Following up his first directorial outing, the 2009 David Foster Wallace adaptation Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, John Krasinski tries his hand at small-town family drama with The Hollars. The Office star also stars in the movie, playing John Hollar, a New York writer who returns to his hometown when his pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) relays to him that his mother (Margo Martindale) has developed a brain tumor.
Upon arrival, John finds his brother (Sharlto Copley) and father (Richard Jenkins) wrestling with their own internal catastrophes as they gather around their fading matriarch, and amid the high anxiety, he begins to realize that he’s not exactly the picture of composure he likes to think he is. Sincere, funny, and unpretentious, The Hollars is a finely-tuned ensemble dramedy that explores the true meaning of family.
During their stop in San Francisco for the film’s press tour, I spoke with John Krasinski and Margo Martindale about Jim Strouse’s terrific script, their respective approaches to acting, the art of living in a scene, and more
John, I connected with your character because I’ve got a baby on the way myself. You’ve mentioned before how one of the movie’s strengths is that, no matter what kind of family you come from, you’ll find a way to connect with this movie in your own way.
John: I come from a very loving, tight-knit, communicative family. I’m in the very rare minority according to Margo. I had no intention of telling a family story. There are so many family stories out there. I read the script, and when I got to the end, even though it’s about a dysfunctional family, I still said, “Oh my god, that’s my family.” I thought, that’s the key to this movie.
At some point, the characters stop being characters and start being projections of your own family. Whether you love your family, don’t get along with them, talk to them every day or don’t, you’ll see yourself in there. I think that these open channels of love and communication are always potentially there, and I think that you’re watching a family take the opportunity to open those channels back up. That’s a pretty beautiful thing.
What attracted you to the movie, Margo?
Margo: The script is incredible. John asked me to do it. I trust him. Now, Bernard, tell me something. You saw your family in the movie because you’re having a child?
John: That’s amazing. There was actually a couple in Chicago who said, “Thanks for making a movie for us. We’re having a child, though I don’t think I can forgive you for making my wife cry this late in our pregnancy.” It’s funny you mention that you’re about to have a baby because my daughter was four-and-a-half months old when we shot this, but I signed onto the movie six years ago as an actor. My understanding of this movie changed so dramatically. It was the idea of understanding a guy who’s on the doorstep of being a father, but the bigger thing is the existential conversations you have where all of a sudden you understand what your parents went through and you understand what it means to have a family name.
I had never really thought about lineage before. You see pictures of your grandparents and you hear stories about how it used to be, but you don’t understand what it means to be from a group of people. It’s such a beautiful idea.
As actors, you both have a warmth to your performances that makes you feel particularly relatable. I feel like I’ve known you both forever, despite meeting you now for the first time.
Margo: I try to be true to the script and honest to myself. You can only be who you are. You can characterize from there, but you can only be who you are. You can’t change who you are.
John: When you get to work with people like Margo, you try to do what she’s doing. I remember a long time ago, a theater professor said that the definition of acting is “living believably under an imaginary set of circumstances.” Living, not acting. You have to live. You are that guy. It becomes about, here are your circumstances, live through them honestly, and we will believe you as an actor. You do that rather than pushing the script out to make the joke work or get people to cry by crying yourself. That’s not acting.
Acting is what [Margo] does. I watched her sitting in a hospital bed, giving one of the most honest performances I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t acting in those scenes. There was nothing I could act to; there were only things I could react to. That was the beauty of it. She made me such a better actor just by doing what she did, because it elicited this huge response in me.
Margo: That’s so sweet, but I feel the same way about John and everybody else in this movie.
The movie feels incredibly sincere. A lot of family dramas seem to have too strong a dramatic agenda. They try too hard to make you cry or laugh or gasp. All of these characters’ motivations and behaviors make sense, even when they’re acting a little wild or silly. John, as a director, did you have to keep your eye on that sort of emotional logic? Even one moment that doesn’t feel sincere would stick out like a sore thumb.
John: To me, the script was totally different. There are funny and quirky characteristics to the characters and the world, but there are quirks to the real people around you. For me, I believed that these people were real and they were representing my family, their family, every family. As a director, my goal was to maintain that feeling of being genuine in the script. I had to choose a place that felt like your hometown.
If you lived in Detroit or Jackson, Mississippi, it’s going to be different, but you can capture the essence. I needed it to feel like your hometown, or I failed. I needed it to feel like your family, or I failed. I needed it to feel like your diner that you used to go to with your family. That sort of nostalgic feeling is so powerful.
Margo: He put a lot of thought into that, didn’t he? A lot of thought about what he wanted to portray. John is incredibly talented as a director. He’s okay as an actor, too. [laughs]
What is your character’s greatest fear?
John: Being a failure. The beauty of it is, only in shooting the movie did I get to see how much my fears were based on the family around me. I say to Anna Kendrick in the movie, “The idea of having twins scares me because it’s one more person I’ll be failing.” He’s someone who’s not happy in who he is. He’s not even sure he’s fully committed to his partner.
It didn’t hit me until I was doing the scene with Richard Jenkins where he says, “I tried. You gotta know I tried.” I realized that his biggest fear is that he’s a failure to his kids. I thought that was so fascinating. When you’re in a family, like it or not, they’re your family. They’ve got their claws in you, and they’re going to pull you toward them in a good way or a bad way for the rest of your life. There’s something very powerful about that.
Margo: I think my character’s greatest fear is, if she were to die, that her family would not continue forward. She hopes she’s done everything to help them do that.
John: Someone said in an interview before that illness is like alcohol, an accelerant to your feelings. I think Margo’s character sees that this illness has brought her family together and opened them up in a real way. She’s going to take that opportunity to clean house.