'Barry's' "Bad Uncle" Stephen Root Is Finally Ready for Emmy Spotlight
The actor, who has nearly 800 TV episodes and 100 films on his résumé but has never been nominated for a major acting award, is getting attention for his role in HBO's critically beloved dark comedy: "You have to be at the top of your game when you're with Stephen or he'll eat you alive," says co-creator/star Bill Hader.
Listening to Stephen Root run through the beats of his 40-year career, one is struck by how mundane it all is, how straightforward. The longtime character and voice actor, best known for playing sad sack Milton in 1999's late-blooming cult classic Office Space and voicing sad sack Bill Dauterive (among others) in long-running Fox animated series King of the Hill, is a living testament to the advice of dads and rappers everywhere: work hard, and success will follow. From a "spear carrier" in a student production at the University of Florida to the Great White Way; from "DEA Agent (Toilet)" in Crocodile Dundee 2 to a cherished member of the Coen brothers' troupe; and from "soap opera guest stars and industrials" to, at 67, second billing on HBO's critically beloved dark comedy Barry, Root's career trajectory evokes nothing so much as a ladder scaled deliberately, rung by rung.
But Root, whose specialty — if someone whose face or voice has appeared in nearly 800 TV episodes and 100 films could be said to have one — has always been standing out in an ensemble, currently finds himself in an unfamiliar role: Emmy dark horse.
On Barry, which wrapped its second season May 19, Root plays Monroe Fuches, the sleazebag handler to Bill Hader's titular hitman turned aspiring actor. It is a part suited to Root's talents — preternatural comic timing, a vast repertoire of grimaces, imbuing real class-A weirdos with pathos — and arguably the biggest dramatic load he's been asked to carry since playing Boolie Werthan in the first national touring production of Driving Miss Daisy 30 years ago.
Last year, amid the massive wave of goodwill that built up behind co-star/cultural icon Henry Winkler — who'd never won an Emmy despite five previous nominations and an unimpeachable reputation as one of the nicest guys on Earth — Root's lack of a supporting actor nom went relatively unremarked upon. If it happens again this year, that's less likely to be the case.
For one, while the first season focused more on Barry's burgeoning relationship with Winkler's self-involved acting teacher, Gene Cousineau, season two was much more Fuches heavy. In season one, Fuches was Barry's ostensible ally, friend and protector. In season two he wore a wire. In season two he became an irredeemable villain. In season two he got his cheek bitten off by an eight-year-old girl and delivered a self-reflective monologue that averted a gang war. It was the type of character arc created in a lab to make awards prognosticators' ears get hot, and Root's performance has prompted many in the critical community to realize, or remember, that — for two — he has never been nominated for any individual acting award of note: not an Emmy, not an Oscar, not a Tony. Not a Globe, nor a Critics' Choice. A SAG, yes — but only as part of an ensemble, never individually.
"If ever there were a guy that has been unsung and deserving of some recognition, that's the guy," says Barry co-creator Alec Berg of Root. "He's not a guy who has a lot of shimmer, pizzazz around him, but God damn does he just deliver!" Berg, who calls Winkler's Emmy win (he did win) "one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me professionally" and who, even all these years later, still gets his blood up about Jason Alexander's solitary Emmy nomination and zero wins for Seinfeld (where Berg worked as a writer-producer for four seasons), says of a possible nom for Root: "Nothing would make me happier. Stephen Root has been playing parts like that his entire career, so it's time."
Root — who grew up all over the Midwest as his dad, an engineer and construction superintendent, moved from job site to job site — first took an interest in acting when, while studying journalism at the University of Florida, he took a theater elective because he needed the credits. Within six months he had switched majors and, once set on his new path, got right to work pouring the foundation upon which all great character acting careers are built: nailing auditions.
At a Southeastern Theatre Conference showcase, he secured a spot at the prestigious National Shakespeare Company, a bus-and-truck tour of college campuses across the U.S. and Canada. "It toured nine months out of the year doing three different shows, and you were double cast in each show," says Root. "It was pretty much the best theater training you could get."
After three years with the NSC, Root moved to New York in 1979 to cobble together a subsistence from temp work and odd jobs while trying to make a career of it. His first appearance on Broadway came via So Long on Lonely Street, a 1985 production of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre that moved to the Jack Lawrence on West 48th. In 1988 he was cast alongside Tony nominee Brock Peters and Tony collector Julie Harris in Driving Miss Daisy, which made 28 stops over 15 months, including at the Fonda in L.A. After the tour wrapped in January 1990, Root decided to move west.
But even coming off a year-plus of sharing the stage with a woman whom New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley once called Broadway's "Statue of Liberty," moving to L.A. meant starting over — "it didn't matter if you'd done 10 Broadway shows," Root says. So he did the only thing he could do: an episode or two of literally every series on TV.
Roseanne, Home Improvement, Murphy Brown, Night Court, L.A. Law, Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure — this is a very partial list spanning 1990-93, years during which Root coyly refers to himself as "guest-star boy."
One L.A. casting director who became an early advocate was Junie Lowry-Johnson, who first cast Root as Klingon Captain K'Vada in Star Trek: TNG in 1991 before finding roles for him in NYPD Blue and Seinfeld, among many other series. "When we were casting Star Trek we were always looking for theater actors because a lot of people couldn't do Star Trek. It was not a normal show. It wasn't a comedy and it wasn't straight drama," recalls Lowry-Johnson. But Root, she says, "has a delicious sense of character no matter what he's playing. He takes a drama part and he doesn't make it haha funny, but he adds so much life and character and underneath humor to it — that's why he can do so many different things."
In '93 Root got his first series regular role, as Sheriff R.O. Moon on CBS comedy Harts of the West starring Beau Bridges. Two years later, he got his first breakout role: excitable station owner Jimmy James on NBC's NewsRadio.
"In my life I've seen maybe three auditions where you just immediately know that someone is great," says NewsRadio creator Paul Simms, who was completely unfamiliar with Root when he came in to audition for the James role. "He read the part so differently than the way I'd conceived of that character that I can't even remember now what I thought that character was gonna be. It really was one of those cases where the actor created that character and we just wrote for it."
Root laments that NewsRadio, which ran for five seasons from 1995 through '99, never secured a slot in NBC's Thursday night "Must See TV" juggernaut amid all-timers Seinfeld, Friends and E.R. "The programmer hated us!" he says with a laugh. "He just didn't get the show. But yeah, I think we were a really good one that just didn't get seen a lot." (Safe to say the current HBO programmer has no such issue with Barry, which has aired for both seasons sandwiched between Game of Thrones and Veep.)
And while it's true the ratings for NewsRadio were never high enough to mint any executive bonuses, some important people were watching Root. Hader called the Jimmy James character "sublime." Jordan Peele, who first cast Root in a season one Key & Peele sketch (it was called "Extreme Plantation Makeover" and never made it to air) before enlisting him to play a sinister blind art gallery owner in Get Out, compared the James role to that of Milton, Root's other famous turn in a workplace comedy: "Both roles are confined to a modern office, but each character's status exists on polar opposite ends of the spectrum. He plays the aloof, extroverted, billionaire boss just as naturally as he plays the awkward, introverted office peon. He's got a masterful handle on nuance, which makes him so successful as a character actor."
Here's Kevin Smith, who's written parts for Root in his films Jersey Girl and Red State: "I was and still remain a huge NewsRadio fan, and his portrayal of Jimmy James was everything. You gotta remember he's playing a fuckin' multimillionaire and shit — should of been unrelatable — but aside from being insanely hysterical he brought such humanity to that part."
And the line from NewsRadio to King of the Hill — at 13 seasons, Root's longest-held sinecure thus far — could not have been more direct: "I was writing the King of the Hill pilot and trying to look at any pilots I could find," recalls creator Mike Judge, who later cast Root in his films Office Space and Idiocracy. "Paul Simms had just finished shooting the NewsRadio pilot and sent me a VHS of it. I called him and the first question I had was, 'Where'd you find that guy who plays the station owner? That guy is amazing!'"
King of the Hill's run on Fox began in 1997, overlapping with NewsRadio for two seasons. "I would do a read-through on Monday for NewsRadio and I would do a read-through for King of the Hill on Tuesday, and then I'd record on Wednesday for King of the Hill after I had done a production run-through for NewsRadio. And then we shot on Fridays at NewsRadio," says Root. "It was the first time I had actually made money money, doing both of those shows."
Root's work on King of the Hill also broke him into the famously insular, and lucrative, voice acting community, and in the years since his nasally patter has become as ubiquitous as his face. "The greatest part of King of the Hill was that they'd say, 'We need a monk. Can you do a monk?' 'OK. That'd be fun.' It's almost like animation replaced theater for me because you were able to do characters that you would never get cast in on film or TV," Root says. "We did, literally, it must be hundreds of ancillary characters besides our two or three [main ones]. It was character actor heaven, really."
Whether he's lending his voice to an intergalactic super-criminal slash deadbeat dad; or stacking tic upon tic as a blind, old-timey radio DJ; or playing a hard-ass judge who wears nothing but a red speedo and a .38 under his robes — bring Root your oddest balls, your nuttiest cases, your weirdest o's and he will smile and nod and say, "OK. That'd be fun."
"He's the hardest-working actor — and one of the bravest; he'll do anything," says Hader. "Stephen is so good at taking that risk and kind going for it in a way that you're always reminded that the best acting comes from possibly it not working and you looking like a fool. And with Stephen it never does."
Now, with Barry, Root is getting a chance to showcase that risk-taking on a night of television watched — at least judging by the past performances of Veep and Thrones — by more Emmy voters than any other. And for an actor who's always made a conscious effort to avoid being typecast by bouncing between comedy and drama ("Casting directors don’t have long memories," Root told The A.V. Club in 2012), there are few actors better suited to navigate Barry's frequent and sudden tonal shifts.
"It's a show that walks a tightrope," says Root. "It's a concept, as Bill has said, that shouldn't work, but it does because of the writing and the quality of the cast. But it's walking the tightrope of grounded comedy, and then when you get to the violence, as he says, that violence has to be real and completely separate from the comedy. It's a hard line to walk."
Root says he doesn't audition much these days, that a small luxury after four decades is the right to be selective, but he was "more than willing" to audition for Barry. "Toward the end of them looking at people, I think they were looking for a 'Stephen Root type' and it's like, 'Hello! I'll come in!'" Root recalls with a laugh.
When Berg is asked if he recalls a search for a "Stephen Root type," he says, "I don't even know if it was a 'Stephen Root type,' to be honest. I think we just said, 'What about Stephen Root?"
Before they brought in Root, however, Berg and Hader had cast a wide net since there wasn't anything in Fuches' nature that marked the character as a certain race or gender. "We read women; at one point we tested a really great African-American actor who was [younger] and more of a flashy, quick-talking kind of guy — and he was great. But it felt like it wanted to be a story about a guy between two fathers, and so we read some people who could possibly be my dad, and I was like, 'Well, what about Stephen Root?' 'cause I've always been a massive fan of his. And so he came in and midway through his read it was like, 'Oh, he's got the job.'"
But even after settling on Root, the character itself still wasn't settled. In the original version of the pilot, Fuches, according to Hader, was "evil immediately. He was all dressed in black, and he was kind of like this devil on Barry's shoulder. So there was the evil dad and the nice new dad in Cousineau." Berg calls the original Fuches a "super-sadistic, mean bully" who "was just ordering Barry to do things. It made Barry very passive, and there was no room for the Fuches character to grow."
So Berg and Hader rewrote Fuches as a "bad uncle," is Root's description — "a guy who purports to be [Barry's] buddy and his support system" says Berg. "It's a much more interesting relationship. And Barry has to start to question that relationship and has to start going, 'Wait a minute. Is this guy working for me or against me?'"
"Then Stephen — testament to his acting — he got it immediately. First rehearsal with the new Fuches character, he fully got it," says Hader.
"There aren't a whole lot of guys that you can cast where you shoot one character and then you go, 'Oh, we're going to completely change your character,' and he goes, 'All right!' and reshoots scenes playing a completely different guy and it's seamless," says Berg.
Suffice it to say, you never get the sense that either co-creator has had so much as a fleeting regret about casting Root in arguably his highest-profile TV role ever. "I can't say enough great things about him and just how much better he's made not just his parts but everybody around him and the show," says Berg. "Being able to write things and know they're gonna work because he's going to make it work — where you're like, 'This is close enough. We don't have to make this word-perfect because he's going to deliver it.' It's a tremendous luxury."
Hader points to one scene in the season one finale in particular, where Barry drives Fuches to the airport and tries to end their partnership. "I'll admit Alec and I can sometimes write in a pretty one-dimensional way because it's a 30-minute show. Sometimes when you're in a rush you don't think of all the different layers, and we're lucky where sometimes an actor will make a choice and bail you out. Stephen made [the scene about] a guy whose son is saying, 'I don't want you in my life,' and he's so genuinely hurt that his performance is what set us up for his arc in season two."
That would be the arc that, somewhat ironically, moves the Fuches-Barry relationship back into the territory of the original pilot — where Fuches ultimately becomes the plain-dealing villain, compelled to seek revenge by the pain of Barry's rejection. The arc that prompted Vox TV critic Emily VanDerWerff to tweet, "I want Stephen Root to get an Emmy nomination for this season of Barry." And New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik to respond, "It wasn't til I saw this tweet that I realized he's never been so much as nominated for an Emmy despite being a phenomenal actor who has appeared in every show made on television since he was born." And Rolling Stone chief TV critic Alan Sepinwall to reply to that tweet with, "It's an outrage!"
It wasn't til I saw this tweet that I realized he's never been so much as nominated for an Emmy despite being a phenomenal actor who has appeared in every show made on television since he was born. https://t.co/M70GZQIsY5— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) May 3, 2019
It is certainly outrage-ous — purely as an exercise in probability — that the complete list of Root's individual acting award nominations reads as follows:
1) A 1996 CableACE nomination for supporting actor in a movie or miniseries for The Road to Galveston.
Ask Root about this and he shrugs: "I've always been an ensemble player, and you're not going to really get singled out if that's what you do — and that doesn't bother me in the least. I'm happy that we're getting some recognition through Bill and Henry because that means HBO will say, 'Well, they deserve another season.' That's more the goal than any individual prize."
Ask his collaborators, though, and Root's dearth of recognition is more cruelly felt.
Smith: "If there's any justice — like not that this shit really matters, but if it helps somebody [in their career to win awards] — that guy should be nodded for an Emmy, hard-core. He had a great fucking season and he's had a great fucking career."
Simms: "It says more about the Emmys than it does about anything else. And it's also strange because it's not like he's one of those workmanlike actors who just does his job and is always solid. He is, like, wild in the choices that he makes and the parts that he takes."
Lowry-Johnson: "It just goes to show you that the awards business is its own thing. He is one of the most respected and most revered talents in comedy, in drama, in movies, in television, and it does seem absurd that he has not been recognized with a dozen awards."
Berg offers a more philosophical take: "It's kind of the collateral damage of his skill set. He's so convincing as somebody that you don't think of him as playing a part. Whoever he is playing, he just is that guy. And he delivers on such a natural level that I think you just don't see the work."
But the work is there, always, to the degree that at one point during our talk Root takes off on an extended digression about the virtues of circling as opposed to highlighting lines in scripts. To the degree that I heard three separate anecdotes about his virtuosic performances at table reads. To the degree that he cites, as the greatest benefit of his success, the ability to indulge in the occasional week of intensive New York theatergoing with his wife, Romy Rosemont, also a prolific actress. "Nothing better for me now, at this stage," he says.
Hader, who spent the hiatus between seasons one and two of Barry furiously hanging shelves to hold all his new statuary (an Emmy and Critics' Choice for lead comedy actor; a DGA for directing the pilot; a WGA, shared with Berg, for writing it), sees the work.
"He's a very actor actor in a way that I'm not," Hader says, punctuating the "not" with a laugh that indicates how wide a chasm he thinks there is between them on this point, currently. "He really cares about and loves his profession, and he's someone that, whether he knows it or not, all the young actors on Barry look up to.
"He makes me a better actor," Hader says, matter-of-factly. "You have to be at the top of your game when you're with Stephen or he'll eat you alive."
Smith, sees the work too, and offers some evidence that, thanks to Barry, everyone else might be coming around. "It feels like he's having a moment," he says. "I used to have to be like 'Stephen Root! You know, he was in Office Space!' You don't have to do that anymore. That's good. There's name-brand recognition now because the dude has put in fucking three decades of heavy lifting. It's like in the movies where two people have been hanging out their whole lives, suddenly one of them takes off their glasses it's like, 'Oh my God, I'm in love!' Same kinda thing here. You've seen this guy every month of your life for the last 20 years on something or other — or heard him. And now people realize they're in love."
A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.