What would your life be like now if you made one different decision 10 years ago? It’s a question that could keep someone up at night, but it’s also the premise behind upcoming NBC drama Ordinary Joe. Premiering September 20, the series stars Mad Men and Watchmen’s James Wolk as three different versions of one man — all because he was late to his college graduation 10 years ago and was then presented with three different options that would result in different career paths and relationships.
In one, Joe Kimbreau becomes a successful and famous musician and is married to Natalie Martinez’s Amy. In another, he’s a nurse and partnered with Elizabeth Lail’s Jenny. In the third, he’s single and joins the family business as a NYPD officer. In all of these scenarios, Joe’s life results in different issues and conflicts — not just for him, Amy, and Jenny, but also for his best friend Eric (Charlie Barnett) and his family.
With the release of the trailer, we spoke with Wolk about the series and thoughts of lives less traveled.
(Photo by Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)
Whitney Friedlander for Rotten Tomatoes: You’re playing three versions of the same person. Does that make it harder than just playing three different characters?
James Wolk: In some ways, it is more challenging because you can’t just go and create three different characters. You have to really think about, in a nuanced way, how someone’s life can change in 10 years. So it’s basically creating the same backstory from birth until 21. And then everyone takes a divergent road.
Obviously, costumes and makeup play a part in this. But does that also affect your posture, your cadence, etc.?
Yeah, absolutely. All three versions of this guy are so different, right? You have the rock star, who is super confident versus the nurse, who’s down on his luck. I think that’s a posture thing, for sure — just the way we hold ourselves when we’re feeling really confident versus when we’re feeling down on our luck. And then the cop, who’s to me is kind of like a big kid. So he’s just kind of like a big Labrador. Wardrobe help big time. There’s wigs. there’s a beard expert that came in and hand-laid that beard for each for each time I was rock star …
(Photo by NBC Entertainment)
The musician character, naturally, performs a lot and the police officer sings in the pilot. You can sing. But do you play the guitar and the piano?
I sing, but I sing to my kids: my four-year-old and my two-year-old. So what you hear is my voice. I do play guitar. But they did bring in a guitar aficionado to really play it. That is me singing. That is me playing guitar. And when you hear it in the mix, you’re hearing the guitars, but you’re getting my voice because my guitar skills are like that of a camp counselor. I can play, like, Cats in the Cradle and a couple of songs around the fire. I don’t have rock-star technique.
And there was a great vocal coach in Chicago. I haven’t sung seriously since high school when I used to do high school musicals. And they brought in this guy and he was amazing. He added two notes to the top of my register that I never thought I could hit.
In all versions of this, Joe is successful. He’s a really good nurse. He’s an extremely successful musician. He’s a really good cop. Was that interesting? Were there conversations about having a Joe who wasn’t doing well in his career?
It’s interesting. Nurse Joe is down on his luck, but it’s with his marriage. They all have their thing [that’s not going well] like, in their show, his marriage isn’t going well. Music Joe: he’s always wanted to be a dad. It appears in the pilot that his dad passed away on 9/11 and there’s a whole backstory that will come out as the series goes on. I think, he has always wanted to replicate that father-son relationship. For him, he and his wife deal with infertility. With Cop Joe, he never moved on with his life. He froze in time; he has Peter Pan syndrome. So they all have something that’s eating at all of them.
You keep calling them Music Joe or Cop Joe. Is that what you call them on set or are there nicknames for them?
We should get nicknames for them.
(Photo by Jaimie Trueblood / © AMC / Courtesy: Everett Collection)
This isn’t the first time you’ve played characters with a sort-of double life. You did the short-lived series Lone Star. And even your character on Mad Men, Bob Benson (pictured), had a sort of double life because he was a gay man living in the closet. Is there something that draws you to these characters?
Subconsciously, I’m attracted to that duality. I think that I’m someone who went on this path to become an actor. But prior to this, I had so many different interests. I was attracted to that script because I felt like I had a lot of ways I wanted to go at 21 — like vastly different ways. Like grad school. Or did I want to pursue acting? Or did I want to stay in my hometown of Michigan? Or did I want to go to New York?
Each one of those choices would have led me to completely different paths. I’m married with two kids now. And I’m in love with my wife, and I have these two amazing kids. Had I made a different choice, the probability is that I would have a totally different family. So that concept is really interesting to me.
And then along those lines, Lone Star and Bob Benson: just the idea of the faces we show versus who we really are inside? It also interests me.
Ordinary Joe premieres at 10 p.m. September 20 on NBC.