How Ordinary Joe Made Star James Wolk Reconsider His Own Life

James Wolk, who stars in NBC's newest drama Ordinary Joe, says there's a sense of optimism in the series that a lot of people could use right now.

By Lauren Piester Sep 17, 2021 4:00 PMTags
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Sometimes, "What if?" is the most dangerous question you can ask.

For the most part, it's unanswerable. Unless you're conducting a scientific experiment, you can only find out what happens if you make one choice. You can't go back and see what would have become of your life if you chose the other college, or took the other job, or picked the other person. You can dwell on it if you want, but that probably won't get you anywhere.

NBC has turned "What if?" into the entire premise of a show (but not the Marvel show called What If…?, which does very different things with a similar concept) called Ordinary Joe. It explores the three lives one man, played by James Wolk, could have lived depending on the choice he made on the day of his college graduation.

He's got three different careers, three different love lives and three very different outlooks, and there's something somewhat timely about this show coming out at a time when a whole lot of people are reconsidering everything about their existence.

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"People are quitting jobs at a higher rate and switching careers and moving to new places," Wolk told E! News. "I think the pandemic has given people this kind of perspective of ‘I'm going to do what makes me happy.' And I think that definitely plays into the show…I think the show is definitely striving to put that [optimism] out there."

There is an optimism to the series, but also a sadness. As Wolk points out, none of Joe's lives are perfect. In the world where he chose to follow Jenny (Elizabeth Lail) to the beach, they're married and raising their child together, but they're in a trial separation and neither one is in the career they want. In another life, Joe is a rockstar married to Amy (Natalie Martinez), but their failed attempts to get pregnant and her political aspirations have put a strain on the marriage. In the third life, Joe is a single cop, following in his father's footsteps in the way he never wanted to do. And in the end, unless this show is going full multiverse, Joe could have actually only made one choice. Wolk doesn't know if we'll ever find out which one is the "real" one, or if there even is a "real" one.


"The writers have worked really hard to [say] these are the three versions of your life. None of these is better than the other, but they all represent unique challenges," he says. "There isn't necessarily a right choice. There's just a choice that creates different outcomes."

Like most of us, Wolk has had those moments in his own life.

"My son Charlie, he's four and a half. He was conceived in Vancouver, and I had gone to Vancouver to do a project called Zoo," he explains, referring to the somewhat insane CBS drama about an animal uprising that aired for three seasons. "Had I not taken Zoo, there's no reason that my wife and I would have been together in Vancouver. What if I had not done Zoo? Charlie wouldn't be here."  

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In a way, it makes every decision terrifying. What if this choice I'm about to make changes my entire life, and what if I'm making that decision incorrectly? Wolk says that's how he used to think much earlier in his career, but his attitude has changed.

"When I was 21, I was very heady, so I was thinking ‘This could change my life.' Now I think I'm more subscribed to this is what I'm going to do, and maybe in 10 years, I'll look back and go, ‘Thank God I did that,' or ‘Why did I do that?'" he says. "Way too pressurized for every decision to be ‘This could change things.'"  

That doesn't mean that Wolk doesn't occasionally think about his other potential paths, especially while working on this show. He applied to law school in Michigan and was studying science in college, but he had to make a choice for the sake of his brain.

"There was a moment of, like, do I pursue the arts, like rockstar Joe? Do I follow the path that's maybe a little more traditional, like law, or Joe being a cop? Or do I stay in Michigan? There was definitely a time when there were three distinct paths, and [the question was] ‘Which way do I go?' Thank god I chose the arts, because here I am."

But in day to day life, when he's not thinking deeply about the concept of his own show, "what if" isn't really a question he's asking anymore. He says he thinks less about the other paths he could have taken because he's married, he's got two children, and he's busy on the path he did take.

Life, he says, is full of "new junction points," like when an actor signs on to a new show. Maybe, if Ordinary Joe catches on with audiences in the way Wolk thinks it will, he won't need a new junction point for a few seasons, at least.

Ordinary Joe premieres Monday, Sept. 20 at 10 p.m. on NBC. 

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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