James Van Der Beek has been busy in the decade since the end of his seminal teen drama "Dawson's Creek"; he's played a doctor, a serial killer, an FBI agent and a kidnapper, among other roles. In a few weeks, the actor will return for a second season playing a hilariously repellent version of himself in "Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23," and, this weekend, you can see him in the feature film "Backwards."
There's no denying it now: Van Der Beek is all grown up. It might be time for us to let go of Dawson.
We spoke to Joey Potter's ex-boyfriend* about playing a high school athletic coach in "Backwards" — a far cry from playing the high school student that made him famous — and how appearing as his own d-bag alter ego is a non-stop laugh riot.
Your co-star Sarah Megan Thomas wrote "Backwards" based on aspects of her own life. Was it intimidating to have her right there, watching you act out her semi-autobiography?
She was so graceful. Even in the very early rehearsals ... taking off her writer's hat and just being an actor. I was really impressed and kind of blown away by how gracefully she transitioned. It was really easy to have any kind of creative discussion with her and she deferred to the director whenever she needed to. She wore all those different hats: writer, financer, producer and actor. And a lot of those for the first time ... She was way better at doing that than I would've been.
The movie's about Sarah's experience as a rower; her character gave up her adolescence and 20s to train as an Olympic athlete. Having been a teen actor... do you see the similarities?
You know, now that you've mentioned it, sure. I feel like a sport like rowing can be somewhat solitary. I mean, you have your teammates… but it's silent [out on the water]. For me, with acting, so many experiences and great people who I still keep in touch with, I met when I was doing shows or doing theater and missing out on high school. If you're going to miss out on high school for something, at least it was an incredibly rich experience that I got to have on sets or backstage.
Does it ever come as a shock to you that you're not that kid anymore, that now you're getting coach roles, dad roles?
I've got two kids of my own, so a dad role doesn't feel like that much of a stretch at this point. For me, I show up and I do something and I commit to it fully but then I walk away from it. So whatever image people have in their head of me is theirs. And it's theirs to keep, or throw away, or to revise as they wish. So I just kind of go with what I respond to at the time. And, as I've gotten older, the roles have been different.
In "Backwards," I did my first prom scene as a faculty member. And there was a moment where I went, "Wow." I'm looking around at all these kids dressed in prom gear and I felt very much the adult in the room. I just had a little moment where I acknowledged it and thought, "Hey, this is the next phase of my life." And I remember thinking, "God, it feels so long ago" — number one that I was going to prom, and number two, that I was pretending to go to prom, which happened a few years later.
That scene contained the best fake prom extras' dancing of all time.
We got a bunch of real kids. We went for authenticity.
You also worked with a lot of teens in the actual cast. Do you feel a kinship with them, having gone through it yourself?
I actually spent my early 20s reliving my adolescence. I got to go through high school twice. All the awkwardness and melodrama, I got to live twice. I remember really appreciating at the end of the day, being able to take the makeup off and put on my actual clothes and be an adult. I have trouble relating to it, in a way. Even when I was shooting ["Dawson's Creek"], I felt a real distance between myself and what I was doing. As much as I would commit to it, it was always something that I was sort of anxious to take off before I went home.
With regard to your work in "The B in Apartment 23," where you play a giant a-hole whose name happens to be James Van Der Beek: An unnamed actress — most likely Emma Watson — recently walked off the set of "The End of the World" because she was uncomfortable playing herself in a particularly off-color scene. She's drawn a lot of flak for it; do you have more sympathy for the situation, knowing the pitfalls of playing a fictionalized version of yourself?
It's a hypothetical situation that I know absolutely nothing about ... but it's gotta work. It's not like you can just script anything and by virtue of the fact [that the actor is playing herself], someone is going to just think it'll be funny or dramatic or work. Having done it, I know it's a conversation I've had with the writers. Really, the rule for us is it's got to be funny.
And there's some discussion about making sure that people weren't feeling sorry for me either — because if they're feeling bad for me, then they aren't laughing. But it depends on what you want to do and what kind of actor you are. It depends on what kind of career you have. And I certainly don't begrudge anybody for not wanting to do it. Like any role, you have to make sure that it works for you and that it kind of works with people's perception … or does the exact opposite of people's perception. Like anything, it can be tricky.
Having met that criteria of sufficiently funny, are there any limitations to what you'll do under your own name, as that character?
I have zero shame so we've yet to encounter something that I've said, "Oh no no no, I can't do that." I think the only thing that I insisted on was that Fake James has to love Halloween. I really just loved Halloween growing up, and I just thought, I can't be one of those people who doesn't dress up on Halloween. The Halloween episode this year ... [laughing uncontrollably] Fake James doesn't like scary stuff, so every year I throw an annual positivity party. Only happy costumes are allowed.
I don't know if I'm more amused by that concept or that you refer to your character as "Fake James."
Exactly. Fake James. Whenever I talk about any character, if I'm in the middle of discussing it, I always use the first person. Just 'cause it's easier, it's like shorthand.
Do you need the delineation between you and fake-you to be fairly clear?
When I started the show, I said to the writers, "Listen, don't ever be afraid of offending me. If it's funny, let's pitch it. If it ever goes too far, I'll bring it back." And it has yet to happen. And I knew we were going to be okay when ... we were talking and just throwing ideas back and forth and [producer Nahnatchka Khan] said to me, "Well, you're so self-absorbed and narcissistic and don't even notice that this is happening." And she didn't even feel the need to qualify what she meant. Okay, good. Everyone's comfortable, everyone's fine, and we can run with this.
Between TV and film, you've done nearly every genre. Are there any left that you really want to try?
I'm a really curious person and I love seeing the world through other people's eyes and getting a chance to step in their shoes. And I love working with really talented directors and playing in different genres and just seeing what function I can serve in different kinds of stories. I get bored doing the same thing too often. So ... I don't know what other genres are out there. Maybe like a German cross-dressing musical.
That exists! "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"?
There you go! Perfect. "Hedwig Part 2: Going the Extra Inch."
* Yeah, we said we were letting go of Dawson. Just give us that last one.