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The Performance

Stephen Root: The 56-year-old character actor disappears into his parts. 'If I can do anything, it's play stuff a little bent,' he says.

January 31, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

As a character actor -- part journeyman, part chameleon -- Stephen Root knows that he's just trying to make the biggest impression with whatever screen time he can get. "I try to do something different," he explains. "I just want to do something that's a little offbeat. That's kind of my forte. If I can do anything, it's play stuff a little bent. That's kind of what I do."

Root, 56, has a real knack for disappearing inside a part, seeming to transform himself from role to role not so much with makeup or special effects but rather with the actor's craft of voice and posture. "I think your body goes where your mind goes," he said. "If the guy is taller or shorter or slumps or whatever, your body follows that. It's really not unusual, it's what you would do with any character, whether you were doing a play or a film or TV."

Currently in theaters he can be seen playing a chief of security at the Federal Reserve in the zany heist film "Mad Money" and a white-collar criminal in the award-winning drama "No Country for Old Men." He also appears in the beyond-the-grave romantic comedy "Over Her Dead Body," which opens Friday. Root describes his role in the latter as "a drunken ice sculptor." His character is partly responsible for the untimely demise of a high-strung bride-to-be (Eva Longoria Parker) but is also party to her redemption in the hereafter.

Over the next few months, he will appear in "Drill Bit Taylor," a Judd Apatow-produced comedy starring Owen Wilson, and "Leatherheads," a screwball pastiche directed by George Clooney. He's currently in production on the drama "The Soloist," the next film by "Atonement" director Joe Wright. That movie stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. and is based on columns by the L.A. Times' Steve Lopez about a homeless musician.

That's a pretty eclectic mix. Root purposefully makes an effort not to be pigeonholed by casting directors or audiences, and he has been able to swing back and forth between roles on television and in movies, whether playing station boss Jimmy James on the series "NewsRadio" or stapler- obsessed Milton Waddams in "Office Space."

Born in Sarasota, Fla., Root began acting while at the University of Florida, which led to a few years of regional and traveling theater before landing in off-Broadway and Broadway productions. It was while appearing onstage in Los Angeles that he came to the attention of Hollywood casting directors, putting him on the road to TV and film work.

"I think character actor is exactly what I wanted to be when I started out and I've been lucky to be that," Root said. "Absolutely. It's been my goal to try to do different stuff, to try and do comedy, to do drama and mix it up."

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Where you've seen him

After years in theater, Stephen Root first came to the attention of a broader audience with his role on the television series "NewsRadio." He has appeared in movies including "Office Space," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "Dodgeball," "No Country for Old Men" and "Over Her Dead Body." He has also done voice-over work for the animated series "King of the Hill," as well as for films.

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