Why CBS’s ‘Zoo’ Feels Like A Superhero Film, According to Star James Wolk

The man formerly known as "Mad Men's" Bob Benson reveals what it's like to finally find a home on network television.
James Wolk in "Zoo."
James Wolk in "Zoo."
Cook Allender/CBS

It took many different roles and countless wild animals, but James Wolk has finally made it past a critical hurdle: The second season of a network series. The charismatic young actor has been a critical favorite since his breakout role in “Lone Star,” but beyond his beloved meme-worthy appearances as “Mad Men’s” Bob Benson, CBS’s “Zoo” represents a big leap for him.

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Despite several disappointments along the way – including the way-too-short run for “Lone Star” – Wolk seems happy to be working in broadcast television, and “Zoo,” he claims, is an awful lot of fun (except when it comes to running away from dogs).

That said, being on a network show is still always a numbers game, one Wolk acknowledges fully. “I think it’s just finding that right show, finding the right spirit, and finding an audience for it — it’s all those magical things that have to line up,” he said.

Below, Wolk explains how “Zoo” has changed from author James Patterson’s original novel, and how the show’s grounded tone, combined with heightened concepts, might make it comparable to the current realm of superhero films.

How has the show evolved since Season 1?

Well, it’s evolved a ton. As Season 2 unfolds, the stakes are really raised. What we find in Season 2 is that these kind of small animal incidents that had been happening all over the place, that obviously escalated at the end of Season 1 — you’re really starting to learn about what is happening in the world and that it’s become this kind of global phenomenon. It’s definitely threatening everywhere. And I think the exciting thing for me about Season 2 is that we get to see these smaller towns and get these snapshots of how people all over the world are dealing with this animal apocalypse.

How far off from the book are we at this point?

We’re pretty far off. [laughs] We pretty much, at the end of Season 1, started to depart from the book. But interestingly enough, and I think it’s fantastic, James Patterson is involved in the show and in communication with the writers. So the spirit of his book is very much so rooted in the show, but the storyline has departed from where the book goes.

I’m glad you brought up the spirit, because one of the things I find legitimately fascinating about “Zoo” is trying to figure out exactly what the tone is. Because I don’t think it’s very easily defined. From your perspective, when you first got the script and heard about the project, what was your reaction?

When I first got the script, I read the pilot, since that’s really all I had at first, and then I read the book. And that was really interesting, because the pilot has this mysterious, kind of darker feel to it. But I think as the season went on, I think the tone that the series had found and the tone that you’ll see in Season 2 is — it has that kind of heightened sense of reality, it’s a very heightened concept. But the way that it’s shot, and hopefully the way that it comes to life, feels very rooted. So it almost feels like a superhero film in that obviously these are heightened concepts, but the way the storytelling is, you’re trying to tell it in a more rooted way.

You’ve had a lot of experience working in television — are you surprised that this is the first show you’ve gotten to star in that got a Season 2?

[laughs] It’s just amazing because in television now, there are so many shows out there and we’re competing so much for audience attention. So I think shows don’t always get the time to really grow, they don’t get the time to really become what they are. I’m so glad that we right away had a pretty solid viewership, which allowed the show to get a second season. And it’s funny, because I think it’s really taking that and making the best of it. There are so many great shows that go away quickly. I think that’s just a matter of people’s attention spans and how much content is out there.

James Wolk in "Zoo."
James Wolk in “Zoo.”Liane Hentscher/CBS

You’ve been working in broadcast for awhile, and it seems to be paying off.

Yeah, thankfully! [laughs] You know? I think, looking back, that network TV — I think we’re seeing it now and I think we’re going to see it more and more — is supporting what I want to do. It’s not to say that I’m not interested in working in cable, or I’m not interested in working in film or other mediums, but I think that network is really making some great shows, and I that what they are supporting… It’s hard, right? Like when your show is canceled, you say like, “Oh network, they can’t support what I want to do,” but I really think that they can. I think it’s just a numbers game. I think it’s just finding that right show, finding the right spirit, and finding an audience for it, and it’s all those magical things that have to line up. That’s why I’m so excited for “Zoo” Season 2, because yeah, we have our audience, we have this great cast, and everyone really is all in and wanting to make the most kick-ass show that we can.

You talked about how “Zoo” is really fortunate for having a very strong audience right out of the gate. Do you have a sense of what led to that?

If I did, then I would be a magic man. I have no idea. If I could venture to answer that, I think there’s a lot of fans of James Patterson’s book. And I think that the concept is completely unique, you know what I mean? There’s no other “Zoo”-type show out there. So I think it’s interesting. I think people go, “Wow, this is totally different, let’s turn on the TV and see what it’s all about.” And then when they turn it on, it’s just also really good, and it’s entertaining. And I think that’s what kept people coming back to check it out.

How much fun is it? Especially in scenes where you’re escaping from monkeys or being chased by dogs?

Well, I’ll tell you, running away from dogs is not fun. There’s just nothing fun about that. But there is so much fun had on this set. I mean, the animal stuff is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s really amazing to see all these incredible animals, like polar bears and grizzly bears and lions and tigers, they’re incredible, right? But the fun really comes from the human interactions. This cast has a lot of fun together. I almost wish that our outtakes would be published in some regard, because, I mean, we’re in tears laughing at times. There’s just a great sense of fun on the show, and for me as an actor, that’s essential. Enjoying what you do and enjoying the people around you — we really do have that in spades on the show.

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