James Wolk, the star of CBS’s 13-episode drama Zoo, based on the best-seller by James Patterson, likes to think of the series as a summer blockbuster on your TV. But that doesn’t mean his character, Jackson Oz — an American zoologist running safaris in Africa who comes to realize that his late father’s controversial theory that animals would one day turn on humans wasn’t so crazy after all — is a superhero. “He’s not changing into a cape in a telephone booth,” Wolk tells Yahoo TV. “But yeah, when you’re out on safari and dealing with a global pandemic, there’s a lot of exciting scenes in the show.”
Wolk chatted with Yahoo TV about his character, his stubble, and why we may all be looking at our family dog differently after the show premieres June 30.
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Jackson is described as a renegade. How so?
He wants to be a simple guy and unfortunately, that doesn’t end up happening for him as this show unfolds. He grew up with a father who was a very famous zoologist, a very famous professor who studied animals and animal behavior, and his father kind of had this mental breakdown. He could not let go of this idea that animals were going to turn on humans, and as it would be in real life, everyone kind of shunned him. So it affected Jackson’s childhood in a big way.
When he was 15, long story short, he moves to Africa with his mom. She is doing some work out there, and he ends up going to high school and college there, and basically ends up opening a safari camp. That’s what he’s doing when we meet him: He’s running a safari camp, he’s partying at night. He wants to keep it simple, doesn’t really want to relive any of his childhood. Then some things happen out on this safari in Africa that are incredibly reminiscent of things that his father used to talk about. This simple life that he wanted to lead is no longer simple, and he’s kind of forced to figure out what’s going on.
How has it been working with the animals?
That’s the last time you’re going to ask me a character question, isn’t it? [Laughs.] So working with the real animals is pretty great. It’s been intense. We’ve had lions on set, grizzly bears, wolves, horses. They say never work with animals and never work with children, but we’ve had unbelievable animal trainers on set that have made it a really great and powerful experience.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Frozen Planet, that BBC-Discovery nature series, but there’s a sequence in there where orcas were working together to “wave wash” a seal off a chunk of ice, and it was upsetting. I’m wondering if there’s a scenario you’ve read in the script or that you’ve filmed that has genuinely disturbed you?
Oh my God, so much of it. Just being on set with those lions was a pretty unbelievable and scary experience. I mean, they’re such powerful, immense creatures, and the writers are really using their imaginations to go where your imagination goes when you think of animals turning on humans. There’s going to be some really scary moments, and some moments too where it’s just subtle and the audience maybe looks at their family dog like, “What was this dog thinking?” You know what I mean? They’re really doing a good job of building in mystery, building in a little bit of terror, because it’s exciting to see why and how this happens. It’s across the whole animal kingdom, so they’re going a lot of places. But for us, I would say the lions so far have been certainly, in person, the most powerful creatures we’ve been around.
OK, I am going to ask you another character question. I want to talk about the stubble. I feel like I haven’t seen you act in stubble a lot. Was there a lot of discussion about how much stubble the character should have?
[Laughs.] Yes. I actually grew a beard out for the character, because as you got from the two-book anthology I told you about my character earlier, he is this guy who really is kind of escaping the world. So I just thought, “Well, what’s a guy like that think about his own hygiene?” He’s going to have a beard, and he’s going to have long hair. So we tailored that back once we started filming, but I came in with longer hair for me and a beard. As an actor, it’s exciting to be able to take some of those things on to change roles — this wasn’t a character I played before, so I wanted to go there physically as well.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add to the character?
I played, in my own mind, with the idea of, “Does this guy have kind of a little bit of that South African accent, being over there for 10 years?” And ultimately, that didn’t play, and I think that that’s realistic. But I got excited and started reading about the safari world, and talked to people who have been on a safari. It’s subtle stuff, not in the script, but I think that as an actor the more you learn about the world that you’re supposed to be in, the more you can play in that world.
Are you the kind of actor who uses music to get or stay in character? If so, what was the mood music on a lion day?
Absolutely. As I always do, I made a playlist. I don’t know if it was pertinent to the lions; I think you just kind of make sure your shoes are tied really well when you’re on set with the lions. But yeah, I always listen to music for character.
You know what I’ll do for you? I’m going to literally open up my playlist while you’re on the phone. Let’s see here. … What would be a good one to tell you? How about… “Wild World” by Cat Stevens. That was the tone of the playlist.
The show is filmed in New Orleans. How does it use that location?
This show really globe-trots. We’re in Japan, we’re in France, we’re in Africa, we’re down south in the United States — and we’re doing it from New Orleans. Not to say that there won’t be some second unit stuff here and there, but the point being that New Orleans is really an incredible place. I had no idea that even two hours outside of the city, there’s just endless different kind of locations that can look like different places across the world. So creatively, New Orleans proved to be just a really great place to shoot, and then obviously, what a wonderful city — the restaurants, the music. When you’re not shooting and you have a little time off, it’s a great place to adventure out.
I know the show is based on a book, but was it something where the script could still surprise you?
As you said, we’re based on a book by James Patterson, and James has a hand in the creation of the show — he is definitely heavily involved, and he’s also, from what I understand, really given the writing team some wonderful creative license to make this their own. So it borrows elements from the book, but then it also goes places the book doesn’t, or maybe it gets more detail-oriented in certain ways. So I think for someone who’s read the book, it’ll be exciting to see that world come to fruition on your television. But I also think it’ll be exciting in a way that you’re learning new things and seeing new things, because it definitely steps out in places that the book doesn’t.
The show is going to stream on Netflix the minute all 13 episodes have aired on CBS. That seems like a good way to build interest for a second season. Are you hoping for one?
I think we’d all be absolutely open to that. We’re all loving making it. It’s been really challenging and really fun, and you’re still feeling excited by the scripts. So hey, you said it: Why not?
Zoo premieres June 30 at 9 p.m. on CBS.