IN AN AGE OF EDGY, RULEBREAKING HEROES, CIA WORLD SAVER JACK RYAN STILL DOES THINGS BY THE BOOK. BUT, AS THE MAKERS OF HIS SMALL-SCREEN RETURN INSIST, THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT MAKES HIM FASCINATING
John Krasinski finds a quiet place to talk about his small-screen take on Tom Clancy’s action hero.
LOOKING OUT OF the window of London’s Soho Hotel, on a high enough floor that there’s a clear view of the city’s comers and goers, John Krasinski is scanning the streets. He’s explaining to
Empire how one might start the hunt for perpetrators in the event of an attack. “You look for the cameras,” he says, squinting against the summer sun. “I do this now. I stand on corners and think, ‘Where would the footage come from?’ There are cameras on the ATM. There are cameras on the streetlights. London has a ton of them.” He never used to do this, but then, he never used to be the most famous CIA analyst in the world.
Krasinski is the fifth actor to play Jack Ryan on screen. Tom Clancy invented the character in 1984, in the novel The Hunt For Red October, as a Boy Scoutish ex-marine who always strives to do the right thing in a Cold War world. Over Clancy’s eight novels, Ryan went from wide-eyed desk jockey to US President. He is the embodiment of how America likes — or used to like — to view itself: smart, tough, coming to the rescue of countries less fortunate and solving the world’s wrongs. He has Superman values with Lois Lane powers. Over six films, Ryan has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. Audience interest dwindled as he went through his third and fourth faces.
Clear And Present Danger, the series peak, with Harrison Ford, did $216 million in 1994. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,
a perfectly creditable outing with Chris Pine in the lead, did $135 million in 2014. Krasinski and the team behind his Ryan reboot are hoping they can reverse that trend, not least by relocating Ryan from the big screen to the small.
“Three-and-a-half years ago, Paramount approached us about getting involved [with Jack Ryan],” says Carlton Cuse, the TV producer who made his name with Lost, and who co-created this show with Graham Roland, another Lost
alumnus. “It was a moribund franchise, so they were looking at moving it to television.” He and Roland jumped at the opportunity. “It made so much sense,” says Cuse. “Clancy’s books are 800 to 1,000 pages and they’re almost impossible to reduce to two-hour movies, but doing eight hours [over a series]
allowed us to stay true to the spirit of what Clancy was doing.” “Spirit” is the right word, because this Clancy adventure isn’t a direct adaptation of any of Clancy’s novels. Instead, it acts as a prequel of sorts, taking core characters and creating early days for them. It is the story of how Jack Ryan became Jack Ryan.
It begins with Ryan working in a depressing CIA office, intercepting bank transactions that look potentially suspicious. He’s been an analyst for less than four years, after a helicopter accident in Iraq ended his career as a Marine. He has noticed transactions that lead to a man named ‘Suleiman’, who he suspects may be a new Bin Laden. He brings this lead to the attention of his new boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce), who in the books was CIA Deputy Director, but here is leading Jack’s lowly team, after being kicked out of a post in Pakistan. He takes Ryan to Yemen to interrogate a man who might know Suleiman’s whereabouts. Things go wrong and Ryan is pulled back into the dangerous field work he’s been trying to avoid. Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish) also figures, but she’s not Ryan’s wife, as in the books. She is not yet even his girlfriend. Ryan is a man half-formed.
“We tried to adapt one of the books, but they were kind of dated,” explains Roland of the prequel decision. “It was part of the brilliance of Clancy that he wrote these geopolitical thrillers of the time, and we needed to do the same.” Effectively creating a new version of Ryan, Roland drew significantly on his own past as a Marine; he served before becoming a screenwriter. “Jack Ryan and everyone around him is very competent,” he says. “That was my experience in the military… It’s not as portrayed in other films and shows. The CIA isn’t this secret cabal of people stabbing each other in the back and scheming on ways to manipulate the world. It’s mostly selfless people trying to protect the country. That’s the signature of the Clancy books that we want to bring into our show.”
This, in fact, is one of the great difficulties of making Ryan a magnetic leading man: his goodness. He’s not a man who does what he must in order to save the day and to hell with the consequences. He’s a man who does the right thing in order to save the day. He doesn’t break the rules. He doesn’t beat people up unless absolutely necessary. He doesn’t shag his way around the globe. He’s just a really nice guy, and nice guys are hard to write. “We were actually in the bar last night, working on a future episode,” says Cuse. “And we got onto this digression about how much easier it would be if Ryan were an antihero. He’s not like Bond, Bourne or Claire Danes in Homeland, these damaged people doing whatever necessary to get their goal accomplished. The drama with Jack Ryan is maintaining his morality in an amoral world.”
Cuse says that purity of spirit is what makes Ryan the right hero for now and why he’s worth another chance. When asked what Ryan has, aside from brand recognition, that makes him still relevant, nearly 35 years after his creation, Cuse says, “At this moment in time, embracing a classic hero actually feels fresh. This genre is now so full of antiheroes. We’re living in cynical times. The idea that we could embrace a heroic character working among competent people, there’s an amount of wish fulfilment in that… I think we all hope there’s a Jack Ryan standing between us and the dangers of the world. Someone capable, intelligent and rational.”
JOHN KRASINSKI DOES
not look like the kind combat. Jim from of guy That’s The you’d Office, largely find the out the role fighting point. that The made terrorists 38-year-old him in famous. hand-to-hand still In looks fact, like that’s why he was given this role. That and 13 Hours, the Michael Bay Benghazi movie, for which Krasinski packed on an extra Krasinski’s worth of muscle. As Roland puts it, “the guy from The Office was trying to reinvent himself as a dramatic actor… Jack Ryan was very much about a guy sitting behind his desk in an office trying to re-brand himself as a competent CIA officer in the field. The parallel felt right.”
“It was not a hard choice for me,” says Krasinski, as chirpy and affable as a man can be after a red-eye trip into the UK. “I’ve been a big fan of Jack Ryan since
I was about ten, when I saw Hunt
For Red October. It didn’t feel normally blockbustery to me, even at that age. It felt smart.”
He laughs. “Also… I was obsessed with the CIA.”
As a kid, he and his brother would pretend they were spies, to such a passionate degree that when Krasinski landed this job and called his elder brother to tell him he’d be going to the CIA, his brother refused to believe him. Krasinski talks about the CIA visit like a kid who got to go to space camp. “It was literally a dream of mine since I was little. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I can’t tell you anything about it.” He will say that the visit was the most significant step in getting to the heart of who Ryan is. “It’s not only about their work at the CIA, but how it affects their personal lives, their family, having kids. I’d
say that’s the biggest thing for me, was connecting to the real people. With 13 Hours, connecting to the real guys and training with the Navy SEALS is how I found any and all things I put in that performance… I had the [Jack Ryan] character in the books, so it’s about where you connect it to real life.”
Krasinski was fortunate that he didn’t have to put in any intense physical training for Ryan, having kept up parts of his 13 Hours regime, “although to a lesser degree. It would have been stupid to make that huge physical transformation and not maintain it in some fashion, if only because I now don’t put my back out picking up my kids.”
Jack Ryan comes at an unusual time for Krasinski. Earlier this year, his third movie as director, A Quiet Place, became a surprise phenomenon, making $328 million worldwide from a $17 million budget and inspiring a flood of praise. Some even hailed the one-time star of
The Office as an unlikely new master of horror. Krasinski had already begun shooting Jack Ryan when A Quiet Place came out up, but it’s easy to assume that he has been busily plotting his follow-up. That, however, seems not to be the case. “It’s actually really nice just to be an actor,” he says. “It’s their world and they’re making all the decisions. On weekends I get to think about what I might do after the show.”
What he’ll actually be doing for the immediate future is more Jack Ryan; a second series was greenlit before the first was finished. Krasinski calls each season “a reboot”, in the sense that each will tell a new story. In Season 2, the action will move to Venezuela, with filming to be done both there and in Colombia. Though further seasons aren’t greenlit, they are planned, with Roland mentioning a possible China setting for Season 3. “Every season you get to see a new part of the world,” says Krasinski. “By the third or fourth, he’s expected to be a black-ops bad ass, because that’s what happened in the books.”
The update to the modern era meant a tricky decision for the show creators. The originals were set in the deepest chill of the Cold War. The series is set in our time, with a lot of our geopolitics, but it’s not entirely our world. Krasinski, Roland and Cuse all call the show “apolitical”. It’s a strange word because Jack Ryan’s world is all political — in fact, it’s about the ills politics causes and how Ryan tries to fix them — but any allusions to Trump’s America or any real-life geopolitical issues are avoided. It sounds initially like a bit of a cop-out, borne of keenness not to offend any political persuasion or label anyone the ‘bad guys’, but Roland and Cuse insist they had no other option. “We began this three years ago,” says Cuse. “When we started, we had Obama, a liberal Democratic president, and now we have a conservative Republican president. Over the timeline of a show it’s hard to predict what will happen.”
Based on the episode we’ve seen, Jack Ryan has the potential to be the best iteration of the character since Harrison Ford stepped down. It has a mood somewhere between The West Wing and early 24, optimistic but not naive, brusque in its action and keen on the nerdery of counter-intelligence. It looks a comfortable fit for both the character and Krasinski. He comes across as the reluctant hero Ryan is, a guy you might not notice in a crowd, but you’d be glad to know is standing on that corner, watching for the things you hope never come.
Top: New boss James Greer (Wendell Pierce) and CIA analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) are deep in thought. Above: Krasinski in action as Ryan.
Right: Ryan’s soon-to-be love interest Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish) is a doctor specialising in infectious diseases. Below: Serious squad: Ryan with his CIA team.