James Wolk Talks ‘This is Happening’, His Worst Audition and Coming to Set Prepared
“By the time the camera rolls, that’s my time. I want to be prepared for that time.” – James Wolk
James Wolk (Mad Men, Zoo) stars in the new film, This is Happening. The film, written and directed by Ryan Jaffe,is the story of an estranged brother and sister (Wolk and Mickey Sumner) who are forced to go on the road to track down their fugitive grandmother (Cloris Leachman).
This is Happening originally began about five years ago as a short film, which Wolk also starred in. When financing finally came through, he said that he happily “jumped on board.”
I recently talked with Wolk about the film and the 11-day shoot, working with the great Chloris Leachman, the side-job he had when he was a young New York actor and how prepared he is when he arrives on-set. And don’t miss the story he told me about his worst audition!
This is Happening is on all VOD platforms. Or, check it out on Amazon!
Where you calling from?
James Wolk: I’m calling you from Santa Monica, California and I’m leaving in a week to go to Vancouver for six months for season two of my show Zoo that I’m working on this year.
How many episodes do you shoot in six months?
James Wolk: 13 episodes.
Wow, six months for 13 episodes.
James Wolk: I know, it’s crazy. It’s a little bit of prep and it’s maybe about 5 ½ months but yes, 13 episodes.
How do you like going on location to shoot?
James Wolk: Overall, I actually really like it because what happens is you are kind of force to really focus on the project. There’s not as many diversions, there’s not as many social obligations and so you’re really forced to just hamper down and focus on the project at hand.
The only bummer for me it is that my wife teaches school in Santa Monica, so we have to do the travel thing when we’re apart. So that’s not the most ideal situation but besides that, being on location is usually great because you get to learn about a new city and do some interesting things.
When she comes out and visits you, does she bring your dog?
James Wolk: She will not be bringing the dog because she’d have to fly with the dog. But in the past when she’s been able to drive to a location where I’m shooting, the dog usually comes.
Can you tell me about your new movie, This is Happening?
James Wolk: We shot it not this past summer, but the summer before that and it was a really great experience. We shot the movie in 11 days, so it was quick and fast and it gave us really no time to think. Everyone really had to be on their toes. Everyone had to be at their best. But it created a great energy, just a really exciting energy where we all bonded together to make this great film.
And not to mention that we got to spend 11 days with Cloris Leachman, which is a joy. The lead actress, Mickey Sumner, and myself, we just had a great time playing brother and sister and then throwing Cloris in the mix, who was playing our grandmother, it’s awesome to work with someone with her pedigree.
What’s it like to hang out and work with her?
James Wolk: It’s amazing, she’s a trip. She was I think at the time 90? Just a ton of energy, great stories, really sharp and it was definitely one for the books.
Can you imagine still going strong at 90?
James Wolk: Oh, it’s incredible. You know, you think of somebody who’s an Academy award-winning actress and just the breadth of her career… this is a smaller movie that we shot in 11 days. I think the role was really attractive to her because it provided the opportunity for her to play a woman who is 90 and who’s at a certain place in her life, dealing with real issues. I don’t think there’s that many incredible roles written for 90-year-old women. This was attractive to her and it was really cool to see her board this film with her exuberance and her excitement. It was a very contagious energy.
How did you get the role?
James Wolk: It is actually very interesting. Ryan Jaffe, who is great, is the director/writer on this film. I shot the short with him, this is going back some years. He did the short, kind of like just a little trailer for this movie to raise financing about five years ago.
So, when he got his financing based on that short, he asked me to come and do the film. And of course, given the history and how much I enjoyed working with him, I jumped on board.
Because you guys shot so quickly, you mentioned that there was no time to think. When I have no time to think, I feel like acting-wise, I’m much better. As opposed to having a bunch of time to go over the material, you know what I mean?
James Wolk: Yeah. I think that there is something to be said about preparation, there is something to be said about script analysis, but there is also something to be said about following your instincts. That presence of mind that you kind of get when you don’t have time to embed yourself and all these different analytics. You know, just kind of going with your gut can sometimes be really rewarding and I think that we experienced that on this film.
Do you like that ‘run and gun’ way of shooting a film? Are you just running on energy the whole the time?
James Wolk: Yeah, it was great. I would love to do it again. I wouldn’t mind a little more time. [laughs] . We, I think, really lucked out because everyone was just game. But having a little bit more time gets you a couple more takes as an actor and things like that are always advantageous. I think we just lucked out on this film. We got in there and did it and I’m proud of it.
I think there’s something really cool about making an indie film just overall. Whether it’s 11 days or 20 days or 50 days. Doing indie film and working with a group of people is an exciting thing.
When you got the actual feature-length script, was there anything that you wanted to change with what you did with the character originally?
James Wolk: I actually saw some things in that I did in the short that I didn’t like, just from a character standpoint. I thought, “Oh, you know what? I don’t know if I need to do that. Or it would be more interesting if this was little less on the surface.” So, it was cool, I got to watch like game footage. You know when Super Bowl teams are playing each other you watch your opponent? So I watched game footage on myself and I was able to make a couple changes that I thought were important to the character.
Do you still get nervous before you do a big scene? You’ve worked with some big actors like Cloris Leachman, John Voigt and Robin Williams. How could you not?
James Wolk: Yeah, I still get nervous. I think that’s something that you’ll always get, there’s that pressure. Like when you see a big scene, your brain automatically goes, “Oh, this is a big scene. It’s gotta be big.” And just that word “big” is like, “Okay, now I gotta show up. I gotta perform.”
I find now if I just kind of step into it without expectations and let the moment guide the next moment guide the next moment, you kind of find yourself there as opposed to looking at it as a big scene and then feeling like, “I have to make something here.” Because in life when you get into a fight or there’s a big to do, usually you don’t walk into it thinking, “This is gonna be big.” Once in a while that happens but usually it’s one moment leading to another. So, I try to let myself enter it in a simple way and then let it kind of take me over. And then I get less nervous because I don’t feel like, “I gotta make this amazing.”
I want to ask you about working with Robin Williams. Just watching and working with him [in the CBS series, The Crazy Ones] would be like a master class I would think.
James Wolk: It’s amazing, yeah. It was a master class, certainly.
Besides be around the person that he is, which is just an incredibly kind, wonderful human being, working with him as a fellow actor was a master class because to be able to be up close and personal with someone who I had seen do so many great performances, I was able to peer inside his process a little bit just by proximity to being there every day for a year and it was an incredible experience.
You went to University of Michigan and I read that you were thinking of going into pre-med instead of theater.
James Wolk: Well, I came in as an acting major and pre-med. Pre-med because that did interest me, sciences did interest me. And also because I wanted maybe to do something that felt more secure, albeit a really long road and a lot of work to get there, something that felt a little more secure.
And then as I experienced the acting school and started doing plays, one thing led to another and I just got to a breaking point where I needed to make a choice and I said to myself, “I love acting and this is what I want to do with my life.”
So, in my sophomore year I stopped my pre-med classes and starting my junior year, I just finished studying English and acting. And, upon graduating in and 2007 I moved out to New York.
How was your time in New York? That’s one thing I regret that I never moved to New York after college.
James Wolk: I loved New York, I had a great time. It was right after college and I was just trying to figure out how to break into the business. I didn’t find a ton of success as far as landing jobs but I learned a lot and I took some really good classes there. I took some amazing acting classes that kind of changed the way I looked at acting.
I just experienced life there for about a year and a half and then an opportunity took me to LA but I loved New York. It’s a great place. The winters were brutal but it’s a great place. There’s so much theatre to see but it was a lot of fun.
You had a side job of emceeing and you would fly back and forth to Detroit on the weekends?
James Wolk: That’s right, I was a bar mitzvah emcee in Detroit and so come Friday night, I would fly to Detroit and emcee a bar mitzvah Saturday night or Sunday morning and then fly back to New York on Sunday evening. Then I would have all week to audition and take classes. My day job was emceeing corporate events and bar mitzvahs in Detroit.
You must’ve been the greatest emcee ever.
James Wolk: [laughs] I was really good. I was a highly requested bar mitzvah emcee and it was a lot of fun.
What if somebody called you today and said, “Hey, we’ve got a really big gig for you.” Would you do it?
James Wolk: You know, I don’t think I would but I kind of miss it. Now that I haven’t done it for so long I kind of miss doing it.
When you go to set how prepared are you for that day?
James Wolk: I’m usually very prepared.
If it’s a TV show, the pace at which it moves is so fast that there’s only so much prep that you can do. You’re doing 60 pages a week and things are changing. So, knowing the episode is important, knowing the scenes and how they fall is important, but word for word I usually don’t know exactly until the night of or the morning of just because the frequency at which things move and how they change.
But I’ve become comfortable with that because I know the character so well and I know the world so well, so all that pre-work is already there as opposed to an indie film. I just got finished doing one in Buffalo for six weeks. I knew the scenes inside and out prior to shooting because I didn’t know the character as well, I didn’t know the world as well. I didn’t have four months of buildup. If we’re on episode 10, I can kind of learn the lines that morning because I know the world so well. With a film or play, it’s more of a personal process where I’m really working things out.
Now, if I’m working on a TV show and there’s a scene that I read and for some reason it’s not opening up to me in a way that I feel comfortable with, then I’ll take the few hours it takes to get it down in my body. It just always depends on how comfortable I am with the character and the time that we have to shoot.
But when the camera rolls, I will say that I always feel like I need to be prepared because number one, it’s your job as an actor. And number two, I want that first take to be an exploration so then, that second tape is a new exploration and the third take a something else. So I’m taking that time for me because you don’t have that much time in TV and movies, it’s not like a play. You do a play every night and you get to find different things over the course of four months. This is something where you do a couple takes and then you move on. So by the time the camera rolls, that’s my time. I want to be prepared for that time.
What’s your worst audition?
James Wolk: My worst audition ever was I had just moved out to LA and someone thought it would be a good idea for me to audition for the Green Day musical, American Idiot. I don’t know why. But I didn’t say “no” because I can carry a tune and I was really excited. But none of it really made sense because it wasn’t really the right thing.
So I went in and I auditioned. I like screamed my way through a song and then at the end, I thought it would be a dramatic choice to throw a chair across the room. It was terrible. Everybody in the room looked to me like I had lost my mind. I looked at me like I had lost my mind. I had good intentions but something went awry after the first note. I don’t know what happened.
And I walked out and thought, “Well, there’s my terrible audition story.”