look at me. Talk to me. And that was the best lesson I ever got in pulling it back.
DAVIES: Do you remember what the role was and what you did with it?
ROOT: It was a lawyer. But as my National Shakespeare Company director once said to me, one of the first things I ever did - did the scene for him, he said, wonderful, wonderful, 90% less.
ROOT: Mario Siletti, God bless him.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Stephen Root. He is nominated for an Emmy, a primetime Emmy, for his performance in the HBO series "Barry." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID NEWMAN'S "YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Stephen Root. He is nominated for a primetime Emmy for his performance in the HBO series "Barry." I guess it was while you were doing news radio that you started doing voiceover work for Mike Judge's animated series "King Of The Hill," right?
DAVIES: Two things. Right. Right.
ROOT: Yeah. It was such a blessing. I mean, Mike - I think Mike had known of my work. I did a lot of Southern characters in theater and in TV just because I'd come from the South and I ended up doing a lot of them. So he had me come in to audition for that show. The first character I did was not the guy, but then he turned me on to Bill Dauterive, and we just had a ball.
DAVIES: Right. How different was it doing voiceover work from, you know, performing in the theater or in film?
ROOT: Well, people ask me that and I say, you know, it's not like your voice is disconnected from your body. You're still doing a character. And you could see the five of us around those microphones. We're those characters even though we're not dressed up and we're not lit. But our whole body is doing those characters. And it's pretty much the same as on-camera work, but you're just not being seen.
DAVIES: Right. And it was like knowing Mike Judge is, I guess, what led you to what became, maybe, your best-known role in "Office Space."
ROOT: I think so. Yeah. Mike had rounded up a group of us for the read for Fox. They wanted to hear it. And Mike said OK, well, I got a bunch of good actors here. So all of us went in and did three or four roles on that except Mike was going to read Milton. And a couple of minutes before we walked in, he said, no, I want to hear you do it. I said, oh, thanks for the prep.
ROOT: And he (laughter) showed me the two-minute pencil sketch that he had voiced.
DAVIES: And this is something that you can still see on YouTube. It's like...
ROOT: You can still see it. Yeah.
DAVIES: Mike Judge doing Milton.
ROOT: And he did the voice. Yeah.
DAVIES: And for people who may not catch on to it, I mean, Milton was this - the kind of the guy in "Office Space" who's ignored and abused by his bosses and kind of a - I don't know. How would you describe him?
ROOT: It's what I think Lumbergh calls him in the movie. But he's a squirrely little guy with mumbly (ph) - not hygienic. I think, probably, I had more stains on my tie than - I think it stood up by itself. But this guy was not your typical worker that you would want to be around.
DAVIES: Right. So you're getting ready to go in and read for Fox and...
DAVIES: ...So Mike Judge can convince them there's a movie to be made. And with...
DAVIES: ...Virtually no warning, you're going to do this character. What'd you come up with...
DAVIES: ...At the moment?
ROOT: Well, I saw what he did with the voice. And I said, I want to give him a lisp, and I want to make him quiet, which turned out to be what he wanted to do anyway in the film. He wanted to make it almost inaudible for this guy when he would make his protestations of, don't move my desk or I'll burn the building down.
DAVIES: Well, let's listen to what it sounded like. This is a scene in "Office Space," film - 1999. And your character, Milton - it begins with you speaking to somebody on the phone about how angry you are that they have moved your desk again, and he kind of goes on for a bit. And then his boss, Lumbergh, played by Gary Cole, comes in.
ROOT: The great Gary Cole.
DAVIES: It's terrific. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OFFICE SPACE")
ROOT: (As Milton) I said, I don't care if they lay me off either because I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then I'm quitting. I'm going to quit. And I told Dom too because they've moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window. And I could see the squirrels, and they were married. But then they switched, see?
GARY COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Hi, Milton. What's happening?
ROOT: (As Milton) I said, Milton...
COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) We're going to need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B.
ROOT: (As Milton) No...
COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) We have some new people coming in, and we need all the space we can get.
ROOT: (As Milton) But there's no space...
COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) So if you could just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, OK?
ROOT: (As Milton) Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler.
ROOT: Poor guy.
DAVIES: That's our guest, Stephen Root, with Gary Cole in the Mike Judge film "Office Space." You know, it's all - it's easy to overlook the little joke there that Milton saw the squirrels and he realized they were married (laughter).
ROOT: Yes. Well, he saw them...
ROOT: ...You know, having sex, so that's really the only way Milton could (laughter) make sense of that.
DAVIES: "Office Space" was not a theatrical hit, but it just developed this legion of followers on video - I'm one of them - over time. When did you become aware that this was a bigger thing?
ROOT: Well, when I would run into either Richard Riehle or Gary Cole or anybody from the set probably a year after it came out - people would start yelling out things from the film. And I think it was Gary - came up to me and said, are you getting this? Are you getting people coming up to you for this? Because this film was not a hit, but what it was was it was the start of the DVD revolution in 2000. And word of mouth spread, but it was all about DVDs. That's the only reason this movie became a hit was because that exploded right at that time.
DAVIES: What do people say when they come up to you?
ROOT: (Laughter) Mostly the line that you just heard as, I believe you have my stapler.
ROOT: That and, I'm going to light the building on fire.
ROOT: Those are the two faves (ph).
DAVIES: Stephen Root is nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for his role in the HBO comedy "Barry." After a break, he'll talk about getting the role of the blind disc jockey in the Coen brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Also, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album featuring jazz pianist Fred Hersch playing his compositions with a big band. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the new film "Brittany Runs A Marathon." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILBER AND THE SCOTT HAMILTON QUARTET'S "I NEVER KNEW")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with veteran character actor Stephen Root, who's nominated for an Emmy Award for his role in the HBO series "Berry." He's appeared in hundreds of TV episodes and movies, including roles in three Coen brothers films - "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", "No Country For Old Men" and "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs."
You've become a favorite of the Coen brothers. And I thought we'd listen to a clip from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
DAVIES: You're the blind DJ at a little country radio station in Mississippi. And...
ROOT: Yes, sir.
DAVIES: This is the scene - there's one scene where you record George Clooney and the regular guys that are the heart of the film...
DAVIES: ...Recording a song. This is the scene a little later, where you're at the station. And the station owner, I guess, drops by and says, this song is a hit. We've got a track down these Soggy...
ROOT: (Laughter) Right.
DAVIES: ...Bottom Boys and sign them to a contract. So the season - the scene begins with you. You're at the turntable because you're still working, and you're introducing a record you're about to play.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?")
ROOT: (As DJ) Shh, shh. Hang on. I'm going to slap one on here. Folks, here's my cousin Ezra's niece, Eudora from out of Greenwood, doing a little number with her cousin Tom-Tom, which I predict you going to enjoy thoroughly. Now, what can I do you for, Mr. French?
JOHN LOCKE: (As Mr. French) How can I lay a hold of them Soggy Bottom Boys?
ROOT: (As DJ) Soggy Bottom - I don't precisely recollect them.
LOCKE: (As Mr. French) They cut a record in here a few days ago with an old-timey harmony thing with a guitar accompani- (ph)...
ROOT: (As DJ) Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember them - colored fellows, I believe. Yes, they're a fine bunch of boys. They sang into yonder can, then skedaddled.
LOCKE: (As Mr. French) Well, that record is just going through the goddamn roof. They play it as far away as Mobile.
ROOT: (As DJ) No.
LOCKE: (As Mr. French) Whole damn state's going apey (ph).
ROOT: (As DJ) Well, it was a powerful air.
LOCKE: (As Mr. French) Hot damn, we got to find them boys and sign them to a big, fat contract. Hell's bells, Mr. Lund, if we don't, the goddamn competition will.
ROOT: (As DJ) Oh, mercy, yes, we got to beat that competition.
LOCKE: (As Mr. French) Yes, sir.
ROOT: (As DJ) Yes, sir.
DAVIES: (Laughter) That's fun.
DAVIES: Our guest Stephen Root in the Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" This was your first Coen brothers movie, was it?
ROOT: Yes. Yeah. That was - it was a straight audition for Joel and Ethan.
DAVIES: You read for them. So...
ROOT: I read for them.
DAVIES: What did you do?
ROOT: Well, (laughter) I came in. I had an idea of what I wanted to do. And they were sitting across the table from me a couple of feet away. And they said, you know what you want to try? And I said, yeah. And I took off my glasses and gave them the one eye (laughter), you know, trying - just trying to be the blind guy without really - you know, I didn't want to do any prosthetics or anything like that. But I kind of went into that, and they both jumped back about a foot. And I think, at that point, I had their attention and went ahead and had a great time auditioning for them.
DAVIES: They're known for, you know, running a tightly scripted ship. They kind of know what they want.
ROOT: Oh, yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. Do you improvise at all with them? Or...
ROOT: Yeah. But, I mean, their stuff is storyboarded. They know exactly in their heads how they're going to cut it, so they like to get what they want to get first. And then, yeah, of course you can do a couple. And they've actually used, you know, one or two of the ad libs that I've seen. And I know they used a couple of Woody's in "No Country," so they're amenable to what you want to bring in, which is really generous.
DAVIES: You know, when I think of some of your memorable performances, a lot of them are Southerners. Did you spend more time in the South growing up? You moved around a lot.
ROOT: I didn't. I - yeah, I moved around a lot but not a lot of time in the South. But I ended up doing a lot of - in my theater days in the '70s and '80s, I did a lot of Southern plays. In fact, the play that brought me to Los Angeles was "Driving Miss Daisy." I got the national tour of "Driving Miss Daisy" with two of the greatest stage actors ever, Julie Harris and Brock Peters. Then if people who don't know the play know the film, the play's only three characters. It's Boolie and, you know, the other two. And it's - so to me, that was pretty much the greatest experience you could have - a 90-minute play, did it for two years on the road with two of the greatest actors ever. But that's a lot of time being a Southern character. And I did other plays that were Southern-influenced before I did any TV or television.
DAVIES: Right. Do you think you ever sort of default to a Southern character when you're...
DAVIES: ...Given a...
ROOT: I do.
ROOT: (Laughter) I do because it's fun. I think all character actors default to their stronger characters and just in normal conversations. We'll slip into accents that we're comfortable with because it - we just - it inhabits us. I was going to say we inhabit them, but no. It inhabits us (laughter) and just comes out, and we don't think about it.
DAVIES: You know, you've worked with a lot of different directors and all - you know, there are a lot of different ways to direct a scene. And I'm wondering what kinds of direction you find most helpful.
ROOT: You know, as an experienced actor of 40-some years now, I get - the direction I get mostly from really professional people is more or less, less or more, more - take the air out of this and speak a little faster or give me a little more of this intention. And the best directors pretty much leave you alone because they've cast you for what you can do. And your gut performance is, hopefully, what they're looking for, so less is more in terms of direction for - I think, for an older experienced actor. That's not true for a younger actor. And for younger, I really liked a lot of direction when I was doing plays. Tell me where you're going, where we're going to end up in three weeks because you have a lot longer time with a director to do the minutia of what the character is going to be.
DAVIES: Can you think of some direction you got when you were younger that was really helpful?
ROOT: I think it was summed up best in the director that just told me to do less. He was like stop acting (laughter) and just give me the real person.
DAVIES: You also appeared in "True Blood" for several seasons - I mean, several episodes...
ROOT: Yeah, episodes - correct.
DAVIES: ...Early in the series. You're a gay vampire.
ROOT: Gay vampire - I'm very proud to say that (laughter).
DAVIES: (Laughter) Yeah.
ROOT: That was a role that came by. And I was like, this is exactly what I tell young actors to do. If you're a little afraid of the role, you should jump on it. So I jumped on it and really had a good time doing it. It was out of my comfort zone, you know, kissing and the whole nine yards. And I learned a lot doing that role to really relax, just like any other role. It was great.
DAVIES: Right. The guy you were kissing there was an actor named Nelsan Ellis, right?
ROOT: Nelsan Ellis, yes, brilliant actor. And he went on to do many more years of that show and a lot more intimate scenes on that show. But I think ours was the first that was - you really saw an intimate kissing scene.
And I think he was certainly more nervous than I was because what I learned from this is it's very, very technical - intimate scenes are - especially kissing because you'll approach from the left. And you say, and Nelsan, I'm going to kiss here, then I'm going to come out. And I'm going to come out, and we're going to go to the right. And then we'll do a full open mouth, and then we'll come out again. So it was all very technical, which, I think, calmed him down as well as myself.
DAVIES: Yeah. It occurs that - you know, when I think of the roles you have, I don't think of a lot of love scenes at all, right? I mean, that's sort of...
ROOT: Yeah, not much, other than Rue McClanahan. That was my - I think my second kiss on camera.
DAVIES: Wow. What was that in, Rue McClanahan?
ROOT: Rue McClanahan - we did - it wasn't "The Golden Girls." It was "Golden Palace," the show that was on after "Golden Girls." I did a guester (ph) on that and was Rue McClanahan's boyfriend for that episode.
DAVIES: A lot of your performances have these terrific little physical tics or movements. Does that come out of any specific training that you have?
ROOT: Training - I don't know. When I look at a character, especially when you're auditioning for a character - which I don't do a lot anymore - but you want to come in with a physicalization (ph). And whatever tic - I mean, like, the guy in "O Brother" had the eye thing. The - in "Barry," doing Monroe Fuches, he has kind of a sideways back-and-forth motion that I just feel in the guy. He's always moving because he's a con man, basically, and...
ROOT: He's slippery. And I've - I almost - I saw myself do it in one scene when we're in a quinceanera shop. And the end of the scene I'm just basically moving back and forth like I'm dancing because that's the essence of the guy. He's slippery, and he's an eel.
DAVIES: And when you develop these movements, like I can think of the bank manager in "Seinfeld" and...
DAVIES: ...In, you know, Fuches in "Barry," his sort of slippery sideways movements, is that - do you typically plot that out ahead of time or does it just happen when you inhabit the character?
ROOT: You know, it just happens for me. I think that's probably something the back of my head that comes out that I think of as a conscious thought. But mostly, I would say 95% of the time, my body goes there because of where the lines are, where the headspace of the character is. I don't even think about it. I mean, whatever character you're doing, your body just slithers into that. And for me, it's just - great writing helps you physical as a character.
DAVIES: You know, you've done such great work with a lot of ensemble casts. And I'm told you embrace the term character actor, right? You're happy to have that, right?
ROOT: Absolutely. I am, indeed. I think the best of the actors in the '70s were character actors who got to do leads. You know, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman and all these guys were character actors, but they ended up doing leads. And that's the kind of quality that you hope for.
DAVIES: Right. Do you want to have a leading role, carry a film? Is that something you aspire to?
ROOT: You know, I've really enjoyed kind of deep - submarining (ph) into roles up until now. But yeah, it would be nice to be able to get into the meat of it. I feel like I am able to do that on a show like "Barry." I was able to do that on a show like "NewsRadio" and somewhat in "West Wing" as well because I was on that for a couple of years. But to be able to do it in a film would be - I'd love that.
DAVIES: Well, we'll look forward to it.
ROOT: Thank you.
DAVIES: Stephen Root, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
ROOT: So appreciate it.
DAVIES: Actor Stephen Root. He's nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for his supporting role in the HBO comedy "Barry." The Emmy award ceremony is Sunday, September 22. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album featuring jazz pianist Fred Hersch playing his compositions with a big band. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org
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