It’s 24 hours before CBS’s newest procedural, CSI: Cyber, premieres and the show’s leading man, James Van Der Beek, can’t get the network to show him the first episode.
“I’ve asked them, but apparently it’s top secret,” he laughs (he laughs a lot during our conversation). Van Der Beek is practically giddy about his return to TV. As FBI cyber analyst Elijah Mundo, he gets to bust down doors, interrogate bad guys, shoot down snipers, and dive headfirst into lakes to save drowning babies. “It’s the kind of stuff you did as a kid in your backyard, but now you get paid to do it,” he says excitedly.
He lavishes praise on his Oscar-winning co-star, Patricia Arquette (“amazing,” “awesome,” “a great person to be around”), co-star Shad Moss (a.k.a. Lil’ Bow Wow)—even CBS, the same network that cut his last foray into TV-land, Friends With Better Lives, short after only five episodes. (“I love CBS!” he jokes.)
It’s been an unpredictable few years for the former Dawson Leery, who’s done everything from playing a douchey version of himself in another short-lived series, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, to taking on a rogue version of Red Ranger Rocky in Joseph Kahn’s badass reimagining of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, POWER/RANGERS. “I learned a couple years ago not to plan anything too carefully,” he says. “If I just kind of put in the work and just try to prepare for everything, then I feel like there’s a chance that you can be pleasantly surprised by the next career turn.”
The Daily Beast hopped on the phone with Van Der Beek to talk cybercrime and how the Power Rangers are like Shakespeare. (Seriously, he makes a valid point.)
Hey, James! So I just finished watching the premiere episode and—
Did you like it? I haven’t seen it yet.
You haven’t? But it premieres tomorrow.
No, they haven’t shown us! (Laughs.) I’ve asked them, but I dunno. They won’t show it to us.
Sorry, you actually have to be in the FBI to watch it.
(Laughs.) I think that’s the only way to watch it, yeah.
How did you land on the show?
I had worked with CBS doing 13 episodes of a sitcom. CBS aired five and then didn’t pick it up. At which point I was like, “Forget CBS, I don’t need CBS!” And then CBS turned around and offered me the male lead in the biggest franchise on television, at which point I said, “I love CBS! Thank God, I’d love to do that together!” (Laughs.) I’ve worked in the business for a long time, so to be offered a role all of a sudden with a producing pedigree like this, with the lead actress from my favorite movie this year, tackling cybercrime through the lens of the CSI brain trust? It just seemed like an absolute home run. I feel like I signed with the New York Yankees.
Were you a big CSI fan before?
Yeah, I have this huge respect for the franchise. Though I did not watch a lot of television before.
Yeah, I mean once you have intimate knowledge of how the sausage is made, you tend to not eat it so much. (Laughs.) But I was certainly aware of the impact that CSI had on television, on society, on crime, on crime-solving. I mean, the vernacular that they brought into the mainstream with the original 15 years ago is kind of unprecedented, really. That show affected juries, it affected what people chose as careers. And so I thought they were really trying to do the same thing for this crazy, brave new world of crime that’s happening now. There are some challenges, obviously, in telling a story for which many of the main plot points happen in code and inside a machine. I thought it was really canny of CBS to ask a team that’s been making satisfying hours of television for 15 years to tackle that.
The show’s first episode revolves around a hacker targeting baby monitors, which is something that actually happened just last month.
The crazy thing is when the technical adviser, who actually works with the FBI, will give the writers material and say, “Okay, here is what’s going on. Here’s what has happened and what could happen. Here are the tools that these criminals are using.” And the writers will write something—then in between writing and airing, that thing will actually happen. People are gonna say “ripped from the headlines”; the writers are gonna angrily say, “It wasn’t ripped from the headlines, we came up with it before they did!” (Laughs.)
All our storylines are based on real information from the FBI, from people who were doing this in the real world. Patricia’s character is based on Mary Aiken, who is—I’m probably mangling her title, but I believe it’s forensic cyber psychologist. It’s fascinating. Her job is to profile the people behind all these hacking crimes. They are all committed by human beings who inadvertently leave behind these clues in lines of code. And so what Mary can do is take all these tiny little brushstrokes and paint a very clear picture of who is behind these crimes. That’s what Patricia’s character does.
What’s Patricia like to work with?
She’s amazing. She’s just awesome. I keep saying, she’s got the highest emotional IQ of maybe anybody I’ve ever met. You see that on screen. She can just kind of go there with anybody and be completely empathetic and heartfelt. Her take on things lends a whole other layer to this procedural stuff.
And Shad Moss, a.k.a. Bow Wow, is part of the gang too.
In a previous life, he was Lil’ Bow Wow, yeah! He’s such a sharp, hard-working guy. Some people have this kind of golden glow around him; he’s got it, man. The crew loves him. Anybody in the crew would step in front of traffic for him. He’s inclusive and fun, and has a great sense of humor about himself. I give him shit constantly and he’s such a good sport. He’ll park his Rolls-Royce badly on the set and take up two parking spaces and I’ll Instagram it.
I like knowing that he drives a Rolls-Royce.
Bow Wow’s formidable. He’s got some game, let me tell you. I’m like, “Bow, where am I gonna park my minivan, bro?”
So the original CSI has been on for 15 years now. Is this something you see yourself doing for a long time?
(Laughs.) I don’t know how I’m gonna be jumping over buildings in 15 years, but it really is a lot of fun. I love kicking down doors; I love what I’m learning on the set, too. It’s just really fascinating material. Patricia always laughs at me when I’m storming in buildings or hanging off a ledge. She’s like, “Ohhh, James gets to do his boy stuff today!” It’s the kind of stuff you did as a kid in your backyard, but now you get paid to do it. We have real SWAT guys that storm buildings with us, so I know how to clear a room now. I know how to do it with a two-man team, with a six-man team...
All you’re missing is a Red Ranger uniform.
(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly.
POWER/RANGERS just went back online after being taken down [due to legal threats from Haim Saban]; it must be frustrating to see Saban try to kill it.
It was something that we all did for fun, just to put on the Internet for free, just ’cause. For a minute there, it really felt like it was a battle for the soul of the Internet. I love the idea that anybody can take an existing piece of entertainment and filter it through their own lens to come up with something original and put it out there to see if other people like it. Not to get too high-minded but I mean, art throughout the ages has often been created by someone making variations on a theme. I mean, Shakespeare only told one original story—everything else, they were all stories that existed... Did I just compare Power Rangers to Shakespeare?
You sure did.
I assure you that was inadvertent. You know what a better analogy is, actually, the Pink Ranger, Amy Jo Johnson, posted something saying, “It felt like a kickass cover of an old song.” That’s maybe a better analogy than Hamlet. (Laughs.)
Are there plans for a sequel?
I don’t think so. My friend Adi Shankar was this guy at a party with a bunch of suits, who was dressed like The Crow and wearing war paint. I looked at him and said, “I want that guy to be my friend” and I approached him and we hit it off and became very good friends, and he just mentioned over dinner that he was trying to make something that was as far away from the source material as possible. It was gonna be a hard R, ultraviolent take on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. And I said, “Well, that’s crazy. How do I be a part of it?” And he was like, “Dude, if you want to, there’s totally a role for you.”
So I took a look at the script and met Joseph Kahn, the director. Joseph really just had this vision. He wanted to make something cool, he wanted to give it away for free, and he wanted to do it unencumbered by any notes from any established studio systems. He wanted to do it just to do it. So I did a little rewrite of the script, I submitted it, and then we just went off and did it. He pulled off every favor he’d built up throughout the course of his music video and commercial directing career. The coolest thing is that people seemed to like it. 12 million hits in two days. That was the best feeling. We did it for those people, for fans to enjoy at no cost at all.
And you learned how to sword-fight.
I got to learn how to sword-fight, that was fun! My stunt double broke his wrist on something else beforehand so I ended up having to do it without a double. I was proud of it. Because, really, I’ll probably never do another production where I don’t have a double for anything, so this might be my one project where I can legitimately say that I did not have a double.
Is there anything still left for you to do on your TV career bucket list?
I really am intrigued by this online space. I’m doing all this press for CSI and I’m incredibly proud of it and hope people like it, but it was a real revelation to see something that we just did for kicks, without any promotion at all, gain the traction that it did. So I’m now looking at online as just a distribution option for some of the things that I’ve developed with other people that would have normally gone on to be a miniseries in a traditional television medium. I’m now wondering if there’s a way to kind of skip the distribution heads and take it directly to the people. The tricky part is you have to pay the crew, so you would have to end up charging somebody at some point for it. But, yeah, I’m really intrigued if there’s a workable business model that would allow the crew members to get rewarded for their time, but still get people what they want.