The greatest thing to happen to James Van Der Beek’s career is being James Van Der Beek.
That’s superficially obvious, of course. Being the Dawson of Dawson’s Creek made the actor very rich, very famous, and very associated with a Paula Cole song that somehow seems to still be playing incessantly two decades later. Then there are the big opportunities that come with teen idol-dom, like starring in splashy turn of the millennium movies like Rules of Attraction and Varsity Blues.
But in a rather prolific TV career since his days as Dawson Leery ended 15 years ago—he’s monkey barred from one series regular gig to the next on a variety of shows including medical dramas (Mercy), traditional sitcoms (Friends With Better Lives), and rudimentary CSI spinoffs (in his case, CSI: Cyber)—it’s when he’s gone “meta” and leaned into the pop culture phenomenon (and, sure, sometimes joke) of being James Van Der Beek that he’s shined the most and, strangely, showed the real range of his acting.
What’s the extent of that range? In the new Viceland comedy series What Would Diplo Do?, Van Der Beek is playing, yes, the EDM super-celebrity DJ—and total pop-culture blind spot to anyone in Van Der Beek’s actual age set—Diplo. And he’s hilarious.
James Van Der Beek’s comedy career began in 2011 when he appeared in a series of shorts for the comedy website Funny Or Die essentially making fun of himself in a suite of content called “VanDerWeek.” Sample quote: “Hi, I’m an actor and if you’re under the age of 20 odds are good you know me best from a five-second clip of me crying that’s circulating the internet.”
A good sense of humor can go a long way. In Van Der Beek’s case, it got him cast in the pivotal role of, well, James Van Der Beek in the two-season long ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. His work on the show, taking the total piss out of himself and our notion of the former Dawson’s Creek superstar, completely changed the direction of his career, all the way to dressing up as one of the most famous DJs in the world and playing a portion of a set at the Mad Decent Block Party for part of a new TV show.
“When I started Apt. 23, I was like, alright, the first rule I have is that you can’t be afraid of insulting me,” Van Der Beek says, promoting What Would Diplo Do? at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. “Always go with what’s funniest.”
His only fear was ensuring that his take on, uh, himself wouldn’t be just a one-off joke, but could sustain an arc on a series run. The key to that, he says, was playing with juxtaposition.
“For example with Fake James, there was a narcissism that was completely all consuming. But within that there was this sweetness,” he says. “He wanted to be genuine. But his world view was so insular. Everything was always blowing up, but he was savantishly good at everything that he did. So that was the balance.”
It’s a lesson he used to make What Would Diplo Do? work. “That was part of the idea for this character, finding the opposition. Fake Diplo can bring 60,000 people to their feet, but he’s really shitty one on one.”
Listen, James Van Der Beek is well aware that his show sounds ridiculous. That’s part of the point, but it’s all part of why he didn’t want to do it. (Not only did he eventually sign on to star, by the way, he is the series’ showrunner and co-writer.)
He had originally been asked by Viceland and director Brandon Dermer to play Diplo in a short film promoting the DJ’s Mad Decent Block Party, a touring concert series featuring the top names in electronic dance music (EDM).
“I had flagged Diplo as a musical genius a couple years back when I heard him on the radio talking about fusing Latin beats and reggaeton and putting it all together,” Van Der Beek says, talking more expertly about EDM than one might think the 40-year-old father of four would. He laughs when I bring this up. “I like to move. I like to dance. But I’ve got kids. It’s not like I was going out every night clubbing.”
It was Nick Weidenfeld, Viceland’s president of programming, who suggested the preposterous idea that Van Der Beek and Dermer turn their short into a series. Van Der Beek balked at the idea, but by the time he flew to New York to meet with Viceland creative director (and his personal hero) Spike Jonze, he had secretly written two scripts. What clicked?
“One night I put some Diplo in my headphones and I was listening and I was thinking,” he says. “It just hit me, ‘Yes! EDM Jesus sucks at life!’ That’s the show.”
What, exactly, does that mean?
What Would Diplo Do? is not a satire or a spoof as much as it is a character study in single-cam sitcom format. We meet Diplo while he is meditating, struggling to be enlightened amidst the pressures of being Diplo:
“No anger,” he says in voiceover, while shots of Van Der Beek as Diplo play in montage form. “Just breathe. Happy place, happy place. Backyard. Sunset. Yeahhhh. Birds and trees, so dope. This nature shit is tight. If Buddha said we should have no material possessions then why was he so fat. And why are monks always be asking for money? I bet if Jesus was on Twitter he’d have more followers than Buddha. Except Buddha talks like a tweet, super short and confusing. But Jesus was so global, though. I bet Jesus had more haters than Buddha. That means more followers. Do you spell haters with a ‘s’ or a ‘z’?”
The essential premise is: Here is a guy with incredible musical skills and a desire to, introspectively, channel wisdom just as prolifically. But put him in a one-on-one conversation, and he’s a bumbling buffon: sheepish, unable to follow social cues, and otherwise hapless. From there, the series follows your typical manchild-bettering-himself sitcom model that we’re all familiar with. Just, you know, told through the prism of this mega-millionaire musician in this incredibly bizarre and insular EDM universe.
Van Der Beek, naturally, met with Thomas “Wes” Pentz, the man who goes by Diplo, before going into production on the show. Pentz’s immediate reaction: “Make me look completely ridiculous.”
“He’s just so allergic to taking himself too seriously,” Van Der Beek says. “And he’s confident in his own abilities and things he’s got going on to genuinely not give a shit.”
It’s funny to hear Van Der Beek talk about EDM music. He’s quite passionate about it and academic about it, to the point where you wonder if he needs a reminder of his own lesson to not take things too seriously.
Talking about when he first found a real appreciation for it, he starts to monologue about one night listening to Diplo in his pool house.
“The scope of expression in that music is really wide,” he says. “There’s room for music that’s braggadocio, that’s an aggro expression of ‘look at my cars and my money’ and all that stuff. But within electronic music there’s room for vulnerability. There’s room for human frailty.”
He talks about his experience stepping in for Diplo for a quick 100 seconds to film footage for the show at the Mad Decent Block Party. “I’m looking at all these people and they’re staring up at me and they’re like, ‘Move me. Make me throw my hands in the air,’ he says. “I realized the only way to do that is to read the crowd and their energy and give it back to them, create some kind of weird circuitry.”
And on how he thinks all of this helped him understand how to turn the culture of the EDM scene into a TV show, he says he asked himself questions: “What is it that allows you to have that one step in the metaphysical that allows you to then manifest this music that moves people to that degree. That’s when I thought this could be an interesting world. What I pitched to Spike Jonze was parables, but through the eyes of a clown. An exploration of truth, through somebody who is only channeling wisdom at the most interesting times.”
He notices the perplexed furrowed brow that hasn’t so much creeped across my face as it has set up permanent residence there, and he starts laughing. “Here’s me waxing poetic about EDM,” and he lets out an amused sigh.
The truth is that Van Der Beek does have a great sense of humor about himself and an impressive amount of self-awareness.
What Would Diplo Do? marks his fourth attempt to launch a new series as the leading role since Dawson’s Creek ended, to a range of success and critical response.
“Some jobs I’ve had the luxury of taking because it just seemed like the craziest idea and I thought it would be a lot of fun, and then those shows get canceled and other shows come on that are a little more down the middle plays, but I’ve had another kid,” he laughs.
“I’ve been lucky enough to keep working and keep providing for my family, which is great,” he says. “Those jobs gave me the runway to be able to say you know what? I’m going to take a year and write and run five episodes of this crazy idea because it seems like the most fun.”
That’s what James Van Der Beek would do.