James Wolk as "music Joe" in Ordinary Joe
Wolk with Natalie Martinez as Amy in Ordinary Joe
Wolk with Jonathan Gluck as his son in Ordinary Joe
Gluck and Wolk
Elizabeth Lail as Jenny with Wolk in Ordinary Joe
One moment, one choice, one decision can change a life. But, what if you could look ahead and see what each option offered?
That is the premise of the new NBC drama Ordinary Joe, starring James Wolk as Joe Kimbrough, who lives three lives stemming from three possible choices made at a turning point in his life. We see him as a famous musician, perhaps his first choice; a nurse; and a policeman — like his father, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks on New York City — the path his family wants him to pursue.
When he first read the pilot script, Wolk connected immediately. He says, "I read the pilot and my first thought was, 'Oh my God, that's me.' I remember graduating from college and feeling like I could go right, I could go straight, or I could go left.
"Joe wanting to pursue music: for me, it was acting. For wanting to stay close to family: for me, that was another path. So it was just so much in my mind. I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders when I was graduating from college. So the whole script spoke to me.
"And then, as I spoke to people about it, I realized how much it spoke to the human condition in general. It's a truth. The choices we make really shape who we become. So I loved the opportunity of getting to be in a show that dived into that."
As Wolk notes, a person's choices shape the person, and in the series, he (and the others in the cast) finds himself playing three different versions of the same man. "That has been a great challenge.," he says. "And to be completely honest, it's been more of a challenge than I anticipated it being, just as far as the physical and psychological toll of really wanting to bring these three characters to life. It's a big workload to do it.
"I knew it would be, but not until you get into something do you realize how big of a workload it is. It's a joy, and it's an awesome challenge as an actor, but it's a great challenge. Because basically, he's the same person until he's about 21, and then at 21, you have three different versions of this guy.
"And what you see in the show are these three different worlds. These three different versions of him based on the choices he made, and those given circumstances in the previous 10 years are what has shaped him. And so for me as an actor, it's like playing three different characters. They have the same heart, the same person, so that's even more interesting, because you have to have a similarity between them all, but also you have to create a difference."
Joe also maintains relationships with two women, Jenny (Elizabeth Lail) and Amy (Natalie Martinez), and has a son (Jonathan Gluck) in each timeline, but those relationships are different based on the direction the character has gone.
Wolk explains, "I think the most challenging thing is actually keeping the relationships straight in my head because the nature of the show is, we'll shoot two characters in one day just because that's the constraints of a television production. We're not going to have the time to shoot a month of cop, a month of music, and a month of nurse, as great as that would be.
"So on the days when we're changing characters midday, not only am I changing characters, but the other members of the cast are, too. So for example, Elizabeth Lail, who plays my wife Jenny when I'm a nurse, we share a son together. In another storyline where I become a successful musician, we have been estranged from one another for 10 years.
"And so in that storyline there's a totally different relationship. So we'll shoot together as different characters in the same day, and you have to remind yourself that someone you really liked in the first scene, at the end of the day, you guys are fighting and it's a completely different relationship. So that's also a challenge.
"Everyone is developing their own tricks to do it. The main thing is just really grounding yourself in the given circumstances before you shoot the scene. Because with TV, you don't always have to remind yourself of the given circumstances if you're playing one character; you get the luxury of playing that character every day, and it just becomes innate in you.
"It's like the character's in your bones. But with this, you have to switch between characters. So you have to really remind yourself, Oh, okay, the last time we saw each other, even though it was this morning, and the last time I saw her in real life, we were married and we love each other. The last time I saw her in this character, we haven't seen each other in two months and we're very angry with each other.
"So it's just really grounding yourself and reminding yourself of the given circumstances before you go and shoot each scene."
Another of Wolk's scene partners is Jonathan Gluck, who plays his son in each timeline, but with different names and different relationships. "He's amazing," Wolk says. "He had never acted before professionally. He submitted his audition, I read with him. And he was incredible, perfect for the role — and then, to boot, he has the most beautiful singing voice. So there's all this great stuff they're writing for Jon, because even when Joe is a nurse, he still loves music.
"So there's all these great scenes, and it's really interesting. You can tell that [Joe has passed on] the gene that makes someone not only love music, but want to play it, and be good at it. It's cool they've given that to Jon, my son in the show. I'm so excited for audiences to meet Jon and see his work because he's really a special person in so many ways."
In fact, Wolk feels the same way about all his fellow actors. He says, "The whole cast is great. Elizabeth, and Natalie, and Charlie [Barnett, who plays Joe's best friend in each scenario] are also talented, and the audiences are going to get to see their versions of these characters as well."
As the show explores all the alternative ways Joe's life might turn out, it makes a point of avoiding the concept of any "right" choice. "My hope for the show is that it examines these ideas and examines the 'what ifs' story, but it also doesn't try to tell us that there's one choice we should have made," he says.
"That's the great thing about our show. You just made a choice, and now you're living your best life based on that choice. And it's not like you should have done something else. Because the lives of Joe are all going to have equal challenges, and they're all going to have equal heartbreak, and they're all going to have great joys and triumphs.
"Hopefully, the audience goes, 'Oh — there's no right choice.' Even when he becomes a famous musician, which is what you would think on paper would be the right decision for him, he's emotionally bankrupt in that story. And nurse Joe certainly would have wanted to become the musician. So it plays with these ideas that the grass is greener, but it's not really greener. We're just living our lives."
Even Wolk doesn't know what would be the "right" choice for Joe. He explains, "I don't have a favorite. I think obviously I connect with music Joe on the fact that he's pursued his dreams of the creative arts.
"But I connect with nurse Joe on his relationship with his son. I've become a father in the last four years to my daughter and my son. My wife and I, we've become parents. And that journey has been the most rewarding journey for me, and I've learned so much about myself in life through that. So it's really fun to play a father, now being a father. So I really connect with nurse Joe on that.
"And then with cop Joe, who has great allegiance to his core family — his mother, his uncle, and his aunts, and he stays in Queens. And there's a part of me, for a guy who hasn't lived in Michigan in 15 years, I consider myself very much a homebody. I feel very connected to where I'm from. So I can recognize that in cop Joe.
"It's challenging, but it's really fun to play all the characters."
Ordinary Joe airs Monday nights at 10 PM on NBC