This fall, James Wolk will play a cop. Sorry, a nurse. Wait… a rock star? Actually, on the Sliding Doors-esque, what-if drama Ordinary Joe (premiering Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC), fresh-faced protagonist Joe Kimbreau lives out three different versions of his life following a fateful fork in the road on college graduation night. "This was a real joy to take on," says Wolk, who starred as a character living a double life on Lone Star. "I've played two characters before, but I'd never played three. It's a great challenge because you really have to just switch gears.... When you're playing three characters, you have no idea what day it is."
All that role-swapping may be disorienting, yet the show's themes resonated loud and clear with Wolk when it came to his paths (not) taken. "I've had a lot of different crossroads in my life, so I just felt like it really spoke to me," he says, "And I loved the idea of looking at what that looks like. The story felt very personal to me, even though it was different. The idea of choosing an artistic path over the responsible path — all of that felt very real to me."
Wolk was thrice as nice to play along when EW asked him to embrace the show's premise by imagining the three divergent lives he could led, following his 2007 graduation from the University of Michigan with an acting degree.
Illustration by Alex Fine for EW 'Ordinary Joe' star James Wolk imagines three very different paths for himself.
Meet James Wolk, righteous attorney-at-law!
FACT: When Wolk was accepted at Wayne State University Law School, he briefly considered this more "responsible" career path, given that "the law field is a little bit more secure than the acting field." At the time, he saw a logical leap from actor to attorney, and the essay he wrote in his application was "all about the theater of the courtroom."
FANTASY: "I become a trial lawyer, a good fit for someone with an acting background. I'd be like Paul Newman at the end of The Verdict — very forthright, intentional long pauses. I defend people against corporations. I do a lot of pro bono work. I'm that guy who could belong to the country club, but he doesn't. I don't need the money in this fictional world so I'm going to choose the most righteous [path]. I'm driving a used Jeep. I'm single in this world; it's hard to be a lawyer and work those hours. I'm living in Michigan in my hometown, within 10 minutes of where my sister, my parents and my cousins lived. I'm doing Friday dinners with my parents. I have long conversations about the world and smoke cigars like Paul Newman in The Verdict, but I don't have to deal with the health repercussions in this fictional world."
Meet James Wolk, Broadway star-turned-hippie recluse/acting teacher!
FACT: Wolk starred in high school productions of such musicals as Grease and Once Upon a Mattress, as well as a community production of Footloose. As you well know, Wolk did pursue an acting career, but "it actually ended up being something completely different than I thought it was going to be," he notes. Let's see what happens when Wolk pursues his love of musical theater.
FANTASY: "I star in a revival of The Music Man because I always wanted to do that and I never got to play Harold Hill. Everyone goes, "Forget Robert Preston, who originated the Music Man. James Wolk is the Music Man." It becomes one of those shows that runs forever on Broadway. I do it for 20 years because you can really age into that role. I'm well-respected in the New York theater scene. I get a Tony. I'm married to a serious playwright named Claudia. It's a little Daniel Day-Lewis of me — I marry Arthur Miller's other daughter that we didn't know about. At the height of my career, I say, 'Forget it all,' and we move to this hippie commune outside of Woodstock. I've grown my hair long. I don't have a phone; I can only be reached by letter. I open a small theater and a children's camp for acting. People [in New York City] go, 'What happened to Jimmy Wolk? Remember, he was on Broadway? He went up to Woodstock and I haven't seen him.' And they go, 'Oh! He rides his bike there. He calls himself the Music Man and he teaches classes. He's doing great.'"
Meet James Wolk, king of the bar mitzvah circuit!
FACT: In high school and college, Wolk worked as a bar mitzvah emcee for a Detroit-based company, which offered him the chance to open another branch of the business in Bethesda, Md. "It was like acting, but a little bit more secure because I knew I could make a living doing that," he says. "I was excited about the idea of starting a business. I really considered it."
FANTASY: "My wife and I, we happen to meet one day on a train. She's a party planner and I'm a bar mitzvah emcee, and we just start talking shop and we fall in love. We have a couple sets of twins, and that's how things spiral out of control. Nine kids. We're doing weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. I have a way with getting the grandmas on the dance floor — all the aunts, uncles, and kids. My go-to song is KC and the Sunshine Band's 'Get Down Tonight.' That gets everybody excited about the party. I'm living large in Bethesda. That's my more materialistic life because the company is really successful. It's all Mercedes, it's the big house, I'm into the finer things. I have a gold necklace that says 'Mazel.' That's, like, my thing. It's underneath the shirt, but when the party's going well, I take it out and put it on top. That's my signature move to the audience: 'You're partying and I'm here with you!' They all know when the 'Mazel' necklace comes out, this is a bar mitzvah to be reckoned with."