Sunday, February 7, 2010
Great Character Actors #1: Stephen Root
In the fine tradition of character actors since time began, Stephen Root's name will mean less than nothing to most of you but his face should be instantly recognisable. One of the most prolific of actors, he's guest starred in pretty much every TV show of note in the last twenty years, as well as having an increasingly busy movie career. In fact he's become so ubiquitous that the IMDb site is encouraging people to play 'six degrees of Stephen Root'.
A regular favourite of the Coen Brothers, he first came to my attention as the blind radio station owner in the blissful Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? sporting a humdinger of a Southern accent, full of musical cadence and casual bigotry.
Everything else about his appearance is equally spot on; the way he uses the cane, the missed tuft of hair standing up at the back of his head, the way he raises an eyebrow to listen better, the perfectly captured facial expressions of someone who's never looked in a mirror, unselfconsciously rocking his head back and forth, moaning to the music like he's on his own in a dark room. It's a brilliantly observed cameo, every detail real but adding up to something more than just realism, something eccentric and comic, a performance, not to mention a lesson in the fine art of scene-stealing.
Then he was mild-mannered Gordon Pibb in greatest slapstick comedy of all-time Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Gordon's a sweet soul forever taken advantage of, one of life's true worms who finally finds his inner rage thanks to the mighty transformative powers of dodgeball.
He's not just a comic actor though. As Eddie, the reclusive gay vampire in True Blood he created, in just a few short scenes, one of the shows most memorable characters, embuing him with soft, Southern vulnerability and the watchful intelligence of the truly shy, emmitting levels of sensual loneliness that linger in the mind long after he's killed. This is a man not empowered by being a vampire but left helpless by it.
And finally, there's probably his most famous role, certainly the one that's created a genuine cult following, borderline autistic office drone Milton Waddams in Office Space. What to say about Milton? He's a perfectly observed comic creation; the voice, the glasses, the muttered, stuttering delivery, all inspired and all delivered with spot on comic timing. But he doesn't even have to speak. Every time he appears, just sitting there, doing nothing, he's funny. Which is, I suppose, at the heart of what makes Root such a fine actor, technical ability and attention to detail allied to an immersion in character so complete he can make you laugh doing nothing at all, just existing.