As Jim Halpert on the NBC comedy The Office, Krasinski has become synonymous with the word affable. But his easygoing charm might not seem the perfect match for director Mendes, whose films are known for scratching at the dark underbelly of the seemingly mundane. And though she proved her comedic chops in seven and a half seasons on Saturday Night Live, Rudolph probably wouldn't be the first actor to spring to mind as Krasinski's foil, considering that the leading ladies in Mendes' films tend to be repressed, tortured souls.
And yet their new film, Away We Go, works because it subverts so many expectations. A romantic comedy in which the couple's outcome is never in question, a road movie in search of a destination, the film was scripted by Dave Eggers, founder of the hipster publishing house McSweeney's, and his wife, Vendela Vida, author of the New York Times Notable Book of the Year And Now You Can Go. The film is the story of Burt and Verona, a longtime couple who, upon learning they are about to become parents, set out to find the perfect city to call home. Along the way, they encounter an odd series of friends and relatives—played by Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Melanie Lynskey, among others. It's a smaller, more-lighthearted film from Mendes, known for such period dramas as Road to Perdition and Jarhead. And it shows a more adult side of Rudolph—in perhaps her largest film role to date, as Verona—and Krasinski, who dons glasses and a bushy beard but maintains the genial nature he's known for as Burt.
Back Stage: Obviously this film hinges on the chemistry between the leads. How did you go about casting John and Maya?
Sam Mendes: I worked with this one, Krasinski, on Jarhead.
John Krasinski: Best seven seconds of my life.
Mendes: He was great. I remember asking him, "What are you doing next?" He said, "I'm doing the U.S. series of The Office." And I said, "That's a terrible idea. It will never work. Can you get out of it?" I was proven entirely wrong. And I watched him graduate through the ranks and start doing movies, and it got to the point where I said, "Wow, he's a leading actor now." And when I read the script, he just came into my mind and I could hear him speaking it. So I rang him up and said, "I'd like you to read this. I think you'd be great for the lead." And he thought I was George Clooney playing a trick on him.
Krasinski: I did.
Mendes: Dave and Vendela actually were the ones who said, "Why don't you get Maya Rudolph?" They had her in mind as they were writing it. I said, "I love her; she's great, but I haven't seen her do this sort of thing so I need to meet her." So she came in and read, and it was pretty much a done deal. Even though she said some crazy shit as she left the room.
Maya Rudolph: Didn't I say something really stupid, like I shouted, "I love this movie so much! Yeah. And, um, uh, even if I'm not in it…it's really good!"
Mendes: It was incredibly sweet, actually.
Rudolph: I can't believe I got this job after half the shit I said. And I don't remember any of it; I must have been so nervous that I blocked it all out.
Mendes: Maya kept asking all during filming, "Are you sure you want to cast me?"
Rudolph: Three weeks after we wrapped, I still kept saying, "Are you sure? It's not too late. There's this thing called CGI. You can get Jada Pinkett Smith."
Road to Fruition
Back Stage: John, did you ever think a brief scene in Jarhead would open the door to the lead in a Sam Mendes film?
Krasinski: When Revolutionary Road was casting, I thought, "Wow, I'd really like to be in that movie." And I emailed Sam, asking to audition for the role of the neighbor that eventually went to David Harbour. He said, "Yeah, you're just too young for the role." I said, "Okay, but if you're going to tell me that, you're going to have to tell me that to my face. I'm shooting Leatherheads in North Carolina. I'm going to fly up to New York and we'll have lunch." This is how desperately I wanted to work with him. Sure enough, I flew up, and he had lunch with me and took his time to have a completely pointless audition, and he said, "That was really good. You are still too young." But we had a nice lunch and a laugh, and I left.
Mendes: But you know what's interesting is, if you hadn't done that audition, I'm not sure I would have thought of you straightaway for Burt. I had only seen you in one mode before that, and you came in and gave this great reading of a difficult, dramatic scene. And it was wonderful. This is proof that it's always worth trying.
Back Stage: Are you generally good at auditioning?
Rudolph: I think of auditions as tests, and I'm a terrible test-taker. But reading with John was one of those things where you say, "This is fun!" And that rarely happens.
Krasinski: I had a weird moment in my life where it all changed for me. It sounds bizarre, but I was watching Inside the Actors Studio and Ed Harris was on. Somebody asked if he liked auditioning, and he said, "Yeah, I love it. But you're talking to someone who's had plenty of jobs and is financially stable, and if you'd asked me if I liked it when I was back in New York auditioning for the first time, I'd say no. But I realized two things: The moment I brought desperation to a role or said if I get this part I'll be able to pay my rent or move out of this place or I'll be famous, I'd already lost the role." The other thing he said was, "When you're trying to be an actor, the last thing you ever get to do is act. So when you're in the audition room, I just thought about it as doing a three-minute play. It was the only time I got to do what I really loved because the rest of the time I was waiting tables and bartending." I swear to God, something clicked over, and the next day I went into an audition and instead of being, "Thanks so much for having me, this is so great, how are you?" I went in and didn't say anything and just did it and had fun. And I booked my first pilot that day.
Life Is a Cabaret
Back Stage: Sam, as a director, is there anything you'd want an actor coming in to audition for you to know?
Mendes: Don't overcomplicate things. And I mean that on every level: Don't complicate it in your head or in your behavior. It's tough for a lot of actors to hear, but so many times someone comes through the door and you know straightaway whether they're right for that specific role. In movies, it's much less easy to cast wildly against type. I take more risks in my theater casting, always. There's much more looseness and poetry in theater, and it can accommodate pushing people into things. Film is very specific. You want someone of a certain height and build and age, and if someone comes in who's not quite right, you know. Oftentimes you want to say, "Stop, you're a fantastic actor, you'll have a great career, but you're not right for this part." Occasionally I do say that, and it's difficult because they always ask the obvious question, which is, "Why not?" And you have to explain it, and they say, "Well, I can do that."
Krasinski: Which is when you fly to New York.
Mendes: Yes, sometimes they insist on having lunch with you.
Back Stage: John and Maya have such great chemistry, you really believe this is a couple that have known each other for years. Had you met before making the movie?
Krasinski: I had known Maya a little bit. I think I reached stalker status at Saturday Night Live because I was over at that show backstage way too much.
Back Stage: You'd just hang out backstage?
Krasinski: Yep. I would go hang out backstage because I love the show, and I found a door that never locked. After we were cast, we had this amazing, extensive rehearsal process, which was fantastic because we pretty much got to go thought the script line by line and ask Dave and Vendela what they meant. During that period, we'd go out to drinks and dinner, and to be honest, I think Maya might be one of the most beautiful people I've ever met in my life, and when you meet someone like that, you hope they're with you till your dying day. So we had a great friendship right off the bat, and the thing that really fortified it was on day two when you're shooting a sex scene and Sam says, "Get under the covers."
Rudolph: You get to know somebody pretty quickly when the only thing between you and them is four pairs of bike shorts.
Krasinski: [Imitating Mendes] "Get under the covers. We'll get the cameras tomorrow. This one is just for me." Sharing that awkward moment where I literally went, "I'm sorry," and got under the covers for eight hours…. Well, you come out of that with great chemistry.
Back Stage: You also have great chemistry with a wide variety of actors who come in for a couple of scenes to play your friends and family.
Krasinski: I feel like our characters were somewhat like narrators: We'll bring you into the scene and we'll bring you out, but while we're in the scene, it belongs to the new couple that we're meeting. And, my God, everyone hit it out of the park. It was insane. Maya and I were like, "Whoa, you're here for a week, and you're doing this good? You gotta settle down so we look better!"
Back Stage: You've both done your share of supporting roles. Do you find it harder to do the smaller parts and create a full character versus being the lead in a film?
Krasinski and Rudolph: [In unison] Absolutely!
Krasinski: The hardest part I think I've ever played in my life is when Tom Cavanaugh gave me one line on Ed. I'd never done anything; I was a waiter. I played a process server, and I was supposed to say, "Ed Stevens? You've been served." And I was sitting in my tiny six-banger, basically a closet, saying over and over again, "Ed Stevens, you've been served! You've been served? You. Have. Been. Served." And sure enough on set, it was the worst. I think I ended up just screaming, "You've been served!"
Rudolph: It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. The first movie I ever did was Gattaca, and I was a nurse that delivered Ethan Hawke. You don't know it because I'm wearing a mask. So with any baby scene, you have two different babies, and they covered them with cream cheese and strawberry jelly so they're slippery. I'm a child, I don't know whose babies these are, I have a mask on, and the line is, "The name? Of the baby?" That was it.
Mendes: That's actually two lines.
Rudolph: True. But it felt like that scene in the movie within the movie in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, where Pee-Wee gets the one line, "Paging Mr. Herman." It's one of the worst experiences because you can't rev up, you can't get into it, and you don't know the temperature or camaraderie in the room.
Krasinski: Not to mention they've usually covered the entire scene, and just before wrap they'll say, "Oh, let's bring in the process server for the close-up. You. Go."
Back Stage: Is there anything you can do to make people more comfortable?
Krasinski: I hazed Idris Elba on The Office. Full on. I had never hazed anyone before, but I was so physically and emotionally intimidated by him because he is a large, very handsome, very talented man. I could tell he was a little nervous, so I said things like, "Be careful. They can recast three days in a shoot. And by the way, you sounded really British on that last take." I got him so fired up, we actually ended up laughing a lot more than if he had just come in and done the part. Which was a completely terrible and unprofessional thing to do.
Mendes: You do everything you can do. John was pretty much a day player on Jarhead, but I hope he felt like part of the company. Sometimes you fail or you're not in the mood to do it, because you just want people to turn up, hit their marks, and say a line. You just don't have time to make nice; you have a half hour to go, and the light's going. But most of the time you want to make them feel at ease, because the last thing you want is someone feeling self-conscious—because the camera will spot it.
Back Stage: Have you ever regretted a casting decision?
Mendes: Not on film, strangely enough. I've made mistakes to do with the characters, choices within scenes. And I'll see the movie and realize what I should have done. In Road to Perdition, I do wish I'd made the two brothers into twins. That would have been amazing and made more sense. But I realized it about two years after I finished it.
Sam He Am
Back Stage: As an actor, what do you hope for from a director?
Krasinski: One of the first questions I was asked when I got the part was, "Sam Mendes does comedy?" And I thought to myself, Not to be mean, but what an ignorant question. My response was literally, "Yeah. It's Sam Mendes, all right? He can pretty much do anything, so let's just sit back and wait." You can be on a great TV show, but when you're asked to do something like this, you celebrate for about a day and then you worry about it for three months. I was terrified; this was it, I was called up to the big leagues. But when we got to the rehearsal process, Sam immediately set the tone. He would say, "Let's read the scene. What do you think? How do you feel?" It was about getting everyone on the same page rather than saying, "This is how I feel, what could you possibly add to it?" which is 90 percent of direction a lot of the time. But this was a collaborative effort. He's so confident, and that is a gift from God. It's so encouraging, and it builds such a trust. It makes you want to run 150 miles an hour in any direction he sends you.
Rudolph: I didn't have any expectations on this movie other than this is going to be fucking awesome, and whatever way Sam works, I am totally interested and ready and want to do it. It was such a collaborative process; we spent so much time together talking about this script that we all genuinely loved and thought was written so beautifully. We went over it and over it, and once we felt we really knew the characters, it just became ours. It was really the three of us on the Burt-and-Verona journey, and it made me feel so comfortable, and I never really questioned it.
Mendes: I think so much of directing actors is about giving them the feeling, if not the reality, that they own the characters, that they're their own authors, in a way. We got to that state where they really did know the characters better than any of us. We ended up taking a couple of scenes and saying, "Now that you've played these characters for a month, does it still feel right to say these lines? Or would they talk differently? So let's rewrite the scene." It's obviously all down to Dave and Vendela for creating them in the first place, but these guys took it to another level. When they saw the movie for the first time, Dave and Vendela said, "They're so much richer and fuller than the people we thought we created." That's a testament to these guys, really.
Back Stage: When you were struggling to break in as actors, did you ever consider doing something else? And what kept you going?
Rudolph: I always wanted to make clothes, but I can't sew. I don't know what I was thinking—I only wanted to be an actress and work on Saturday Night Live. I really should have had a backup plan, just in case. But I got lucky.
Krasinski: There were plenty of times I wasn't sure this would work out. It sounds so cliché, but a positive attitude towards it and learning to have fun with it made a huge difference. I tried to see plays and live music every night and stay busy and stay inspired so I didn't have time to worry about things like, Is this the right headshot? Do I glue my résumé to it or do I staple it? Things like that. You just stay really excited so when you are asked to be the process server on Ed, it's a big deal and you feel that excitement. Rather than, "Well, the process server on Ed isn't a very good part." Then you're screwed. It's like Ed Harris said, if you start calculating and at any point you say, "This part gets me X" rather than, "Oh my God, I got a part," you're in trouble.
Back Stage: How do you maintain that enthusiasm?
Krasinski: I still have to manage my enthusiasm. It's pretty great when you're on the coolest show ever and you get asked to do amazing projects like this. We got to set every day, and it was like summer camp.
Rudolph: He'd have me hit him in the face a lot to keep him grounded.