Actor sees similarities, difference between him and his 'Mad Men' role

The New York TimesJune 20, 2013 

James Wolk, who plays Bob Benson on Mad Men, will star in the CBS series The Crazy Ones in the fall.


  • ON TV

    'Mad Men' season finale

    10 p.m. June 23 on AMC


Every office has its Bob Benson, that one person whose hard work and good intentions are unfortunately canceled out by their overeagerness and ingratiating ways. (Don't worry, it's not you.)

On Mad Men, at the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners, that position has been filled by Bob Benson himself: the guileless character played by James Wolk who showed up at the start of the season and never really went away. His unparalleled aptitude for showing up at the right place at the wrong time has everyone wondering what he might really be up to.

Wolk, who has appeared on Lone Star, Political Animals and Happy Endings, among other shows, cannot divulge what — if anything — might be in store for his character (although a major revelation about his identity was made Sunday), but he did speak recently by phone about how his own inner Bob Benson (and perhaps a few years spent working in his father's shoe store) helped him land his Mad Men role. These are excerpts from that conversation.

Question: I don't mean to blow anyone's cover, but the publicist introduced you — jokingly — as Bob Benson. Have you embraced the fact that you and the character have become one and the same?

Answer: (Laughs.) I don't mind that association at all. It's amazing to see everyone really respond to Bob Benson. Just the other night I was out for dinner with some friends, and someone comes up to me and they go, "Hey, is it you?" And I didn't know what to say. "My name's James Wolk." And I waited for him to finish the sentence. And of course he said, "Bob? Bob Benson?" And I said: "Yes. Yes, it is me."

Q: What do you think you did right in the audition?

A: One anecdote I can share: When I went to leave the audition, the door wouldn't open. I don't know why it wouldn't. I'm finishing what I felt was a pretty good read and I have the handle in my hand, and I decide I have to say something, so I turn around to the group and I go, "I promise, don't worry, I know how to open a door." I think I said it in a kind of Bob Benson way. I'd like to think I'm very different from Bob Benson in a lot of ways. But perhaps the inner Bob came out in that moment.

Q: What are the qualities you hope you don't share with him?

A: I think he fancies himself a fixer, as we've seen so far. He's attempted to solve some problems for people, whether it be taking Joan to the hospital or helping Pete with a nurse. That part of him, wanting to help, is something that I'd like to associate myself with. I think he can go a little far with it. Always walking around with two coffees? I'd like to think I have a little more eloquence.

Q: You work in an industry where people will do just about anything to get their foot in the door.

A: That is where we do differ. I always feel like hard work leads the way, and from there, I leave it up to the powers that be. I try to stay away from the more schmaltzy side of things. That can backfire quickly.

Q: Have you ever actually worked in an office?

A: My work experience is really unique. My father owns a women's shoe store and has for almost 40 years. So I grew up selling women's shoes, from age 9 to when I graduated high school. At 9 I was doing stock work and putting shoes away. As I got older I would sell shoes to full-grown women, which is always an interesting thing for a 13-year-old boy to be telling them they look really nice in this high heel.

Q: Do you think that had some lasting effect on your psyche?

A: It absolutely did. I feel like if you took a sampling of really successful people, people who fancy themselves hard-working individuals, there's some sort of shoe salesman in their past. It's just you and the shoe and the customer. It was an interesting way to grow up — you have to have confidence as a 13-year-old to do that.

Q: You've been cast in a coming CBS series, The Crazy Ones, with Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Does that imply some sort of finiteness to the tale of Bob Benson?

A: What I can say is that, if there is a story to be told further for Bob, hopefully there'll be a way to figure that out. As of right now, I'm revving up for the fall show. Time will tell.

Q: We've only been speaking for a little while, but you seem like a pretty eager and hard-working guy. Are you going to start barking orders at an assistant as soon as we finish this conversation?

A: Hold on one second. (Pulls slightly away from phone.) Keep it down, Isaac, and go get my coffee! (Comes back on.) What was your question?


'Mad Men' season finale

10 p.m. June 23 on AMC


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