Stephen Root has been making America laugh on both the small screen and silver screen for decades now. After cutting his teeth with small roles in film and television, the actor landed the gig of the eccentric Jimmy James on the hit comedy series NewsRadio in 1995 and movie fans took notice with his legendary performance as Milton Waddams in the cult classic comedy Office Space. Root hasn't stopped working since, becoming a regular fixture in Coen Brothers movies and delivering memorable performances no matter what film he's in and no matter how small the role. Root's latest film, The Men Who Stare at Goats, was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 23 and I had a chance to speak with this wonderful comedic actor over the phone about his role in the film. Here's what he had to say.
I was wondering what it was like when you first saw the title page and saw The Men Who Stare at Goats, what was the first thing that ran through your head when you first saw this?
Stephen Root: (Laughs) That George Clooney is doing another goofball movie. No, anything that he wants to do, or the Coen's want to do, I'm always up for, because they're always doing something interesting. That's pretty much my philosophy.
You didn't even really need to read the script then?
Stephen Root: Well, no. Of course, I wanted to read it immediately, but the fact that they were going to do something strange and about something I didn't know anything about that was actually based on reality, was fantastic.
Yeah, because no really knew about this whole story.
Stephen Root: No, not at all. What was cool was they sent us a DVD of some of the actual videos of the guys from that period, which was fantastic. I actually got to see the guy that stares. He was a strange guy. I didn't know anything about that history from the early 80s military psychic stuff, so it was interesting.
Was your character based on a real person as well?
Stephen Root: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Did you get to meet him at all? Did you do any other kinds of research for this role?
Stephen Root: Oh no, none of that. It was just in the beginning of the movie, so I didn't have a whole lot to do. I looked some stuff up on the internet, but there's not that much. They sent me more than I found myself. I was really happy to be able to see the guy. I didn't try to slavishly copy the guy, just his attitude and his air, as it were (Laughs). I thought it was a really good first effort for (first-time director) Grant Heslov, who has collaborated with George a lot.
Yeah. He has written some great stuff with George and it was really cool to see him get his first directing gig.
Stephen Root: Yeah, it was fantastic for him. I thought he did a really good job, I thought George was really great in it and I thought it was good.
You've obviously worked with many directors. How would you compare a first-timer like Grant with someone else you have worked with?
Stephen Root: Well, in terms of first-timers, you can say that he is and that he's not. He's been on so many films before that it's not new, the process for him, but he gets to make all the decisions this time. It was very easy-going. He knew exactly what he wanted and when he got the shot he wanted, he moved on, which is important since you're shooting tons and tons of film. He was able to make the decisions and go, 'OK, that one was good. Let's go on to the next one.'
Your scenes were with Ewan McGregor and I don't believe you've worked with Ewan before, have you?
Stephen Root: No, that was my first time. He was a very nice guy, really down to earth and obviously, all the Brit's, I do hate them for the good of America (Laughs).
(Laughs) You really do get to see a different side of him in this film. There is the irony too of calling these guys Jedi monks and he actually played a Jedi. I thought that was hilarious as well.
Stephen Root: Oh, I think that's one of the reasons he took the job. But he was fantastic. He's a really, really good guy, and that's really good because the care and attention comes from the top.
Stephen Root: Not for me, at the moment. I mean, those guys are never not working, they're never not doing a movie, but I'm not working with them at the moment. I'm doing a little tiny film at the moment.
An independent film?
Stephen Root: Yeah, it's from a first-timer, a real first-timer, directing his own script.
Nice. Is there anyone else in that film that we might recognize?
Stephen Root: Well, Laura Dern is doing a little part in it and, well, I can't say too much about it. We're shooting it right now and we can't really promote it at the moment, but it's a good little independent project.
I really enjoy the diversity of roles that you choose. If it's not a Coen Brothers film or a Clooney film, what do you really look at when you're going through projects and deciding which scripts to go after?
Stephen Root: For me, it's what have I done lately. Have I done a lot of comedy lately, or have I done a lot of serious stuff lately, and don't do that (Laughs). Just go to the other side. If I've been doing a lot of comedy, I'll do something serious because in this business if you do two things in a row that are comedy, they go, 'Oh, he just does comedy.' They unfortunately don't remember and you have to keep hitting them over the head with it, so I'm trying to just really switch it up. I've had to turn down some big ones.
Stephen Root: Oh yeah. 'You want to do this? You want to do the boss of this?' No. I was already in one of those. If you're lucky enough to be able to pay the rent and not do those kinds of things, sometimes you have to take what you can get but I've been lucky enough to be able to switch it up. And working with directors you want to work with and the quality of the writing. It's always come down to that.
You have a number of projects in the works and they all sound rather interesting, especially The Conspirator. Is there anything that sticks out about that film that you can share with us?
Stephen Root: There are few people that I get star-struck over and Robert Redford is certainly one of them. I was very very happy to go work for him. We shot in Savannah, a beautiful setting, gorgeous night shots outside and beautiful courtroom scenes that were evocative of 1865. I really had a great time and I think he has a good take on the Lincoln conspirators and of Mary Surratt, whether they were guilty or not.
You also have Rango coming out. What was the process like working with Gore? I believe you played two characters in that film, correct?
Stephen Root: Yeah, I play a couple of the principal characters, except for Johnny Depp, but I play a couple of characters. I really had fun with that. We kind of shot it as a regular movie. I think he wanted to get really visual shots and... I really can't say much about that, but we had a good time with that. Most of the guys played a couple of characters. It will be a really interesting process.
After this independent film that you're working on, is there anything else you're lining up? Or will you maybe take a break?
Stephen Root: No, no. I never take a break. I just did a little bit on that new FX show Justified with Timothy Olyphant, which was fun. So you know, different stuff, jumping back and forth. That's just what I do.
Is TV just what you do in between films? Just jumping onto a TV show before you get into another film project?
Stephen Root: Well, yeah, pretty much. I'm not looking to jump onto a television show, unless it's something I don't have to sign on to for seven years. I much prefer doing arcs on different shows, like True Blood and 24, and then coming back to do film, because, ultimately, that's what I want to do, and what everybody wants to do. You know, having some fun doing television roles in between is great, because you work with some great people.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who didn't see The Men Who Stare at Goats, about why they should pick this up on DVD?
Stephen Root: Pick it up because it's a history of the U.S. military in a time that you didn't know anything about, from a transitional side, from the Vietnam war to Reagan's 80s. They were trying to be open-minded about a few things and they went in an interesting and strange direction. I think people should watch for the comedy, for the learning experience and it's George Clooney. Why wouldn't you? (Laughs)
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time, Stephen. I know you're busy. It was great to talk to you.
Stephen Root: Absolutely. I appreciate it.