Stephen Root on playing a cult leader in ‘Praise Petey’: ‘Obviously off his rocker’

Stephen Root gives a tip of the old cap to buddy Mike Judge for his lead role in the new animated comedy “Praise Petey,” premiering July 21 (10 p.m.) on Freeform.

Annie Murphy headlines the series as Petey, a millennial “It Girl” who, through a series of events, takes command of New Utopia, a small-town cult started by her hedonistic late father (Root). He, in turn, left behind a trove of weird, oft-touching life-lesson videotapes to help guide his daughter on her newfound journey — and looms large over the season arc.

The all-star cast includes Christine Baranski, Paget Brewster, Kirsey Clemons, John Cho and Amy Hill.

The series, created by Anna Drezen (“Saturday Night Live”), counts among its executive producers Mike Judge and Greg Daniels — co-creators of Fox’s beloved animated series “King of the Hill” (1997-2009), on which Root played sad-sack Army barber Bill Dauterive, pal/drinking buddy of Texas propane salesman Hank Hill (Judge).

“He was the first one to contact me [about ‘Praise Petey’],” Root said of Judge. “He said, ‘I’ve got maybe a weird guy for you’ and I said, ‘I’m down with you buddy, whatever you need. Fortunately the other producers thought I was good for [the role], too.

Photo of the characters Bandit, Eliza and Petey, voiced by John Cho, Kiersey Clemons and Annie Murphy. They're sitting in a bar and Petey has her arms up in emphasis.
Bandit (John Cho), Eliza (Kiersey Clemons) and Petey (Annie Murphy) in “Praise Petey,” premiering July 21 on Freeform.

“I was happy to come in and play.”

Root’s long showbiz resume pivots back-and-forth between live-action and animation, including his Emmy-nominated role as Monroe Fuches in HBO’s “Barry” and as Mayor Toadstool in “Amphibia” (Disney Channel). For the uninitiated, he also played mumbling, stapler-obsessed Milton Waddams — who didn’t get a piece of birthday cake — in Judge’s 1999 big-screen comedy “Office Space.” So … he’s accustomed to playing offbeat characters.

Petey's father, played by Stephen Root. He's standing in front of a miniature version of his cult town New Utopia and has his arms spread out, as if he's introducing it. He's got a mustache and is wearing reddish suspenders.
Petey’s late father (Stephen Root) left his small-town cult to his daughter, who has a lot to figure out.

“What you’re going to see [with Petey’s father] is mostly that he’s passed on and that he was crazy enough to make a series of videotapes to tell his daughter how to live and how to control the people in the cult city,” Root said. “He’s obviously off his rocker.

“Hopefully his message, in the long term, is that it’s not wonderful to be in a cult and that it’s better to maybe get out of the cult and start thinking about yourself — and that’s hopefully what Petey will get everyone to do over the course of the season.”

While he’s played a variety of characters over the years, Root said he doesn’t choose his role to fit any specific character trait.

Stephen Root as Monroe Funches in "Barry." He's got a frightened look on his face. He's wearing a brown zip-up jacket and has a beard.
Stephen Root earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Monroe Funches (above) in HBO’s “Barry.”
Courtesy of HBO

“For me, the writing is paramount, but a strong assist to that is who I’m going to be working with,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of Annie’s, and I worked with Amy Hill on ‘King of the Hill.’ Everything out of Paget Brewster’s mouth is funny … and it makes a huge difference if you’re able to work with someone you’ve never worked with before, as it did for me on this series.”

Root said he and his fellow actors were not able, for the most part, to record their voiceovers in the same room due to COVID.

“We did Zoom read-throughs for almost all of the shows, which is important to see and time yourself to the other actors, and everyone could see what the other was doing,” he said. “The writers could see what chemistry bounced off of the actors and then could do rewrites as they went along.

Scene from "King of the Hill." Bill (Stephen Root) is wearing a football helmet, which his bare gut showing. He's talking to Hank (Mike Judge), who's holding a clipboard and wearing a baseball cap and whistle, and Hank's son, Bobby.
Stephen Root voiced the role of hapless Army barber Bill Dauterive on “King of the Hill” opposite Mike Judge (as Hank Hill) and Pamela Adlon (as Hank’s son, Bobby).
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

“There’s nothing like being a room together,” he said. “With ‘King of the Hill’ it was like old-time radio and everyone was in a little semi-circle bouncing off of each other.

“I hope we’ll get a chance to do that here.”

This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

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