Careers can be made in one TV season. “The cast of Glee is the perfect example of a bunch of unknowns who are now big stars,” says Marc Hirschfeld, onetime chief of casting at NBC, who has worked on Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and From the Earth to the Moon, among other shows. And these days, he adds, “with the feature market as tight as it is, you almost have to become a TV star first to transition to movies.” This season’s most likely breakout candidates, James Wolk and Jason Ritter, face off on Mondays at 9 p.m. in Fox’s Lone Star and NBC’s The Event. What’s behind their appeal—and what should they do next?
The role: In Lone Star, Wolk plays a young con artist living two lives—one rural (as Robert Allen), one city-slick (as Bob)—with two different women. It might sound like a slim concept to sustain 22 episodes, but Wolk has the kind of magnetism (there have been comparisons to George Clooney) that can make a show.
Self-analysis: “I was initially worried because the character was conceived as a man in his thirties,” says Wolk, who is 25 and had just one significant role, in a TV movie, before landing this part. “Few actors exit school ready for prime time, but he was on the radar of casting agents before he graduated [from the drama program at the University of Michigan],” says Hirschfeld.
Why he got the part: “You haven’t heard of him, but his next role will be the last time anyone is able to say that,” was how Wolk was pitched to Lone Star creator Kyle Killen, who rewrote the part for him. “It was looking impossible to find an actor who viewers could root for while he was doing things so fundamentally wrong,” Killen continues. “But Jimmy seemed like a man who could be in love twice, and be conflicted by that.”
What Hollywood is saying: “The Clooney comparisons are apt,” says an agent. “Both are sexy and smart, with a vulnerability that makes women want to take care of them.”
His next move should be: “The lead in a classy indie film—he could platform a career off that,” says Hirschfeld, who adds that Wolk could easily do romantic comedies too, like Ryan Reynolds: “He’s capable of comedy—he’s very facile that way.”
The role: The Event is a conspiracy thriller with Ritter starring as computer analyst Sean Walker, who, in the course of the 45-minute pilot, jumps off a cliff to save a drowning woman, evades creepy men in SUVs, and wields a gun in a hijacked airplane. Ritter’s genial sheepishness saves his character from stony humorlessness (à la Joseph Fiennes in last season’s FlashForward) and the show from becoming yet another failed X-Files clone.
Self-analysis: “Die Hard was the first R-rated movie I saw, and what little boy doesn’t want to grow up to be a tough-guy hero? But I’d look down at myself, and I am not built like the guys who do that kind of stuff,” says Ritter, who admittedly looks less like a man who blows things up than a cute teacher—like the one he played last season on Parenthood. “I run away from fights, so I wasn’t sure why they’d want me,” says Ritter. “But Sean is only somewhat athletic.”
Why he got the part: The show’s creator, Nick Wauters, says he was looking for “a Jimmy Stewart–style hero, a Hitchcockian kind of guy, someone you wouldn’t automatically think of as a leading man or action hero. Jason can be a geek but also rise up when he needs to.”
What Hollywood is saying: The show is important for Ritter because it allows him to “transition from boyish charm to being a man. When he starred in [the short-lived 2006 sitcom] The Class, he was still getting comparisons to his father, John Ritter,” says a top agent. “He’s got great subtlety, too—there are scenes in The Event’s pilot that would have gone terribly wrong if they were overacted.” Hirschfeld says The Event is a no-lose situation for Ritter. “It’s the sort of show that’s almost bigger than the actor, which takes the pressure off him. But now he can play the hero.”
His next move should be: “Post-Arnold and post-Willis, Hollywood is looking for nontraditional action stars, like Matt Damon,” says Hirschfeld. And like Damon, “Ritter is good-looking without being model-y, as well as being enormously likable and relatable.”