John Krasinski may seem easy to overlook. He isn’t the flashiest of performers in NBC’s The Office, which made stars of Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson. But as Jim Halpert, he is the series’ goofy stealth hero: He gets the girl, scores most of the office’s coolest pranks and is the power center for the dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin crew.
And Krasinski is emerging as a creative force in the movie industry in the same understated way. He’s appeared opposite halogen-hot talent, including Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated) and George Clooney (Leatherheads), and he’s held his own against comic greats Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin and Robin Williams. And, like his Office alter ego, he also got the girl—in this case, English actress Emily Blunt, whom he married in 2010.
This month Krasinski will add writer and producer to his growing achievement list when Promised Land opens nationwide on January 4. It’s a film conceived with an A-list writer (Dave Eggers), cowritten with a member of the acting elite (Matt Damon, who also stars and produces with Krasinski) and directed and co-produced by an indie auteur (Gus Van Sant). Not bad for a guy who was waiting tables just a few years back.
In the film, Damon plays a corporate salesman who bumps up against an environmental activist (Krasinski) and his own misgivings as he tries to persuade the citizens of a small town to turn over their drilling rights to his company. The tone and premise of Promised Land and Krasinski himself—tall, sweet and gangly—have already brought comparisons to Frank Capra’s work and to one of the famed director’s favorite actors, James Stewart.
Krasinski is both surprised (“It kind of blows my mind”) and flattered by the comparison. “I don’t know how you couldn’t love being compared to Jimmy Stewart. Do I deserve it? Probably not yet,” he avers. “It’s a very, very high gold standard to achieve on every level, not only in certain roles, but in the gravitas and the attention that he brought to such wonderful, wonderful stories. It’s something that I feel I’m trying to do on a much smaller level.”
On the phone from New York, where he is viewing a final cut of the film, Krasinski acknowledges that the Promised Land experience has been “completely and totally surreal.” There’s no hint of arrogance or entitlement as he discusses the project—just gratitude. It serves to underscore Krasinski’s reputation as a seriously nice guy who is also seriously smart.
Promised Land, he says, began with his desire to do a story about “the American identity. I was interested in telling a story about a community and a group of people who were being put in a very difficult position and had to make a very complex decision.”
His inspiration came from his physician father, who grew up in a Pennsylvania steel mill town. The life he described to his son “was simpler,” Krasinski says. “The focus and the dedication was to friends, family, your job and a commitment to the belief that tomorrow would be a better day. I feel like that structure and support system has dwindled a bit, but is not gone, and I think community is something that we can still fight for and achieve.”
For initial help, he turned to a writer pal, novelist Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What, etc.)—just one of a number of celebrated names in Krasinski’s social circle. “We discussed the characters and the basic story points and started to develop the very strong seeds of the idea.”
He found additional support for his concept when he met Matt Damon, to whom he had been introduced by Blunt while they were shooting The Adjustment Bureau. “Matt had mentioned to me that he was looking to direct something and asked if I was working on anything at the time, and I happened to be working on this,” Krasinski recalls. “He really connected to it and wanted to direct, which was initially the plan for the movie [scheduling conflicts led to Van Sant coming aboard].”
Krasinski says it was easy to work with Damon, a fellow Bostonian (Krasinski was born in Newton, Damon in Cambridge). “I think that we’re similar in personality. Matt’s a very positive person and has a great outlook on life. So the idea of these people and what they were going through came across very easily for us.”
Promised Land is the first complete screenplay Damon has worked on since he wrote (and won an screenwriting Oscar for) Good Will Hunting in the 1990s. “John is just a really impressive guy,” he says about his decision to work on the script. “I liken it to when I first met George Clooney. Most people viewed him as the guy on ER, but if you talked to him about movies, you realized how brilliant he was,” Damon says. “In the same way, John’s phenomenal on The Office, but so far has only been known as a comic actor. But he’s so dynamic and so incredibly talented that I think the idea that people have of him is going to be a lot different in a decade.”
With the story and characters in place, Krasinski and Damon decided to use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as the film’s backdrop. It’s a somewhat controversial process that uses fluid injections and sand to fracture rocks and extract oil and gas. “It was interesting because of the high‑stakes-poker nature of the issue,” Krasinski says. But rather than moralizing, he says, they simply wanted to show how fracking is “forcing people to decide between a short‑term goal and a long‑term goal.”
The collaboration was a first, and so was the screenplay. “This is my first original screenplay, period. I’d adapted a book several years ago [Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace] but never had I tried an original idea. It’s been one of the most thrilling experiences of my career.”
It may be his first screenplay, but Krasinski is no stranger to writing. He graduated from Brown University with a major in playwriting, although his initial goal “was really to be an English teacher. I think I was way too inspired by Dead Poets Society. I was totally behind a profession that got kids standing on desks and screaming out Walt Whitman. I thought that would be a real blast.”
Then Krasinski fell in with the acting crowd. “They were incredibly inspiring. At that point in my life I hadn’t listened to any music that wasn’t directly from the radio, I hadn’t seen many indie films or even really knew what they were. So, literally, every single night I would get a CD or a DVD of a movie or an album to take in, and I loved every single moment of it.” He turned his English major into a vehicle to pursue playwriting and ended up at the National Theater Institute in Waterford, Connecticut, which included a stint at Stratford-upon-Avon, where he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Of all his hats, Krasinski says acting is his favorite—with a caveat: “I think the idea of this whole business is just storytelling. Whether you’re a director, producer, actor or a writer, it’s all about the story. So, for me, I just really enjoy getting up there and trying something new.”
Which is sure to happen when The Office ends this spring after nine seasons on NBC. Krasinski has mixed feelings about the conclusion. “This show gave me everything,” he says. “I was a waiter before this. To say that it opened a door for me to every single thing I’ve done since would be an understatement. It is everything that I am in this business, really. It’s the backbone of everything I am or will become.”
He’s also honest about his fears: “There’s that terrifying feeling of being on a precipice a little bit and jumping into the darkness for the first time,” he says. “Any time I jumped before, I could always jump right back to the show.”
Krasinski doesn’t expect Promised Land to change the course of his life: “I don’t expect that all of a sudden every door is opened for me and phones are ringing off the hook by all the directors I adore and love. That would be amazing, but I don’t think that’s reality. I think you’ve got to keep working and keep showing who you are. And that’s all I’m trying to do. This is my first step of showing people that, yeah, I’m a little different than Jim from The Office and I can do a lot of different things.
“Hopefully, you’ll like what I’m doing.” //