It’s a busy weekend; The Governors Awards, photo shoots, Variety sessions, and press for A Quiet Place. John Krasinski is up early sitting in the restaurant of the Montage Hotel. We joke about the occasional rumble of the industrial washing machine nearby as he tells me how Nick Drake’s Way To Blue album influenced him during his college days.
We talk about the best advice his mother gave him when he moved to New York to become an actor, “As your mom, the one thing you can’t ask me to do is ask my son to give up on his dreams.” Then the smash TV show The Office happened and the path of John’s fate changed forever.
You moved to New York to become an actor. Was there a movie that made you want to take that move?
It was actually an experience with the National Theater Institute in Waterford, Connecticut which was at the Eugene O’Neill Center. I went there truly out of laziness to transfer credits back to Brown University. It was one of the only programs that would transfer credits back to Brown. All my friends had left, I was mid-year, so I had half a year left and didn’t want to be on campus without my friends and chose a place that would transfer credits back but looked fun. That experience changed my entire life. I still wanted to be an English teacher going in. When I left, it wasn’t just how much fun I was having in the community, I really respected how much hard work it was. They really taught you how to work hard. So, it was that experience as we were driving out of the driveway that I told my mom that I was going to move to New York and become an actor.
Within half a second, she said, “Great. Go do it.” The only words she said to me was that if in two and a half or three years you don’t have something that makes it feel like it’s going to work out, you have to pull out. As your mom, the one thing you can’t ask me to do is ask my son to give up on his dreams.” I thought that was so philosophically huge, but it was also so supportive and it gave me this runway that no matter what, my mom wants me to give it shot. A real shot. Not the, ‘it’s been fifteen years and I’m still figuring it out.’ That was really amazing and that was the moment that I decided to do it.
That in tandem with Brown University. I went to school and yes, it was one of the best educations that you can get. For me, the real education was a group of friends that I found there. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be around smart people so I joined acting and had small small small parts just to be in with the theater community. I think I asked seven friends to give me a movie and an album that I should be listening to every week, and for four years. That was my education. So, when I moved to New York, it was a tandem commitment of I wanted to give it a shot, but I knew that I had been turned on in a way that I wasn’t expecting life to take me. And because of all those movies and because of all those albums and because I was taken to art museums by my friends, I was turned on in this way. I thought that I’m going to give it a shot at being an actor, but because I loved the art form of it, and the power to do some cool stuff.
What were some that stood out for you and ones that made a mark?
Nick Drake – Way to Blue – An Introduction to Nick Drake was a greatest hits album. My friend gave it to me to ease in rather than give me Pink Moon. Or Bryter Layter, that I actually remember sitting on my floor and just having that play. I remember sitting there for hours. I could feel my brain expanding. I didn’t do a whole lot of drugs, but I imagine that’s what it is. It’s when your brain takes over and you’re left out of the equation for a while and your brain goes up into space and comes back. That’s how it felt.
Movie-wise, I remember it was amazing. It was Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. It’s an interesting one because I told them to give me the movies they loved. They were so much more learned and experienced in film than I was. Then it turned into 400 Blows, but in the beginning, I was such a cineplex kid, that they eased me in from the cineplex to 400 Blows
It was great. It was Kicking and Screaming. I remember Safe Men. It was shot in Providence because John Hamburg had gone to Brown. Then it moved very quickly. There were a ton of different films. There was You Can Count on Me. I’d seen before, but watching again with this whole new idea of what I thought film was.
There was this whole ’70s kick that I hadn’t gone on before. That’s when I found my favorite movie of all time, The Verdict. I remember someone gave that to me. I was blown away by the strength and simplicity of that story. It’s so powerful. The battle for one man’s soul. Not to be overly dramatic, I hadn’t realized that movies could be that powerful. I’d only seen them as entertainment. That’s what the journey was.
Then The Office happened. Much loved here and of course in the UK. How did that happen?
I think I’d been fired from nine jobs at that time because every time you go on an audition, you say, “I’ll be back at 3 pm” and that’s not how that works. I had to leave all these jobs. There were some people who were very supportive and others were not very supportive of their staff leaving.
I’d done some commercials, but none were really hitting. I did call my mom. I did tell her I was out because it had been two and a half years. It was September and she told me to wait until the end of the year. Three weeks later I got The Office, but had she not told me that, I was going to get on a train to Boston that day. She totally is the reason why I have the career I do.
I was a huge fan of The Office. There was the white box-set and the black box-set. That one had everything behind the scenes and I was obsessed. This was long before I was going to do it. Then they said they were going to do a US version and I was terrified.
I got a call to come in as Dwight. I wasn’t working. Period. I was totally unemployed. They said to come in for Dwight. I remember saying, “No.” I have no idea where I got the backbone to say that I’d wait and that Jim is the character I should be playing if I play anything. It was two months when I didn’t hear anything from them. I’m sure they were pretty irked.
Sure enough, they hadn’t found a Jim so they brought me in. I went on tape. It was fun and scary, but also Allison Jones is the best casting director in the world. She was so free. It was almost as if they didn’t know what the character would become. Of course, they had touchstones from the original and there was a freedom to playing around. They wanted to see your personality come out.
The callback was crazy. It was on a bench with six other people that looked identical to me and we all were wearing the same thing. It was really weird. After six, everyone went to lunch. People came out of nowhere, assistants and you realize how big these TV offices are. I’m talking 50-80 people and I was left alone, totally scared. Then they all come back from lunch with their sandwiches. A guy sits across from me and asks if I was nervous. I replied, “No. You either get these things or you don’t. What I’m really nervous is that Americans always screw up British shows. And this show is perfect. I love this show so much and I just know they’re going to screw it up.” He said, “I’m Greg Daniels. I’m the executive producer of the show.” I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but I threw up in my mouth. I was so petrified and scared. He said he’d see me in a second. I actually went out in the hallway and tried to get out of it. I called my manager and told him I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I went in there and people were laughing at me. It did change the air in the room. I went in there in a very open and accepting room because I couldn’t do any worse than that.
The thing is you never know who you’re talking to. Never.
That’s the truth on sets too. You never know a PA is going on to direct some Indie film that gets nominated. You never know. You have to love the community and I always say to Emily, “I knew I was joining the circus when I decided to become an actor.” There’s such an honor to be a part of the community and to have this amorphous group of people. You never know who’s going to do what so you just love it for loving it.
If you plan ahead and strategize too much, you’re going to break what’s beautiful about it.
What did Drew and Brad say to you that made you say yes? Because you’re not a horror genre person.
No, I’m not. It was the spec script that made me sign on, but it was their pitch to me. They asked if I wanted to be an actor in this new movie. I immediately said no and that I didn’t do genre movies. I also said, “I don’t think they’re in my DNA and I’m too scared of them.”
They said it was a really good premise and it wasn’t going to be a slasher movie. They said, “It’s about a family that can’t speak and you have to figure out why.” I thought, “Dammit. It’s such a good one-liner. Okay, fine. I’ll read it.”
The idea was perfect. There was so much that I wanted to do with it immediately and it was because of my own personal experience. I had just had our second child. Emily had just had our second daughter and the baby was three-weeks-old when I got the script. Holding a three-week-old while trying to imagine what you’d do for your kids was an existential rehearsal. It was intense. I’d never had it before where I saw the entire movie in my head. Thirty minutes after reading it, I was pitching my ideas to Emily. I called Brad and Drew the next morning and pitched them the entire movie for an hour. I knew it was much more than a monster movie. The key to me was that I needed to tell a family drama and Trojan horse it as a genre film. It was all the elements of the family that I brought to it and trying to connect every single thing whether it was scary, sweet, or tense. It all had to come from the family. You can’t just have a shot of a scarecrow in the cornfield to be scary, it has to all come from the family and that’s what I did. I grounded it to that.
In re-writing the whole thing, I brought my own experience. I was living with a child where we were checking her breathing and making sure she was alive. Those terrifying first days of being a parent, and I’m sure anyone who has kids knows – those first days are really scary. I had so much to work with. It was one of those things that I think I’ve been looking for this movie for a really long time. It wasn’t so much a career shift for me, but I felt like there was something that I hadn’t said that I really wanted to say. I didn’t know what it was. I was unaware at the time, but since A Quiet Place came out, the relief that I feel, I felt that if they called tomorrow and said, “Hollywood has officially asked you to leave.” I would say OK because this is the story I’ve always wanted to tell. I got to say everything that I wanted to say and then direct it and shoot everything I’ve wanted to shoot.
I realized, with this whole process that I was writing a love letter to my kids. There was something about that vehicle that allowed me to say all the stuff I wanted to say to them.
There are so many scenes that are beautiful in that way, about sacrifice. One that comes to mind is when the basement is flooding and the monster is there. You see what she’s doing.
That scene to me. The metaphor becomes very clear. Do you risk everything, always for your kids? It’s very tense and it’s all those things. I love that it’s the first time that any of them have seen the monster. I wanted that to be the case. It’s the first time that any of them have seen the creature. When it takes the boy, it’s for a split second so no one has ever been face to face. It’s almost that researcher brain of the father who has always wanted to learn more about the creature, and here is the wife seeing one. It was so awesome. I told Emily, “The creature is trying to take in the entire environment. It’s not that they can swim. It’s that they’re always learning. He’s going to submerge under water.” I told her that when she goes to get the baby, the monster would have been under water for a minute and a half. Of course, he wasn’t there, right? So she goes, “I hate it. I hate it.” I love that the best compliment was from my wife. If she said that, I knew it was going to be good.
Another great moment is when you go to zero on the sound in the cornfield and it works so well. It would have gone tits up.
That was without a doubt the hardest scenes to do. Shooting it. I knew it was about strength and simplicity. It’s not a hard shot to get. Yet, you have to tell the story so specifically.
That was the first two weeks of sound design. That was the nut to crack. I said to them that once we cracked the moment, all the rules open up to us and if we can’t crack this moment then people will be confused and we’d lose everyone forever.
The movies I loved at Brown were taking full swing. I realized in the moment that I could take a big swing here and I didn’t realize how big of a swing I could take. I sat with the sound designers and asked if it was too much and if we were going too far. Are people going to be so freaked out? They said we had to go for it. That was it, we pushed and pushed and pushed. I love that what we did with the sound and her. One of my favorite things about that scene is that it connects them. It makes the creature and her the same. The creature represents her feeling like a back sheep. They are connected there knowing that later she will be the only thing that can defeat them.
It was so much fun to shoot. It was a trial and error thing about how far we could go.
If we screwed that up, that would have been a disaster.
How did Millicent help you in working with the sound?
It was non-negotiable that I hire a deaf actress.
She is amazing.
She is. She is amazing. I never worked with a deaf actress. I worked with one of the most talented actresses. She is an angel. Emily and I believe she is not from this earth. There is something about her that is so next level that you can see on camera. She’s not from here. There is something so special about her. Emily was saying the other night that it must be one of the things that come when you are depleted of one huge sense, that you become almost more ethereal. There’s something connecting you to a higher power because there’s something connecting you to much more faith-based.
I didn’t think it was non-negotiable because I wanted an organic performance from someone who was living through it, but I needed a guide through the whole movie. I remember saying to her, “I cast you for two reasons; you are the perfect person for this, but I also need you to give me all the input that you feel comfortable with. What is it like waking up every morning deaf? I know there is no alternative and I don’t want to sound ignorant, but what does it feel like to be the only deaf person in your family? What does it feel like to go to school? Do you ever feel frustrated? Do you ever feel empowered?
She was an oracle. She understood everything. She was willing to talk about everything. There isn’t a rehearsal when you do a movie with no dialogue. So you dive into really deep psychoanalysis. It’s very small, but in that first scene, you see she and her dad are almost the same person. They are best friends. The biggest loss, being the child, was their relationship. They’ll never be friends again because she knows he blames her and he’s desperately trying to not blame her, but he does.
That relationship would be impossible to get out of any actor, let alone a child. She, from take one, got it. I was explaining to her all the things that are going on in that bridge scene. I’ve pushed you away, you can’t come to the river and you’re a black sheep. She nodded. She was ready. We rolled and the first take is what’s in the movie. She came out like a lightning rod. She knew how to harness all that complexity and deliver it in a performance.
Noah is unbelievable. The two of them are unbelievable. That was one of the saddest things was when they wrapped, seeing two people who had never met be ripped away like siblings. They were crying so hard. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. That’s the beauty of our business and going back to that circus thing, you’re a member of the circus and when you get pulled away, it’s like, you’re watching two children who want to be siblings in real life.
How long did you have to shoot?
We had six weeks.
That’s not a long time.
It was intense. Every day was filled. There was something higher-power about it, meaning a universality. Everyone asks me how did I get in tune with the kids. I’ve been in movies where you’re meant to be in love with a person so you go on a date with them and one dinner and you’ll be in love. I thought no. Instead of taking the kids out and isolating the four of us as a family. I said, “Why don’t we take what we know, which is how to be a family.” I invited their entire family into our home with our family and we cooked for them. Seeing the dynamics of these kids with their own parents allowed me to be their dad. I got to see how they reacted. I got to see how brilliant these parents are. They were unbelievable. I wanted them to be my parents. Milli said she felt the same way. She said watching me with my daughter was how she learned to fall in love with me. She envisioned what it would be like to be loved like that and that’s how she connected.
What was it like directing a big studio film?
I was terrified. From jump, I had a great time writing the script. When we went into pre-production. I was really inspired and lit up like I’ve never been lit up in my career mixed with a dose of terrified because I had never done this before. It’s funny, my wife says, “I think you work better in those situations. I think you bring something that you wouldn’t have brought if it was easy.” I thought that was really interesting.
I had never been in a lot of visual effects films. I’d never done any of that. All this fear was harnessed into there was no turning back. The best thing I’d learned from all of my favorite directors was collaboration is king. So, ILM came to have a general conversation. Scott Ferarri came and stayed on for the whole movie. He said, “I’m going to stay on for this whole movie because there’s something about John and there’s something about how he’s going about it that’s actually a purity and I’m so glad he doesn’t know anything because he’s just bringing his heart which is what we ask every director to bring.” I was blown away.
This visual effects thing was instead of saying, “you see it here,” Scott was in my trailer and asked how it walked. We nerded out about the evolution of this. We wanted this creature to run through an evolutionary model and be real. So, if he’s on a planet with no humans, he grows to be this meteoric killing machine and that’s why he doesn’t need eyes. Scott told me to get on the floor and show me how he walks. So, I did that. That led to Scott telling me to be the creature. Every level of this movie where I was scared, not to be corny, but the movie at the end of our movie is – sometimes your biggest weakness ends up being your biggest superpower.
Everything I was scared of, I just leaned into. All of a sudden one of my favorite things is my visual effects experience with them. I feel like I love visual effects more than most people who do visual effects movies.
Okay, let’s have fun and play word association.
Hilarious. I laughed so hard on that movie and Alec Baldwin became one of my close friends because of that movie.
Hollywood. That was one of the first times I’d ever been on set that big. I showed up to this big house in Pasadena and thought, “You guys do this?” It was so big and crazy. Nancy is so talented. It felt like Hollywood to me.
Family. That is and forever will be. I know at the end of my career, that will be the thing I’m most known for and I couldn’t be more proud.