'Jack Ryan': How Amazon's Tom Clancy TV Series Came to Life

[This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of Amazon's Jack Ryan.]

In the opening minutes of Jack Ryan, there's an unclear yet very present danger: two boys dancing in their bedroom to Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance," laughing their heads off, not a care in the world — their final innocent moments as children, before a missile strike completely changes their lives forever.

When the pilot episode of Amazon's Jack Ryan reaches its climax, the other shoe drops: the shadowy Suleiman (Ali Suliman), the man Jack (John Krasinski) calls "the next Bin Laden" at one point in the episode, is none other than the safety-dancing boy from many decades earlier. His giddy little brother has grown up to become a dangerous man as well, infiltrating a military base disguised as a corpse all in an effort to rescue his older sibling.

From the perspective of Graham Roland, the former Lost and Fringe writer who co-created Jack Ryan alongside veteran executive producer Carlton Cuse, the pilot's bookend sequences are meant to illustrate the show's ethos toward its characters: "Everyone is the hero of their own film."

Certainly, Jack Ryan as a character has been the hero of several films already. Five, to be exact, played over the years by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and most recently Chris Pine. First appearing in the pages of Tom Clancy's 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October, and later debuting on screen in the 1990 film adaptation of the same name, Ryan has been at the heart of numerous Clancy novels over the years, forming the backbone of what's known as "the Ryanverse," a franchise that has continued even after the author's death in 2013.

For the Amazon series, a new actor steps into the role of the veritable boy scout: Krasinski, fresh from the success of his directorial debut A Quiet Place, now standing front and center in the streaming service's bid to get into the TV spy game currently exemplified by the likes of Fox's 24 and Showtime's Homeland. But Jack Ryan is not Jack Bauer, as Roland is quick to caution. 

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter hours before the show's Aug. 31 premiere around the globe, Roland detailed about the Jack Ryan journey: how it began as an adaptation of a Tom Clancy classic, the future of the series given Amazon's early season two renewal (not to mention Jack's own storied career across the books; "President Ryan," anyone?), and why fans shouldn't get their hopes up about an eventual appearance from one of the other classic Clancy heroes: John Clark, the black ops soldier at the heart of the Rainbow Six franchise.

What did you and Carlton discuss when you were first considering Jack Ryan for television? Were you talking about adapting specific Tom Clancy stories?

The first initial conversations that we started having revolved around the novel Clear and Present Danger, because that was our original intention. That was my favorite Clancy book, and I liked the movie, but I felt like there was so much that the movie didn't do, or didn't have time to do, so we started trying to adapt that. That lasted for about a month, and then we realized trying to update this story was going to take so much drastic reimagining to make it feel relevant today, that we might as well just make our own story up. 

That led us to the conversation of, okay, if we're not going to adapt one of the books, what are the things that Clancy fans are going to expect from this franchise? The first one was authenticity, because Tom Clancy was an avid researcher, and all of his books were very well-versed [in their subjects], whether it's submarine warfare or the inner workings of a Coast Guard cutter. He just had such attention to detail, and we knew that the show had to follow that and honor that. 

The other thing was revolving around Jack, and what makes Jack different. Why has this character been played by four other actors prior to John playing him in our series? Why have we made five movies about this character over the course of [more than] 20 years? We settled on two things that really stuck out. For one, Jack's superpower is his brain. He's a very smart guy, and yes, he has a little bit of background in combat having been a Marine briefly, but he's not a super spy. He's not Jason Bourne or James Bond. The other thing that separated Jack from Jack Bauer, or Carrie Mathison, or any of the other protagonists in the space, was that Jack was a real moral hero, a classic hero, and so the source of drama around Jack was never going to come from some inner turmoil or him fighting his own demons. It was going to have to be his moralism being an obstacle in an amoral or sometimes immoral world. That's really where we were gonna have to drive most of our drama.

What was it about John Krasinski specifically that made him the right actor to embody those characteristics? 

One of them is obvious: He's a very intelligent man. It comes across in every role he does. You have to have an actor who you believe is that smart playing this role. To varying degrees, some of the other actors that played the film versions of Jack Ryan did that successfully. I think the other thing that John has, which is it's kind of intangible in the same way that Tom Hanks has it, is this relatability, this earnestness that makes you just root for him. As soon as he steps on screen, he doesn't come off as larger than life. He embodies that sort of earnestness, that sort of relatability, that likability. Harrison Ford did it very well [in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger], I think better than any of the other iterations. He had this vulnerability mixed with this charm, and obviously he's a great dramatic actor as well. I think John has all those things going for him.

As you were sketching out the premiere, what were the most important goals you and Carlton felt you needed to accomplish — both in terms of establishing Jack Ryan as a character, as well as Jack Ryan as a series?

We wanted to show the scope of the show. That was very important to us. It was very important to us that no matter how we got there, that we took Jack out of the comfort of his cubicle in Langley and put him in some dangerous place on the other side of the world, just to show what this show is, and what the season is going to be about. It's about this guy being forced into these dangerous situations, and this is going to be a global show. 

The other thing that we really wanted to do is we wanted to set up the hero and the antagonist by the end of … the first hour and say, "Look, these are the two guys. This is the story. These are the two guys that are going to be at each other the entire season." We wanted to add a little bit of a wrinkle to that, which is we wanted to somehow humanize and subvert expectations of what you think about when you have seen other spy movies or television shows that have Middle Eastern villains, or extremists, or terrorists. We wanted to communicate really quickly that we were going to try to do something a little bit different with our bad guy and make it a little bit more complex — and that's where the flashbacks came in.

Nothing humanizes a bad guy quicker than "The Safety Dance."

That song originally was supposed to be "Billie Jean." (Laughs.) We couldn't clear it.

It's obviously an important moment for the arc of the season, in that the episode is bookended with the two boys withstanding a missile strike at the outset, only for them to be revealed as the antagonists in Jack's path at the end of the episode. Was that the idea, to make the situation less cut-and-dried between Jack and Suleiman, if you can get the audience to understand his childhood pain?

Absolutely. I think one of the opportunities this show presented that the two-hour films didn't have was this ability and this time to flesh out all of the characters, not just Jack. We want to paint a mosaic in the way that Clancy did in his novels, but the filmmakers weren't able to do when they were adapted, which is that you have this tapestry of different characters in it. We wanted to be very global, and Amazon was very insistent upon that as well. Yes, it's an American spy franchise, and yes, Jack is an American hero — and it's an iconic American hero — but we wanted the show to feel more global than all of the other movies, just for the practical reason of it's gonna be premiering, I think, in 150-something countries. There has to be somebody on there for people who aren't white American viewers, and so I think it was important to us, whether it be good guys or bad guys, that everyone have sort of their own little moment. Everyone is the hero of their own film, essentially. That very much carries forward into season two, as well.

Two of those supporting cast members are key characters from the Ryanverse: Abbie Cornish as Jack's eventual wife, Cathy Muller, and Wendell Pierce as Jack's mentor James Greer. How did you decide which characters from the Clancy catalogue to include in season one? It's easy to imagine wanting to bring John Clark and Rainbow Six into the mix…

I have some bad news for you: We wanted John Clark to be in the first season. We were told by the people at Paramount, I believe, that essentially, we didn't have rights to John Clark because he existed in his own book, and they were currently trying to adapt or develop that book into a feature, and they said until, basically, they know what's going to happen with that, John Clark is off the table. Hopefully, in future seasons, we'll clear all that up and he'll make an appearance, but it's definitely a character that Carlton and I both like. We would love to see him make an appearance. In hindsight, and this might sound like a little bit of a cheat, I think it's cool that he wasn't in the first season, because it gives you something to look forward to…

…if you're a big fan of the Ryanverse.

Absolutely. But we definitely right away knew that [the story had to focus on] Jack and Greer. Then we talked a lot about Cathy. The original script that I wrote for the pilot had Jack and Cathy married. They were newlyweds. Then we felt like we didn't want to do what the movies did, and I understand the difficulty and the difficult position they were in with having only two hours, which is you have this wife, and she's a great character and she's played by a phenomenal actress [Anne Archer in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger]. You say goodbye to her at the beginning of the film, and then he comes home and all is well at the end. She's not really participatory in the narrative at all, and so we decided for that reason that it would present more drama to have them meeting for the first time, getting to know each other, and him having this secret of what he does for a living immediately hanging over their interactions. That was kind of a big breakthrough on that character. 

As far as the Jim Greer character, we wanted to do something different. We felt like we had been fairly faithful to Jack, and we wanted to take a little bit more liberties with Jim Greer, and so we made him a little bit younger and we made him a little bit more of a field guy. I think he was the deputy director of the CIA in one of the films. We wanted them to have a lot of interaction, so we came up with this idea of Jim as a field guy who is kind of legendary, but he's just screwed up. Because of that screwup, now he's Jack's direct superior in this sort of backwater post. They're getting to know each other for the first time, and they're getting to see that they're having to decide, is this guy an ally? Is this guy somebody who is going to stab me in the back? By the end of the season, they come to realize that they're a good team, but we very much wanted that to be almost like a dual love story with Jack in both stories, between his budding romance with Cathy and then this bromance he's having with Greer at the same time.

You mention Greer's eventual turn as CIA deputy director. The scope of the Ryanverse is not only vast in the globe-trotting sense, but also in terms of Jack as a man with a career that spans from serving as a Marine to eventually becoming president of the United States in Clancy's books. Have you and Carlton talked about President Ryan? In other words, how far down the line are you looking with this character and series?

We did have initial conversations when we were trying to pitch the longer form of the show. We always said that we probably would never make it to President Jack Ryan, because that seemed so far down the line from where we meet him, but I think what was important to us is that we're telling this story, which hopefully is fairly layered and complicated, about this guy who loves his country and would do anything for it, and has tried through several different chapters of his life to be of service to his country.

In the Marine Corps, that didn't go as planned, and that's a big part of his backstory, not only in the books, but in our first season. Then he has this second chance to do something good as a CIA analyst, and we want to keep building on that and staying true to him as this classic American hero and patriot while watching him do it in different ways. Sooner rather than later, he may be more on the operations side, but we also want to explore the time where he becomes a part-time professor and a consultant to the CIA and then gets pulled into something. Just this idea of service, I think, is what's most important to us without really knowing specifically like, okay, this year, Jack is going to be working at the CIA and moonlighting as a professor or what have you.

As far as the future of Jack Ryan the man and Jack Ryan the series, Amazon ordered a second season four months before the first season premiere; a huge show of confidence…

When they made that decision, season one was done. There was nothing we could go back or adjust. It was what it was. We were actually winding down the process of writing the second season, or maybe a little bit more than halfway through it, because they had decided to order more scripts without actually ordering the production of the show. So we actually started last October brainstorming a second season and then writing some early drafts of scripts. When we got the pickup, I think to us, it was a great early validation that we had done something right the first time around, and that if we stayed on the path that we were on without being formulaic about it, that we would have a good second season and future seasons. I definitely think we are on our way to having a great second season. It's much different than the first season, but I think all of the lessons that you learn on a first season of a show really helped us out with the writing of the second season.

Keep checking THR.com/JackRyan for more coverage of the Amazon series.