James Wolk is the best actor whose name you don't know. But you've seen him. You've seen his performances, which have been great from the start and have just kept getting better. Not only is he consistent, but that intangible quality that others aspire to, he has. Whether it's a supporting part in a movie or a leading role on television, he's elevated every project that he's been in. Oh, and he's also one of Hollywood's true gentlemen. Now, in 2013, there's no limit to what he can do.
He's no overnight success, either. He's worked his way to the top of his craft, and the rise began with a 2008 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie called Front of the Class. James played Brad Cohen, a real-life teacher who didn't let his Tourette's Syndrome stop him in his quest to become the educator he never had, and who not only achieved his goal but was also named the best first-year teacher in the state of Georgia. It was a compelling story that deserved a quality lead actor, and James wasn't just good, he was perfect.
As he was shooting the film, he knew this project was something different. "When I made that film, even prior to having it come out and be well received, the process of that was the lightbulb moment," he says during our phone conversation. "It's a very near and dear project and story to me. His story's an incredible story, and so I felt great responsibility to tell it as honestly as I knew how to. I worked with an incredible director. I had an incredible group of people, actors and production alike. It felt really special."
Front of the Class was James' big break. As I wrote in a recent retrospective on the film, he was as spot on as could be asked for. He didn't just copy another human being; he made audiences understand, feel for and ultimately embrace Brad Cohen. No actor has shown what it's really like to live with a disability - not just physically but emotionally and mentally - as truly as James did. As a disabled person myself, I tell people, "If you want to know what it's like to be me, watch this movie," because it's the only time I've ever felt like someone got it right.
I'm not the only person who was touched by James' work in the movie. His portrayal of Brad earned him praise from not only the real man, but from audiences as well. One viewer wrote that they'd had to look him up online, because he was so convincing that they thought he really had Tourette's Syndrome.
James gave a phenomenal performance in the movie, but he also left great impressions on his co-stars. "I had such a blast with Jimmy Wolk, and that was like his first big job and now he's just everywhere, which is so awesome," recounted Sarah Drew, who played Nancy, Brad's girlfriend and future wife. "He is also just the nicest person on the planet, too. He's so just grounded and down to earth."
Said two-time Emmy winner Patricia Heaton, who played Brad's mother Ellen, in the DVD's making-of feature: "The first day I was here, he was filming a very difficult scene where he gets very upset, and the director came over to me and said, 'Come watch this.' So I sat down by the monitors and watched him do this very difficult scene. My breath was taken away."
Five years after its CBS debut, Front of the Class still recurs regularly on Hallmark Movie Channel, and may be the only Hall of Fame movie to spawn fan-created trailers and music video tributes. It was an unbelievable start for a great young actor. With its success, James had definitely arrived, but he was only just getting started.
After Front of the Class, the industry took notice. Two years later, James hit the big screen alongside Kristen Bell and Odette Annable in You Again, playing Will Olsen, the main character's pretty much perfect big brother who is revealed to be engaged to her high school nemesis. It could've easily been a throwaway supporting role, but he fully realized the character, including an applause-worthy scene in which a frustrated Will takes both his sister and bride-to-be to task after the two have a major fight.
And once again, he charmed his colleagues. "He's so sweet," said Annable, who played Will's fiancee, Joanna. "He's the sweetest, sweetest man. I really had such a great time with him and I'm so proud of him. He's doing such great things in his career. He was such a doll to work with."
The same year, James was also starring in a one-hour drama for FOX called Lone Star. Created by Kyle Killen, who would go on to pen Awake for NBC, the show focused on a con man named Robert Allen, living two lives in two Texas cities, and creating tension with his less than reputable father when he makes the decision to try and legitimately maintain both of them. Playing Robert gave James his first TV series lead role, but he didn't have a lot of time to process the attention that came with the accomplishment.
"It happened like lightning," he says. "It just came out of nowhere and all of a sudden, especially with a one-hour drama of network television, you're just in the midst of so much work. I didn't even really have time to thin about what we were doing. That character had a double life, it was almost like double work. There were so many stories to be told. It was really a wild ride."
Many critics embraced the series as one of the best new shows of the season. Unfortunately, FOX didn't share the same high opinion, and FOX pulled the plug on Lone Star after just two episodes. They then cancelled a planned Saturday late-night burn-off, so five completed installments remain on the shelf years later, in one of the great tragedies of modern television.
What would've happened had the lights stayed on? James reveals that it was only going to get more complicated. "It was such an intricate story," he explains. "I think the last we saw of Robert, he was juggling the two wives and the two lives. When the show ended, we were in the midst of getting him in a lot of trouble. I think ultimately what would've happened would've been incredible. Kyle Killen is unbelievable and his brain is on a different level."
Although Lone Star's lifespan was painfully brief, it established James as someone who could carry a television series, both in terms of talent and work ethic. Many of the show's glowing reviews cited his performance in the leading role. Before Matt Bomer made waves with White Collar, James was just as impressive as Lone Star's con artist, making him believable as both a man capable of leading two separate lives, and a protagonist that the audience should root for despite that fact. His Robert Allen was someone who had chosen a bad way in life, but was at heart a good person, better than many others around him.
Following Lone Star's demise, James got a chance to show his comedic side with a pair of multi-episode stints on Showtime's Shameless and ABC's Happy Endings. They demonstrated that he was as capable with comedy as he had proven to be with drama. On Shameless, his hotshot Adam was the only love interest for Fiona that had enough chemistry with actress Emmy Rossum to be considered a legitimate alternative to the show's central relationship between Fiona and Steve. With Happy Endings, his natural charisma was in full force, as his character Grant was essentially the perfect boyfriend. In fact, one of his episodes was called "Everybody Loves Grant." With James playing the part, the title didn't seem like hyperbole. It actually felt fitting.
After the guest spots, he moved back to the front of the ensemble last year, when he was the first actor cast as one of the stars in USA's summer miniseries Political Animals. The project required him to play with a trio of heavyweights: multiple Academy Award nominee Sigourney Weaver, Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn and experienced Irish actor Ciaran Hinds. Yet amongst the veterans, James held his own. Playing Douglas Hammond, the favorite son of and Chief of Staff to Elaine Barrish Hammond, made great use of his boy-next-door appeal and also pointed out one of his biggest strengths: that he's capable of detailing the complexities that exist under the good looks and charm.
Political Animals showed just how far James had come as an actor in a relatively short time. He still had the ability to connect with an audience as he had in Front of the Class, and his experience with Lone Star had given him more confidence and screen presence. He got the audience invested in Doug, and took them along for the ride as he began to crack, making it possible to not just care but understand the character. He brought the character to life as a fully realized human being, including not just his flaws but also his strengths. Even when in a scene with the likes of Weaver and Hinds, it wasn't uncommon for James to own a moment.
In fact, Doug was one of the favorite characters on the show - at least until the fifth episode, when he impulsively cheated on his fiancee with an overbearing reporter. It was a turn of events that some fans like to pretend didn't happen. Asked about that particular plot twist, James says, "Doug really came undone. He started off really clean-cut and Mr. Right and he just kind of unraveled. Of course, that is not the right move at all!"
While there were rumblings toward the end that Political Animals might be picked up to series for a full second season, and it concluded with some unanswered questions, James wasn't aware of what might have happened next. "I actually don't know where it would've gone," he says. "We kind of all signed on as a miniseries. I think the icing on the cake was that it got nominated for a Golden Globe [for Best Miniseries]."
He pauses, then observes with a laugh that maybe he should turn to writing: "I could finish all the stories of all my characters."
It's actually not a bad idea. James has shown a depth and honesty in his handling of characters that would make many writers jealous. He can do what the best actors do, which is to elevate the material on the page, so that the character feels like an actual person, beyond just what we see of them. Whether he's front and center in a scene or in the background of it, he's always conveying something, and it doesn't have to be scripted. He's always in the moment.
He also never passes judgment on his characters. They're human beings, and he enables the audience to understand them, as equally in their weak moments as we do in their strong ones. There's a line in Political Animals where one character tells Doug that although he's cheated on his fiancee and betrayed his mother, he's still a good guy - something that would be laughable if any other actor were playing the part. But because it was James, who was able to show the audience the why of it all, the statement rang true.
Then there's that "it" factor. In everything he's done, you can tell that he's not only putting his best effort into it, but also enjoying himself, and that comes across in each performance. It's simply a pleasure just to watch him whenever he appears on screen.
He says he's also considered directing someday, making good use of his BFA in Acting from the University of Michigan. "I think directing would be an amazing role to take on," he says, and he's prepared to work for that next line on his resume, as evidenced by how he qualifies the statement with, "I want to find myself there when I'm ready for it. There's no rush to that."
For now, James is keeping busy acting. On the day we connect, he's in the middle of filming a "great independent romantic comedy" called There's Always Woodstock, and he's just found out that he's going to be co-starring with Robin Williams in a new CBS comedy pilot called Crazy Ones, from uber-producer David E. Kelley. "It's a real honor," he says of the news. "I love comedy, and most of the roles that I've been exposed to the public in have been more dramatic roles." He's also excited to be working with Williams, whom he calls "such a comedic genius."
Perhaps the best role James has played is himself. Inspired by working on Front of the Class, he now sits on the board of directors for the Brad Cohen Tourette Foundation, and has volunteered his time at Camp Twitch and Shout, Cohen's summer camp for children with Tourette's Syndrome. He describes himself as "very normal and low-key," devoted to his family and his girlfriend. And he's honestly one of the most pleasant people to hold a conversation with.
As we get further into our call, it's less an interview and more a dialogue. Talk turns to our favorite movies and what to do with the five-foot-tall Political Animals poster that my friends gave me as a rather odd present. He wants to get to know me, and I feel like I've known him for a lot longer than the last twenty minutes. I'm comfortable enough to confide in him about the health issues that made me miss doing any press for Lone Star when it aired. By the time we finish talking, James has become not just one of my favorite actors, but one of my favorite people. With his talent, strong work ethic, and great personality, he certainly deserves all the success that ought to soon come his way.
Though he's primed to achieve even greater things, he isn't worried about the height of his profile. He remains as humble as ever. "I've been so fortunate," he says. "For me, right now, success comes in the form of working with great actors who inspire me, great directors who I can take inspiration from and learn from, and working with great material. If I can do those three things, then I'm a happy man."
You can keep up with James on Twitter (@JamesWolk). And be sure to keep your eye on him - he's the one to watch in 2013.
(c)2013 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Examiner with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.