John Krasinski’s career as an actor got a major kickstart with his role as Jim Halpert in NBC’s hit sitcom The Office through a good chunk of the early 2000s. Outside of The Office, Krasinski continually tried to reinvent himself, writing and directing his first feature Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (based on the novel by David Foster Wallace) back in 2009, and co-writing the eco-conscious Promised Land with Matt Damon a few years later.
He’s back in the director’s chair for The Hollars, an ensemble dramedy that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, in which he plays John Hollar, a New York graphic artist who is called back to his hometown when his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumor. It might sound like a dark movie, but it actually finds a lot of humor in the exploits of John’s older brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), who just can’t get it together without their mother. John’s father (Richard Jenkins) is also having problems with the family business, and he finds himself caught up in all of that family drama while his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) remains back in New York on her own.
When you’ve been working in the business as long as Krasinski has, it makes it much easier to fill in so many roles with so many great actors, and he also got the likes of Charlie Day playing a neurotic nurse now married to John’s former high-school sweetheart Gwen (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) and singer Josh Groban as “Reverend Dan,” who has been dating Ron’s ex-wife, both of whom can be very funny without trying too hard.
Den of Geek sat down with Krasinski at the Crosby Hotel in New York where we talked about how he found his second movie to direct after the distinctly different Brief Interviews six years back. We also spoke briefly about his recently-announced Amazon series based on Tom Clancy’s popular CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
Den of Geek: I’ve known the film’s screenwriter Jim Strouse for some time. How did you hook up with him and convince him to let you direct it, since I assume this is the type of movie he’d direct himself.
John Krasinski: Yeah, he was absolutely supposed to be the director. It was this organic thing where I knew Jim because I was a huge fan of his work. I loved Grace is Gone, Winning Season and his other movies, but this one when I read it, I signed on immediately. He asked if I’d be the actor in it and I signed on about seven or eight years ago as the actor. I loved the movie and I immediately connected. The biggest thing for me is that I come from a very loving, tight knit family, and this is obviously a very different kind of family. And yet, when I finished the script, I thought, “Oh my God, it’s my family.” So there’s something universally connecting about it that I thought was perfect, but then as far as how I got to direct it. It all just sort of happened. The financier called me and asked if I’d buy the script and produce it, and then Jim was already off directing something else, so I said I would direct it. So it just sort of organically happened. Luckily, he was hugely supportive of me doing it.
Did you do a lot of development on the script with Jim when you were just going to be acting in it?
No, I mean he wrote a really near-perfect script, to be honest. I did a little bit of a rewrite here and there. I added a couple scenes, but for the most part, it’s what he had from the beginning.
There are certain elements I’ve seen in his movies that are common, such as the lead character being a graphic artist. One of the characters has two daughters, and I assumed Jim has two daughters…
I think he does actually.
It seems like there are always those elements, so by starring in this movie, you’re becoming this conduit for Jim just like John Cusack, Jemaine Clement, and other actors in his movies.
Right, right, exactly. I think that he is writing very specifically, but to me, he navigates hair-pin turns between comedy and drama that very few people do. What that feels like to me is real, because in life, you don’t get to prepare for the good times and you don’t get to prepare for the bad times. He understands that, and he makes everything feel not manipulative. We can be honest that we’ve seen a whole lot of family movies. I think this day and age, especially with all the drama that’s going on, it’s important to go back to core beliefs and strong things like family. In order to do it, you have to have a good one, so I think the thing about this is that I always feel manipulated in most family movies, and in this movie, it just felt real.
Your casting for the movie is interesting, since you have a lot of ringers whether it’s Margo as your mother or Richard as your father. Charlie Day, you can probably have him say anything and it would be funny, but when he comes on board, does it change a lot for how funny that nurse character becomes?
The script didn’t change. He just did a really good job of… it was funny, because his question when I offered to him was, “Are you sure you want it to be me?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Okay, great,” and then he just showed up. What I loved about it is that he played so well into the one thing that I needed, which is a guy that has a complex about someone he was threatened by. I think there’s something so charming and funny about what Charlie does, but I love that in this movie, he got to show off a different side of himself.
Also Sharlto, because like most people, I’ve known him since District 9, and I feel like he tends to play goofy or strange characters, but here he’s playing a real person and I felt like I knew this person, maybe too well.
Absolutely. I mean, you nailed it on the head. When I saw District 9, I thought that was one of the best performances I’d seen in a long time, and then I found out that he wasn’t even an actor—he was a producer on it and then became an actor. Then I met him when was writing Promised Land and Matt was doing Elysium, and he was this very sweet, nice caring guy, and I thought, “That’s the type of guy that could play this part.”
When you’re putting together the cast, knowing that you’re going to play John, are you able to plan the filming schedule so that it makes sense for the other actors as well as yourself.
For me, it was actually incredibly easy to act and direct in this movie, and weirdly necessary in this particular movie for me. I think this is such an intimate thing. Like you were talking about, my goal was to make a movie where you stop at some point seeing that family on screen as the movie family and somehow put your own family and beliefs on there. In order to do that, you had to achieve an organic connection between these characters, and I just thought it would be terrible to call “Cut!” and have to redo the scene over and over and over. What I did is that I didn’t call “Cut!” very often and because I was in the scene, I got to do the take, talk very quietly with my actors, just do it again, talk very quietly, do it again and then basically stop when I knew we had it. It felt almost like we were doing a play.
I’ve spoken to a number of actors over the years who direct their own films. There’s the camp of those who when they’re directing don’t want to act in it and focus on directing. Then there’s someone like Jason Bateman who puts himself in the movie, because it’s easier to direct by acting opposite them. I assume you’re more in that camp?
I do. I find it’s somewhat more helpful to me to direct when I’m acting in it, because you’re in the cypher, as you will.
When you directed “Brief Interviews,” that was different from what we’d expect from you since it was darker drama, so was there a conscious decision to direct something lighter?
Yeah, I always get drawn—as an actor, as a director, whatever—I just want to tell a good story, and I want to tell the most interesting story. I really bonded to the script. I think the next time I direct, it will be a very different movie than this, because that’s what 13 Hours was for me as an actor. I love just trying to stretch myself to do more challenging stuff.
Do you feel at this point you’re ready to try to direct one of those bigger movies? One of the nice things about directing films is that there’s less money and you have to shoot faster but you also have…
Right, more control to make the movie you set out to make originally.
Absolutely. Yeah, I’d be ready to direct a bigger movie now. I think the truth is those bigger movies; you still have to find a good script that’s worth it. I wouldn’t do it just because it was a great opportunity; I’d do it because I was the right guy. That’s always what I try to do. I only want to direct if I’m the person who has a good strong take on it. Otherwise, if David O. Russell or David Fincher or someone else can direct it, they’re obviously premiere directors—go get them!
I thought you filmed this in Ohio but then learned later that you actually filmed in Mississippi, so is it meant to be somewhat vague where the Hollars actually live?
That’s what we were going for. We were trying to find a place that represented everybody’s hometown. That’s why it never mentions where we are. I think Jim’s original script somewhere references Indiana, but the thing I responded to in the script most was that it could be anywhere. I wanted people to feel like that was their hometown, too.
You spoke about tone earlier and music obviously plays a large part in that. You have Josh Ritter doing the music, and I guess the songs were his as well?
Yeah, most of the songs are his and then we have Head in the Heart is in there and Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. My whole thing was that it was the music I was listening to when I was directing, so I tried to get it in the movie, and it worked out really well that we had such generous people that would allow us that music.
Going very specifically with songs like “The Graduate”—was that an influence on this? I think Jim’s done that in some of his movies as well.
Puts songs in it. Again, for this movie, I wanted it to almost feel like there was a radio channel playing with the movie rather than an actual soundtrack, because soundtrack again I wanted to move away from being manipulative.
I’m going to speak to Margo later but maybe I can ask you about this—did she really shave her head?
She did not. It’s a little bit of movie magic, but it was actually similar to that, because we had a hugely expensive wig made. It was a latex wig so it was hugely expensive, and we had this artist genius. It took him about two and a half months to make it—he threaded every single hair by hand. Even though it wasn’t real–first of all it looked great–but more importantly, at the moment that we were shaving it, because we only had one wig, we still had that same tension that we still have only one shot at this.
You actually shaved the wig? Wow. It was really well done as was Margo sporting a bald head.
Thank you. It was, wasn’t it?
I’ve seen movies about cancer where it’s so obviously a bald cap, but then you also have the actors who want to really do it because it’s so method. But she didn’t want to do it?
I think because she was on a television show at the time. I think she was on The Millers.
She probably was on three television shows. It looked real enough that I wasn’t sure.
She’s amazing. I hope she gets acknowledgement or some chatter because she so deserves it. She’s as good as it gets, but in this movie in particular, she crushes it.
You just signed on to play Jack Ryan in an Amazon show, so will that be your primary focus for a while?
It is, and I’m an executive producer on it, too, which is huge, so I’m all over it. I’m really excited about it. I’m also really nervous. Those guys who have done it before me are very real-deal actors, but again, it’s different for me because it’s a different medium and different storytelling form, so I’m excited to see what we can do with it.
As executive producer, are you also going to be involved with the writing and maybe direct an episode or two?
I would love to, if they’ll have me.
You have enough experience now and this is for Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, so I assume you did training for “13 Hours” so is that going to come in hand here?
Absolutely. I mean, Bay is singular. You can’t steal from him because he does it unlike anyone else does it, but having him on board and producing this is going to be hugely helpful for us, especially with achieving scope and the thrill-factor.
And he has one of the best stunt teams in the world.
You’re obviously younger than Harrison Ford when he played Jack Ryan, but I think you’re older than Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin, so is that going to play into when this takes place in his career? Is there going to be any tie-in to the books or other films?
I don’t think so. I think we’re starting it over. I think the truth is you’ve never seen Jack Ryan start as an analyst. In the books, he starts behind the desk so that’s where we’re starting.
So you’re setting this up so it can possibly be a four or five season thing.
Yeah, exactly, yup.
The Hollars will open in New York and L.A. on Friday and then expand to more cities after that. Read our review here.