Widely known as Jim Halpert, the handsome paper-pushing heartbreaker on NBC's The Office, John Krasinski cut his teeth in television as a script intern on Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 2002, and wound up returning to the show as a guest a few years later. In between his Office duties, Krasinski has scored supporting roles in movies like Kinsey, Jarhead, The Holiday, For Your Consideration, and Dreamgirls. Recently, he's been looking to break out as a leading man, first in the Robin Williams comedy License To Wed and now in George Clooney's Leatherheads, an amiable period comedy about pro football in the 1920s. Krasinski stars as a lavishly decorated war hero and college pigskin star who's coaxed into signing a contract with the Duluth Bulldogs in a bid to breathe life into the struggling sport. Krasinski recently talked to The A.V. Club about geeking over Clooney, working with Robin Williams, and trying not to jump the shark.
The A.V. Club: How did you get the part in Leatherheads?
John Krasinski: Basically, I went through an internship program with George Clooney as his assistant and paid him bags full of money, because he's hurting for cash, as you know. Things haven't been going that great for him since he left "er" [ER]. [Laughs.] Well, the thing is, I met him the day after this Vanity Fair article on him, so he was literally on my coffee table when I went in and met him. And I was totally nervous because of all the lore about him. Basically, I had a meeting with him and thought I had blown it royally. Then I was asked to put myself on tape in New York, which was deflating, because most say that if you're not meeting the director, you're not going to get the part. And yet he just called one day and cast me off that tape.
AVC: Why did you think things had gone badly?
JK: I think I tried to keep myself together, and probably geeked out a bit. I talked to him about Good Night, And Good Luck slightly too long, if 25 minutes is too long. It quickly became an "I'm a big fan" meeting, which he probably wasn't prepared for. I'm usually pretty cool. It was one of those weird, surreal experiences where you realize you were geeking out in the middle of the meeting.
AVC: He's got to be used to that.
JK: Well, I'm sure he didn't like the prospect of working with someone for four months after he geeked out on you.
AVC: Were you prepared for this role physically, or was it punishing to shoot?
JK: Honestly, the best news in the world was when George called and said, "You know, back in the day, football stars weren't as big, or worked out, or jacked up, or whatever the common vernacular is." And I was so thrilled by that, because I could go back to my normal routine of doing very little.
AVC: It also probably helps that your character doesn't get tackled very much.
JK: Exactly. [Laughs.] There were also some moments where I was like, "Wow! I'm pretty good at football!" And George had to keep reminding me, "No, you idiot! I've directed these people to jump at your feet." "I am very fast, this is incredible! This is going very well!"
AVC: What are some of the differences you discovered between the way football is played today and the way it was played in the '20's? Was that sort of research important to you?
JK: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It was huge. My character was based on a guy named Red Grange, who came out of Illinois. He was the first college player to join the pros. The story that the movie's based on is true. I'm not the direct character or anything, but [the professional league] brought the guy out from college. I remember thinking, in today's world, when someone gets drafted and there's this rookie that everyone wants to see, everyone goes out to see this guy play. Basically, once he got in the pros, [Grange] toured the country more like a rock band. He did five games in a week. And no matter what his injury status was, he'd still have to go out the next night. He was more like a circus act than the actual player of a game.
AVC: It's a little like when Pelé came to America with the New York Cosmos, or David Beckham now. Here was this sport that was virtually dead. Then you just need that one charismatic person to bring it to life.
JK: Totally. That's why they actually put him on trucks and drove him around the stadium, even though the game didn't start for a while, because there was a lot of pomp and circumstance.
AVC: Your character in Leatherheads is the hardest one to read. He's participating in this lie about his war heroism and cashing in on his image. But there's something sort of amiable and sympathetic about him anyway. What was your take on him, and how did you want audiences to perceive him?
JK: Initially, this character may have been seen as the bad guy, because he was completely abusing his status as a war hero and football star, and was selfishly indulging in his celebrity. Instead, what George and I decided to do was think about how it feels to be that young and in a pinch. And I think what it comes down to is, this kid definitely does not want to continue to lie. In fact, if he could just come out and give credit to everybody else, it would have been a lot easier for him. But once people tell you that it's good for the country, it's not your fault, "We're going to do this to make the army stronger," it's sort of that weird dilemma of believing the hype.
AVC: It's a lot like Flags Of Our Fathers.
JK: Exactly. That's very interesting. Embarrassingly, I remember not finding out the truth about that picture [of the flag-planting at Iwo Jima] until high school or something.
AVC: How do you feel [Leatherheads] is resonant today? Or is it more about capturing a bygone era?
JK: I think it captures the era well, but it's really just a fun movie. There isn't really a deep message. At the same time, I think it brings back an era of film where people went to the movies to transport themselves to another place. We really just had fun. It all goes back to when my dad used to recommend movies to me. Like now, I'd recommend Michael Clayton to my dad and say, "Oh, you should go see it. It's got an intricate storyline and it's really fun, but you got to stay awake and alert through the whole thing." And my dad, he used to recommend movies to me, "Did you see Butch Cassidy?" And I'm like, "No." "Oh, I remember…" and his head would tilt, and he'd look to the sky a bit. He'd just get all nostalgic. I think we sort of do miss that in movies nowadays. This very nostalgic Americana feeling of going to see a movie, and feeling good. So in the world where there's a lot of movies with social commentary and war and things like that, this is sort of an uplifting thing.
AVC: When you're acting alongside big personalities like George Clooney or Steve Carell or Robin Williams, what do you feel your role is? Are you comfortable yielding the floor to them?
JK: The truth is, especially with those three guys, there was no yielding the floor. The most amazing thing about all three of them is that they respected me on a level that I didn't expect. I think they totally respected what I could do, and let me have the moments that I needed to fill in the gaps within the movies or the TV show. And I think it's a really gutsy thing to do. It's really classy of all three of them. The thing I'd say most about it is, I've been very lucky to have my career doled out in very nicely placed increments. By that, I mean I did The Office and worked with Steve and everybody else on the show, and that was sort of a mind-blowing experience, and something I had to get used to. And if I didn't have that, I never would have been able to work with Robin Williams and stay sane. I just would have been totally freaked out. And working with Robin and being in my first big movie really prepared me to work with George. If I had missed one of the other steps, it probably would have been too overwhelming for me to deal with.
AVC: Do you feel that you're done being intimidated?
JK: Oh, I think I will forever be intimidated. That's part of the fun of this whole thing. I think those three people in particular, with George being on the top of my list, are just people who continue to impress me in every avenue. And I think that not only as a director, but as a person, he sets such a high standard that we all want to be like him in some sort of way.
AVC: Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a star of his caliber? Did you get an idea of what that was like when you were shooting this film?
JK: Yeah, absolutely. There's two things. For one, there's being recognized and having every single person in America know your name, and on top of that, love you. That's a really overwhelming presence. I was lucky enough that every time we went out, everyone thought I was his personal assistant or something. They totally let me off easy. The other thing is—this is what I did learn, a true lesson. One of the first things I took away from George is that he is so incredibly classy. I remember hearing all these amazing things about him, that he was such a great guy. And to be honest, I thought that was in some respects a veneer. I thought I was going to find some chink in the armor, but instead, it's incredible that someone of that caliber could be that incredibly classy and genuine and nice to people. When he greeted people out in the streets, it wasn't because he knew he had to because of his image, to show he's a nice guy. He genuinely wants to know what you're up to, and he's very interested. And something like that is a true gift or a miracle, to have someone that high up the ladder be genuine to every single person.
AVC: What's it like to schedule a movie shoot like this around the show?
JK: It's funny. I was working five days a week on the show, then two days a week on the weekends with George. I remember on paper, that seemed incredibly intimidating. And then I found once you do it, your body starts to change in a way that you couldn't have imagined before. You can dip into the fumes that you have left before exhaustion. It was extremely thrilling. It was the only way I could do it. I really thought it was going to be harder than it was. Going to do that movie and being part of something like that, and then having your "day job" [on The Office] to come back to is sort of amazing. It's sort of the best of both worlds. I think I just felt incredibly lucky. It's also hard to be impressive when you're on George's set. I remember when a crew member said, "Ah, man! That schedule must be brutal," and I said "No, it's just part of the job." And I really did believe that. And George leaned back in his director's chair and he said: "You're goddamned right, because we've all done it." Then I remembered he probably did that on Three Kings and a bunch of other movies he's been in.
AVC: But you had to fly from coast to coast, didn't you? [The film was photographed in the Carolinas.]
JK: I basically took the redeye Friday night, landed on Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m., and was on set shooting by 6:30.
AVC: Did the entire movie have to be scheduled around you, then?
JK: Well, yeah. That's the thing. George again exhibited how extremely generous he is, and how completely selfless he is. He scheduled the entire shoot to start on weekends. So he moved the entire schedule to shoot Wednesday to Sunday, instead of Monday through Friday, which affected a lot of people. And he did it for me, and that was extremely helpful, if not the reason why I got the part, because otherwise it wouldn't have worked out.
AVC: Do you generally have to wait for breaks in the schedule to be able to do movie roles?
AVC: Have you lost big movie roles because of the show?
JK: There are always roles that seem enticing that you can't do because of scheduling. But the truth is, The Office is the place where it all started, and without the show, of which I'm extremely proud, I wouldn't even be up for these roles. It's really hard to try to bite the hand that feeds, and say, "If I didn't have this show, I could have done this movie." Well, if you didn't have the show, no one would know your name.
AVC: So what did you do during the writer's strike? And what's your feeling about how it all got resolved?
JK: I think the most important thing is that the writers are happy, and I think that they did a really difficult thing, which was being the first to go. I felt pretty bad for them, because they were taking the heat for all the other guilds. SAG [the Screen Actors Guild] and the DGA [Directors Guild Of America] were inevitably going to have to go through the same tasks. And they were out there first, and I think they took a lot of heat. I think a lot of people fantasized about what writers think their importance is in Hollywood or something, and they didn't realize that we were all going through this thing. It wasn't just writers, it was all of Hollywood that really sort of needed to change its ideas. In that respect, I thought it was incredibly brave, and I'm glad that it resolved itself in the way that they wanted it to. For me, I'm not great with time off, so I was very lucky to have been editing the movie that I directed, which is an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
AVC: Have you ever thought about what The Office would be like if key cast members like Steve Carell or Jenna Fisher or Rainn Wilson left to do other things? Or is everyone just really committed to sticking around for a while?
JK: I think everybody's highly committed, and I think it starts with Steve. I never really thought about it in a real way. I don't think it's possible at this point. Not only contractually, but Steve sort of set the tone by having his career go to a whole new stratosphere very, very quickly. Even with his success in the movies, his enthusiasm and dedication to the show has never faltered. He was always constantly saying that this is the show that we'll be remembered for, no matter what we do, and he's very happy to never leave. It's difficult to imagine any of us leaving if he's not going to leave. I'm going to be there until the day they don't need me any more. Once again, this is where it started, and I would like to finish it however they'd like it.
AVC: It's also the rare show where many of the credited actors—BJ Novak, Mindy Kaling, Steve Carell, and Paul Lieberstein—contribute scripts as well. Do the other actors enjoy a high level of input, too?
JK: Absolutely. I think that input is very rare on any acting job. Whether it's a movie or a show or anything. And by input, I mean that we don't write lines or anything, but the writers consistently ask us what we think, or where we see plotlines going. And they even ask us if we think we can come up with something a little funnier, if we don't think it's that funny. Just the amount of trust that they share is incredibly generous. At the same time, I think we rarely capitalize on it in the grand scheme of things. What they write, to be perfectly honest, is nothing short of perfect.
AVC: Do you feel responsible to some degree for the continuity for your character? Have you been in situations where you say, "Well, I don't really think that it makes sense for Jim to act that way, or make that decision"?
JK: Yes. Sometimes I feel like we're the bumper in a bowling alley. The writers are so good at what they do that sometimes they will write something that you just need to stand up and say, "I don't know… this seems more like a fight than Pam and I joking around with each other." Something like that. They're immediately appreciative of that, because honestly, when you're writing so many episodes under such a time crunch, we're usually only an episode or two ahead. Under that type of pressure, it's tough to keep your head totally committed to all the avenues that are going on. It's really nice of them to keep us in mind.
AVC: How did the strike affect the show? The Office can do standalone episodes as well, but it also has plot developments. What happens when the strike blows a hole through the season? How do you recover from that and make a complete season out of it?
JK: I didn't know how they were going to do it. But I think they've done a great job of sort of picking up and creating these little mini-arcs, and just planting seeds. But yeah, the strike definitely devastated any chances of long lead arcs or very intricate arcs. I was really interested to see where it's going to go, but it didn't affect the tone of the show. Some of our funniest episodes are coming up now. And every episode relies at least a little on having some prior knowledge of the show. For instance, on our first episode back, Pam and I finally go to dinner with Michael and Jan, which has been in the works for a long, long time.
AVC: The British version of The Office emphasizes the whole bleak, soul-sucking nature of this kind of job, but the American version seems freer to be whimsical. Is there a lot of discussion about whether the show should be more realistic, or whether it's okay to move into wackier tangents?
JK: I think you have to go into wackier tangents to make it more palatable, in a way. The way the British Office got away with being so dark was that it only had 13 episodes. There are realistic elements that people obviously enjoy, but they don't necessarily want to relive the trials and tribulations of their average workday.
AVC: Do you ever worry that you stray too far from that? That you need something solid and relatable as well?
JK: Yeah, I think that's always the fear. But then again, we rely so heavily on the writers, and they do a great job of writing episodes that have really wacky stuff in them, but don't cross the line. As long as it's really funny and as long as it's not jumping the shark, or whatever that weird term is. I think we put all our trust in them.
AVC: So how was Jim Halpert's character conceived in relation to Martin Freeman's original character on the show? How has it evolved beyond him?
JK: [Freeman] put in a perfect performance, so there's no way he didn't influence me in a huge, huge way. I still, to this day, watch those old Office episodes, and am totally jealous of what he does. I think all I tried to do is bring my own thing to it. The parts were conceived exactly the same from the British version to the American, but knowing that we were going to go on a bit longer than they did, I just wanted to dole out those feelings of desperation and contempt, which could be punishing. All these things, I start to pull back a little bit. I might not be more likeable by any means, but a little more hopeful, maybe?