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James Wolk talks scary fairy tales, fatherhood, more

The "Mad Men" actor now stars in CBS All Access' "Tell Me a Story."

James Wolk attends the Fandom Party during Comic-Con

James Wolk attends the Fandom Party during Comic-Con International 2018 in San Diego. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Mike Coppola

As a new dad, James Wolk is just starting to clock some serious hours reading bedtime stories to his young son, Charlie. But they’re nothing like the fairy tales inspiring his new TV series.

Wolk plays Jordan, an all-American restaurateur looking to get married and start a family in “Tell Me a Story,” a new psychological thriller series that premiered Wednesday on CBS All Access. Created by Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek,” “Scream”) and inspired by a series seen in Spain and Mexico, the show is a dark, modern-day update of classic fairy tales (“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Three Little Pigs”). It also stars Disney’s Danielle Campbell as an angsty teen and “Sex and the City’s” Kim Cattrall as her hip, sexy grandmother.

A Michigan native, Wolk, 33, is known for roles in TV’s “Zoo,” “Mad Men” and the acclaimed, short-lived series “Lone Star.” He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

OK — we’ve got these classic fairy tale characters — but they’re looking sexier and more mysterious than the Grimm brothers or anybody else might’ve imagined. Fair description?

Yeah.  Although at first glance, I don’t think audiences will realize they’re watching a fairy tale. When you think of fairy tales, you think of fantasy, everything kind of shiny. But when I read the pilot script, I was blown away by how grounded and real these characters felt. Particularly Jordan, my character, who I was looking at under a finer microscope.

What do you look for, when you put a potential character “under a microscope?”

I wanted to sink my teeth into a character that challenged me as an actor and a person. When I read the script, and saw who Jordan was, it floored me.

As I watched the pilot, I was thinking, “OK, Jordan’s not Little Red Riding Hood, not Hansel or Gretel, not the Three Pigs. So…who the heck is he?”

Right. (He laughs.) I think that’s their intent, to keep the audience on their toes, guessing who’s who.

Can we say? It looks like, um…you’re the wolf.

It does appear that way. Without giving too much away…I think it’s a fair assessment — that looks like the path we’re going on. But over the course of the 10 episodes, I think the audience will be challenged to ask, “Who’s really the wolf here? Who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s innocent?” It’s not so black and white.

In a play or movie, actors get the script, and know the whole story from the get-go. But often in TV, you start shooting and don’t quite know how the season will end. How difficult is that?

It’s interesting. When I did “Mad Men,” I wasn’t privy to where my character [the mysterious Sterling Cooper employee Bob Benson] was going. While at first that was a bit frustrating, it became a great gift, because I wasn’t playing the end before I got there. You could stay in the moment. With this show, there were surprises along the way, but I had more of a road map. You have to trust your showrunner, and commit to what’s in front of you.

What’s the deal with fairy tales? We think of them as sweet children’s fare, but we forget how dark and violent they are.

I didn’t realize how intense they were. But the root of fairy tales was to teach children lessons — by scaring them, frankly. (He laughs.) “Little Red Riding Hood” is a cautionary tale of not straying from the path. “Three Little Pigs” is about building a strong foundation — make sure your house is made of bricks. To do so, these tales are dark. And definitely scary.

Do you worry about that as you decide what to read to your own child?

Right now, my son is so young — just shy of 2 years now. I’m reading the “Llama Llama” books and stories about animals going to sleep. It’s sweet. But as he gets older, I think one thing that will be so cool is to teach him things through the art of storytelling.

How goes fatherhood these days?

It’s the best. Now that he’s sleeping, it’s the best. The lack of sleep is like — you figure out, wow, sleep deprivation is a real thing. Once things calm down, you have a moment to take a breath and realize this is just beautiful. I love seeing his smile, spending time with him, watching him grow. All those things that sound cliché? I think they’re cliché for a reason. It’s really fun. Good fun. And every month is something new. Once you become an adult, things don’t really change much from month to month. But when you’re that young, there are huge leaps and bounds. It’s just awesome to see.

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