TV

Stephen Root On Finding The Humanity In Two-Faced Characters And Reflecting On ‘Idiocracy’

I’ve never spoken with anyone who has been in more projects than Stephen Root. I’m almost sure of that. Not gonna verify it. Gonna go with my gut. As you can imagine, the man has stories (some of which you’ll read below). That’s enough of a reason to talk with someone who counts himself a regular member of Kevin Smith, Mike Judge, and The Coen Bros’ on-screen troupes (something he’s quite proud of and happy to be a part of). But this current moment of slowdown opens up another interesting question: what does one of entertainment’s busiest actors do when he can’t be on a set? For Root, it’s a complex question because it’s allowed for a moment of breath, but you can tell he’s eager to get back at it. Especially when he talks about Barry, one of his regular gigs.

As Fuches, Root plays Bill Hader’s toxic father figure/handler in a relationship that couldn’t be more sour as we wait to see what happens in season 3 of the Emmy winning show. Root identifies Barry as one of the tentpoles of his career, right up there with the great NewsRadio. “I feel like NewsRadio is magic and Barry is magic,” he says before we discuss whether Jimmy James would be as warmly received now as he was in the late ’90s. If you’re a NewsRadio fan, there are other interesting bits here as well. Same if you’re a fan of Idiocracy, which Root reflects on. But the reason for the chat is his role in the all-new Perry Mason on HBO (airing Sundays at 9PM) where he plays a two-faced DA who Root identifies in his familiar manner of speaking as “a peacock.”

I appreciate you doing this. I’ve been an admirer of your work for a long time.

Oh, I’m happy to work.

Speaking of which, you are obviously a very busy individual. How are you dealing with not being able to work for an extended period of time here?

It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in terms of I had been working so much, I didn’t mind the break for a couple or three weeks for the first part of this. It’s also a blessing in terms of we have some old dogs that we’re taking care of, and it gives us more time to take care of them. But in terms of work, I think I’m lucky that I’ve got a couple of good jobs that I know are coming up whenever they happen to happen. And I think in between that, I’ll be able to do some voice work, which I do a lot of as well. So I’m in a pretty lucky position as opposed to other people.

You’ve worked with so many different people in so many different types of roles. That’s a skill unto itself, obviously, and not just what you’re doing on screen, but also just blending in.

I think it’s through theater training and being in service to the product, whether it’s theater, film, or TV. In service to what you’re doing. And in a play, you’re in service to the author. In a movie, you’re in service to the screenwriter, and it’s your job to pick good projects to be in service to. So I think I’ve done a good job of that over the last 20 years or so, of being able to financially. But I think going back, the real reason is probably that I was like an army brat. I moved around a lot. My dad was in construction. He did steam power plants. So I was always going into a new place. And I think that in some sense, familiarized me with what I was going to be doing.

I think it creates a sort of all-weather persona. I speak as someone who moved like 20 times before I was 20 years old. I was a retail brat. You kind of learn to kind of go with the punches and fit in a little bit more easily.

Well, you’re always the new kid. You’re always the new kid, so whether you’re comfortable with that or not, you still have to put on the face and go into it. So I think a nomadic early life helped me be one later in life, which is kind of what an actor is. You’re never not looking for a job. If you have a job, you’re looking for the next one.

Do you have a personal affection for noir or the Perry Mason character?

Well, I’ve always been a mystery reader, Elmore Leonard and Robert Parker and all those guys. So I’ve always loved that about the literature itself. And just to be able to do a period piece is always vastly fun. When we did Boardwalk Empire, it was eight to 10 years earlier than this, but it was still steeped in… I haven’t lived in this world. I’d love to live in this world and see what it’s like. So doing any kind of a period piece is a blast for a character actor, for sure.
And what kind of man is this character, Mr. Barnes?

Well, he’s a peacock is what I would describe him as.

That’s a good way to put it. I was going to say carnival barker.

Yeah. That’s it too. But yeah, he’s a peacock in public life, and he’s not a good person. He’s a bad person in real life. When he gets to talk to people that he wants to be in control of. So, to me, he puffs up his chest and goes, “I can do this and this and this for you.” And then backstage he’s, “I’ll fucking kill you if you don’t do it.” [Laughs] So that’s how I’ve always thought of him. When I first read the script, I said, “Oh, this guy’s a peacock.”

I mean, you’ve played characters that are not exactly the same, but characters that have two faces, essentially. Why have you kind of gravitated to that and why do think people gravitate towards putting you in that role?

I think I’ve had a couple of them lately. I gravitate towards a role because it’s well-written and you’re standing there with your mouth open without something to say. So I always gravitate towards the script. These last two — Barry and this — happen to be guys that are not particularly nice. Because I’ve tried very hard at this, I think people know that I can do both. I can do comedy, I can do drama. I started out in Shakespeare, in theater. So I think that was the best training. And I think I learned to be versatile through theater. As for why people cast me in this stuff…

The track record, obviously.

Yeah. But I think they can see that even as bad as the person I play is, I try to make them grounded in humanity of some sort. [With this character] it’s there. He tries. He doesn’t succeed necessarily, but I think there’s a humanity in the bad part of the people that I play and that that’s why I get cast in that stuff.

With Barry and the transition into this next season coming up, what are you most looking forward to playing as you kind of get to be a little bit more unleashed?

Well, it’ll be interesting this year, because we know at the end of last year, Barry was completely out to kill Fuches, and Fuches was able to escape. So this year, I think will be a year of being with different people, with being on the wrong side, as it were, and getting in with people that he wanted to kill the year before. So I think it’s a year of very much change for the Fuches character, but it’s also, you’ve got to understand that this guy keeps going back to the basic rule, “I want money.” And that’s his motivation. So however that can be helped, whether it’s through Barry or through other people in that universe. It doesn’t matter much to him as long as the end result is money.

Obviously, the main motivation is money, but there was definitely, I think, a level of hurt with the whole situation.

Oh, very much so.

I’m curious to see how that kind of plays into things. The sort of father/son thing that they have is so fascinating.

Brilliant. Yeah, and they write to that and that’s what’s so great. And it’s always on the undercurrent of what’s going on. And you have to understand that Barry is also an extremely damaged person and can go either way. And so, that’s the great part about that series and the writing in that series is it can turn left at any point, and that’s exciting to play.

HBO

You’ve had a career where you’ve worked with a lot of talented people, but specifically like Bill, Phil Hartman, Dave Foley — really talented sketch comedy, and improv icons. I’m curious what the common thread is between those three that you’ve kind of observed?

Well, Dave came from improv, not from theater. And so did Phil, though he had theater in his resume. And Hader came from that as well. So, for them, the written word in their early training was not God like it was for me. I mean, when you’re doing a play, for me, in the ’70s and ’80s, you had to say those lines in those order and dah, dah, dah. But that’s not how they came up. And so, that’s a freedom that I wasn’t brought up with in terms of my work ethic. So it was harder for me actually to let go of a script sometimes

How tightly constructed was NewsRadio and those scripts?

With Dave, that was the first place I experienced that, because I hadn’t done any improv, hadn’t had any exposure to it, whereas that’s all Dave was doing right before that [with Kids In the Hall]. Even though, of course, they had written all their sketches and all that stuff, but Dave was a great improviser and so was Phil. So we would write. What was great about Paul Simms, the creator of the show, is he would let us write for each other on the stage. So we’d have a script on Monday, but then it would be not the same script by Friday because Joe [Rogan] would write for Andy [Dick]. Andy would write for Andy, but Phil and Dave would write for everybody, and say, “Why don’t you … if you did this and then I can do this.” And then we’d go on from there. So it was very free. I mean, a phone page could throw in something, and we’d go, “That’s fucking funny, Let’s use that.”

I’m curious if you think the Jimmy James character would resonate right now?

Yeah.

To find that lovability in someone who is kind of a rich guy, kind of doesn’t see people equally, you feel like that would resonate now in society?

I think it would definitely resonate because he is a Trump-like character without being an asshole. He does have a lovable side, but he is a “billionaire” who wants to do what he wants to do, but he was a sweetheart inside. And I think that would resonate with people. They would like to see somebody with a sweet side who was a corporate magnet instead of what we’re seeing today.

I think that the charm of the character and a lot of the charm of the show, was the sort of, you see people come into a work environment and then they kind of become a part of the Borg, a part of the work environment. I think that’s what the charm is for that character and the Dave character also, where they become just a part of this thing.

Well, Dave had the greatest arc. To me, Dave had the greatest arc on that show as an actor. I mean, he came in as the bright young thing and left as defeated, rung out, feeling being that he was in the last season. So he had a great acting arc in terms of that show. And I think he’s an underappreciated actor.

Idiocracy is a movie that fascinates me. When you read that, do you have any idea how… I mean, it’s practically a prophecy at this point.

It is prophecy. Yeah.

Did you have any sense of that when you’re reading and exposing yourself to it the first time?

I think no more so than when we did Office Space. When we were doing Office Space, we considered it to be a really fun B comedy that you got to do with your friends. And Idiocracy was that in that sense as well. But it was, again, such a left turn that you wanted to be involved in it. And I wanted to be involved in anything Mike [Judge] wanted to do anyway. But did I feel like it was going to be prophetic? No. I thought it was a completely outrageous science fiction fun, and then it became reality. And it was shocking.

It’s a great idea though, to revisit that movie. I haven’t seen it in about 10 years. I should probably revisit it. I’m really hoping that Mike will get it together and start doing a couple of films again, because I think we need his voice right now as well.

I really enjoyed Silicon Valley and what he did there.

Yeah, a film is different. I mean, films last. TV things don’t. I don’t think that’s true anymore because they do. They’re in the universe now, but a film is still more prescient in the minds of people. When they think of something or somebody, it’s a film, not as much a TV show. So I hope he goes back to that.

I mean, it has the benefit of being able to make a declarative statement in one gulp, as opposed to something that’s spread out. I think that’s a big difference.

Yeah. Exactly. It is. It’s concentrated, and I hope he does it.

‘Perry Mason’ airs Sundays at 9 PM ET

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