“I want to play something a little more real and gritty,” says… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
John Krasinski is over being the nice guy.
For the last seven years, he's played one on the television sitcom "The Office" as Jim Halpert — a goofy, mild-mannered romantic who is smitten with his coworker. On the big screen, he's also been the guy next door: the supportive husband to a pregnant wife in "Away We Go"; the supportive fiance whose lover is struggling to accept her parents' divorce in "It's Complicated"; the supportive friend who listens to his crush swoon over another man in "Something Borrowed."
He's ready to try something else. A few years ago, Krasinski saw Tom Hanks on "Inside the Actor's Studio" talking about a pivotal point in his career — when the veteran actor decided to take a part as the surly, alcoholic manager of a women's baseball team in "A League of Their Own."
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"What Tom said was that he took the role because he wanted to play a guy with conflict," Krasinski recalled. "He called his agent and said, 'I don't want to play pansies anymore.' That's exactly what I'm headed toward … I want to play something a little more real and gritty."
With the ninth and final season of "The Office" set to wrap production in March, Krasinski is moving into slightly darker territory with "Promised Land," an environmental drama he cowrote with Matt Damon. In the film, which expands to theaters nationwide on Friday, Krasinski plays an activist trying to stop Damon's energy company executive from persuading a small town to allow fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, to extract underground natural gas.
Krasinski's role is hardly pitch-black — his character endears himself to everyone in the movie's fictional town, throwing back beers with farmers at the local bar and jumping onstage during karaoke night. But as the film winds down, audiences get a glimpse at his more menacing side.
"This is the time for me to step out and show that I don't just want to play the nice guy roles, and I think I'll find out what my limits are," Krasinski, 33, said over lunch shortly before Christmas. "I don't want to do 'Half Nelson' tomorrow," he added, referring to the 2006 film starring Ryan Gosling as a schoolteacher with a drug addiction. "But I do want to push the limits, and this was pushing the edge just a little bit."
Playing raw and edgy, though, would require Krasinski to stifle the natural affability and aw-shucks humility he has lent to so many of his characters. When a server presented him with a bowl of minestrone, he grinned and said, "That looks a-may-zing!" — as if he were receiving a plate of filet mignon topped with a lobster.
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"He's such a solid human, and he has no problem just proclaiming his feelings," said Maya Rudolph, the actor's costar in 2009's "Away We Go. "He'll just say, 'I love you! You're so great! You're so special!' He's a very genuine person."
But to say Krasinski is just a guy-next-door is an insult to his intelligence, said Damon, who met him three years ago while filming "The Adjustment Bureau" with Krasinski's wife, actress Emily Blunt.
"When I got to know him," Damon said, "I felt like he was like a young George Clooney, in that the scope and breadth of his talent was a lot greater than I understood from the work I'd seen him do."
"Promised Land" grew out of Krasinski's interest in writing a movie about American identity. At first, the story had nothing to do with natural gas. The actor's father was raised in a steel-mill town on the southern side of Pittsburgh, and his grandfather worked three jobs. Krasinski, who grew up in an affluent suburb outside Boston, often listened to his father's tales about coming of age in a tight-knit, blue-collar community and longed for that sense of local pride.
The actor brought that kernel to Dave Eggers, the novelist and screenwriter who had penned "Away We Go." After fleshing out the idea, the pair took an outline to Damon, who signed on to direct. Scheduling conflicts later prevented Damon from helming the movie, and his "Good Will Hunting" director, Gus Van Sant, stepped in instead.
Though Krasinski is eager to move on to new challenges, leaving "The Office" behind won't be easy. When he was cast on the show, he was in his early 20s, a recent Hollywood transplant who felt he was squandering his Brown University education while waiting tables. He'd decided — per the advice of his mother — to give acting a shot for two years, and he was just reaching the end of that time frame when he landed the NBC show.