I first became interested in John Krasinski after wrote and directed an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, but more for his intention than the final product. After getting his gig at The Office, Krasinski—who'd just quit his job as a waiter and obviously had no idea the show would become a success—decided not to save his payday, but instead put all of that money toward making the film. I respected his drive and gall. Contacted Gus Van Sant to see if he'd be willing to do the interview, provided them with talking points, moderated the conversation, and wrote the intro text.
PHOTOGRAPHY CARLOS SERRAO
TEXT ELLIOTT DAVID
INTERVIEW GUS VAN SANT
THE WRITER, PRODUCER, AND STAR OF PROMISED LAND TALKS ORIGINS, INSPIRATION, AND THE AMERICAN DREAM WITH THE FILM'S DIRECTOR, GUS VAN SANT
John Krasinski is not that guy. Generally perceived to be America’s boyfriend, the 33 year old has spent almost a decade playing Jim Halpert on The Office, a good-hearted, innocuously handsome everyman whose harmless jokes aren’t dumbed down but aren’t in danger of flying over anyone’s head, either. Most actors on long-running programs end up conjoined to their TV characters, struggling to assert their artistic range outside of the show. But when a show ends, by choice or by cancellation—the former applies in this case, as The Office enters its ninth and final season—then the future becomes malleable. To say nothing of the proclivity of casting directors, Krasinski has long showed signs of acquiescing to the public’s expectation for him to repeatedly embody the character they’ve invited into their homes each week. Outside of The Office, the majority of Krasinski’s mainstream film roles—License to Wed, It’s Complicated, Something Borrowed, and most recently Big Miracle—have seemed like slight variations on Halpert, all pulled off with his now-signature effortless charm and ostensible insistence that, Hey, I’m this guy!
But if you look deeper, past the mainstream and primetime, the real Krasinski appears. A Bostonian who studied theater and playwriting at Brown University and then spent some time at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Krasinski first revealed his genuine interests when he used his payment for the pilot of The Office(he was an NYC waiter at the time of his audition) to buy the rights to literary icon David Foster Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which he then adapted, produced, and directed himself. Also early in his career, he had a supporting role in beloved avant-weirdo Gregg Araki’s 2007 stoner comedy, Smiley Face. Interviews debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the same year Krasinski starred in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go, written by indie publishing’s royal couple, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. But four years later, John Krasinski, an intellectual lit-head with a fascinating, self-powered career, is still basically known as Jim Halpert. Krasinski may or may not have made those big studio projects because he knew they’d be fun and help support more artistic work, but in any case he seems deeply appreciative of his career—the experience of it—describing his life as this amazing thing that sort of just happened to him. The modesty is genuine. This winter, he and Matt Damon are the writers, producers, and stars of a new Gus Van Sant film, Promised Land. What comes through in his conversation for VMAN with Van Sant is that Krasinski really is a real guy, a hard-working artist who’s made the most of his opportunities. As David Foster Wallace once wrote: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” The truth has only just got its hands on John Krasinski, and it’s pulling him onto a different stage for the rest of us to see.
Gus Van Sant Hey John, it’s Gus.
John Krasinski Hey Gus.
GVS What are you up to?
JK I just got back from Vegas with Matt [Damon] and [Damon’s wife] Lucy. It was pretty great.
GVS Did you stay up late?
JK No, why would we do that? [laughs]
GVS It sounds like you stayed up really late.
JK [laughing] No it doesn’t. No, we did, we stayed up really late because Emily [Blunt, Krasinski’s wife] was on a hot streak and we were all sitting around the table watching in awe. It was pretty hilarious.
GVS So you’re living in L.A. and New York?
JK L.A. pretty much full-time. I spend a lot of time in New York, but L.A. is definitely where I call home now. It’s tough to live in New York and be in the business. The business is definitely there, but the majority of the process happens here. And of course [The Office] is filmed here in L.A. So I’ve been here for, God, 10 years, I think, officially. I moved out here for the show. I drove across country for the show.
GVS Wow. And before that had you done any other shows?
JK I had done one failed pilot. I remember when it failed I was like, Oh my god, how does someone survive this? That’s it, that’s the end of my career, it’s over. I was waiting tables in New York. I only flew out to L.A. to do the one week of the pilot and then came right back to waiting tables. I worked at like nine different restaurants because it turns out—I don’t know why—people aren’t super keen on having you leave during the day to go to an audition and expect that your job is going to be there when you come back [laughs].
GVS Yeah. And then for some of the auditions you’re talking about you had to fly to L.A., right?
JK Yeah. When I was out here filming [that failed] pilot I went on a couple general meetings, and one of the meetings was with this amazing woman Allison Jones, who has cast anything good that you’ve ever seen. She said, “I really want you to look out for the thing I’m going to call you about, it’s called The Office.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” And then three weeks later I was going in for the show, and a couple weeks after that I got it.
GVS And so when you did that were you working with the creators of the British Office?
JK Yes, with Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant] on the pilot. NBC made the decision to make the pilot almost word-for-word the English transcript. But I’ll never forget that first season, when our writers started scripts and episodes that were completely their own and they were unbelievable. I remember thinking that this is something so special. We were constantly in fear of getting cancelled. We actually had a guy come down every Friday to the set and he’d be like, “Ah man, this episode’s so great, it’s going so well. The dailies are looking great. You know this is the last episode, right? We’re not going to pick it up.” And I was like, “Can I at least get these on DVD to show my mom?” And he actually did give me the first six episodes on DVD, because we were sure we actually weren’t going to get picked up.
GVS But you did.
JK There was a whole confluence of events, which was, critically, people thought it was pretty good, but iTunes was a huge factor. I remember walking around New York and people would stop me on the street with buds in their ears and go, “Oh my God!” And I’d say, “What?” And then they’d turn their iPod around and say, “You’re on my iPod!”
JK We were one of the first big TV shows on iTunes. People were watching the show, like, in the subway. And that completely saved us, totally saved us. We built sort of a cult group of amazing fans and from there people actually started watching the show on television.
GVS Wow. And now it’s been how many seasons?
JK Nine! This is our ninth season. And they just announced that this is the last season. I get so emotional to think that we’re ending the show, but I’m unbelievably proud to be a part of one that actually gets to end. Instead of being asked to leave, I actually get a shot at bringing the whole story and all the characters to a close.
GVS [pause] So then you’ll have to look for new work.
JK That’s why we’re on this phone call. I’m calling you right now to ask to be your personal assistant. I’ll do whatever it takes.
GVS Or go back to waiting tables. So let me ask you—I know it’s a long, circuitous story about the origins ofPromised Land—what was the very first step in creating it?
JK The first step was—I just had an idea one day. I really wanted to write a story that was a representation of where we are now as a country, one man’s quest to discover his identity and then, through the movie, discuss American identity. I went to Dave Eggers with this idea of doing a movie about a guy going through some sort of Frank Capra-esque journey. We knocked around ideas and came up with all sorts of really fun characters and situations, and then I took all that to Matt [Damon] and he and I started writing the movie. It was one of the most awesome processes that I’ve ever been a part of. I met Matt through Emily—they had done [The] Adjustment Bureau together. I remember him asking what sort of things I wanted to do, if I was going to write or direct or anything like that. And I said, “Well, actually, I have this idea.” He was really excited to be a part of it, and so we just started writing it. He was shooting We Bought a Zoo and I just went over to his house pretty much every week and hammered out tons and tons of pages while he juggled kids and somehow kept his family life together and allowed me in [laughs]. It was amazing and we had a blast. And that happened really fast, too. I mean, we started writing last February, I think, so the fact that the movie’s coming out this year is insane. As you know, that process is crazy.
GVS And then?
JK And then! Well, as you know, Matt was going to direct it. Then, just before Christmas, he decided that he couldn’t because there was just too much on his plate. The day he told me was such a jarring, awful day. I was so depressed because I thought the whole movie was going away, and he was like, “No, no, no, I’m going to call Gus and see if he wants to do it,” and I said [sarcastically], “Yeah, yeah, that’ll be great.” I was so totally in disbelief and frustrated at what was happening. And then I got this voicemail message of Matt freaking out, like, “Oh my God, oh my God, holy shit, holy shit.” That’s all he kept saying, and I didn’t know if he was excited or if he had been shot or something. And then at the end he was like, “I don’t know, man, I guess your first screenplay is going to be a Gus Van Sant movie. So I guess that sucks.” And then he hung up [laughs]. I think, I think I actually cried. I sat down and cried.
GVS Oh, wow.
JK Only for a second! I was so excited. I can bore you with this story only because I know that you’ve heard it before, but I really do mean that. Everyone’s always asked me who’s the one person I want to work with, and I’ve always said your name. Being from Boston—I think we have to get the Good Will Hunting poster tattooed on our backs when we’re like 16 or 17, it’s just a rite of passage. That movie is so, so, so huge. I actually remember seeing that movie like five times in the theater. So when he said you were directing this, it was a little bit of an existential crisis [laughs]. And then going to your house for the first time—you had called me over to review the script stuff, and I remember having that tinge of anxiety, like, What is going on, how is this at all possible? It has been a little bit like living in a dream. This has been a really, really surreal, awesome experience.
GVS Excellent, that’s great. And for me it was a great opportunity to work with Matt again. We hadn’t worked for a long time. How old were you when Good Will Hunting came out?
JK I must have been 18 or 19. When was it, ’97 or ’98?
JK So I was a senior in high school.
GVS Are you going to write something new with Matt?
JK I’d love to write with Matt again. I don’t know when we will. He’s a busy guy.
JK He only has like 84 movies coming out a year. He’s a rising star.
GVS Yeah [laughs].
JK It was exciting because I’d never written an original script before—as much as it was exciting, it was incredibly terrifying, because I had never thought I could do it. I was thrilled to find out not only could I do it but it was this much fun. What did you think when you got the script and were told that we were hoping to shoot in April and everything. I think your response was “Okay” and that was it. I was thinking, How is that possible? How is his answer “Okay”? I actually remember your e-mail to Matt, it’s emblazoned on my brain. You said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
GVS Well, I had heard about the screenplay. It goes way back to that moment when we’d finished Good Will Hunting and I had all these opinions about what Matt and Ben Affleck should do with their lives, and I would tell them, and then they would very obviously not listen to me. But my suggestion was “You should stop working on these.” They were just doing weird projects as actors, which was what they wanted—their whole idea was if they got into the position where they got offered the roles that they wanted to be offered they were going to take them. Up until that moment Matt had never refused a role in his life. Now, all of a sudden, they had all these offers coming in, so they were way too busy to write a new screenplay. And I was always giving them this speech of “Keep writing characters for yourselves and then you can build your own career rather than just become the player for other people’s ideas and films.” They started writing this really cool project which became one of those scripts that got to like page 30 and stopped. And then the only other thing was Matt and Casey [Affleck] and I wrote Gerry, during which it became clear that Matt was used to working way harder than just a few afternoons on a script that was largely made up as we went along. So I’ve always been waiting for a screenplay, whatever that screenplay would be. And when I read about this—I first read about Promised Land probably a year ago, when it was announced that Matt was going to direct—my fantasy was that something would happen that would make him call me to help with the project. That was the scenario I always pictured in my mind.
JK No way.
GVS So when Matt called me I thought, Oh my god, I actually got the call that I was imagining might happen—
JK [laughs] That’s insane. I can’t even believe that’s real.
GVS It’s also weird that it’s been this long, that it took 15 years before that happened. I thought it was going to happen, like, in a year or two after Good Will Hunting. So how about we talk about the idea of American identity and the politics in Promised Land?
JK I’d like to hear what you think about it, but to me the idea of the movie was to be about where we’re headed as a country as represented by Matt’s character, a guy who has a job and is good at doing this one thing and then he questions whether or not he should be doing it. And I was always really interested in the green energy movement—not because of its political reasoning but because of the fraudulence happening within it.
GVS Yeah, to me it’s a by-the-book example of very aggressive American business processes that are quote-unquote “legal” and yet you wonder why they would be legal. The way that some very powerful and wealthy companies can manipulate markets and/or manipulate the basic safety of the American people in going after big profits. It is the American way, but it’s blown out of proportion, it’s on steroids. It’s just the way of the modern world, and maybe even dates back to the invention of the corporation. And the movie is trying to show a simple example of that.
JK This game’s been played forever, fracking is just a recent incarnation. I think it would be really ridiculous if our movie gets pigeonholed as a fracking movie, because I’ve always found it’s so far away from being any sort of environmental issue film. It’s completely about the characters and the situation of their town economically, its potential for growth, the potential for growth in the country as a whole. That’s what I think the movie was always about. We used to have wind power as our backdrop and we changed it to natural gas because we felt they were interchangeable—except for the fact that people in the natural gas industry are becoming millionaires overnight, so the stakes are much higher, which made things more fun. But it was never our intention to make an “issue” or a politics movie, so it will be very interesting to see how people interpret it. At the end of the day it’s not about a choice regarding an environmental issue but a choice about how you want to live your life, at what point do you chose to participate in the world rather than just allow the world to happen to you.
GVS It’s like a computer: it’s all numbers, there’s no actual person running it. If an individual—even if they’re the CEO of a corporation—goes against the numbers, there’s always an easy way to get rid of that individual, because profit is the most important thing. The movie business has turned into that as well.
JK And that’s the thing: no one issue or industry is at fault entirely, because it’s just been the way the game’s played, it’s a learned behavior. Going for the kill is sort of a learned behavior. And I totally agree with you about the movie industry. I’m just so proud that we even got to make this movie because I think there is that desire for many people in this business to make the biggest movie possible with the highest profit margin rather than a more quality movie that also could potentially have an equal outcome but that you could even spend less money on. It’s almost like if you don’t cross the billion-dollar threshold your movie didn’t actually succeed [laughs].
GVS I know, that’s crazy, right?
JK Don’t worry, Gus. Ours will, I promise.
JK We’ll have action figures and everything. Hey, are you around today, are you in the editing room? I actually have a gift for you.
GVS I’m going to be there at 6.
JK Are you going to be at your house before that?
GVS No, funnily enough, I’m going to Ikea to shop for furniture.
JK Amazing. That is amazing. That’s how they should end this article. And then, after this wonderful discussion, Gus hung up and went to Ikea.