The Audition Hack That Brought James Wolk From ‘Mad Men’ to ‘Watchmen’ + Beyond

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Immortalized in television (and meme) history as the recipient of the famous “Not great, Bob!” line on “Mad Men,” James Wolk’s career has been peppered with great TV moments, from working alongside the late Robin Williams on “The Crazy Ones” to appearing on HBO’s Emmy-winning limited series “Watchmen.” His latest project sees Wolk playing three versions of the same man on NBC’s “Ordinary Joe,” which depicts the ways in which Joe’s life would change if he made decisions based on love, loyalty, or passion.

What advice would you give your younger self?
I wish I could take a time machine back to when I was 22, about a year out of college. I would say, “Just relax. Your success, your failures, whatever this journey is going to be for you is not going to be aided by anxiety, stress, and worry. That’s not going to change the outcome, so you might as well buckle up and enjoy the ride of it more.” I would love to say that to my former self. You know what he would say to me? “Get out of my face, I can’t talk about that right now. I’ve got to prepare for this audition.” 

What is your worst audition horror story?
When I first started, I auditioned for the Green Day musical on Broadway [“American Idiot”]. I’m so not a tenor; I’m a baritone. And I’m also not a professional singer. I’m singing on this show [“Ordinary Joe”] and it’s amazing, but I’m working with a vocal coach. I can definitely carry a tune, but I can carry a tune as a baritone, not a tenor. But at 22, you go, “Oh, I can do anything.” So I’m literally screaming these high notes in this room with all these amazing Broadway folk. It was so clear when I was singing, they were like, “This guy, get him out of here.” 

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to get a role?
One time, I walked out of an audition room and felt like, I can do better. I walked back in and said to the director, “You know what, if you don’t mind, I’d love to do that one more time.” I don’t suggest doing that. It’s not a great thing to do. It worked in that scenario, but I don’t think I’d try to do that again. 

What performance should every actor see and why?
I think Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook” is an amazing example of a contemporary actor who lives in the role. A throwback to watch would be Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Boxer.” Just the subtlety and the honesty is really beautiful. The other performance I would say, which I think is kind of underrated, [is] John Cazale in anything he did. 

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I was just talking about this with my wife! I think it was “Front of the Class,” which is my “Ordinary Joe” moment. Because of that film, I met my wife, and obviously because of my wife, I have my kids. What if I had not auditioned for that film? I would not have my life. 

What has playing Joe in “Ordinary Joe” added to your acting skills?
It’s so challenging in a really phenomenal way. I was just talking about this yesterday with some of the cast members. We are all of us playing three versions of ourselves in this world where our decisions have drastically changed who we’ve become. I think the biggest challenge is, in one of the worlds, my wife is played by Elizabeth Lail, she plays Jenny. One day, we’ll be standing around our son and it’ll be his birthday and we’re having a loving moment as husband and wife and as parents. And then, the next day, we’ll be in a totally different world where we haven’t seen each other in 10 years. She’s just this woman I had a relationship with in college. As an actor, the challenge is playing all of those beats and nuanced moments. 

“What would this audition be like if no one was in the room and I was doing it for me?”

James Wolk

Did you approach the role as preparing for three different characters?
Yes, in a way. I basically prepared for one character from when he was born to [age] 21. I worked with this amazing acting coach who I love and often work on projects with. We created the backstory of who this man is until 21, and then, at that point, it’s creating a different 10 years for him. What has happened in the last 10 years? In the nurse storyline, he’s gotten married, they have a kid with special needs, they have their struggles in their marriage. In another storyline, he followed his dream and became a famous musician, but he has his struggles with his wife. And then in another story, he never got married, he went and followed in his father’s footsteps and became a police officer and froze in time as this Peter Pan guy who didn’t want to grow up. How do those 10 years affect him in each world? That’s the character work. 

Tell us about your first day on a professional set. 
I had done a commercial, but I would say that’s less memorable for me than the following project, which was a made-for-TV movie. That would be the first time on a set that I have visceral memories [of]. I was playing a man who had Tourette syndrome, and I was so nervous to step into that role. I was just getting used to everything, like craft services. “Oh, my God, people bring food onto a set?” I had only really done theater until that point, so that was a big change, transitioning from the stage to working in front of a camera. It was called “Front of the Class.”

How do you typically prepare for an audition?
I’m still a little bit of a fanatic when it comes to preparation, but I would say I am less of a perfectionist. I don’t want to try and make that audition perfect, because what happens is then you’re performing it for someone else. If I can only play this role once and this is the one time I get to walk into the room and play it, do I want to play it for someone else so they’re happy? Or, if this is the last time I get to play this role and I get to play it for me, how would I play it? Then you start making choices that are rooted in who you are and what you believe and that, I think, translates. You’re either going to get the role or you’re not going to get the role, so you have to prepare, because that’s your craft as an actor. But at a certain point, you have to go, “OK, I’m prepared. At this point, I’ve got to just release it and go in and do this for me. What would this audition be like if no one was in the room and I was doing it for me because I want to play this role?” Then, if you don’t get it, you haven’t given up a piece of yourself trying to impress somebody. You’ve stuck to your guns and you’re doing it for you. And you can feel good about that. 

They want to see you’ve made choices. Sometimes we’re going to be eliminated the minute we walk in because it’s not the right type. That’s a hard pill to swallow as an actor, but that’s totally out of your control. But the second thing that they’re looking for—and this could even change their mind—they’re looking for, is this an honest actor? Are they truthful in their moments? A director knows at that point, I can direct them, I can give them notes, I can push this character with them. But they want to see you’re being honest in your moments. It’s less about perfection and more about being present and being in the room and getting in touch with your instrument and being authentic.

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