Interview with Stephen Root from Fringe

Accomplished character actor Stephen Root will be guest-starring in this week’s episode of Fringe. In the episode, he gives a wonderful, emotional performance with his real-life wife, marking the first time the couple has ever acted together.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Q&A session with Stephen, in which he talked about his work on Fringe, as well as some of his past and upcoming projects. I was so thrilled to get a chance to speak with “Milton” and ask him about red staplers!

Jump with me to read all the great things Stephen had to say.

On working with his real-life wife for the first time

Stephen Root: It was a great opportunity to be able to work with her. We have been able to do readings and things like that for films, but never in front of a camera. It was tremendous to be able to work together. I think the first day that we worked, [it] was just the two of us and the director and the crew. It was a joy. It was tremendous.

[I can’t say] much, or they’ll kill me. But I can tell you that they’re a husband and wife that are both scientists and have something going on in this universe, not the other one. It’s something you need to go ahead and see. But we’re both scientists trying to accomplish something. We actually didn’t get to work with a lot of the cast. It was mainly us and Josh. [We saw Anna] a little bit. It was kind of an insular episode for us, which was good, in that there was limited involvement. It’s kind of a stand-alone thing.

I think to play husband and wife and be real husband and wife, it’s easier to emotionally connect quickly to a big emotional place, since we’re actual husband and wife. You don’t have a lot of time on television to do that usually. There is not a lot of rehearsal time. Us knowing each other so well—we’re probably—knowing where the other person is going to go emotionally, was a help.

It came through—actually, Romy had [gone] to Northwestern with one of the executive producers, and we were actually at a party and talking to him. They were saying, “Would Stephen be interested in doing a Fringe?” And Romy popped up, “Well, yes, if you invite me.” And strangely enough, Mr. Pinkner a while later said, “Yes. Please. Come on and do the show.” We were just more than thrilled to be able to work with each other and come on a quality program.

On the challenges of being a guest-star

Stephen: You’re always the new kid on the block when you come in as a guest star. Their series has been going on for four years, and they’re a well-oiled machine. They know each other emotionally and intellectually, and then you come in and go, “Hi. Here’s my episode. I want to play with you guys.”

I always feel like it’s the first day of school for me when I’m doing a guest star thing, but it’s kind of good, because you jump; you’re pushed to an emotional high quickly. On TV, there is not a lot of time to rehearse, so it was nice to be able to work with your wife, somebody you knew so well.

On the Fringe Science we see in the show

Stephen: I love that. I’ve been a sci-fi guy from way back, including comics in the 60s and sci-fi from the time I was 13 years old. It’s always fascinated me, whether we’re in a situation where, “Are there multiple universes? Is the nature of time itself—is it possible to travel back through time?” That kind of stuff has always fascinated me. I’m happy to be addressing it a little bit in this show.

On his upcoming projects

Stephen: I’ve got J. Edgar opening on the 9th. I’ve just finished filming Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep. Actually did that the week after we did the Fringe, I started working on that. Those are a couple of projects coming up.

There are a couple of movie things coming up in next April that are possibilities that I’m excited about. Can’t really talk about them, though. I’m interested to see what people think of J. Edgar and when the new Redford movie comes out, what they think of that. Because they were both fun to work on.

On whether he will appear in the next season of Justified

Stephen: They’ve actually—I’ll say this; they put a pin in me for an episode later on this season. Hopefully that will come about. But, yes, it looks like it will.

On why his projects attract such loyal fans

Stephen: I’m hoping that I’m picking projects that I believe are really well-produced, well-written, and star people that you want to work with. At this stage in my career, I pick projects according to who you want to work with, how well it’s written, and the director.

All those things that you’ve mentioned are the criteria for what I’m working with now, which is why I was thrilled to work with Eastwood on J. Edgar. I was thrilled to work with Redford on The Company You Keep and The Conspirator. You try to keep working with people you think are better than you, or you want to work with because you really admire their work. Yes, that’s pretty much the criteria.

On what role of people still stop him in the street for

Stephen: It’s pretty much—has to be Office Space. I’m currently in Georgia at the moment to see a friend of mine in a play, and that’s pretty much what I get stopped for. It’s okay. It’s like the little movie that continues to be seen by people. Every couple of years, they’ll discover that. I think it really speaks to mid-America. It just stays current.

They want me to send them red staplers and they cost a lot, so I can’t do that. I’m happy. If they send me one, I’ll most certainly sign it, but yes, I still get a lot of requests for that.

On shows he enjoys and on which he would love to guest star

Stephen: There are a few that I really—I love The Good Wife. I’d love to work on that. I love well-written stuff. I saw Kelsey Grammar’s new show Boss. I thought that was pretty good. You want to work on well-written stuff and with people you like. Off the top of my head, a lot of HBO stuff and FX stuff. I love doing, obviously, the Justified, Louie. Whatever’s well-written, really.

On which project he has enjoyed the most

Stephen: That’s an impossibly hard question. Because you do so many things, probably series work has got to be your most favorite because you’re going through a family situation. I did King of the Hill for 13 years. Brittany Murphy was 18 when she started that project, and by the time we finished, we’d been through births and deaths and marriages.

I would have to say something like that or the run on NewsRadio were really your most favorite because you’re dealing with what has become your family.

On staying in touch with folks from past projects

Stephen: I get to see Dave every once in a while. Maura, I see—I just saw her in New York. She’s doing well after her bout with cancer. She’s great. I see a lot of the King of the Hill people, because they also do other animated shows that I’ve been connected with. Yes, we still all stay in touch.

On choosing challenging, out of your comfort zone, projects

Stephen: I think that True Blood was farthest away from me in the recent past. I think back in the beginning of the 90s when I was doing a lot of guest star stuff, it was fun doing a Klingon, because I could actually use my Shakespeare training to talk over the dentures. That was interesting.

Anything you do you approach from, “What would this character be?” How would you make him interesting to solve the problem that has to be solved? I’m just happy to work.

You got to do things that scare you every once in a while. This was pretty far away from me. I really wanted to tackle it and see what it was like. I was really, really pleased with the way it came out. I was happy to work with those people.

Yes, I think you have to challenge yourself. You really have to stretch every once in a while. Sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it does. But, unless you’re challenging yourself, then I’m not doing my job as a character actor.

On getting bored with some of the things he’s offered

Stephen: Those things I don’t take because I’m in a place where I really love not being pigeon-holed to do one thing or another. I’ll do a comedy, and then I’ll do a drama, and then I’ll do a sci-fi, and then I’ll do an animation. I’m in a hugely lucky place to be able to work in a variety of things which kind of define the words, “character actor.”
Stephen guest stars on tonight’s Fringe on FOX at 9/8c. Thanks to Stephen for taking the time to speak to all of us. Don’t miss tonight’s episode!

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