John Krasinski stars in Promised Land
Scott Green, Focus Features

Ask him what he thinks of Matt Damon, and John Krasinski, star of TV’s The Office, will virtually gush his praises. The duo co-wrote, co-produced and co-star in Promised Land, a Gus Van Sant-directed drama that uses fracking (a controversial method of natural gas extraction) to explore the deteriorating sense of community within America’s heartland. But despite their close collaboration on the film, the duo overlooked one thing: they failed to rehearse before stepping on set.

“We had never actually considered what it was going to be like to act together,” Krasinski says during a recent phone interview. “And I remember stepping on set being like, ‘Oh, my bad. I totally forgot. You’re Matt Damon the international superstar,’ and so I had no idea. We had never really thought about how we were going to play the parts because we just had been writing the whole time. So it was that really funny, ironic moment of ‘How are you going to play this?’ ‘Well, how are you going to play this?’ It was a fun moment and something I think I will always remember.”

Promised Land stars Damon as Steve Butler, an executive at Global Crosspower Solutions, a natural gas company interested in drilling in the small town of McKinley. Steve and his partner Sue Thomas (Frances McDormand) are used to going into small communities and buying up properties with no trouble. But not all the residents of McKinley are so easy to sway thanks to the efforts of a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an environmental activist (Krasinski) who question the safety of fracking, the controversial method by which Global would extract the natural gas from their land.

Krasinski came up with the film’s basic story while working on The Office which is currently filming its final season. He admits to “probably subconsciously” basing it on his father’s childhood growing up in Natrona Heights, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh.

“His dad had multiple jobs, and they didn’t have necessarily a whole lot growing up,” Krasinski says. “So, as an ignorant eight-year old, I was saying to him, ‘So does that mean your childhood was awful?’ And he said, ‘No, quite the opposite. We had an amazing upbringing that was very dedicated, and a tight-knit community. And there were family and friends and faith that tomorrow was going to be a better day.’

“And I just felt that pure ideal was something so powerful and something to strive for my whole life. And I felt like, in the country, we had moved so far away from that recently that I just wanted to tell a story about a community like that; that was being put through hard times and living and surviving through a very difficult decision, with the idea of natural gas serving as the perfect backdrop to exactly what I was trying to do.”

After reading a New York Times series called “Drilling Down” and watching a PBS piece called “Shaleionaires,” about landowners becoming overnight millionaires by letting gas companies drill on their property, Krasinski, who does not self-identify as an environmentalist, brought the idea to his friend Dave Eggers, author of the hit novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and co-writer on his 2009 film Away We Go. They hashed out the story, and Krasinski, knowing that Matt Damon was looking to make his directorial debut, presented the Bourne Identity star with the initial script. (Krasinski had met Damon through his wife, actress Emily Blunt, who had co-starred with Damon in 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau.)

Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the script at Damon’s Malibu home on weekends, but Damon, who would stay on to act in the film, eventually had to make the “really hard decision” to pass on directing when filming on the science fiction film Elysium went long and production on the HBO Liberace story Behind the Candelabra was moved up.

“Going right back into directing was taking you more away from your family than even an acting job would,” Krasinski says. “So he couldn’t do it from a family perspective at all. So for his directorial debut he didn’t want to hit a very small target window and be forced to be done completely in such a small amount of time. So I totally understood the decision.”

Instead, Damon decided to hand directing duties over to Gus Van Sant with whom he had worked on his breakthrough film, 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

“There’s a general respect for one another but also a love for one another,” Krasinski says of Damon’s relationship with Van Sant. “They care about each other a lot and love working together so it’s just less of someone taking the helm and sort of driving this whole thing from the beginning. It was a team effort with them, which is very calming because you always know that the best idea is going to win.”

While Krasinski has branched out into film in recent years, he is still best known for playing Jim on NBC’s The Office, a part he has played for nine seasons. With filming set to wrap this March, Krasinski, who remains open to other TV roles, admits that he is dreading that last day of filming.

“This is an era of my life that is monumental,” he says. “I basically got this show when I was 23 and I’m 33 now, so your twenties is a pretty major decade to spend on one thing. So to say I’m sad to leave is a complete understatement because what I am saying goodbye to is much more than a show or a family; it’s an identity I’ve had for the last decade in one of the most major times of my life. And I will never, ever, ever forget it, nor would I take away one moment of it.”