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Interview: James Wolk Talks Zoo (Exclusive)

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Interview: James Wolk Talks Zoo (Exclusive)

Effortlessly amplifying the profound emotions and visuals that helped compellingly translate an enthralling sci-fi novel to the television screen during its premiere season can be a harrowing process for some thriller series. But the second season of last summer’s stunning number one scripted series, ‘Zoo,’ which airs on CBS on Tuesday nights at 9/8c, promises to strengthen not only the show’s story and character development, but also its stunts.

Based on author James Patterson‘s best-selling 2012 novel of the same name, ‘Zoo’ follows people’s fight to protect their humanity against the increasingly life-threatening animal attacks against them that have arisen around the world. To coincide with the debut of the drama’s second season, which is led by returning series actor James Wolk’s riveting performance as American zoologist Jackson Oz, Patterson also continued the story in his new novel, ‘Zoo 2,’ which was released on June 7.

‘Zoo’ showcases how a wave of violent animal attacks against humans is sweeping the planet. Jackson, a young renegade, spends his days running safaris in the wilds of Africa with his best friend, Abraham (Nonso Anozie), who has a deep understanding of wildlife. Shortly after the attacks begin, Jackson begins to see a link between the strange animal attacks and his late father’s controversial theories about impending threats to the human race.

In Los Angeles, news reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly) is intent on being the first to break the story behind the mysterious animal behavior. She seeks the expertise of Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), an off-kilter veterinarian, who prefers the company of animals over people. Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder) is a French investigator who meets Jackson in Africa. As the worldwide assaults become more cunning, coordinated and ferocious, Jackson and the others are thrust into the race to unlock the mystery of the pandemic before there’s no place left for people to hide.

Wolk generously took the time recently to talk about starring in the television adaptation of ‘Zoo’ during CBS Television Studios’ New York summer press junket at The London NYC Hotel. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was not only drawn to the role of Jackson because he thought the show features a unique storyline and characters, but was also eager to collaborate with Patterson on an exciting summer television series. Wolk also noted that he appreciated how collaborative the series’ screenwriters and his co-stars are, which helps continue to build the characters’ relationships and arcs.

The actor began the interview by discussing what initially attracted him to his role of Jackson on the sci-fi series, and what characteristics of the show in general that he found to be the most intriguing when he was cast. “When I was first sent the script, I thought it was really unique and different from many of the other scripts that I had read over the past few years,” Wolk revealed. “I then realized that Patterson was a huge part of the project, and the television writers were doing some cool stuff with the show. So I thought it would be a cool project to be a part of, and was excited to jump on board with it.”

With the drama being based on Patterson’s book of the same name, like Wolk mentioned, he added that he did rely on it as he prepared for his portrayal of Jackson. “I read the book after I read the script. I really like the world that James Patterson created, and his book really helped ground me in a little bit more research,” the drama series’ lead performer divulged.

Since ‘Zoo 2’ wasn’t published until earlier this month, Wolk also mentioned that he and his co-stars mainly collaborated with the scriptwriters to further develop the world that Patterson initially created in ‘Zoo.’ “At the end of last season, the series began to depart from the (first) book, and go beyond the story that it told. We’re continuing to do that during this season,” the actor explained.

“James is super supportive of that process, and loves where it’s all going, and that’s wonderful,” Wolk added. “But it still is his world, as it started with his idea. He also wrote ‘Zoo 2,’ but that’s also different from the television series.”

The performer also revealed that “We also have new characters this season who aren’t in the book. Some of those new characters include Dariela and Logan, who add some cool texture to the show. I love having new people come on, as they help make it a richer environment.” Wolk added that he thinks the best television shows are the ones that “have a bunch of different characters, and you love getting to know about them. You turn on the TV and think, let me hang out with that person for 15 minutes! I think we have cool characters who came on board this year.”

Further speaking of extending Jackson’s arc in ‘Zoo’s overall story and relationships with the other characters, Wolk added that while the scriptwriters truly develop the scripts, “they’re also very collaborative. When we get to set, if something doesn’t quite feel right for the character,” the actors can suggest alterations that feel more appropriate in the situation. “We actors are all now gaining ownership of our characters. Once you play a character for a year-and-a-half, you think, yes, I know this guy. So if we ask the writers, ‘How about we say it this way,’ they’re very collaborative. That’s a testament to them, because they don’t have to be so collaborative.”

Wolk, who has made a name for himself as an actor on television, on such other series as ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Crazy Ones,’ and in such films as ‘This Is Happening‘ and ‘You Again,’ then stated that he “loves working on a series like (‘Zoo.’) It has 13 episodes, which is the perfect amount, so the story remains fresh. But you also have the time to really develop your character. Making a film is a different experience, as you only tell the one story in a limited amount of time, and then go away.” The performer added that one of the main aspects he finds to be exciting about Season 2 of ‘Zoo’ is that “the characters are able to remain richer, and there’s more character development.”

The actor also noted that he thinks what’s so exciting about airing a show like ‘Zoo’ over the summer is that the cast and crew “is able to take more risks. People want to be entertained in a big way over the summer, and our show accomplishes that.”

With Jackson helping to find the reasoning behind the world’s animals’ recent aggression against humanity, Wolk also discussed the process of approaching the physicality of his role. “The physicality is really intense. We have to spend 15 hours a day on our feet, so it’s really active,” he revealed. “Luckily, I’m an active runner, so I feel like I can perform all of this action. But there are a lot of sequences that take place around the world, so there is a lot of action that comes with that.”

While the drama is set in international locations, including Paris, Japan and the Kalahari Desert, like Wolk mentioned, the show’s first season was shot in New Orleans. The performer chronicled his experience of filming the series on location in Louisiana. “New Orleans was awesome, and I think it provided a really cool backdrop for the show,” he divulged. “But I’m also happy that we switched up to Vancouver, because we have a fresh backdrop now. It’s different vegetation and land, and we now have mountains and ocean, which are totally different from the swamps and bayous. So it’s cool for the audience to be able to see new parts of the world this season.”

One of the key elements of ‘Zoo’s first season, as well as the novel, is that Jackson is helping to find a cure for the animals. Wolk also explained that that element will continue to be a key storyline throughout the second season? “We’re totally chasing the cure in Season 2. The way and reasoning why the animals are changing actually begins to shift this year, so we have to come at it now from a different angle,” the actor admitted.

“The stakes are also heightened because there’s this ticking time bomb of the government wanting to do the Noah Objective, which involves getting rid of animals. So we need to overcome that, and secure the animals before the government kills them,” Wolk further explained.

The performer added that Jackson has now become “anti-government, because they’re trying to do things that we don’t agree with and support. So we have become a rogue squad, which is fun.”

‘Zoo’ also features computer-generated images of animals, and there were also nearly 2,000 live animals on set over the course of the shoot, including rats, bats, elephants, bears, lions and wolves. Wolk then described his experience of working with both the live and CG animals. “It’s really amazing to see what happens during post-production, as they’re able to seamlessly tile everything together. We do work with a lot of the animals on set, but we also incorporate a lot of the CGI,” Wolk revealed.

“That mix is fascinating, because I was so impressed with the animals in Season 1. While I watched the episodes, it all seemed seamless, and that’s a testament to the production department,” the Satellite Award-nominated performer further explained. He added that it’s an interesting process to incorporate the CG into the sci-fi series, “as you’re acting against a dot. But we also do have the real animals.”

Wolk also revealed that as Season 2 progresses, there will be less focus on the ‘animal of the week’ element that was an essential aspect of the series’ inaugural season. “The thing I like about this season is that it’s focusing the more on what’s happening in the world globally. So you do learn about new episodes in each episode, but the stories will also focus on the people and communities who are being affected. So this season feels even bigger in scope,” the actor further explained.

The book and series both make audiences question the callous ways people treat animals and the Earth, and how changes in the environment have caused changes in animal activity that previously went mostly unnoticed for years. Wolk added that he thinks that people realizing how their actions affect the world around them “is an underlying theme of the show. It’s about being good to the environment, planet and animals. But it’s also a big entertaining fable.”

Wolk then delved into describing his working relationships with his co-stars, particularly Arnezeder and Anozie, throughout both seasons of the thriller. “We’ve become like family. Everyone has really begun to bond. We hadn’t seen each other for six months” between the shooting schedules for both seasons. “But then everyone started to show up on the set again, and fell right back into sync. We have a lot of fun, and laugh a lot, on set.”

Since the cast and writers had become so comfortable with each other as they filmed ‘Zoo’s second season, the actor added that “there was some room for improvisation on the set. When you do the heightened material that we’re doing, sometimes things just come out, and they turn out to be fun mistakes. That can add an organic feeling to the show.”

While there is some improv that incorporates itself onto the show’s episodes, Wolk added that television “definitely feels like a writer’s medium. Luckily, we have an amazing team of writers who are doing a knockdown job this season.”

One key element that the writers are bringing back to ‘Zoo’ for its sophomore season is Jackson’s growing relationship with the French investigator. “There is a continued romance between Jackson and Chloe this season. Some of the other characters also begin a romance, so that’s great. There are a lot more human elements that are presented this season,” the performer divulged.

“One of the hardest things about Jackson and Chloe’s relationship, however, is that they’re falling for each other during the middle of this apocalypse,” Wolk also explained. “So they have to figure out how to deal with that, and where their relationship fits into their priorities.”

The actor then discussed the other relationships his character is trying to maintain during the animal uprising. “Jackson is best friends with Abe, and they’re almost like two brothers. In Season 2, there are actually certain challenges that come about in their friendship. so you see them butting heads a little bit, which will be interesting to see unfold,” he admitted.

Throughout the current season, Wolk also revealed that “Something begins to physically change in Jackson. I think that’s going to provide an interesting dynamic for him and the team to figure out.”

In addition to enjoying starring on ‘Zoo’ and the other television series and films he has appeared on in recent years, Wolk also enjoys having a “work and life balance, so that I can spend time with my family. When we’re doing this series, we can work between 14 and 16 hours a day. So to also have time to spend with family and recharge is really important.”

The actor also mentioned that in addition to spending time with his family during his time off between the two seasons of ‘Zoo,’ “I was also able to film an independent film on the East Coast for a couple months, which was great. I love indie filmmaking, as it’s an artistic medium.”

In addition to welcoming ‘Zoo’ back to CBS this summer, Wolk premiered his latest movie, ‘Mercy,’ a thriller that was written and directed by Chris Sparling, at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this month. “It was really nice to see the film come alive on screen, and it looked beautiful. It was shot in Buffalo, New York in the fall, so it had that autumn look to it,” the performer explained.

Wolk concluded the interview by divulging that he enjoys how fans of ‘Zoo’ have been contacting him on social media, and letting him know they’re excited to see the second season of the drama. “It’s really cool to hear that people dig the show and think it’s fun,” he revealed. “It’s always nice to feel that support.”

Interview: James Wolk Talks Zoo (Exclusive)

Written by: Karen Benardello

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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