Actor James Wolk’s reassuring smile is pure Michigan.
That’s arguably one of the reasons the Farmington Hills native keeps landing memorable TV roles. In addition to a handful of guest starring turns, he was Bob Benson, a closeted gay conman, on “Mad Men” and Zach Cropper, the late Robin Williams’ comedic foil on the now-canceled “The Crazy Ones.” Wolk also helmed the short-lived 2010 Fox series “Lone Star” and the made-for-TV movie “Front of the Class.”
Now fans can look for Wolk, 30, when he stars as Jackson Oz, a zoologist — or what the producers are describing as a renegade zoologist — on CBS’ new action-packed summer drama “Zoo.” Wolk’s character runs an African safari, but has to quickly shift to survival mode when domesticated and wild animals begin attacking people all over the world. But why are the animals becoming more cunning and ferocious and what do people have to do to stay alive? “Zoo,” which is based on the James Patterson book of the same name, debuts June 30 on the Eye network.
“You will see Jackson and Abraham (actor Nonso Anozie) in the pilot episode in Botswana and they run a Safari camp together,” Wolk said explaining his role at a CBS press event Monday in Hollywood. “I’ve never been to Botswana and, truth be told, I have not run a safari camp. So for me, it was very important to kind of experience what that world was like and to bring some grittiness and reality to it. And that was a very fun process.
“I wanted to do a thriller,” he added. “I wanted to do something with a lot of grit to it. Something action-y. I hadn’t done that before in television and variety as an actor is one of the things that is most inspiring and exciting. I’ve been lucky that no one has pigeon-holed me into one kind of role.”
Scott Rosenberg is one of the executive producers behind “Zoo” and he said Wolk is a good fit as the leading man in this popcorn-movie inspired series.
“He’s believable,” Rosenberg said. “Viewers will root for him. We want them to watch this and fear their dogs and they might even root for the animals. But they will root for Jimmy, too.”
Wolk, who is the proud owner of a 9-year-old German Shepherd and Rottweiler girl dog named Flea, said he also had to reconcile his love of animals with the real and necessary fear his character feels on “Zoo.”
“You’re in a scene with a Kodiak bear and your heart beats faster and your palms really sweat,” Wolk said. As for his dog Flea? “She’s too sweet. Afraid of the dog? I can’t even tell the dog not to sleep in bed with me. I’m such a softy.”
“Zoo” was shot in New Orleans, which with the help of technology doubles for all of the other locations the series takes place in, including the aforementioned Botswana and even Japan and Antarctica.
The University of Michigan and North Farmington High School graduate, who usually lives in Los Angeles with his fiancée, has relocated to New Orleans to shoot “Zoo” and has lived there for five months. When he’s not working 13-hour days, Wolk said he enjoys the music scene and food the world-famous city has to offer.
“There’s a lot of culture,” Wolk said. “It’s a really great city to hang your hat in.”
But he never forgets home and the avid runner said he would love to run in the Turkey Trot race downtown. Perhaps this year will be the charm. “I’ve got to do my run through Detroit,” Wolk said.
Wolk won’t be returning to Metro Detroit for Father’s Day because he has to work, but his dad, Robert Wolk who owns Sundance Shoes in West Bloomfield Township, will be joining him in the Big Easy later this month for a father-son weekend.
“My dad’s like my best friend,” Wolk said. “I don’t do anything special for Father’s Day. It’s all year long.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic and entertainment reporter.
Stars James Wolk, Kristen Connolly, Billy Burke, Nonso Anozie, and Nora Arnezeder
Premieres June 30 at 9 p.m.