How James Van Der Beek Became A Character Actor Trapped In A Leading Man’s Body

Now 36, the former teen star continues to make bold career choices without shying away from his Dawson’s Creek past.

Jason Merritt / Getty

James Van Der Beek isn’t the most casually dressed person at Soho House, a members-only club in West Hollywood, but he’s still more dressed down than you’d expect given his surroundings and the fact that, on a quiet Monday afternoon, he’s the biggest name in the place.

On the whole, there’s little to suggest that Van Der Beek spent six years as one of the biggest stars on television. He’s amiable and down-to-earth, smiling consistently as he sips his iced tea. When your most notable acting roles are an impossibly sincere teenager and an exaggerated version of yourself, maintaining a good sense of humor and humility comes with the territory.

Which is not to say that James Van Der Beek doesn’t take his work seriously. On the contrary, he’s fully committed to his craft. But Van Der Beek, who stars on the upcoming CBS sitcom Friends With Better Lives, has come a long way since he played softhearted Dawson Leery on the WB’s iconic teen drama Dawson’s Creek from 1998 until 2003. And that meant learning to stay grounded and keep his ego in check.

“I think probably in my younger days I was a little put off by having to prove myself, but now it’s just part of the game,” he says. “Part of being a working actor is having to prove yourself every day, every project, every scene, every season. It is what it is. And I’ve come to accept it, and enjoy it, and enjoy the challenge, and enjoy auditioning.”

Now 36, Van Der Beek is a more developed actor than ever before, displaying his range as he moves between sitcoms and serious dramas, like Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, released in January. And while no longer a teen heartthrob, Van Der Beek hasn’t lost his good looks, maturing from Tiger Beat cute to movie star handsome.

But Van Der Beek is less interested in being a star these days: The more opportunities he gets, the more he realizes he’s drawn to strong characters over big roles.

“The size of the role matters almost none to me, as long as there’s something to it that I feel like I can grab on to,” he says. “I can totally take three great scenes, two great scenes, one great scene in a great movie … I had an agent who called me a ‘character actor trapped in a leading man’s body,’ which to me was the highest compliment of all, because those are the guys I love watching.”

Options aren’t something Van Der Beek always thought he would have. When he signed on to Don’t Trust the B–––– in Apartment 23 in 2011, there was concern that playing a parody of James Van Der Beek could prove limiting. Where do you go after playing yourself?

“In a weird way, it’s almost like the playing field is wide open after you do that,” Van Der Beek says. “I remember some of the conventional wisdom at the time when I was offered the opportunity was a question of ‘Will people be able to take you seriously in serious roles? Is this going to take anything away?’ In fact, it did the exact opposite. It actually opened the door to a whole lot more.”

Van Der Beek and co-star Katie Holmes as Joey Potter on Dawson’s Creek. Sony Pictures Television

Before James Van Der Beek was James Van Der Beek on Don’t Trust the B––––, he was Dawson Leery on Dawson’s Creek. Along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity, Dawson’s Creek defined the WB as the premier network for smart, sensitive teens. It helped that Dawson was a soulful aspiring filmmaker, wise beyond his years. As played by Van Der Beek, Dawson was iconic for his good nature and unwavering sincerity.

“At the very core of this, we had to find someone who was the leading man of our show, the man around which all of these characters rotate,” recalls Paul Stupin, the Dawson’s Creek executive producer who approached Kevin Williamson to write the series’ pilot. “He had to have a star quality and a real sense of presence. And he also had to combine that with a sense of emotion, a sense of passion, a sense of intellectuality.”

To some extent, that perfectly describes Van Der Beek. Dawson’s relentless earnestness, however, was a bit much.

“Dawson’s sweet, but he’s the kind of guy I’d find myself making excuses to not hang out with,” he admits, echoing an earlier statement he made to Paper Magazine that stirred up some tabloid controversy.

Van Der Beek isn’t being cruel, just honest. But despite their differences, Van Der Beek has long been linked with the character he played for six years. While he was aware of the challenges of being typecast before he joined Dawson’s Creek, he wasn’t prepared for Dawson’s long-lasting influence.

“There was a time when it was frustrating because I always felt very capable of things that had nothing to do with that,” Van Der Beek says. “I never felt like I would be trapped or only be able to do that type of character. It seemed so odd to me.”

It wasn’t just the character of Dawson but that he was so omnipresent, a clear symbol — like Buffy’s Sarah Michelle Gellar and Felicity’s Keri Russell — of teen drama’s potential.

“It did hold me back,” Van Der Beek continues. “‘He’s so recognizable, is he gonna pull us out of this more serious movie?’ And I know that’s come up from time to time. When I’ve gotten opportunities, that has not been the case, so then you think, All right, are we past this now? Are we over it? But at the end of the day, it just makes you work that much harder.”

Starring as Jonathan “Mox” Moxon alongside Jon Voight’s Coach Bud Kilmer in Varsity Blues. Paramount Pictures

While filming Dawson’s Creek, Van Der Beek looked for roles that would broaden the public perception of what he could play — not only to avoid being typecast, but also to keep people interested.

“I thought, if I did a movie, I’m definitely not gonna do the same thing as on TV,” he says. “I’m not gonna ask people to pay $8 to watch me do the same thing they can see me do on TV for free.”

One of Van Der Beek’s biggest films was 1999’s Varsity Blues, a more adult look at high school than Dawson’s Creek. Van Der Beek’s character Jonathan “Mox” Moxon was a departure from Dawson, even if both characters had their share of teenage angst.

“Dawson was a dreamy filmmaker, and that guy was a jock,” Van Der Beek notes. “A more literate kind of free-spirit jock … I made conscious choices to do something different.”

As different as Mox was, he had nothing on Sean Bateman, the character Van Der Beek played in The Rules of Attraction, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Sean was a sociopath, inadvertently driving one girl to suicide while haphazardly pursuing another. The role required Van Der Beek to do all the illicit things Dawson wouldn’t dream of, including making out with bisexual pretty boy Paul (Ian Somerhalder) and graphically masturbating.

It wasn’t the kind of thing you’d find on the WB. But in 2002, Van Der Beek was less concerned with subverting expectations as he was with giving himself a break from Dawson.

“I needed some place for all the darkness to go,” Van Der Beek says. “I was playing a character [Dawson] for whom there was no room for any darker side of the human experience. The Rules of Attraction felt like an exorcism, shooting it. I remember being just so happy at the end of each day, just so light and happy, because you get all of that out.”

Stupin understands the urge, noting, “Dawson was very intense and passionate and driven, and I love seeing these other sides of James.”

Of course, those other sides have their own ill effects: Callous monster Sean Bateman left a lasting impression on Van Der Beek’s psyche.

“I did go to a therapist for the first time after doing that,” he says. “It is dark. And I don’t think I knew how to handle it as well as I do now. I was younger … I don’t think I was consciously aware of the importance of being able to just put it away.”

And Van Der Beek could only linger for so long. The Rules of Attraction hit theaters just as the sixth and final season of Dawson’s Creek began on the WB.

As sociopath Sean Bateman in The Rules of Attraction. Lionsgate Films

Despite the fact that Dawson’s Creek was a major part of Van Der Beek’s life for many years, his knowledge of the show is largely driven by fan response. He hasn’t even seen the majority of episodes.

“At a certain point, I think around Season 3, it just became easier and more fun to just commit 100% on set and then let it go,” he reveals, “and not worry about what they did in editing or what music they put on or how it came out. You trust the crew and the editors to do what they’re gonna do. There’s not much I can do with it at that point anyway.”

While Dawson nostalgia runs deep for fans of the series, Van Der Beek describes his memories as “little fragments … more informed by the people on the crew than anything else.” He hasn’t rewatched any of the episodes since they aired.

Van Der Beek’s appreciation for Dawson’s Creek — both for its place in TV history and what it did for his career — is clear. But he speaks about the show with some distance, which makes sense after over a decade off the air. It’s also essential: Dawson’s intrinsic earnestness has made it ripe for parody, and that’s something Van Der Beek embraces.

“It has been fun to skewer it, which I always did privately anyway,” he says. “You can’t play a character that sweet for that long and not have a dark humor about it. At least if you’re me.”

Even Stupin, who ushered Dawson’s Creek into being, appreciates the irony with which the former star now approaches it.

“One of the things that I love about what James has done in his subsequent work is there’s a real sense of humor and self-awareness,” he says.

As it turns out, Van Der Beek’s willingness to parody his past has worked to his advantage. When a particularly vivid crying face from Dawson’s Creek became a meme, Van Der Beek sprung into action, partnering with Funny or Die for a video send-up of Dawson reaction GIFs and launching the jamesvandermemes Tumblr.

“There’s always been a part of me that’s been a huge smart-ass, especially about [Dawson] and how sweet that character was,” Van Der Beek says. “To me, just the juxtaposition of knowing what a sincere moment it actually was on the day — it’s one of those moments that only happen when you play a character for so long and something happens spontaneously. And to be able to be mocking each other with it just really tickled my funny bone.”

One of the many people who viewed Van Der Beek’s Funny or Die videos was Nahnatchka Khan, creator of Don’t Trust the B–––– in Apartment 23, who went on to write the character of James Van Der Beek as the actor best friend of titular bitch Chloe (Krysten Ritter). (The part had originally been written as Lance Bass, another ’90s heartthrob.)

“I was definitely aware of [Dawson’s Creek] and I saw a bunch of episodes, but I wasn’t like a crazy fan,” Khan said in a phone interview. “When the WB came out, [James] was everywhere. And I just loved that idea … He was so many girls’ idea of what a perfect guy should be, just sensitive and artistic.”

But Khan was also drawn to the way Van Der Beek was able to poke fun at himself in the Funny or Die videos. The character of James on Don’t Trust the B–––– was written as a highly exaggerated version of the real Van Der Beek — much like Chloe, he was manipulative, selfish, and shockingly narcissistic. In order to play the character, Van Der Beek had to be willing to embody a version of himself not nearly as nice or likeable as the real thing.

Naturally, he had no problem with that, advising Khan to not worry too much about hurting his feelings when it came to fleshing out the character.

“That was not a concern ever for me, not at all,” Van Der Beek remembers. “You can’t go in with any self-preservational instincts intact. I said, ‘Natch, don’t ever be afraid of insulting me, ever. If I really think something is just gonna be bad for my kids for the rest of their lives, then I’ll let you know.’ And that never came up.”

Khan reiterates Van Der Beek’s willingness to dive in to the role.

“He was up for anything,” she adds. “He would pitch stuff from his own life that we wound up using on the show … He’s just super collaborative, really fun. And playing a heightened version of himself, he had to be willing to go for it.”

This falls in line with Van Der Beek’s affable personality, so different from the James depicted on Don’t Trust the B––––. At the same time, he admits that perhaps timing was a factor in his decision to take on a role that, some cautioned, would limit his future prospects. There was, of course, the question of how audiences would perceive him after the show.

In order to do the part right, Van Der Beek had to send up Dawson’s Creek and everything that came after. Finding a sense of humor about the ups and downs of one’s career — trading in self-confidence for self-deprecation — is not something all actors are as willing to do.

“It came along at a time in my life when I’d had a break. I’d gone through some life. I’d been humbled and I hadn’t done anything all that relevant in a while,” Van Der Beek reflects. “Gone through some life” could refer to any number of things: his 2009 divorce from Heather McComb, his subsequent marriage to wife Kimberly (with whom he now has three children) in 2010, his numerous and fleeting TV appearances, as on the quickly canceled Mercy.

“There was a certain aspect as well of ‘How do you stay in the game? I mean, what do I have? Well, this is going for me right now. So let’s run toward it. Let’s have some fun with it,’” Van Der Beek continues. “And being married and having a kid, just being in a different place in life, just made it easier to not look to my ego to keep me warm at night.”

Van Der Beek is James Van Der Beek on Don’t Trust the B–––– in Apartment 23, with co-star Dreama Walker as June. ABC

Don’t Trust the B–––– was a hit with critics, but it never quite caught on with audiences. (The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman called it “fresh and funny, with fast-paced jokes and witty cynicism in abundance.”) Blame it on ABC’s lack of promotion, or the fact that the show was off-brand for the network, or — as star Krysten Ritter put it — that it was simply too good a thing to last.

“Every day we would just be gushing and gushing about how in love we were with this job,” she remembers. “And in the same breath going, ‘Oh, wait, this is too good to be true. It’s definitely going away.’”

Van Der Beek has only good things to say about the experience, shrugging off the show’s untimely cancellation with, “A network game is a network game.” He has to maintain some optimism about network comedy, of course: His sitcom Friends With Better Lives premieres March 31 on CBS. Van Der Beek plays Will Stokes, a recently divorced man whose friends are all at different stages in their romantic lives.

It’s a very different show from Don’t Trust the B––––, a more conventional sitcom than the unfettered weirdness of the former. But Van Der Beek is excited about the new challenges it presents: Being funny in front of a live audience is a different skill set entirely, and if he pulls that off, he’s shown yet another side of himself.

“Going into it I thought, it’s not gonna be a bad thing to learn how to make an audience laugh,” Van Der Beek says.

His Don’t Trust the B–––– co-star, who has seen the pilot episode of Friends With Better Lives, is already singing his praises.

“I remember emailing him afterward and being like, ‘OK, you can do everything,’” Ritter recalls. “Because multicamera is such a specific thing, and it’s sort of its own style, and it’s really hard to do.”

Don’t Trust the B–––– creator Khan is similarly effusive about Van Der Beek’s abilities, particularly the way he makes all his roles seem grounded — from the broad comedy of Friends With Better Lives to the absurdity of playing a twisted version of himself to his subtler turn in the drama Labor Day.

“I think a lot of quote-unquote ‘comedic actors’ really go for the laugh and are overly straining and sort of trying,” Khan says. “[James] can make me laugh just with a look … There’s some actors that go easily between drama and comedy because they play the naturalism of the role, and they just have natural timing.”

Ever humble, Van Der Beek confesses, “I feel a little green, which is fun.”

The cast of Friends With Better Lives. CBS

While the success of Friends With Better Lives remains to be seen, Van Der Beek feels optimistic — not only about the show, but about his career as a whole. At this point, with concerns about celebrity and image a thing of the past, he can freely focus on the things that matter to him: his wife, his kids, and taking on the roles he wants to be doing.

“It’s fun to have all those options open,” he says. “There was a beat there where I was playing leading man roles and only leading man roles, and I’ve always loved doing character stuff as well. Maybe I can continue to do all of that.”

The attitude is uncharacteristic for an actor whose career has ebbed and flowed, especially for a former teen star. Adult careers for actors who began as kids can be rough, particularly when their younger roles are as iconic as Van Der Beek’s. But as far as Stupin is concerned, that’s no longer something Van Der Beek struggles with.

“There are cases where people get identified with the one character that they started their career on, but I don’t think that’s the case with James,” he says. “I think he’s transcended that.”

Van Der Beek is inclined to agree, explaining that there’s no longer any real stigma for his Dawson’s Creek past.

“The stigma only exists in other people’s heads, and it doesn’t really even exist in other people’s heads,” he says. “It exists in what they think exists in somebody else’s head, honestly. It’s just about doing good work.

“It’s funny,” Van Der Beek continues. “I get things on Twitter like, ‘You’ll always be Dawson to me,’ but for every one of those, I get, ‘I’m sorry, all I can see is Sean Bateman every time I look at your Twitter picture.’ So it’s great. So you think that until you watch the next thing I do.”

There’s something infectious about Van Der Beek’s demeanor that also comes across in his work. Perhaps Ritter put it best, noting, “Because he has so much fun doing it, that radiates. You can tell he likes it.” But it’s a tempered positive outlook steeped in reality: Van Der Beek approaches his career with an equal share of optimism and snark, primed for the next challenge but completely willing to laugh about the past.

There’s nothing wrong with blending sincerity with sarcasm. After all, he’s not Dawson.

“There’s a part of me that’s just happy to have a job to go to in the morning, an appreciation that I probably didn’t have when I was 22,” Van Der Beek says. “You almost have to have it go away in order to really have an appreciation commensurate with the opportunity. An opportunity like that is so huge, to have an appreciation that matches it — sometimes I think it can only come after an up-and-down cycle.”

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