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October 22, 2013
James Wolk loved watching Robin Williams' movies as a kid.
Now, Wolk, 28, is working with the Oscar-winning actor, which he calls "crazy."
That seems appropriate since their new sitcom is called "The Crazy Ones," a David E. Kelley series in which Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar portray father and daughter in a family-owned advertising agency. Wolk plays Zach Cropper, a rising star in the industry.
"[Williams] is incredible," says Wolk, BFA '07. "There are a lot of people you hope will live up to what you think they are as a human being. He's such a great person. He's so genuine to the core and it's so contagious on set—he's such a pleasure to work with. As for his talent, I don't think I need to comment on that."
Agency of record
Zach is the second adman Wolk has played—back-to-back, no less. This past season on AMC's critically acclaimed "Mad Men," Wolk portrayed the enigmatic Bob Benson, circa 1968.
"The storyline ended with a cloak of mystery around him. What exactly his intentions are haven't been made clear," says Wolk. "The audience was questioning, 'Who is this guy?'"
Wolk couldn't offer anything else about the character, but not because he was being evasive. He actually doesn't know, since the "Mad Men" creators are notoriously secretive. Nonetheless, he would jump at the chance to reprise his role once "Mad Men" returns for its final season in 2014.
"I always wanted to be on it," he says of the '60s-era drama. "I love that time, I love that era ... I had no idea Bob Benson was gonna be Bob Benson. I didn't know who he was—he's this go-getter, eager-beaver kinda guy, which are the kind of roles I've been able to play thus far. I thought it would be a great character to take on, but had no idea who he was, past the extent of what I was told. If there's another story to tell with Bob, I'd love to be there. I've definitely been in communication with [the creators] and time will tell."
When comparing Bob to Zach, Wolk laughs.
"They're very different," he says. "Zach is very straightforward, incredibly confident in a different way than Bob is confident. He's very much a lady's man, a jokester, the life of the party. He looks up to Robin's character, Simon, as a fatherly figure and mentor. He loves being part of the agency. He's a really funny character as opposed to Bob, who's confident in sort of an odd way. No matter where Bob was, he was still very polite and confident about himself—very different characters."
Growing up in Farmington Hills, Wolk did impersonations at family functions, making people laugh. This led to his love of acting. However, at U-M, he started out as a pre-med major.
"[Being at U-M] was one of the most formative times of my life," he says. "It was an incredible place to learn about acting, learn about life. It went by in a flash but I loved every minute of it. I was studying pre-med because I wanted to make my parents and grandparents happy and not have them worry about how I'd earn a paycheck. Within two years, I thought my head was gonna explode because late at night, I'd be studying calculus and chemistry. I came home to see my family and said, 'Listen, I can't do this. It's not what I wanna do with my life.' I remember that moment very well. It wasn't the easiest thing to tell them."
After graduating with a double major in English and acting, Wolk moved to New York City, studying with Anthony Abeson at the Actors Studio. While auditioning in Los Angeles, he met his manager and scored some auditions. In 2008 he landed his first role as Brad Cohen, a teacher with Tourette Syndrome, in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie "Front of the Class."
"During my time in New York, I did a day on 'One Life to Live' and an Olive Garden commercial. Those at the time were very exciting for me. I would say the first 'professional' job as an actor—those two other gigs were professional, don't get me wrong—the one I wanna hang on my hat on is 'Front' ... when I was a year-and-a-half out of college. That came out of nowhere at the beginning of my career," recalls Wolk. "I can literally point to 'Front' and say it was a game-changer for me. It was the right place, the right time, the right role, the right read. I had no credits to my name and I got the role—it was amazing."
Wolk's next big project was the TV drama "Lone Star," where he played the lead role of Robert Allen, a con man leading a secret double life. Although the pilot was praised by critics, "Lone Star" turned out to be a false start. It was canceled after the second episode because of low ratings.
"'Lone Star' was one for the books," Wolk says. "To this day, I don't know what happened. It came out and got great critical attention. Who knows? I hate to be a Monday-morning quarterback but it was up against 'Monday Night Football' and 'Dancing with the Stars,'" he says. "There are so many things you can point at and go, 'Who knows?' It was a helluva an experience, I can tell you that much. It's unbelievable why [FOX canceled it], but it was a good lesson to learn early on."
Wolk continues: "It was a very odd notion to be lifted up so high—get all these kinds of accolades for something that hadn't even aired!—and then to come crashing to the ground. It was a really weird experience for me. The lesson I learned, that I think about all the time, is to choose material that's meaningful to me, that I enjoy doing. I enjoy the creative process. The outcome and the product: You have no control over it. You think you have control over it, but you don't. That's what 'Lone Star' taught me. It got ingrained in me early on and I'm thankful for that."
Since then, Wolk has appeared on the big and small screens alongside Sigourney Weaver, Betty White, and Kristen Bell, among others.
"I feel very lucky," says Wolk. "I'm playing roles I'm proud of and I love playing. I only hope that's the trajectory for the rest of my career."
is a freelance writer based in Detroit.