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Updated: September 24, 2021 @ 10:46 am
The new NBC drama “Ordinary Joe” stars James Wolk and envisions one character’s life as it progresses along three different career paths: As a cop, a nurse or a famous musician.
“The show is a ‘what if?’ premise,” said Wolk. “What if you had made a certain career choice, and how does that drastically affect your life? In our story, I play Joe Kimbreau and you see him on the day he’s about to graduate college and he’s faced with three very different paths.”
Had Wolk’s life taken a different direction, he might have gone to law school, he said. But acting it was, and for many audiences one of his more memorable roles was on “Mad Men” as the upbeat account man Bob Benson, aka the guy on the receiving end of Pete Campbell’s indignant “Not great, Bob!” mini-tantrum.
Wolk’s credits also include “Lone Star,” “Political Animals,” “Goliath” and “Watchmen.” When asked about a cringeworthy moment from his career, he told a story about the CBS drama “Zoo,” about a global animal uprising. Wolk starred as a zoologist who is running safaris in Africa when the show begins.
It ran for three seasons from 2015 to 2017. But his first day at work was one for the dogs.
My worst moment …
“I was playing a character who had spent 10 years in South Africa, and when I got the role I called my friend who is South African and I said, ‘OK, I want to come in with a strong South African accent. Because this guy grew up there, he’s been living there for 10 or 15 years — don’t you think he’d have a South African accent?” And my friend said, ‘Yeah, of course he would.’
“He lives in the States now, so he put me on the phone with a bunch of his friends who he grew up with in South Africa. And I’m going through hours on the phone with these guys. I’m getting the lingo, I’m getting their slang, I’m working on the accent. I’m going deep into it.
“And I go down to Louisiana, where we filmed the show. And my wife had said to me prior to the first table read, ‘Jimmy, did you do the South African accent at any other point, like when you read for the role or when you met with anyone?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Well, did they tell you should have a South African accent?’ And I said, ‘No. No, no, no — but this guy has been living in South Africa for 10 or 15 years, you don’t understand, he would have a South African accent. I’m a serious actor, I’m going to have this accent.’
“So I ignored her advice and went to the table read. And because it’s the first day, people from the network are there, the producers are there, the writers are there. I was playing the lead of the show, so I had a lot of lines. It wasn’t just one scene. So I did the entire script with a South African accent. And slang, like: ‘I’m from Joburg!’ (Slang for Johannesburg.) I just went for it. Every scene.
“We finish the table read. And afterward our creator-executive producer slowly walked over to me and he goes, ‘Hey.’ And I go, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ I’m thinking: I nailed that. And not only did I nail that, I nailed it with a South African accent.
“And he goes, ‘So … what’s going on with your voice?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he was like, ‘You’re kind of saying certain words certain ways.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m doing a South African accent.’
“And he goes, ‘Yeah. Don’t do that.’
“And I realized no one thought that was a good idea. And I made the entire network and all the producers suffer through my attempt at a South African accent for an hour and it was horrible. I was just red with embarrassment. It was so bad that he wasn’t like, ‘Why are you doing that accent?’ He thought there was something wrong with my voice. And he wasn’t trying to be mean! He’s a really nice guy. He just legitimately thought there was something wrong with my voice.
“So I wasn’t feeling great about my job in that moment. But I also didn’t think they were going to recast me. I knew they liked me. But I knew that I should never do that again. I mean, I went full Daniel Day-Lewis into South Africa for that table read, and they just wanted me.
“So, I didn’t lose the job. And the show went on for three years and you can find no sign of a South African accent.”
Wolk had spent all that time envisioning this character with an accent, was it hard to let go of it?
“Yeah, it was. I was so excited and so sure of myself. So it was embarrassing. And my friend from South Africa, I called him and was like, ‘Dude, you have no idea. I did the accent and they thought something was wrong with my voice. They don’t want it.’ And he was cracking up.
“I have done accents on other projects and it’s gone better. I did an accent on ‘Watchmen’; I played a senator from the state of Oklahoma, so I did an Oklahoma accent and that was received really well. I worked with a professional dialect coach, so that was a different story (laughs).
“I can learn an accent and once I get it down, I’m solid. But I can’t cold-read an accent, whereas some people are just like (snaps his fingers), you want an accent, they got it ready for you in their bag of tricks.”
The takeaway …
“Be brave, but don’t be too brave. People usually hire you for a version of you, unless otherwise specified.”
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