You may or may not know Stephen Root by name, but chances are good that you think of him whenever you see a red stapler. As put-upon office-supply-hoarder Milton Waddams in Office Space, Root became a folk hero to disenfranchised cubicle workers everywhere. In real life, Root may well be a hero to character actors everywhere: He’s remarkably prolific, yet has successfully resisted being pigeonholed as any sort of comedic or dramatic type. In the past twenty years, he’s become a go-to ensemble member for the Coen Brothers, Kevin Smith, Mike Judge, and anybody with a quirky hit TV show (True Blood, Justified, 24, Pushing Daisies). In 2011, Root has roles in Cedar Rapids, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, and the Will Ferrell drama Everything Must Go, in theaters today. “I haven’t got a big role in it,” he told us. “But I just thought Will was so great in it. It’s a very low-key, Little Miss Sunshine–type role. Kind of serious for him, and he’s great. I hope people go see that one.” You’ll soon see Root in Kevin Smith’s Red State and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. We spoke to him about his weird “eye thing,” the cult of the red stapler, and the likelihood that he’ll appear on Glee.
So: Do you never want to see another stapler at this point?
[Laughs.] I see at least two a week and sign them. I gotta tell you, they send red ones all over the place; I’ll go to different shows — I did Justified a couple of times, and on shooting day, I had four staplers in a box waiting for me. So that will never go away, and I don’t ever want it to go away.
Has Swingline asked you to be a spokesperson yet?
They have not, but I don’t know whether I want to go back into that. I’m happy that it’s its own little jewel and people keep rediscovering it in the cubicles every couple of years. That’s a nice thing.
One thing I noticed looking over your extensive résumé —
It’s only because I’m old.
Well, when I was looking at your reel, I kept going, “Oh, that was him!”
Well, that’s good! I mean, that’s kind of the point. That’s why I got into it as a character guy; you want to jump from thing to thing, immerse yourself in something and jump out again.
How deliberate are you about changing your physical appearance for a role?
When I get into a role, my physical appearance does change, but I’m not doing it consciously for the most part. John Lloyd [Conspirator] was a drunk and didn’t take care of himself, so that’s where my body goes. Unless I’m doing a limp or an eye thing — which I seem to be known for now.
By “eye thing,” you mean your squinty characters in Office Space and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Yes, that’s just something that those roles required. Mike [Judge] wrote that into the Office Space character, and I literally had to wear contacts behind two-inch lenses to be able to see at all. I had no depth perception. Anything I had to reach on the desk, I had to practice four times. But that happened to come right next to the time I played the blind guy in O Brother, and that became the Year of the Eye.
Character actors usually tend to play specific types —
I certainly try not to!
You don’t. But in Hollywood, casting directors are always trying to pigeonhole everybody. Do you feel like the type they’ve tried to cast you as has changed over the years?
Well, I tried to change it myself at some point, because I’d done so much four-camera comedy in the nineties, I was kind of stuck there in casting directors’ minds. So by 2002, I said, I’ve just gotta stop doing four-camera for a while and let them see me do other things. It took a year of turning down comedy for them to go, “Oh, okay, he’s gonna turn that down. Let’s look at him for something else.”
That must have been tough to do.
It was an interesting time. But I was lucky enough to be able to do it because I had an income; I was still working on King of the Hill. [Editor’s note: Root voiced Bill Dauterive and Buck Strickland.]
Have you ever auditioned for a role that was described as “a Stephen Root type”?
Once! I saw a listing for a Stephen Root type, and we called and they said, “Uhh — not him.” [Laughs.] Okay, whatever. It’s a strange business.
I would like to state unironically that I really loved you in Jersey Girl.
Oh, Kevin [Smith, the director] will be so happy! Because I just did Red State with him, and we did some Q&As at Radio City and down in New Orleans, and he opened up with, “And here’s Stephen Root, who actually came back to do another movie of mine after Jersey Girl!” But I thought it was a cute, sweet movie. It got completely bashed, but I had a great time doing it.
How did the experience of making Jersey Girl compare to making Red State?
On Jersey Girl, he let me define the character. The very first scene we did, Kevin said, “What is your guy? What do you want to do with him?” I said, “I want to be the guy that says the most completely obvious thing. If the sky was blue, the guy would say, ‘You know, it’s blue up there.’ I want to be that guy.” So that’s what he let me be. But in terms of Red State, that’s a very tightly scripted movie. And it was shot for 4 million bucks, so we had time to do a couple takes and move on. I think Red State is his first really grown-up movie. I think it’s tremendous.
Have you and your wife [Romy Rosemont, who plays Finn’s mom on Glee] ever worked together?
Once we worked in a short together with Jane Lynch. And strangely, we were going to work together on Kevin’s Red State movie, and then she couldn’t because she had a commitment to Glee.
Are we ever going to see you on Glee? Do you sing?
I do sing — at least, I did Guys and Dolls in college! But I have no idea. I’d certainly be happy to, but that show is stacked with so many big actual stars that it seems unlikely.
Which role that you’ve played is most like Stephen Root?
Give me a second here. You know what was really close to me? This was years ago, but I got to play a priest on Northern Exposure. I was in a priest costume, but I said, “I’m not gonna do anything for this. I’m just gonna do me.”
So the most “you” character you’ve played is a priest in rural Alaska?
I think so. [Laughs.] That’s really what comes to mind.