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The Root of Acting

2 Apr, 2010 By: John Latchem

Stephen Root

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot information about the current season of "24" (though only about episodes that have aired)

Stephen Root is the epitome of the “that guy” actor, those instantly recognizable performers who seem to be in everything but may not be a household name. But even in the background, such prolific stars can achieve a healthy level of recognition.

“What matters is who you’re working with, and if you like the script,” Root said. “I don’t care how big it is.”

For example, in one of his most recent films, The Men Who Stare at Goats, released on DVD and Blu-ray March 23 from Anchor Bay Entertainment, Root appears in only the first few minutes. But his role is a pivotal one, not only providing the reporter played by Ewan McGregor with the information needed to drive the plot, but also establishing the tone for a film that is more than a little bizarre.

“It wasn’t like that in the script,” Root said. “It was going to be a flashback. Still early in the movie, but not at the top. And [director Grant Heslov] had this great idea to put it right at the beginning, that it would be easier to understand the movie if we started with this guy. I think it works better.”

Root plays Gus Lacey, who spent the 1980s as a member of a secret military program tasked with developing psychic powers. While the most powerful members of the team, such as George Clooney’s Lyn Cassady, could kill goats with their minds, the best Gus could do was kill a hamster.

The film is a fictionalized version of a book by Jon Ronson, which is based on actual events.

“This was an interesting fact about the Army I didn’t know,” Root said. “It was great to be able to do the research. They had about 40 minutes of actual footage from a documentary that was done.”

Root said he was offered the part by Clooney, who produced the film and had worked with him before, in 2008’s Leatherheads and the 2000 Coen Brothers cult hit O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“He asked me if I wanted to come to Puerto Rico to shoot a scene,” Root said. “Anything George wants, anything the Coen Brothers want, I’ll get on a plane to do it.”

In addition to Brother, Root appeared in the Coens’ The Ladykillers in 2004 and in the 2007 Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.

Root also has a longstanding association with Mike Judge. In fact, when listing his favorite roles, Root cites his theater work, his work with the Coens, and “King of the Hill,” the Mike Judge animated comedy for which Root provided several voices, most notably Bill.

The association with Judge led to the role Root said he is most often recognized for, playing the nebbish Milton in Judge’s Office Space.

“Which is weird since I don’t think I really look like that,” Root said, referring to the costuming used to achieve the character. “People mostly recognize the voice.”

That distinctive voice has led Root to a vibrant voiceover career, which includes a starring role in the sci-fi spoof “Tripping the Rift,” and voices in Finding Nemo, Ice Age and “Batman: Brave and the Bold,” among others.

“You’re not going to do the Penguin in a Batman show because the script is brilliant,” Root said. “You’re going to do it because it’s fun.”

Root has also accumulated in a lengthy list of live-action television roles, most notably as station owner Jimmy James on “NewsRadio” from 1995 to 1999. He has also appeared on “The West Wing” and “Pushing Daisies,” and can be seen as Chris Kraft in the HBO space program miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, and as Eddie on “True Blood.”

“When do you get to play a gay vampire?” Root said of his “True Blood” appearance.

Root recently turned in a memorable stint on Fox’s “24,” in what will be that show’s final season. In a three-episode storyline, he played Bill Prady, a probation officer looking for a missing ex-con who may have ties to counter-terrorist agent Dana Walsh, played by former “Battlestar Galactica” actress Katee Sackhoff.

“It was a blast,” Root said. “I certainly was a ‘Battlestar’ geek. When the chance came up to do ’24,’ I asked who I would be working with. And they said Katee Sackhoff. And I said, ‘WHAT?’ So I had to say yes to that.”

In typical “24” style, Prady is murdered by Walsh to cover up her involvement in a terrorist plot.

“The storyline was strange, but it has a great payoff,” Root said. “I got to wrestle around with Katee Sackhoff. How fun is that?”

Root said he considers it a badge of honor to have been killed off on “24.”

“Many terrific actors have been killed off on that show,” he joked.

While most of his work is readily available on DVD, Root says the spotty release pattern for “King of the Hill” has been a source of frustration for the actors. The series finale aired in 2009, but of the show’s 13 seasons, only six have made it to disc, most recently in 2006.

“They’re still playing the episodes,” Root said. “I think they’d make money if they released them.”

Root’s upcoming projects include The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford and about the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln; Rango, an animated film from director Gore Verbinski; and Cedar Rapids, a comedy starring Ed Helms, Sigourney Weaver and John C. Reilly.

“Good script, good people,” Root said. “That’s the criteria.”

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