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'King of Highlife Anthology' Finally Does Justice To African Bandleader Mensah

E. T. Mensah, who died 20 years ago, played highlife, an offshoot of jazz that for years was the most popular style of music in southern Africa. Milo Miles reviews a new anthology of Mensah's music.



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Other segments from the episode on August 24, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 24, 2016: Interview with John Krasinsky; Review of CD by E.T. Mensah



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. If you were a fan of the NBC series "The Office," you probably couldn't help but like the character Jim Halpert. John Krasinski, who played Halpert, is our guest today. And he's been busy both while he was doing "The Office" and since it ended three years ago. He's appeared in the films "Leatherheads," "Away We Go," "It's Complicated," "13 Hours" and "Promised Land," which he co-starred in and co-wrote with Matt Damon. Now Krasinski has directed a new film, "The Hollars," written by Jim Strouse, which Krasinski co-stars in along with Margo Martindale and Richard Jenkins. It's about an ordinary dysfunctional family in crisis. The mom, Sally, played by Martindale, has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and John Krasinski's character has just learned that besides his mother's illness, his parents' heating and plumbing business is on the verge of bankruptcy. In this scene from "The Hollars," John is visiting his mom in the hospital. His dad has just left the room.


JOHN KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) How you doing?

MARGO MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) He cried all night. If I didn't know any better, I'd think he was the one with the brain tumor.

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) He might be going through a little something, so...

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) Ron told you we're about to go bankrupt.

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) Come on, he said no one knew.

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) I keep the books.

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) Is he going to be all right?

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) I don't know. I don't know.

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) Well, I brought breakfast.

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) Pretzels and ice cream?

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) If you don't want it, I can just...

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) ...No, no, no, no, no. I'm not saying that.

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) So how you doing?

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) I feel great.

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) You know, I've been googling brain tumors. A lot more common than you think.

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) Yeah?

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) Yeah. Did you know Bob Marley had one?

MARTINDALE: (As Sally Hollar) How'd that work out for him?

KRASINSKI: (As John Hollar) Well, he sold a lot of records, so you've got a little catching up to do.

DAVIES: And welcome to FRESH AIR, John Krasinski. Fun to hear that clip.

KRASINSKI: Thank you very much for having me.

DAVIES: Now, you weren't originally going to be the director, right? You were going to act in it. How did you end up directing the film?

KRASINSKI: It's funny. So I guess three or four years after I had signed on to be an actor, the financier called - at the time, the financier called and said, I can't get this movie made. Would you ever want to buy the script from me outright and make it on your own? And I will say I - though it was a weird financial commitment I had never thought of, I still jumped at the chance immediately because the script was so good. So I took the - I took the script. I bought it myself. And we were making the movie, I think, within four months, a lot of that having to do with the amazing cast. So yeah, when I took it on, I felt I had to get it made soon because it just felt - I just couldn't get it out of my head.

DAVIES: This is a terrific cast. And at the heart of it is Margo Martindale, who's an actress that I'm sure everybody in the audience has seen. Not everyone may know her name, but she's the one we heard there talking about, you know, Bob Marley and the brain tumor. Did you have her in mind from the beginning?

KRASINSKI: I only had her in mind. I will be honest and say that had she not signed on to play the lead in the movie, I don't know that I would've agreed to direct the film because she, I think, is truly one of the greatest actors we have. She's so unbelievable in everything she does. And she's the - this part is the centerpiece of the movie, and Margo's the centerpiece of the cast. And so as soon as she signed on, I knew we had something special.

DAVIES: Why was she the right fit?

KRASINSKI: Well, I just feel that very few people are able to communicate, I don't know, a sense of reality, a sense of - it's almost like she's not acting. Certainly in this movie, she's just living through this experience that I think a lot of families have experienced, to have a parent be ill. She brings such humanity and grace to the situation that you feel that you're not watching a movie. At least, I sometimes feel like I'm not watching a movie. It almost becomes like you're watching a home movie. And that's a very rare thing to be able to communicate, that she feels like your mom. Weirdly, my first job ever as an actor was with Margo Martindale. I was an extra on a Marshall's commercial.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

KRASINSKI: And I got bumped up to feature player, which means you get to interact with the lead actress, and the lead actress was Margo Martindale. Seventeen years ago.

DAVIES: Do you remember the lines?

KRASINSKI: I didn't have lines. I was just - I think I was just the guy helping her pick out some very reasonably priced handbags.

DAVIES: Richard Jenkins plays your dad, her husband. He's another terrific actor. I mean, did signing Margo Martindale make it easier to assemble the others?

KRASINSKI: Absolutely, it made it - everything. Once you get someone as good as Margo Martindale, it's very funny to see how quickly other cast members sign on. But Richard Jenkins in particular - this is not a joke - he actually wrote me an email saying, love the script. If you get Margo, I'll do it. And I wrote back, ha-ha-ha. And he wrote back, oh, I'm not kidding. So I got Richard Jenkins. So as soon as Margo signed on Richard came with her, which is pretty phenomenal.

DAVIES: Your character is somebody with - you know, at a moment in his life where he has a lot of self-doubt. He's an aspiring graphic novelist living in New York. And there was a time when you were an aspiring actor living in New York. I wonder if you particularly connected to that vulnerable time in your life.

KRASINSKI: One hundred percent I did. And believe it or not, there's actually a scene - I rewrote a couple little things with Jim's blessing, for sure. And one of the things I rewrote was this speech that Margo gives where she says that before they were married, they lived in Detroit and she used to go to the Fox Theatre and look up at the chandelier. And I wrote that directly from a conversation that I had with my dad. So my brother is an orthopedic surgeon. My other brother is very successful in business.

And I think there was a part of me when I was waiting tables in New York that felt like I was a little bit of the black sheep, that I had chosen to do a career after having a great education. And sort of in my head, I thought I had sort of thrown it all away by trying to be an actor. And my dad's response was a story that he had had that really connected me, which was that he was in - at Catholic University. He played basketball, and every night after practice he would go to the Library of Congress, and just for 20 minutes before he studied he'd just look up at the ceiling.

And I knew what he was communicating to me was this idea of you being an artist is so exciting to me because of the small connection I had to art. And that drive to love art is - was in him, too. And it was just one of the most beautiful moments of my growing up, for sure, but that was the moment that I really felt more confident going forward as an actor.

DAVIES: This is not your first time directing. You directed a film based on a David Foster Wallace set of short stories. You're here directing some really veteran actors, Richard Jenkins and Margo Martindale. And I'm wondering kind of what your style as a director is and whether it's - I don't know, is it different with younger actors than veterans like them?

KRASINSKI: Absolutely. I mean, everybody in this cast was so good. I remember actually asking Matt Damon about his experience with Clint Eastwood, and he told me this story about how it was so terrifying working with Clint Eastwood 'cause he only did one or two takes. And one day, Matt said, could I ever do another one? And Clint said, yeah, any time you want to do another take you can. But, you know, I'm fine because I hired you to be the actor I knew you could be. And I thought that was really interesting.

And certainly on this film that applied here, which is I hired these people that I knew would absolutely shine in these roles, and they certainly did. So it was more - it was less about trying to get them to achieve a performance and much more about trying to create an environment where they could feel safe and empowered to do that performance.

And so weirdly, it was extremely helpful to be an actor-director in this particular movie because I think the key to the movie is to have that family feel organic and genuine and real. And in order to do that, in my head I was thinking if I kept yelling cut and running behind a screen, that would sort of break the - it would sort of break up the vibes. It's like if I yelled cut right now and walked out for five minutes and came back, this interview would be a little weird (laughter).

So I - so what was great was I just kept the camera rolling, and we had very quiet and gentle conversations about how we felt about each take. And the thing about great actors is they know way quicker than you can as a director what they did wrong and what they want to try again. So, you know, two or three takes into it we had covered all ground up, right, left and center, so it was - it was one of those things where I just got to watch. I was the - I was in the front row - audience member - just watching these unbelievable performances. So it really started to feel almost more like a play.

We didn't really go back and forth from the - I didn't go back and forth behind the camera. I sort of directed in the scene, so we had this very protected bubble of security, and it felt more like a play, or Margo says it was like shooting a home video (laughter).

DAVIES: John Krasinski wrote and stars in the new film "The Hollars." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor John Krasinski. He directed and stars in the new film "The Hollars."

You grew up in Newton, Mass., right? Your dad was a doctor, your mom - a nurse, two brothers.

KRASINSKI: That's right.

DAVIES: What was your childhood like? What kind of kid were you?

KRASINSKI: Oh, I had that very fortunate childhood. I had the most unbelievable upbringing, the most loving parents, brothers that were my absolute best friends. And so I definitely lived that fairytale upbringing of - I was as happy as I could be as a kid.

DAVIES: Did you think about performing? Did - were you a movie buff at all?

KRASINSKI: I think I was a huge movie buff, but I didn't know it. I was more of sort of the geeky comedy nerd than anything. I think from the age of 6 I tried to never miss a "Saturday Night Live" - a weird admission that I'm making now on air because I don't think my parents ever knew that I was sneaking downstairs to watch every Saturday night. And I always loved the energy that was coming off "Saturday Night Live" and things like that.

And then, growing up, I think that performance and trying to be more of the class clown or trying to be funny for my family was all I really cared about. But I never had the intention of being an actor. I actually - when I went to college, I was dead set on being an English teacher, which, again, probably came from a movie. You know, I probably saw "Dead Poets Society" and said, oh, yeah, just get kids to stand on desks. That sounds like a good life.

DAVIES: And so you went to Brown University and then somehow found your way to the theater crowd, right?

KRASINSKI: I did, yeah. I actually - the transformative moment for me was I went to Brown actually a semester late. I - Brown used to have a mid-year program where they let 30 - 30-plus kids in in January rather than in the fall. And so I was one of those kids who got accepted around mid-year. I went down to Costa Rica and taught English for about six months, which was a huge transformative moment for me. But in order to make up my credits, I still had to stay an extra semester. So all my friends had graduated and I had to make up that semester. And so I went to this theater school. It was called the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford, Conn. And I went, to be very honest, initially, as just being lazy, trying to transfer credits back to Brown and finish the semester without having to be on campus without all my friends. And I ended up going to this theater school for 14 weeks, and it completely changed my life. It showed me that not only did I want to be an actor, but it showed me how much hard work you have to put into doing it. And I got so excited by the people that were teaching me there that it made me decide then and there to move to New York and become a professional waiter.


DAVIES: Which a lot of actors do, a lot of aspiring actors, yeah...

KRASINSKI: Absolutely, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. How did your parents feel about taking this fancy education and going to New York and trying to do commercials or whatever you could get?

KRASINSKI: It's funny, and, like I said, I had an amazing upbringing with great parents. I remember my parents came to the final performance at this theater school. And the next morning, we were driving home, and I hadn't talked about this with them at all. And I just said - in the back of the car, I said I want to move to New York and be an actor. And without hesitation, my mom said great. Just promise me one thing, that in two and a half, three years, if you don't have a bite, if there's not that idea that maybe something's coming, you have to pull yourself out of it because the only thing you can't ask me to do as your mom is tell her son to give up on his dreams. And I thought that was the most profound, unbelievable invitation and the kindest way to send me out there.

And sure enough, two and a half years later, I actually did call my mom and say, well, I gave it a shot. You were right. Nothing's really happening. I'd done some commercials and some, you know, off-off-off-Broadway plays, and I said I'm ready to pull out. You were right. And it was about September, I think, when I called her. And then she said, oh, it's September. You know what? Just finish out the year, and three weeks later, I got "The Office."

DAVIES: You got the role in "The Office." Wow.

KRASINSKI: I got the role in "The Office," yep.

DAVIES: So how did you get the role? Did you audition?

KRASINSKI: I did audition. And I remember the process was very wild for me because I was a huge fan of the English version. I watched it all the time. And when they asked me to audition for this, they actually sent the sides for Dwight, and there was something very weird. Again, I hadn't done anything, but there was something in me that just said if I go in, I want to go with my best foot forward. I don't feel like I'm Dwight. I feel like I'm more Jim. And so my manager at the time called and said, you know, he doesn't want to go in for Dwight. He wants to go in for Jim, and they said, great, then he won't come in at all.

And so there was about three weeks there where I thought the role was gone, the opportunity was gone. And then they called and they said, OK, he can come in and read for Jim, which was pretty amazing. And the first audition went pretty well. And then they flew in the producers from LA to New York. And I'll never forget this day. I was sitting in line. It was a - it was a bit of a bizarro, alternate universe feeling sitting next to six other people who looked exactly like you. And we were all going in for the role of Jim, and they went through the line of the six guys and I was the last person.

And the casting director came up and said, you know, we're just going to take a break for lunch. And in my head I thought, oh, just one more would be great. I was so nervous. So I watched, you know, 50 to 60 people go downstairs. It was at "30 Rock," and so they went down to the restaurant, came back up with salads and sandwiches, all these people came back.

And one guy sat across from me and said, are you nervous? And I said, oh, no, you either get these things or you don't. What I'm really nervous about is them screwing up a perfect show. The Americans always have the ability to screw up these amazing British shows, and I'm afraid this is going to be another one of them. And he said, oh, great. I'm Greg Daniels. I'm the executive producer.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

KRASINSKI: And I genuinely almost threw up right on his shoes.

DAVIES: Oh, you were making a - well, it didn't turn him off. You know...

KRASINSKI: No, he later (laughter) - he later said honesty's the best policy. It's the reason you got the role, which I think he's still just being nice. I won't dare try it again by going into auditions now saying I think this movie is going to be horrible and then see if they give me the role.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I've read a little bit about this process. And Greg Daniels I think said one of the reasons he brought you in initially was because he'd seen a commercial you had done that involved NASCAR, right? I mean, you...

KRASINSKI: Oh, yeah. That's right.

DAVIES: This was where you were at a track with a NASCAR player - who was it?

KRASINSKI: Matt Kenseth.

DAVIES: Matt Kenseth - kind of being this fan/wannabe, just kind of trying to be his buddy and doing this NASCAR.

KRASINSKI: (Laughter) Yes.

DAVIES: And there's a YouTube kind of medley of some of this stuff, and we picked up just a little bit of it.


DAVIES: Let's listen to this. This is John Krasinski, way back when, riffing on NASCAR stuff.


KRASINSKI: Fourth gear's a little sticky, but I'm ready to drive. (Imitating car engine revving) We're going checkered flag, thank you. (Imitating car engine revving) Got it. (Imitating car engine revving) You seen Matty (ph)? Matty Kenseth. (Imitating car engine revving) NASCAR, you know what I'm saying? Just send them. Just keep them coming. Keep them coming. Keep them going.

DAVIES: (Laughter) John Krasinski...


DAVIES: ...Doing some NASCAR stuff. And it got the attention of Greg Daniels, who was casting for "The Office." You know what's funny about that - and I watched - there's, like, a three and a half minute thing on YouTube - is that it's really big and broad...


DAVIES: ...Very unlike the kind of subtle stuff you see in "The Office." Although there's something in common, too, isn't there? I mean, kind of the...

KRASINSKI: (Laughter) I guess so. That is - I haven't seen or heard that in - since the time I did it, and that is a real send back to memory lane, so thank you for that. Yeah, it was a big - that was a huge performance. And I remember we had a little bit of script, and Matt Kenseth had said he doesn't want to have a line in the script. He was very shy, and he didn't want to - he just wanted to walk through the commercial. And then at the end of the day they asked, would you just improv and have fun and let's see what we got? And we just kept going, and I think they just watched the dog go off the leash and I went crazy just improvving (ph) all this stuff.

And by the end, Matt said, well, now I do want to say some stuff. So he came in and we were joking around all day. It was probably one of the more fun times I've had certainly before I got "The Office." And - but I remember Greg - you know, to me the - like you said, that was a very big performance and "The Office" was all about being small and reality. I think the - what really helped my audition was I was so sick to my stomach with embarrassment of what I had done that when I went in the room, I remember everybody was laughing, and they weren't laughing with me. They were directly laughing at me. And so...

DAVIES: Because they knew of what you'd said about the script...

KRASINSKI: Yes, obviously Greg had gone in and said, this idiot has just said that our show is going to fail. Let's see him. Let's see what he can do. And it really helped because Greg said, you know - like I said, he said, honesty is the best policy. But for me, laughter in any form is a good charge before you do a performance, so it helped me feel pretty calm actually.

DAVIES: Well, he wanted to get what he wanted to get.


DAVIES: You know, we may be belaboring one audition process, but Terry Gross spoke to Jenna Fischer a few years ago and - about the audition process. And she described a moment after she'd kind of made the first cut and you had. And they - and what they - the casting folks - did was they got - they got several possible actors for the four main characters and did a couple of days with them. Let's listen to what - how she described it.


JENNA FISCHER: When it came down to the end of the audition process, they took four Pams and four Jims and four Dwights and four Michaels, and they brought us into a real office, and they filmed us with a camera for two days, mixing and matching us. And over the course of that two days, I was mixed and matched with John several times. And after the second day, we were walking out of a scene and he turned to me and he said, you're my favorite Pam. I hope you get this job.

And I smiled really big and I said, I'm so glad you said that because you're my favorite Jim, and I don't think anyone could do it except for you. And when they called and told me that I got the job, I said, please tell me that John Krasinski is playing Jim. And they said he is, and we're so glad to hear you say that because we thought you two had amazing chemistry and we're glad you think so, too.

DAVIES: John Krasinski, is that the way it went?

KRASINSKI: That's exactly the way it went. Wow. Hearing her tell it, she's obviously more eloquent than me, but she - she's absolutely right. I remember thinking, oh, I haven't read with her. That means they don't think I'm good enough to get it because she is - she's going to play Pam. And I figured if I didn't get to read with her, then I wasn't going to be Jim. And at the last moment they said, no, no, no, no, no, you have to read with this girl, Jenna. And I just felt like that was it. I actually thought that moment there, if I ever had a shot, it was going to be now because I was reading with her.

DAVIES: John Krasinski directed and co-stars in the new film "The Hollars." After a break, he'll share some more stories about "The Office," including the time he slapped actor Rainn Wilson so hard he came away with a red handprint on his face. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with John Krasinski, who directed and stars in the new film "The Hollars," which opens Friday. We were just speaking about the role he's best known for, playing Jim Halpert in the NBC series "The Office." We were just speaking about the role he's best known for, playing Jim Halpert in the NBC series "The Office."

Your character Jim and then Pam, the receptionist, were, you know, important characters throughout "The Office." And the relationship evolved. And you eventually got together. And, you know, had - went and got married, had a kid. You know, what is it like to have a long-term fictional romance with somebody that lasts that long?

KRASINSKI: That's a really good question. I mean, I think we were so honored to be a part of that relationship because, you know, when - you know, we have a weird relationship with our fans because a lot of people say, you know, we owe our fans everything.

But we literally get to say that because we were going to be canceled the first two seasons, definitely. Every week, I remember this guy Jeff Ingold, who worked at NBC - he came every week to say, listen, it's - I love this show. It's just not working. We're going to cancel it.

And it was at the time of iTunes. And I remember our fans were actually buying the show when they could watch it for free, which was a huge revelation, obviously. So because they were buying the show and not watching it on NBC, it showed people that there was a whole new audience that was loving the show so much that they'd actually spend money.

So all that to say - we were so involved with our fans from the very beginning. And when I went around and bumped into people who are always so kind about the show, they were genuinely moved by this relationship. There was something that everybody was connecting to - this sort of will-he-won't-he-type of whether or not I'd get up the guts to ask her out in the beginning - and then followed us along as if we were part of their family or living some version of their lives.

And so for me, I think it was a big big responsibility to be a member of that couple. And I loved every single moment of it. It will always be one of the most, if not the most, special relationship I will have on screen.

DAVIES: Well, let's hear a scene with the two of you. I mean, this is from an episode in Season 6 that you actually directed. And in this one, you and Pam are together. She's pregnant. And you're visiting a really good daycare center - one that's hard to get into.

And you have your hopes up. And you want to make a good impression. And what's happened before - what we're going to hear - is that you and Pam walked in to the daycare center.

You didn't see anybody there. You're poking around. And you opened the door of the boys' room. And there's the daycare center director...

KRASINSKI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Played by Joey Slotnick, on the toilet, embarrassed. Oops. And so what we're going to hear is a few minutes later, where you and Pam are in the interview with the guy you just surprised. And it's not going so well.


KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) There was one thing we were curious about - your flexibility on things like Easter or Memorial Day because we might want to change our days around a little bit.

JOEY SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) That seems a bit premature, don't you think? I don't even know if I have a space for you yet. And you're already lining up your holiday plans.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Oh, no, sorry. I'm just - we're kind of planners. But we're also all flexible, too. So you know what? Maybe we can just discuss it when the time comes.

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) Yeah. If the time comes, we can discuss it.

FISCHER: (As Pam Beesly) Is this because Jim walked in on you going to the bathroom?

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) Seriously, you told her?

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Did it - it might've come up while we were waiting for you.

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) And you thought that might have something to do with how the meeting is going.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) No.

FISCHER: (As Pam Beesly) Maybe because it doesn't seem to be going super well.

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) You didn't consider the fact that it might not be going super well just because it might not be going super well.

FISCHER: (As Pam Beesly) Nope - 'cause we're really nice people. But you don't seem to like us.

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) I'm being perfectly pleasant. Did you ever consider that you might not be as charming as you think you are?

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) This coming from the guy who's still using a children's toilet? Why didn't you just lock the door, man?

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) It doesn't lock for the children's safety.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Anybody could've walked in.

SLOTNICK: (As daycare director) It was story time.


DAVIES: That's our guest, John Krasinski with Jenna Fischer and Joey Slotnick in a scene from "The Office."


DAVIES: You know, you directed this. You know what I love about that is the pacing, the awkwardness. You don't rush the lines. You just let it - let the awkwardness build.

KRASINSKI: Absolutely. I mean, that was the greatest gift. I mean, the show has given me absolutely everything from, you know, every opportunity because of how amazing that show was. But for me, I learned so much from that show because it was groundbreaking in television, I think. But it was also groundbreaking for me. This was a type of acting that you very rarely will get to do again.

It was so up to the actors to decide when you said things, how you said things. And the producers were so supportive of that huge, long awkwardness, which I think is the big fear that everybody had when we took on the show and that, you know, we did our U.S. version of it was that, oh, they'll never be able to do that awkwardness that the English show did. And so I was so proud of that. And that specific scene makes me laugh. I'm definitely a nerd 'cause I still laugh at our show. But I remember directing that. And Joey - I'm so glad that you chose that scene because Joey's a very good friend and so unbelievably funny in that scene.

DAVIES: Yeah, did you break up trying to do it, or was it...

KRASINSKI: Oh, I'm the least professional person. I am the least professional actor you can meet when it comes to breaking. I laugh all the time. There are way too many outtakes of me laughing. And I believe as the Internet has confirmed, I laugh I think like a little princess is the quote. I laugh like a little princess when I laugh.

DAVIES: Really?

KRASINSKI: When I break that much, I - I, for some reason, have a very high-pitched register that I - I've got to say, I embrace it. I embrace it.

DAVIES: You know, "The Office" opens with these scenes of Scranton, Pa., where Dunder Mifflin is set. And I read that you actually shot some of that video. Is that true?

KRASINSKI: It is true. I actually - as soon as I got the role, I asked Greg Daniels if I could go out to Scranton, Pa., and shoot some footage. And he said absolutely, that would be great. And I shot this footage on a very - you know, whatever camera I had, some HD camera. And I brought it back to him and just said, here, you can use this for, you know, research or whatever for, you know, production design or to see signs and stuff.

And then he called back and said, do you mind if we use it for the opening of the show? And again, I was just coming off being a waiter. So I had no experience with anything. So I think I just stared at him because my brain exploded when he asked me if I could - if he could use it for the opening of the show.

DAVIES: Well, before we leave "The Office," we have to play a scene of you and your nemesis Dwight, who's played by Rainn Wilson. I don't remember which season this is from. But here's where - he's - you've been promoted to the number two guy at the branch. And here you've arrived late for work. And so he confronts you.


KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Oh, what's this?

RAINN WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) That is a demerit.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Jim Halpert - tardiness. Oh, I love it already.

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) You've got to learn, Jim. You are second-in-command, but that does not put you above the law.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Oh, I understand. And I also have lots of questions, like what does it demerit mean?

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Let's put it this way, you do not want to receive three of those.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Lay it on me.

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Three demerits and you'll receive a citation.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Now, that sounds very serious.

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Oh, it is serious. Five citations and you're looking at a violation. Four of those and you'll receive a verbal warning. Keep it up and you're looking at a written warning. Two of those, that'll land you in a world of hurt in the form of a disciplinary review, written up by me and placed on the desk of my immediate superior.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Which would be me.

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) That is correct.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) OK, I want a copy on my desk by the end of the day or you will receive a full disadulation (ph).

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) What's a dis - what's that?

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Oh, you don't want to know.


DAVIES: That's our guest John Krasinski with Rainn Wilson in "The Office." You know, I just love the way Rainn Wilson just - this absurd stuff that he just goes at with such conviction. It's just so perfect. You had this, you know, fictional love affair with Jenna Fischer for years and years. You had this fictional rivalry with Rainn Wilson for years. Did that affect the relationship as actors?

KRASINSKI: (Laughter) Absolutely. I mean, I think the rivalry made us become kind of like brothers. I mean, there's that rivalry between brothers, obviously. And it's not necessarily competitive. It's just this free spirited thing. I think that we really did become a family on that show.

And another thing that was funny about Rainn and my relationship was like a brother, one of the things that I got nervous about was play fighting with him because he's a very good actor. But I, for some reason, would always end up injured when we did any play fighting. And so there were all these scenes where he would throw snowballs at me and it actually hurt or he'd go to push me and he'd push me too hard and I'd actually get hurt. And so the producers picked up on this and said, you know, Rainn, really just be fake on this. You know, just try to preserve John's health.

And then there was one time after years and years and years of him doing all these things to me, there was one time where I'm walking through a door and I slap him in the face. And there was no way to fake that 'cause I had to actually slap him. And I had in my head this is my full payback for all these years. And Rainn said, listen, you can hit me as hard as you need to. Don't worry about it. And I said OK. And so the scene you see in the show is as hard as I've ever hit a human being before. And I have no idea why I took that opportunity other than it was that brotherly thing of I can't let this happen. And so if you go back and watch that scene, you will see Rainn genuinely stunned by how hard I hit him. And I'll never forget the guys who - the assistant cameramen. The cameraman barely remained standing they were laughing so hard. But the assistant cameramen who stand right next to the camera guys making sure they don't bump into anything fell down on the floor laughing. It was - it was a really wonderful moment of - at that moment, I was no longer Jim and he was no longer Dwight. That was John and Rainn's moment.

DAVIES: What was the first thing he said to you after the scene ended?

KRASINSKI: (Laughter) He just came over and said good one. And it was that thing of he knew why I did it. He was like I get it. I've hurt you many times, and this was your payback. It was so wonderful. He was smiling and just said good one. And he had a red handprint on his face for the next three hours. I do feel bad about it now. But in the moment, I thought, well, that's justice. That's just family justice.

KRASINSKI: John Krasinski played Jim for nine seasons at "The Office." He directed and stars in the new film "The Hollars." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with actor John Krasinski. He played Jim for nine seasons on "The Office." He directed and stars in the new film with Margo Martindale "The Hollars." I want to talk about "Promised Land." This is a film which you co-starred in and co-wrote with Matt Damon. It's about a little farm town that's struggling with whether it will welcome gas drilling into the town and whether the local folks will sign leases. Where did this - the idea for this project - come from?

KRASINSKI: It was an original idea I had a long time ago. I basically was a huge Frank Capra fan, and I always wanted to do a story about one man's morality crisis between going against the people he's from or choosing this new life. And I remembered the real draw for it was, to me, I wanted to tell a story for my dad.

My dad grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., in a steel mill town, and he always talked to me about the community that he lived in. And his dad had three jobs, and yet it felt like every time I heard a story about his upbringing it was wonderful. There was no sign of economic strain or anything like that. All his stories were filled with love and enjoyment and this idea of community.

And I remember he told me one story that his dad - again, who had three jobs - lent something ridiculous - I'll get the number wrong - but it was like $5,000 or something like that to a neighbor who needed something. And at the time, obviously, that was an insane amount of money. But my dad said, you know, his father knew the guy needed it, and that's just what you do.

If one of your neighbors or friends needs help, you just help them. There was this idea of an America that I had thought had slipped away from us a little bit. And so I wanted to tell this story about community. And that was the idea of where it all came from. And then the specifics sort of laid themselves out. But that's the reason why I came up with the movie.

DAVIES: You've done a lot of acting and you've done some writing. And this is a case where you were - you're writing the film as you're acting. Were you doing rewrites during the day while you're also trying to kind of rehearse your scenes and memorize your lines?

KRASINSKI: Oh, absolutely. We were doing rewrites during - at night, during the day, whenever we could. Matt - I remember Matt Damon came from a school where he and Steven Soderbergh had done a lot of films together. And he told me a line that Steven Soderbergh said, which is the movie's never done right up until the premiere. You can always make it better right up until the premiere. So we were always trying to make it better and trying to make it more precise and more accurate and more fun. So it was one of the more thrilling experiences I've ever had.

Matt is obviously brilliant. He wrote a little movie called "Good Will Hunting" that I guess got got him some...


KRASINSKI: ...Praise. And it was really fun. I got to say it was also completely surreal for a moment there when we first began writing because I was such a huge fan of "Good Will Hunting" and - if you're a certain age in Boston, you have the "Good Will Hunting" poster tattooed to your back. So to be actually sitting...

DAVIES: Yeah, and let's clarify, you were writing this with Matt Damon. You're co-writers and you worked on it, right?

KRASINSKI: I was, yes. Yes, we were co-writers on the movie, so actually sitting across the table from the guy who wrote "Good Will Hunting" as a Boston kid who did have - I don't really have a tattoo on my back. But sitting across from Will Hunting in this situation was totally, totally surreal. And that movie was hugely impactful for me, so it was great to actually see Matt at work in a whole different light. I mean, everybody knows him as this great actor, but I got to watch him be this great writer, too.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that occurred to me as I watched this, you know, your character in this film has another agenda which unfolds as the movie goes on, not quite this simple, altruistic character, but you just come off as such an appealing, affable guy. And this - I mean, you're - you seem to be like this so, so much. I wonder if it's ever - I don't know - a burden in getting other roles or just a bother to have to be such a nice guy all the time. You can't flip the bird in traffic, you know?

KRASINSKI: There's worse things to be in life than known as the nice guy, so I appreciate that, but I - you know, it's funny. I've always been a realist, so I've never been frustrated by, you know, being the nice guy or certainly not being Jim. People ask me all the time, is it hard to get away from being known as Jim? And I always say being known as Jim is one of the best honors I'll ever have because that means that I was led into your house and you cared so much about the show and actually cared enough about my character that you only know me as that person. I find that a huge compliment and something I take very seriously and I'm very proud of.

That said, I think, you know, the most fun thing you can do as an actor is try new things. And so I'm always trying to challenge myself. You know, you only - you just hope that you get the chance to do other things. And I've been lucky enough recently to get that chance.

DAVIES: You know, speaking of things in life that are surreal, I mean, you look at your career. You were, you know, waiting tables in New York because you couldn't get full-time acting work. And then you get cast in a series that just turns out to be a colossal hit. And now you've done other films. You're married to Emily Blunt, you know, a renowned actress. I hear you hang out with George Clooney. I'm not sure what the question here is, but, like, do you ever just look around and say, man, is this me?

KRASINSKI: Every single day. I mean, I take stock of the fact every single day that I'm living a lottery-ticket life. There's a part of me that feels like I truly don't deserve any of this because it's so unbelievably rare to get the opportunity that I did to be on "The Office." So what I try to do instead is to deserve to stay here. That's why I branched out to do writing and directing and producing, to keep that candle burning.

DAVIES: Well, John Krasinski, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KRASINSKI: Absolutely, thank you. I really appreciate it.

DAVIES: John Krasinski directed and stars in the new film "The Hollars," which opens Friday. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new anthology of the African bandleader E. T. Mensah. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a new anthology devoted to the pioneer African bandleader of the '40s and '50s, E. T. Mensah. He was called the King of Highlife, an offshoot of jazz that, for years, was the most popular style of music in southern Africa. Here's Milo's review.


E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing in foreign language).

MILO MILES, BYLINE: If I told you there was an African bandleader with the touring and organizing skills of a Count Basie, a legacy of spin-off performers as rich as Duke Ellington and a historical influence not unlike Louis Armstrong, and that he even jammed once with Louis Armstrong, you have to ask - who can this be? The answer is E. T. Mensah from Ghana, known as the King of Highlife. The reason Mensah could be so accomplished and yet remain rather obscure in America is because he retired by the 1980s, just as African pop stars began more international tours, eventually even to the United States. Fortunately, Mensah's songs have lost none of their immediate appeal and are properly presented at last in the four-disc set, "King Of Highlife Anthology," which includes everything recorded by Mensah and the various incarnations of his band, the Tempos. A strong example is "Day By Day."


E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing) Day by day, night by night, if you born pikin na (ph) girl, you want her to go to school. What a girl she going to be, what a woman to go to school. And she close to come for home, on her way she meets her friend. Now her friend go be na boy, and he take her hand for go.

MILES: Like jazz, highlife is a complex fusion of a number of modes, including jazz itself and African folk forms. There were many other highlife groups even well before Mensah, but none as successful or as sharp. In a move that would shape all subsequent African pop, the Tempos added melodies taken from the Caribbean, Brazil and Latin rhythms, particularly from Cuba, so the anthology includes sprinkled examples of highlife sambas and calypsos. Not all the lyrics are in English, but a surprising number are. Mensah was clearly determined to reach as many audiences as possible without pandering. No matter what the subject, the positive impression delivered by the 69 tracks here remains fun to play, fun to hear, fun to dance to.


MILES: E. T. Mensah also shines as the first postcolonial music superstar of Africa. Taking off with his own band right after World War II, he soon became as popular in Nigeria as he was back in Ghana. He would sometimes assemble a version of the Tempos to keep doing shows back home while he toured. He was also a hit in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. However, he only played a few shows in Europe in the 1980s, when his music was finally issued there. One standout track included on those initial releases was "Munsuro."


E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing in foreign language).

MILES: Mensah died 20 years ago, and "King Of Highlife Anthology" finally does him complete justice. The very classy packaging must be praised, including a definitive 60-page condensation of Professor John Collins' biography of Mensah, an essential item for African pop devotees. A couple vocal performances are a bit drab, and the later music is more assured and vivid than the earliest, but those are tiny gripes. For those who want more samples, a batch of Mensah tunes are available on YouTube. Finally, to underscore the influence of Mensah, it's worth noting that superstar Fela Kuti started out running a highlife group, essentially imitating Mensah. The old master was dismissive of Kuti's later Afrobeat. As far as E. T. Mensah was concerned, Fela had stopped following the class act.

DAVIES: Milo Miles reviewed the "King Of Highlife Anthology" on the RetroAfric label.


E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing) All for you, E. T. (ph), all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. Are they with you, papa? Are they with you, mommy? Are they with you, papa? All for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. Are they with you, papa?

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with investigative reporter Seth Freed Wessler, who's reported on troubling conditions at privately operated prisons which hold non-citizen federal inmates. The Department of Justice recently announced it would be ending its contracts with the operators. Wessler's series appeared in The Nation. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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