Farmington Hills native James Wolk may be in LA now…but he sure hasn’t lost his Midwestern charm.
How do I know this?READ MORE: City Of Detroit Secures $12.1 Million To Support 6 Affordable Housing Projects
He arrived at CBS 62 Studios for our interview…alongside his mom, Edie. “I brought my mom,” he said with a smile. We walked down the hall to our studio, and he was careful to keep pace with her. “This is my mom, Edie,” he said proudly, introducing her each time we passed someone new. And on the way out? He held her hand as she walked down our stairs.
A grad of North Farmington High School and the University of Michigan, James is an actor we’re proud to call ours, here in the local community. Since his breakout role as an inspiring young man with Tourette’s Syndrome in Hallmark’s “Front of the Class,” he’s assembled quite the resume, including featured roles in CBS’ The Crazy Ones and Zoo.
In town for a special premiere event for his latest film, This is Happening, James stopped by CBS 62 Studios for an exclusive Detroit Proud interview. We chatted with James about everything from his new film to Michigan Football, and from local music to working with Robin Williams. Here’s what happened:
Let’s talk about This is Happening. Tell us about your new movie!
It’s a comedy about a family, starring Cloris Leachman, myself, Mickey Sumner, and Judd Nelson. The premise of the movie is about a family who, after facing some serious struggles, find themselves basically on a mission. And that is, my character, Philip, and his sister, played by Mickey Sumner, have to go take their aging grandma, played by Cloris Leachman, to an assisted living home. When she finds out that they’re going to take her there, she steals their car and runs away. And if you know Cloris Leachman…it gets a little crazy.
Most unforgettable part of shooting this movie?
The best part about shooting This is Happening was we really banded together as a family…and the movie’s about a family. It really felt like, by the time we were done shooting, we were really bonded together. When you have to shoot a movie in 11 days, you know, you’re just working, non-stop, and you’re in it together…it’s like being at a camp, and you’re just making it happen. It was a great experience.
Five words that will make someone want to see this movie. GO.
Family. Fun. Drama. Lotta Heart (we’re going to make that one word). Exciting.
Okay, switching gears here. I know you’ve worked with some Detroit natives, like Kristen Bell and Matthew Weinberg (one of the producers of This is Happening). As far as being out in LA and being from Detroit – what’s it like when you’re out there and you bump into other Detroit natives?
It’s pretty great. I think whenever another Michigander or Detroiter runs into another Detroiter, we get really excited. You just go, “Oh, where ya from?” and there’s an immediate connection, I think. There’s a lot of pride that people from Metro Detroit have. Just knowing you’re from this area and you share this in common – it’s really wonderful.
What do you think sets Detroit apart from other big cities like New York or LA?
I think what sets Detroit apart from bigger cities like LA or New York is there’s an excitement here of a place that I think people all want to see be the great city that it can be. I think, back in the day, you heard great stories about Detroit. Detroit had all the industry, and there was all this hustle and bustle going on here. So, you just know that Detroit can be that again and is on its way to becoming the great city it once was. There’s an excitement – like a pioneer excitement – you can go down there and make things happen, is what I’m hearing.
Between your roles in Front of the Class, The Crazy Ones, and now, Zoo, you’ve obviously portrayed a pretty wide variety of personalities. Who, that you’ve played, do you think you can most relate to?
I’ve had the luxury of being able to play a lot of different characters, whether it be drama or comedy, and I would say I probably relate mostly to…a little bit in each of them. Like the character in this movie, This is Happening, Philip, he’s a little bit more neurotic than me, but I have a little bit of those neuroses. And then Jackson Oz, who I play in Zoo, is very heroic and very brave. He’s probably more brave than I am, but I have a little bit of that. Zach, in The Crazy Ones, you know, he’s a goofball and he loved to sing and dance, and there’s a side of me that’s that. And that’s the fun thing as an actor, is you get to explore all different facets of you and kind of put them into the characters. You just live in that facet, 100%, you know, depending on what character you play.
When you come back to the area here, where are your “must go-to” places?
One place that I love to go in Detroit itself is the Detroit Institute of Arts, the DIA. My mom is an artist, and so we always would go down there and walk around that area, and kind of just enjoy the city. Another place I love going to is driving Woodward with my dad. It’s a great hub; it just kind of goes up and down…there’s a lot of history there. Also, just kind of sitting outside and enjoying what right now is this fall weather, and the fresh, Michigan air. I wish you could bottle that and sell it. [Laughs]. I think it would sell really well.
Speaking of fall…have you been to any Michigan football games lately?
I haven’t gone to a Michigan football game this year, but last year, I went to a Michigan football game, and the year before. This year, I don’t think I’m going to make it to one.
But…do you have your Harbaugh khakis?
[Laughs] I don’t have my Harbaugh khakis, but I’m excited that Harbaugh’s there. I think he’s the man to do the job. I hope so. I really hope so.
Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, & Pistons – if you had to pick one…
If I had to pick Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, or Pistons, I’d probably choose Pistons. Or the Michigan Wolverines.
Faygo or Vernors?
Faygo or Vernors? It depends on the mood I’m in, but probably Faygo. Yeah. [Laughs]. Yeah, that’s a good question.
You’ve worked with Cloris Leachman, Robin Williams, Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis…some pretty big names. What’s it like working alongside people you probably grew up watching?
It’s a trip. I think working with Robin Williams was really amazing. I grew up and, like everyone else, felt like he was almost part of my family because he was always on the TV I was watching, always in the movies I saw. When I first met Robin, it was auditioning opposite of him, we did a screen test to be in [The Crazy Ones], and I remember waiting, and being very nervous and very intimidated that he was going to come out of this elevator. All of a sudden, this man appeared and he was so humble and so nice, and he didn’t know where the room was that we were going. He was looking for the producer room and all of a sudden, he just immediately put me at ease. Working with him felt – unbelievably to me now, sitting here, saying this – it felt natural. That’s a testament to him and how giving and warm he is. He made us all feel very good.
Now, you guys sang together in The Crazy Ones. Do you anticipate singing again in future projects?
Robin and I sang together, we improv-ed together…and I would love to improv and sing again, sometime soon.
What was the biggest takeaway that you learned from Robin?
I always say – at least for these last two years – that working with Robin made me, on a comedy, made me a better dramatic actor. That was because I was able to watch him and see the mechanism kind of working as an artist. It just was this improvisational – almost like music – staying in the moment, very present self that he carried. It, I think, carried on to my acting, and I’d just steal that from him, and I think it made me a better dramatic actor. But, you know, the audience at home can be the judge. [Laughs]
Top 5 favorite Detroit musicians?
Wow. Okay. In no particular order: Eminem, Bob Seger, The Temptations (I think The Temptations would actually be the number 1), Smokey Robinson, and The Marvelettes. I’m a huge Motown fan, if you can’t tell.
Talk about how your time in high school here and in college here really shaped the kind of actor you’ve become.
Yeah, I had an amazing experience in high school. I went to North Farmington High School, right over here on 13 and Farmington, and we had an amazing theater program there. For me, having that outlet as a 15 year-old in the suburbs was great. I wasn’t on a TV show, I wasn’t doing anything professionally, I was just a kid in high school. And luckily, here came this outlet for me to really embrace my love for entertainment and acting and performing. I attribute a lot of who I am as an actor to that because it gave me a place to do it. And then from there, I went to the University of Michigan and had another great experience in Ann Arbor. They have beautiful stages and beautiful facilities, and I feel very fortunate to have taken that path. And also, to have done it in a place where there was no pressure to be a professional. So, I could screw up and try things and fail, and it wasn’t, you know, in the professional world, it was as a student. I had a great experience here at North Farmington High School and at the University of Michigan.
What’s one thing people don’t know about Detroit, but should?
I don’t think people realize how beautiful Detroit is. Whether it’s Detroit itself, or Metro Detroit. I think the area’s beautiful, I think there’s tons of land and tons of nature. And then I think in the city itself, there’s gorgeous buildings, old history there – I think people should really come here and see it.
What makes you proud being an actor from Detroit?
I’m very proud to be an actor from Detroit. Well, I’m proud to be from Detroit and I’m proud to be an actor, so if you combine those, I’m proud of being an actor from Detroit. And it would be great to see more come back here. So, I’d love to be an actor from Detroit that also starts to bring things back here. I haven’t figured out how yet…but we’re going to do it!
And that’s that!
For more on This is Happening, check out the Official Facebook Page. The film will have a 1-week limited engagement at The Maple Theater, in Bloomfield, from September 25th through October 1st, prior to the film’s national release on October 2nd.MORE NEWS: Crime Without Punishment: Detroit Homicide Clearance Rates Rise as National Rates Fall
Oh, and you can catch up with James on Twitter at @JamesWolk. Trust us. He’s definitely one to watch.