To Leslie, Thanks For Everything, Stephen Root
While you may not know the name Stephen Root off the top of your head, you’ve almost certainly seen him or heard his voice in multiple films or television series over the years. From NewsRadio in the 1990s to the current Emmy-winning HBO hit series Barry and countless voice roles ranging from King of the Hill to anime, the actor has earned a reputation for versatility, a quality he harnesses in Michael Morris’ new drama, To Leslie, in a role that the director had specifically earmarked for Root.
“I said ‘Really? That’s what you think that I’d be great for? An old biker?’” Root says. “He browbeat me into it, and I’m glad he did.” Root has known Morris, the former director of The Old Vic Theatre in London, and prolific television director, whose work includes House of Cards, 13 Reasons Why, and Better Call Saul, for over a decade, and trusted Morris’s instincts. Still, Root came to prominence wearing glasses and a shirt and tie in Office Space, and in his iconic role as powerful but eccentric billionaire Jimmy James on NewsRadio, which is so identifiable to audiences that he is still often cast as wealthy, powerful men, such as his villainous role as the blind art dealer, Jim Hudson, in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. A long-haired, leather-clad motorcycle enthusiast in ripped jeans and a bandana was a stark change for Root, especially at age 70.
“I said ‘Really? That’s what you think that I’d be great for? An old biker?’”
To Leslie is the story of a struggling mother in West Texas who wins the lottery and thinks she’s found a ticket to the good life. Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) enjoys this windfall a bit too much, however, and her partying lifestyle gives way to alcoholism. A few short years later, she finds that the money is gone, as is her relationship with her son (Owen Teague), who was raised by her friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Root) when she ran away, and the only solace she finds is at the bottom of a bottle. Living on her own and running from the wake of heartbreak and self-destruction she left behind, Leslie finds a chance at redemption when a motel owner, Sweeney (Marc Maron), gives her a job, a support system, and a shot at a fresh start, if only she can be forgiven by the people she has wronged, and most of all, by herself.
Dutch is a man of few words, a challenge that appealed to Root as an actor who credits the longevity of his career to working with great writers. Root performed with The National Shakespeare Company in New York in his early days, and he’s used to being able to rely on memorable dialogue, whether as Jimmy James or in one of the many collaborations he’s done with Oscar-winning screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, whom he affectionately calls “the boys.” Root recently had the chance to return to Shakespearean acting as “The Porter” in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, acting alongside Corey Hawkins. “It was like doing a ’40s movie,” Root says of the experience. “They were building these enormous, beautiful sets. It was shot in black and white … and for me it was kind of full circle, because that’s what I started doing, so to be able to do it on film was amazing.” In the case of To Leslie, costuming was another invaluable resource in bringing his character to life. “Sometimes it helps to have the physicality of the hair, the clothes, knowing that you’re going to go into an acting place that you haven’t been for a long time, if ever,” Root says. “So, I think the clothes kind of helped make the man in this one, because since you didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, you could really feel where you were going with the boots on and hair. But again, that doesn’t matter if the writing’s no good, and the writing is great. It always has and always will come back to that for me.”
” … for me it was kind of full circle, because that’s what I started doing, so to be able to do it on film was amazing.”
Ever the hard-working actor, Root’s plate of upcoming projects includes reteaming with his King of the Hill and Office Space creator Mike Judge for Beavis and Butthead Do The Universe. He’s also slated in the upcoming film Thelma, which gives him another chance to work with one of his favorite co-stars, Kathy Bates, with whom he recently shared the screen in the 2021 film Home. Wherever you may see or hear Stephen Root, his incomparable talent, presence, and his choice to gravitate toward great material continue to make him one of the most exciting and beloved character actors in the industry.
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