By Scott Neumyer
James Van Der Beek grew up in the small town of Cheshire, Connecticut, but it’s his six-year span on the Wilmington, North Carolina set of now-classic television series “Dawson’s Creek” that made him a household name. The show not only put the fledging, upstart WB network on the map, but it also catapulted Van Der Beek and his co-stars, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson and Michelle Williams to stardom.
It’s been more than 10 years since the last episode of “Dawson’s Creek” ran in primetime, but its lasting impression still follows “The Beek from the Creek” everywhere he goes. Luckily for the veteran actor, the now-37-year-old has redefined his life and his career by being smart and selective, and by playing a fictionalized version of himself on ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23.” With his recent role in Jason Reitman’s film “Labor Day” and his brand new sitcom on CBS, “Friends with Better Lives,” Van Der Beek is about to define himself all over again.
What did you want to get across in the short time you were on screen in “Labor Day?”
You step into a Jason Reitman movie with that kind of cast and you really just want to serve the bigger vision. I wasn’t thinking so much about what I wanted to get across, but really [my character] is just a good cop doing his job. It’s funny because I did a screening for some people and they said, “Oh, I hated you,” and I thought, “From my perspective, my guy is the hero.” [Laughs] From his point of view, he’s saving the day. It was a pleasure to work on because I could show up and I was working with Kate Winslet who is so phenomenal and she just brings it every time. I didn’t have to manufacture anything. You can just step up and play.
Is the approach different for you when you have such a limited amount of time on screen, as opposed to something like a TV series where you have weeks?
Yeah, it is a different approach. With a role like this, you’re really in service to the story. On a television show, where you have hours and hours of screen time to eat up, you make it much more of a complicated backstory because it’s all going to be used. I mean, I could make up an incredibly complicated backstory for my character in “Labor Day,” but if it doesn’t have anything to do with the scene it can get you a little sidetracked and you can get into indulgent territory if you try to do too much. The scenes were very well written. They were very straightforward. And there was a lot to mine just by virtue of the talented people around me.
We mentioned TV and I want to jump back there, but first I want to go back to what I think was a turning point for you: “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
It’s the first time you played a version of yourself and it seems to foreshadow the work you would do later on “Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23.”
That’s very astute. It’s very interesting. I never thought of it that way at the time. It’s one of those things that was one afternoon of my life years and years ago that people still bring up to me on a pretty regular basis, which always makes me smile. Yeah, I guess it was the first time I’d played myself.
I remember thinking that it was a really brave move for you at the time. It showed that you weren’t afraid to make fun of yourself.
Making fun of myself was how I kept sane in the heyday of all the teen idol mania, and I didn’t get too many chances to do it. If you do it too much, then you come across as ungrateful and it’s just not as funny. It was much easier to do later on in my career when we had more to poke fun at. [Laughs]
Do you think that’s why people loved that character and even your later work on “Don’t Trust”?They see an actor or a celebrity who’s not afraid to poke fun at themselves and that’s so uncommon in Hollywood.
Yeah, anybody breaking that bubble of preciousness, I think is appreciated. But in the case of “Don’t Trust the B–,” I think the reason people gravitated to it was because of Nahnatchka Khan, who created the show. She and I worked to create a character that was more than just a one-off joke. It was really her brainchild and her genius that made that guy more than just a funny line or two.
Was it a revelation for you to play this heightened, fictionalized version of yourself and have it become huge?
It was more just kind of going with what’s available and going with what people are going to buy you as. Careers ebb and flow and it came during an ebb time. I was being offered dramas during pilot season and I’d done a pilot for a couple of years prior to that, but this was something daring and original just as a piece itself, and they were people that I really wanted to work with. I thought Nahnatchka was incredibly funny. I thought Krysten Ritter is a genius. I thought that if I wanted to do comedy, these were the people I wanted to work with, so why not? And if I’m going to do it, let’s do it full bore. Let’s not hold back anything or try to save face or micromanage the image at all. Let’s just go for what’s funny. That’s what I told Nahnatchka. I said, “Don’t ever be afraid of offending me.”
Here’s the tough thing though: You make this show that shoots your popularity through the roof again by playing yourself. How do you, as an actor, now go back to just being a character in something like “Friends with Better Lives?”
I always thought of Fake James as a character, and what I love about my job is that I get to go from different character to different character and create new people every time out. It’s always a challenge, but I consider it the fun part of my job. Actually, I was really looking forward to playing somebody a little more in touch with his soul. [Laughs] Will Stokes is more human. Fake James was so much fun to play, but he’s a character with no shame whatsoever. Just completely shameless, so I was looking forward to play somebody that was a little bit more relatable to me and to the audience.
He’s much more vulnerable.
Yeah, he’s not bullet proof. Fake James, for all his foibles and his narcissism, was kind of bullet proof at the end of the day.
You wouldn’t see Fake James running through almost the entire first episode of Friends with Better Lives in a pair of bicycle shorts, which is the height of vulnerability, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, listen Will is particular. He’s got his little peccadillos for sure, which makes him fun, but he’s a guy that’s genuinely trying to figure it out. He thought he’d be married for the rest of his life. He’s recently divorced and now he’s thrown into this world that he’s completely unprepared for. I thought that was really ripe for comedy.
You’ve redefined yourself several times throughout your career. How are you different now, in your life and career, than you were back in the late 90’s when you were making “Dawson’s Creek?”
In the late 90s doing that show, I took everything very, very seriously. Including myself. [Laughs] But I felt a real responsibility. I had this tiny, little show that blew up worldwide and had all these fans, and I really felt like the onus was on me to deliver … to take good care of this thing that people seemed to have a real passion for. And I was also 20 years old. I think everyone at 20 thinks they have a much broader perspective than they actually have in reality.
So now, I’ve got a family and kids and I’ve got a much, much different perspective on life and career and just the utility of what it is I do for a living. I still take the work seriously, but I take it seriously so that I can have fun on the day. And comedy is a lot more fun to actually do than drama. Drama I do because I almost can’t not do it. It’s a weird thing for me. But you definitely laugh a lot more during the day during comedy than when you have to cry in every scene.
And with kids and family now, you need that balance.
Yeah, I think I’m more fun to be around at the end of the day than I was when I was twenty and exhausted and burned out and preparing eight pages of very turgid drama a day.
Do you think there’s a segment of people out there that will always see you as Dawson Leery?
Until they see the next thing that makes a bigger impression on them, yeah.
Does that bother you or have you learned to embrace it now?
Listen, you collaborate to create a character and then whatever the audience does with it, it belongs to them. It’s no longer yours. The fact that anybody now cares about work that I did that long ago is amazing. I get more and more appreciation for how rare that is.
This is the “Beauty Issue” after all, and you have been named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” before…
Yeah, but not in a while. Am I getting uglier every year? What’s happening? [Laughs] What’s going on?
[Laughs] Does that hurt a little more every year when you don’t see your name in there?
[Laughs] Every year I’m crossing my fingers and telling my wife, “It comes out tomorrow, Babe. It comes out tomorrow!” [Laughs] And every year, just a single tear.
How do you define beauty? What’s beautiful to you?
Kindness for no reason. It’s beautiful. Just no reason. Something that’s beyond what’s reasonable really knocks me over in a good way. And good hair product. [Laughs]
Do you think guys in Hollywood get a free pass when it comes to looks and aging?
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a lot less scrutiny in the press for guys when they age and there seems (just by virtue of what’s out at the box office) to be a lot more roles for guys as they get older. That’s not to say there aren’t women. There are some older women just crushing it out there, but I feel like there are more opportunities for guys.
Do you think that’s changing at all in recent years?
I think as writing gets better, it’s changing. You have characters that are just so dynamic and powerful. Like what Glenn Close has done in “Damages.” That character is a force to be reckoned with. It almost didn’t matter if it were male or female. It was just a force. And then, of course, there’s always someone like Meryl Streep. Yeah, I think probably as society opens up, writing gets better. Or maybe it’s vice versa. I’m not sure.
What drew you to acting?
I was lucky enough, in my town of Cheshire, to have a local children’s theater that allowed me to do plays and musicals and all that kind of stuff during the summer, and I loved it. I got really into it and thought, “I think I can do this in New York for real,” so that’s when I asked my mom. And she had actually been a dancer. She did a couple national tours before I was born.
You’ve done a lot of plays and spent a lot of time on stage in New York. What is that you love about New York City?
NYC is the greatest city in the world, I think. It’s full of artists and entrepreneurs and it’s just got a pulse and an energy all to itself. I used to take the Metro North train in from Connecticut. I would go on all these auditions, so many of which I did not get. The vast majority of auditions ended in a “no” and every time I would leave I’d look back at whatever part of the city that I could see as the train would leave and go through Harlem and I would just hear Frank Sinatra in the back of my head singing, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” And I would just remind myself not to get too discouraged because it’s New York after all. There’s only one New York, so you’re playing with the best of the best when you’re there. As far as theater, it’s how I learned how to do what I do, so it’s always good for me to get back on stage.
Your wife is really into environmental activism and even writes about it on her blog. Does she get you involved with the movement and the charities?
Really she gets me involved in daily day-to-day life. We’re just living more consciously and being more aware of what’s out there … what I’m promoting and what I’m a part of. She makes me better.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve ever received is that life is really not what gets handed to you, but how you respond to it because then you become the author of your own destiny. If you’re constantly just reacting to what comes down the pike, then you’re always at the mercy of something outside of yourself.
James Van Der Beek’s father, James William Van Der Beek, Sr., was a professional baseball player and was drafted in 1971 by the Washington Senators and in 1972 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He never made it to the major leagues, but played several seasons for four different minor league teams. James once considered following in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in sports.
“I thought I was going to be an athlete until I was about 13,” he says with a laugh, “and then reality set in a little bit and I realized that maybe this wasn’t the area where I was going to be in the top 0.001 percent of everyone in the world who does this.”