Cue the Paula Cole soundtrack—Dawson Leery is back!
Nine years after signing off from Dawson’s Creek, James Van Der Beek makes his return to TV on ABC’s sitcom Don’t Trust the B— in Apt 23, playing a more exaggerated version of his teen-idol alter ego.
This fictional JVDB is a neighbor of the series’ odd couple, an unemployed Manhattan single girl (Dreama Walker) and her roommate—the titular bitch (Krysten Ritter). Van Der Beek (the character) plays a swinging bachelor, with an accomplished film and stage career, along with a new stint on Dancing With the Stars. Van Der Beek (the real one) is a father of two infants who struggled for years in Hollywood to break free of Dawson, until he decided that he should finally embrace it with Funny or Die videos and a K$sha music video.
The actor talked to Ramin Setoodeh about what changed—but first, they had a passionate conversation about Dawson’s Creek.
I don’t mean to alarm you, but I used to be a huge Dawson’s Creek fan.
Aw, God bless you!
I’m relieved you’re not scared.
No, no, no. I used to be. It’s a little tricky when you’re in your 20s and trying to figure out what kind of man you want to be, and every stranger you meet has a specific idea of who you are based on something completely made up.
How old were you when you auditioned for Dawson's Creek?
You recently tweeted that the studio didn’t want you for the part?
Sony had flown me out. They had cast almost everybody else, but they were still looking for a Dawson. I read for a roomful of people, this quiet scene at the beginning of the pilot. The head of Sony said, “I don’t know, he didn’t walk in the room like a star.” [The series creator] Kevin Williamson replied, “How the fuck do you want him to walk into the room? He’s a kid.” So Kevin fought and fought and fought. I was in the waiting room and they kept bringing me back, asking for more energy, all in a two-hour waiting period. Then Kevin kicked and screamed and put his foot down: “I wrote Dawson! I am Dawson! This is Dawson!” They finally said, “Fine, but for the love of God, get the kid a haircut!”
What was wrong with your hair?
I was rocking the pubescent Jesus look at the time. I even had hemp necklaces on—I was going through that period in my life. So that night, we raced around town trying to get a haircut for me. Everybody was closed. Kevin’s assistant had a haircutter who stayed open late for us. We went in, the question being: “What kind of haircut do you want?” We started looking through Entertainment Weekly, which was on the counter. We found an ad for The Devil’s Own, the movie with Brad Pitt. They said: “What about Brad Pitt’s haircut?” That’s how I got my Season 1 haircut.
TV is so much racier now, but when Dawson’s Creek premiered, it really caused ripples. In the pilot, you have the “walk the dog scene,” where you suggest that Dawson masturbates in the morning while watching Katie Couric on the Today show. And the series also introduced Jack McPhee, the first gay teenager in primetime.
I remember people talking about how racy it was. I thought that was crazy, because it was so innocent at the same time. These are very moral characters who care about doing the right thing.
Dawson lost his virginity to Michelle Williams. Do you remember that?
I remember it happening. I have a vague recollection. I remember bringing Champagne for the crew—Dawson finally lost his virginity!
What was she like back then?
She was the youngest, age-wise, but she was the oldest of all of us. She was always reading some really heavy book. She was very mature, worldly wise, and calm.
What about Katie Holmes?
She was really sweet—and “Ohmygosh, I can’t believe I’m here.” She was straight out of Ohio.
You and Joshua Jackson were roommates?
Yeah. We roomed together the first year. I remember seeing him at the network, for the WB test. I was the only person testing for Dawson. There were four different Paceys. This kid came in who was wearing corduroy pants, even though it was hot. He was different than everyone else. He was pacing like a fighter getting ready for a fight.
And then the show became a phenomenon.
I remember going through the crazy teen idol-dom. I remember thinking to myself, “Now I know why there are so many E! True Hollywood Stories.” The fact that none of us is in jail is pretty astonishing.
How is it that the entire cast of the show is still working in Hollywood?
I think it was such a big hit. It also happened at a time when George Clooney was proving you could be on a hit TV show and do movies. That opened up the door for us as well to do movies. I was excited about doing films, getting to work with different directors and getting to play other types of roles.
You had a few starring roles like Varsity Blues and Rules of Attraction, but then you stopped making movies. What happened after the series ended?
I was burnt out, and I needed some time to step away and disappear and figure out what had gone on and who I was. At the time, I was wanting to play older roles, but in reality I still looked young. I probably wanted to play roles I didn’t physically fit. I really disappeared for a while. Then I got my strength back. I got a little different perspective on life and the industry, and I started making my way back in again.
What made you get your strength back?
My wife, that relationship for sure. Having kids. That will really focus you on what’s important in no time at all.
Have you watched the show?
No, no. I stopped watching it around Season 4.
You’ve never seen the later seasons?
No, no. For me, I felt a real responsibility to people who loved the show, to make it the best it could possibly be and to give it my all. It just became too stressful to see how it turned out. I realized the healthiest way for me to do it would be to commit fully on the day when I was doing it and then let go of it. I never really watched the last bit of it. My wife had never seen an episode—until my mom found out and walked in a room with a computer playing the pilot and put it in front of her.
How is that possible?
She said she heard people talking about it but decided it wasn’t for her.
She’s missing out. We should get her the DVDs.
When she watched the pilot, she said, “That is not my husband. Who is that little boy!?”
Do you think your kids will eventually watch it?
I don’t know. Would they? You’ve seen more than I have. Would they like it?
I think it holds up. But in the later seasons when you guys go to college, it’s not as good. Were you worried about playing yourself in Apt. 23?
Yeah, for a second. You think—how is this going to work in a sustained series? It’s one thing to play yourself and get a laugh out of a Dawson’s joke here and there. The real question is what do you do with it? But then I very quickly looked at the caliber of writing. We use this guy as a foil to skewer Hollywood actors and pop culture.
Isn’t it funny that you were trying to get away from Dawson for so long, and now he’s back in your life again?
I got some distance from it. I let some time pass. I grew up and came to the conclusion that life is a lot more fun when you don’t take yourself so seriously.