The star of ’90s films Starship Troopers and Tarzan is returning to movies for the first time in a while. He talks to Ramin Setoodeh about what he’s been up to.
Casper Van Dien was recently picking up his two daughters from school when a gang of 10-year-old boys surrounded him. They were all excited about seeing a potential movie star, but they didn’t address him that way. “Johnny Rico! Johnny Rico! Johnny Rico!” they called, referencing his alien-bug-crushing character from 1997’s Starship Troopers, his most famous role to date. Despite the film’s R-rating, the kids all said they’d seen it with their parents.
On the drive home, Van Dien’s 10-year-old, Maya, piped up about something the boys had quietly said to her. “Dad,” she asked, “were you really naked in Starship Troopers?” Uh-huh. “OHMYGOD! How can you do that to me!?”
Celeste, his 8-year-old, chimed in: “Wait a minute—Dad, you mean like naked? … No clothes?” Uh-huh. “OHMYGOD!!! My life is ruined!”
“And it was the longest three-minute car ride I ever had in my life,” Van Dien says. Starship Troopers, based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, was about a platoon of soldiers at war with futuristic insect aliens. The Paul Verhoeven film, with a $105 million budget, underperformed at the box office, grossing only $55 million in the United States. But the film has achieved a kind of cult status, spawning two direct-to-DVD sequels and an upcoming Spider-Man-like reboot. One of the original film’s highlights, as far as the Internet is concerned, is the co-ed shower scene. Van Dien remembers the 14-hour day he spent scrubbing, with buff extras doing push-ups between takes. He wasn’t even allowed to wear a sock, because “a sock doesn’t work when you’re in the shower—it will come right off. At one point, you completely surrender.”
To an extent, Van Dien has done the same when it’s come to his career in Hollywood. Ever since Starship Troopers became the Showgirls of action movies, many executives, like the 10-year-old boys on the playground, only see one thing when they hear the name Casper Van Dien: “Johnny Rico! Johnny Rico! Johnny Rico!” He’s had many, many other roles—including Tarzan, a supporting part in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the Christian hit The Omega Code, not to mention dozens of made-for-TV movies—but nobody will ever forget the superbugs. He’s tried his best to embrace it (his Twitter feed is jammed with Starship Troopers quotes), and this week, he attends Comic-Con with Starship Troopers: Invasion, an anime film he’s producing. But truth be told, he’d also like to star in more theatrical movies.
“If I had all the answers, I probably would have done whatever I could to change that,” Van Dien says, “when I was younger and making more stupid mistakes, or maybe people saw me as this character. Sometimes people get locked in something.”
Van Dien’s current project, The Pact, a Sundance horror film distributed by IFC, is his first big-screen movie in a long time. That comes with a caveat: the movie is playing in only four U.S. markets (in London, with a wider release, it’s already grossed $4 million). The rest of the cast is made up of unknown actors, but Van Dien still had to audition for his supporting role, as a detective who investigates a haunted house.
“You still want to prove yourself,” Van Dien says. “I saw one review, ‘Casper did a really good job in this, it almost makes you forget Starship Troopers.’ Almost! I was like, ‘What!’ That’s kind of like a compliment but a putdown.” He lets out a laugh. “I was like, ‘C’mon guys!’ It was almost 16 years ago. I was a kid. There’s a certain style to that acting, too, because that’s what Paul wanted.”
Nicholas McCarthy, director of The Pact, was caught off-guard when he learned Casper Van Dien wanted to be in his movie. “It came out of left field, because I did identify him with this movie he made 15 years ago,” McCarthy admits. But if you really study Van Dien’s filmography, you’ll learn the truth, the director says: “He’s had such a peculiar career that’s been all over the map.”
That includes as many as five TV movies a year, so many that Van Dien understandably forgets a title and will keep you on hold while he looks at his own IMDb page. When we talk, he’s in Toronto for a Hallmark movie called Christmas Baby. “I like to do a whole bunch of different films,” he says. “There are people who rehire me a lot. I feel fortunate to have those relationships.” In 2005 he and his five kids appeared in a Lifetime reality series, I Married a Princess, though he says he’s not a fan of reality TV. “I was actually against it,” he says. “My wife wanted to do it.” And no, his wife, Dynasty’s Catherine Oxenberg, isn’t actually a princess. She’s the daughter of royalty, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. “I think all women are princesses,” Van Dien says. “If you don’t treat your woman like a princess, you’re failing.”
When you Google Van Dien, you’ll see many photos from his dreamboat days. The son of a Navy man, he got into acting at 19, when he appeared in an airline commercial. TV work followed (he was an extra on Saved by the Bell as “a jock wearing a football jersey”), and he did a stint on One Life to Live. Now 43, Van Dien hopes he’s getting old enough to shed his Starship Troopers persona. “I don’t know how much longer they can say that,” he says. At the same time, maybe he won’t escape it yet, since he looks like he’s still in his 30s. What’s his secret? “I don’t drink. I eat pretty healthy. I don’t do drugs. What else? I chase after my kids.”
For The Pact, McCarthy tried to dirty Casper up—by asking a makeup artist to put bags under his eyes and grease in his hair. “She would do all that, and still there was a chiseled beautiful guy sitting there,” McCarthy says. “At some point, I gave up. Casper Van Dien is beautiful. There’s nothing I can do about that. Every woman [on the set] and a third of the men started to follow him around. He’s so ridiculously handsome.”
And yet, he doesn’t come across as just another pretty actor. He’s friendly and goofy—and you really believe him when he explains why he’s still an actor: because he’s having fun. His upcoming projects include titles like Fugitive at 17, Lake Effects, Assumed Memories, and Twister Warning. He talks about attending the Dum-Dum convention in August, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tarzan. He’s also going the James Van Der Beek route in another film, Noobz, playing a parody of himself. “I play Casper Van Dien,” he says. “It’s a very difficult role.”
P.S.: As I was waiting to hear back to see if Van Dien would be available for this interview, something strange happened. Out of the blue, he started following me on Twitter. It happened in the middle of the night, which made it weirder—and more thrilling. “I wanted to make sure you could get a hold of me,” Van Dien later says, during our phone call. He also promises to plug this article. “I’ll retweet it for you as many times as possible,” he says, but only if “it’s not some surprise that comes and knocks me out.”