James Wolk is a rock star now – albeit a pretend one – and that’s ironic.
Wolk stars in “Ordinary Joe,” which reruns its pilot film at 8 p.m. Friday (Sept. 24) on NBC, then continues at 10 p.m. Mondays. In TV’s splashiest role, he plays the same guy in three lives – as a cop, a nurse and a musician.
“When Jimmy got on stage, he just completely transformed into this rock star,” said writer-producer Russel Friend.
Elizaeth Lail, who plays his wife (well, one of his wives) agreed. “It breaks my heart, every time he sings,” she told the Television Critics Association.
Still, none of this was in his career plan. Flash back to his college years.
The University of Michigan’s Department of Musical Theatre keeps turning out Broadway stars. (In one recent year, 2018, it had three Tony nominees and eight people in “Hamilton” or one of its tours.) Two of its grads, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, wrote the score of the Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen,” which reaches movie theaters Friday.
And Wolk? “I went to the theater department, which is just kitty-corner to that,” he said. “We shared the same building.”
While his neighbors were making music, he wasn’t. “I studied straight theater – plays and drama.”
There was no time to work his way up in theater: In 2008, a year after graduating, he drew raves in “Front of the Class,” the true story of a teacher with Tourette syndrome.
(Teachers have been key to his life. His mother taught art; his wife is a teacher he met while volunteering at a camp for kids with Tourette.)
Other roles followed, in support (led by “Mad Men” and “Watchmen”) and starring – “Lone Star,” “Zoo,” “Tell Me a Story” and now “Ordinary Joe.”
The first version of the story was written by Matt Reeves in 2008, said writer-producer Garrett Lerner; like most scripts, it was set aside.
“We were looking for a new project in 2018, a good decade later,” Lerner said. “It was taken out of that drawer; it was among several dozen things that had been submitted to us, and it just spoke to us.”
This was a notion similar to the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film “Sliding Doors” or the 2017 Paul Auster novel “4 3 2 1”: The same person, ending up with very different lives.
In their new version, the producers added some personal touches. Friend grew up on Billy Joel turf in Long Island, so he inserted Joel music; also, he said: “Nurse Joe’s son, Christoper, is in a wheelchair and he has the same disease as Garrett’s son does.”
The rest involves a blitz through different genres, Wolk said, “to have a little bit of a medical show, to have a little bit of a cop show” plus the music:
“I have always loved singing, whether it’s in the shower or for my kids or for my wife … I just always am singing. But this is the first time I’ve done it professionally.” And he’s starting as a rock star.