James Wilder isn’t a late riser. On April 16th in California he was vibrant and inspirational with his thought provoking words before most people had their first cup of coffee. His words, match his artistry – a spectacular display of thought and skill, attracting attention in an original way.
I met James for the first time at the Garden State Film Festival. He walked the red carpet wearing a black leather cowboy duster jacket with the most interesting lapels.
“Three Holes and a Smoking Gun” brought him to the film festival, which showcased him in ways you’ve probably seen him before. His down-to-earth denim looks with leather, and even formal best on the red carpet and at cocktail parties.
Little did I know at the time that it was one of the jackets that he designed. James Wilder is not only an actor, known for his popular roles as a bad boy in Melrose Place and a trendy nightclub owner in Models, Inc., but he’s an artist, designer, and live performer, in ways that break the mold.
But how often do you get to see him juggling deadly blades or blowing fire at sunset in Malibu?
James not only exhibits talent, but it’s eye-catching; a little bit of that living-on-the-edge, feel-the-adrenaline-rush quality, combined with the intensity of concentration.
“I started being a street performer as a kid. I put out a box for my one man show. I was inspired by Houdini and Evil Knievel. I really was doing extreme sports before extreme sports had a name down by Fisherman’s Wharf [in San Francisco], which allowed you to do all kinds of dangerous things, mixing it with satirical humor,” James shared about his start into the realm of aweing audiences by doing the daring.
“As I was continuously building things, by the time I was 13 or 14, I started building custom motorcycles and custom cars. Eventually as I mastered that, it led to architectural structures and artist lifestyle spaces, predominantly for me. I had to blend artistic with capitalistic, because the phrase ‘starving artist’ – who wants to join that club? Not me!”
“I wanted to hybrid art with capitalism. It’s still really tough to earn a living that way, so I thought why not plug myself into the hub of the entertainment industry!”
That is why James Wilder moved.
“I started performing at Venice beach, and that’s how I got into acting.”
James always practiced his art while acting.
“For myself, I thought, what do I do when the job ends? Get bored? A resourceful artist will never be a starving artist.”
Sometimes in life, things come full circle, too, and what started out as a personal passion, becomes something larger and inspires greater work in the future. James has a new project he’s working on that actually flows along those lines.
“I’m going to put together a 21st century version of my one man show; something thrilling, but something very motivational; give something instructional,” he said, giving me a glimpse into what’s in store next for his career.
As to what he’s working on right now…
“I am currently working on quitting smoking FOREVER!” he said with relief, hope, and determination in his voice.
“So in life, I just finished this film and received awards. If I’m asked what the next acting project will be, I say the next project will be a failure!” he laughs. “It’s such a rare anomaly to have a sequel and have it turn out well. So I thought, let me move onto my next project, which would be my life,” said James.
“When people ask me what makes a good film, I say ‘a tripod’: the writing, the acting, and the editing,” he continued. James believes metaphorically, what makes a good life is a tripod, too.
“One leg of my tripod would be financial. I have a very strong financial leg. Another would be to validate myself in the professional realm. I did that. What’s the third leg? Health! Health! Probably the most important thing! I’ve been smoking for 20 years. I’ve been quitting for 20 years. The next leg of my tripod is about quitting the number one killer in the world. Making money is easy to do. I got about 12 days down and through a series of psychological triggers, I’m concentrating on my next chapter of my life. It’s physically freeing and really exciting. When I calculate how much I’ve taken off of my lifespan, it’s 3.1 years. I said to myself, ‘Fuck dude! You better get your shit together!’”
And when James puts his mind to something, he does it.
Years ago, he had a disagreement with a costumer on set. He didn’t want to wear the jacket they had set out for him. He had his own ideas. He said “I’ll make it!” So he did. He designed his first leather jacket. Everybody on set loved it. And that started his design career. He designs leather jackets. Every one, except for the cowboy duster he was wearing at the Garden State Film Festival, is reversible, too! And yes, he only wears leather jackets he designs, no other labels.
Beyond clothing, James has an artistic eye for living spaces. He designs lifestyle spaces around anchor pieces. He leases properties called “The Modern Villas” as an alternate income stream.
“I go to auctions; usually surplus auctions. I find things there like a 1950’s surgical lamp that Louis Vuitton used in his window on 5th Ave. I use these as anchor pieces to inspire the next lifestyle space I design. I use something in these auctions and create the space around this one item. So the thing that magnetizes people when they see the space is this 10 foot tall, 4 food diameter surgical lamp from the 1950s. Now go ahead, build a space around that!” he dares, proud of his stunning architectural and interior design accomplishment.
If someone goes to The Modern Villas they will actually see such a space.
After lusting over his leather jackets and looking at the incredible spaces he’s designed, I asked him how I could get my hands on a jacket, and if he designed spaces like this in other parts of the country, as well.
Sadly, there is no JamesWilderJackets.com.
“All of the properties I’ve done are a stone’s throw away from each other. I would consider designing something personal for someone, but not a copy. These things are personal expressions: cars, spaces, etc., but I let people use them."
James’s artistic expressions don’t end there, though. He owns five classic cars and they all have completely different purposes. His vehicles include a custom Indian motorcycle, a ’52 Buick Roadmaster, a ’42 Lincoln Continental Cabaret, and he built a ’65 convertible Mustang GT.
There’s an interesting story behind his Mustang GT.
“As an artist, I look for parables. I look for beauty in horrific events. In Route 66, I had a ’61 Corvette. My father passed away in my arms on Christmas day and left me a car, similar to what had happened in the series. Now I ask you, does life imitate art, or art imitate life? On the license plate is says “Jake”. It reminds me of him."
One of James’s most incredible moments that he ever experienced actually was with his father, and it also revolved around cars.
“I was hit by a drunk driver coming back from acting class and was unconscious for 6 days,” James told me.
Speaking volumes for James’s attitude, he can even find moments of levity in tragedy.
“I remember waking up tied to a hospital bed. I got hit on the 3rd of July and said [to my father by my bedside] ‘Hey, it’s getting dark. We’re going to miss the fireworks!’ and my father said, “That was 6 days ago!”
Everything from reflecting on the time he has lost due to smoking, to thoughts of remembering his father, causes James to appreciate the time he has and to make the most of each day. I asked him what his perfect day would be like, and his response incorporated the value he feels for the artistic gifts he was born with.
“I go through these periods of intense inspiration, and I call those my creation wave; like waves from the sea. The waves never cease, but then you have these outsiders – big sets. Those waves of creation that come in – I know I need to act on them. I’m in this huge creative flow, and I have to act on them. I push everything to the side. I would love every day in that perfect zone,” he wishes.
Spoken like a true artist.
If James could have done anything else with his life, he’s really not sure where he would have wound up.
“…But I know whatever I would have done, I would have been good at it. Maybe an attorney or politician. It’s performing and convincing people. As long as performance was out there, I would have succeeded.”
If James could, he would love to work with Muhammad Ali.
“I just think he is the most influential person of the last century. He was just so committed to his cause and not really sure what his cause was until he found it along the way. He was such a great communicator.”
And he is inspirational for James, as well.
“I’m not comparing myself to Muhammad Ali, but I really feel anybody can be anything if they are passionate about it.”
I think James hit the nail right on the head. You can be anything and do anything if you have passion – and in James’s case, that includes breathing fire and juggling knives at sunset - but most of us might want to start with something a little less flammable and a lot less sharp. ;)