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Hey It's That Guy

Stephen Root Knows What Lurks Beneath The Everyman

Stephen Root in the empty man
Screenshot: The Empty Man

Welcome to Hey It's That Guy, a series celebrating a selection of character actors and spotlighting, in detail, the under-appreciated, singular traits that make them so indelible. 

It’s rare to mistake a familiar face for a different, far less famous one. As I’ve noted before, character actors often occupy a space wherein they are recognizable, but not nameable. They can make large impressions with very little screen time, while also sometimes being called on to fill roles that are meant to be generic—not necessarily forgettable, but definitely unremarkable. I thought I had been seeing Stephen Root for years in one of my favorite movies, Tarsem’s The Fall. There’s a character, Luigi the explosives expert, played by an actor of similar build and complexion, with a dead-ringer mustache and the same sometimes-screwball facial expressions. That The Fall, one of the most beautiful films ever made, was also an arduous labor of love that spanned almost a decade of filming on nearly every continent signaled, to me, that it was very likely Stephen Root was cast in this small role. After all, who could be more reliable than a character actor for an intermittent shooting schedule fraught with uncertain sources of funding and distribution?

Alas, that person was a South African actor named Robin B. Smith and, if you pay attention to the nuances, you’d understand far faster than I did that it couldn’t possibly have been Root. The main reason, and this will sound like a thinly veiled criticism when it most certainly is not, is that Smith’s performance is far too masculine. Or at least, per the character, a far too conspicuous and sometimes convincing performance of masculinity. Even if you’re only familiar with Root’s iconic turn as Milton Waddams in Office Space, or his near-identical performance in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, you understand that Root has a knack for portraying a modern man dwarfed by bureaucracy and often afraid to stand up for himself. Still, that’s only a snippet of his range. As most viewers of the recently concluded Barry will appreciate, Root has a gift for both commanding authority and bumbling uncertainty. Fuches, as a character, echoes many of Root’s more recognizable roles: the myah-myah-myahing radio station man in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Bubbles in Finding Nemo, Bob Mayer the campaign operative in The West Wing. There is a worn-down quality to Fuches. He feels eternally tired, a state of being arrived at after years and years of waiting, traveling, killing, and convincing himself he’s not the worst kind of person there is. Some of this is communicated within the show itself and Barry, in its best moments, allowed its performers to react physically to their increasingly dark, bizarre circumstances. But there’s something else to Root. 

On all those derivative lists of character actors, Root constantly makes an appearance because he is the foundational example. Often, people point to his incredibly long filmography (to say nothing of his numerous television appearances), as much an illustration of self-conscious gainful employment as it is of an artist in high demand. But bad actors have long filmographies, too. Others point to Root’s willingness to play all types of roles, which feels closer to a unique quality, though that is very much the function of 1) being a working actor who’s rarely afforded the opportunity to lead a project and 2) being a white actor who gets to indulge in meatier side parts, particularly with villains that aren’t simply stock gangsters or drug dealers (see his fantastically glib part as a corrupt district attorney in the canceled-too-soon Perry Mason). 

What truly separates Root, what makes him one of the greatest living actors, full stop, is a quality that most actors, talented as they are, lauded as they are, lack: believability across disparate roles. It’s something worth actively observing, particularly in star-led vehicles. The fawning over method actors like Daniel Day-Lewis or J*red L*to “losing themselves” in characters that showcase how much weight they’ve lost or how extreme their behavior is can feel like back-handed compliments, a testament to their commitment, sure, but also a nod to the fact that, beyond the physical, there can sometimes be another element of behavior or legitimacy missing. It might be an oversimplification to call Root an everyman, but, in his case, such a designation points to both the mundane, harmless qualities of your average American and the dangerous, cunning, depraved depths of those with far less moral compunction. Put another way, I feel that Root would have a far shorter road to travel to play a compelling, frightening Joker than Joaquin Phoenix. (Which isn’t to say playing the Joker is any sort of benchmark for an actor’s ability because I think Phoenix’s portrayal is just fine.) This makes me wonder: Why wouldn’t you want someone of Root’s impressive talent and skill leading your project? There is a dark, uncomfortable truth lurking in the storied IMDB pages of many amazing character actors, namely the fact that they don’t actually have the chops to be playing lead roles. Root doesn’t have this problem. 

I’ll point to one scene in particular that I think about at least six times a year. In David Prior’s excellent horror film The Empty Man, Root plays Arthur Parsons, leader of the shadowy Pontifex Institute. The specter of Scientology looms large with the Institute, more for the cult’s obvious newness and suburban-corporate aesthetic (they meet in what looks like a Freemasons lodge) than any specific doctrine. Still, it’s an association that Prior seems to invite for the sake of leaving the viewer unprepared for what Parsons demonstrates to the film’s protagonist, a former detective played by James Badge Dale. At a gathering, Parsons gives a cryptic, seemingly ridiculous talk about reality, perception, and power. Another mark of a great actor is their ability to make you believe what they’re saying, especially if what they’re saying sounds like complete nonsense. Parsons does his best to simplify what the Empty Man is in a low, soothing register: “The veil between form and flesh, and the means by which it can be pierced and the two allowed to commingle.” 

This clearly doesn’t work, for the audience or the protagonist, and so Parsons, aware that he’s coming on strong, chuckles, self-deprecates (“we’re each of us blind in our way”), takes the protagonist aside, and explains to him a different concept. He uses the example of a word or phrase that’s been used and reused so many times it loses all meaning. Parsons even invokes Nietzsche, which Root somehow manages to make sound interesting. The entire time, in a scene less than five minutes long and Root’s only appearance in The Empty Man, the audience gets the sense that not only is Parsons a true believer, but possibly the sanest person there. He doesn’t boast or shout. Instead, he draws close, placing a hand on a shoulder, standing back and watching. When he does speak, each word is uttered as if he were patiently explaining the color red to a child. Donning a suit, sporting his elderly beard, Root is magnetic. The more he talks, the more frightening his explanation becomes, an idea dancing on the edge of reason, the implications of which are cosmically unfathomable. It’s no spoiler to say that the Institute believes the Empty Man, a malevolent force, has the ability to grant its followers almost anything they wish as long as they appease it. The entire reason the film’s horror is able to achieve the escape velocity necessary to turn a novel boogeyman into the stuff of nightmares rests on Root’s brief role, which functions as a neat microcosm of all of his roles: compelling, humorous, with the quicksilver potential to change at a moment’s notice into something delightful or terrifying. 

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