Exclusive Interview : James Van Der Beek


Talks life after the ‘Creek’ with Clint Morris

If there’s one raison d’être why you haven’t seen a lot of former “Dawson’s Creek” star James Van Der Beek lately – it’s because he’s insolently ‘picky’. While his co-stars of the hit WB drama went off and did whatever studio offering they were thrown – and for some, like Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes, there’s been a great pay-off – the 29-year-old actor decided to hold out for something bigger and better. Many predicted that biggie would be the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ best-selling novel “Rules of Attraction”, yet despite how great Van Der Beek was in it, it didn’t get cash registers ringing.

But while the actor waits for that next big wave to come crashing in, he’s also making moves to ensure whatever it is, it won’t be something requiring him to playing a Spielberg-lovin’ small-town innocent who bounces back and forwards between the same girl more times than Ted Danson’s returned to series television. No sir.

CLINT MORRIS drove down to Malibu to have a blab – and a beer – with an actor that’s still, for the most part, an undiscovered talent.

Winning the role of Dawson Leery, on the 90s hit “Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003), was as much of a blessing as it was a curse, explains Van Der Beek, as he looks out on the descending California sun. Like any star of any long-running series, audiences start to believe that they are that person they play on TV.

“My wife and I just got back from Africa, and I was walking around shooting a mini documentary, and suddenly it occurs to me that I haven’t walked around with a video camera in my hand since doing it on the set”, he says. “[But] I remember thinking that it was OK to pick one up now. Enough time had passed. Thing is, whenever I mention what I just did to you, they say ‘Ah, just like Dawson!’. I laugh, because it’s the furthest thing from my mind. It’s completely different sensibilities.”

Van Der Beek also had different sensibilities to a lot of other young stars his age. With the teen thriller genre in full swing at the late 90s, he could’ve easily jumped aboard one of those projects, but he said no, every time.

“I had offers to do the typical fare, but I just wasn’t interested in doing those things. I just wanted to do what interested me. My agent thought I was nuts for passing on some of the things I did, but I just wanted to do something different”, he says. “I didn’t want to do something that I didn’t believe in, especially after doing TV for that long.”

Because he had done TV for that long, and did have a regular income coming in, Van Der Beek felt comfortable enough to sit it out and just wait for something to spark his interest.

“[The show] offered me the chance to take my time with deciding what I wanted to do – I didn’t have to make choices based on a mortgage, or even just as a means to an end”.

‘Different’ ultimately came in the form of “Rules of Attraction”, a radically dark comedy that gave Van Der Beek a chance to play the polar opposite to his TV guise – the psychotic younger brother of fictitious anti-hero, Patrick Bateman (of “American Psycho”).

“I shot that whilst I was doing Dawson’s”, he says. “I loved the script! I had never seen a movie that was really honest about the college experience – even though this one is a bit of a satire – and I loved what Roger had done with it.”

“I sat down with him, and he and I talked about everything – we talked about the movie Fight Club, for instance. We both had a problem with the last couple of minutes of the movie. My solution would’ve been a quick fix, whereas Roger’s solution was to reinvent the whole entire film. Keep everything, but change the whole premise – just a huge conceptual fix. The best thing about Roger is that he’s just fearless. He doesn’t really care about what anybody else thinks – and that’s kind of a rarity in Hollywood. He has an instinct and he’s creative enough to follow it and execute it. He’s a real talent.

As Sean Bateman, Van Der Beek was able to open up a bag of acting tricks that he’d kept concealed. “I remember when I got the role on Dawson’s Creek that I thought to myself ‘the challenge from here on out is for an audience to buy me as someone different’, so I always kept a bunch of tricks in my bag purposely. As tempting as it may have been, and probably more fun, to bring those things to Dawson – I just decided not to. I decided he was who he was, and that’s what he did – so I wasn’t going to play him as, well, a psycho. Anyway, the only way I felt I could ask money from people to come see me in a film is if I was doing something completely different. The role of Bateman was it.”

Because he was working on “Dawson’s” concurrently, Van Der Beek had to find a way to easily help him shift between the mindsets of both characters – he found a solution in music.

“It was like an exorcism – every day. I had a couple of songs – really varied stuff – that I would listen to. One of them was an Enimem song, another was an REM song, and another was this really kind of melancholy ballad – they were all very sad. I had it on my ipod, this whole little mix, titled ‘Sean’. I’d listen to them and think ‘this is so sad, what a sad, tragic guy’”, he laughs.

As Van Der Beek explains, Bateman have been “a complete out-and-out asshole” on the outside, but on the inside, he was just messed up. “Imagine if the American Psycho was your older brother, how would you turn out?”

In fact, the two Bateman’s – Sean and Patrick – were originally set to share a couple of scenes in the film, but Christian Bale, who played the latter in the film “American Psycho”, declined the offer to reprise his role – if even briefly – for “Rules”.

“I was bummed, because there were two scenes in the script where my character got a call from Patrick. I had to ask him for money. Those two scenes were the most vulnerable Sean had ever been”.

When Lionsgate decided to release the film, they marketed it as ‘American Pie with an Edge’ – which it so clearly wasn’t. “I honestly think marketing is a huge component of whether people see it or not. It has nothing to do with whether the people like the film or not. So yeah, it didn’t do as well as we’d hoped – I think if the studio had just advertised it for what it was, it might have done better”.

Despite how unsuccessful some of his feature films may have been, Van Der Beek has a positive thing to say about all of them – well, except maybe one of them.

“Texas Rangers. Now that was an interesting time in my life. I’d turned down so many things that I’d had no interest in doing, and that one was an idea that I signed onto. An idea. They told me it was going to reinvent the Western wheel. I was informed that it was Miramax, its Dimension, William Goldman will do the script, all this stuff….and I was like ‘cool’!”

The modern-day western, about a ragtag group of youngsters who band together after the American Civil War to form the Texas Rangers, was a stinker though. “Everything went downhill. The script – Ehren Kruger wrote it – was actually very good, but we got it like two weeks before we started shooting and, well, it was just a bad time. I was really burnt out as well.”

Not helping his fatigue was the fact that Van Der Beek had to use his only vacation time to go on a promotional tour of Australia and London, promoting another of his films, the football drama “Varsity Blues”. Thankfully, he didn’t have to lie through his teeth about how proud he was of this one – because he was.

“Varsity Blues, I suppose, would be considered a teeny film – but there was something about that one that really interested me. There was just something about the character that I really liked”, he admits.

The film, about a small-town football hero, also gave Van Der Beek a chance to share the screen with one of his idols, actor Jon Voight, who really helped him perfect his craft.

“He was always giving me stuff to work with. I remember he slammed a door in my face one day, just so I’d slam it back open again – he knew that’s what I needed in order to do those final scenes, like the speech.”

Van Der Beek also learnt a lot from filmmaker Todd Solondz, whom he worked with on the controversial “Storytelling”. Unfortunately, we’ll never know just how good the actor was in the film.

“The script took place in the year 1985, and then half-way through the film, the script stops and switches to a highschool in the year 2000. It was unclear to me reading the script how everything would tie in – I was looking forward to seeing how they’d do it – but inevitably, it seems it just didn’t. They cut my scenes – In fact, they cut the whole 1985 subplot – with the exception of the Selma Blair and her having an affair with the teacher storyline – out. ”

Though it was a marvellous experience, Van Der Beek says he still would’ve liked to see his scenes stay in the finished cut, as any actor would. “I remember saying to Todd [Solondnz] the director, when I was doing ADR, that ‘even if I get cut from this movie, I just want to say what a fabulous time I’ve had on this’. I will never say that to a director again!” he laughs.

Everything works out for a reason though, he explains, because at the same time he was mulling over an affair for the abovementioned “Rules of Attraction”.

“I remember saying to Robert [Avary] that my only concern is that it [Rules] was another dark college film. I then got a call to say I was no longer it. I literally hung up the phone and called Roger and said ‘let’s do it’. So things always work out for the best.”

His most recent film – and again going against the grain of doing big, flashy studio movies, was the independent comedy “Standing Still”.

The film, an ensemble about a group of friends all dealing with their respective relationship problems, featured Van Der Beek as a loud, abhorrent actor. “I really liked the script, it seemed like it would be a lot of fun, the director seemed like a sweet kid – he was shaking during out meeting – and it was great to lampoon some of the behaviour that I see

Van Der Beek’s “Rules of Attraction” director Roger Avary was bought in at the last minute to share a couple of scenes with him. “Roger did it at the last minute. He didn’t know whether he wanted to do it. Kept going back and forwards. Eventually he said ‘You know what, if I’m going to direct people, I really should know what it’s like to be in front of the camera’. I thought he was good in it.”

At the same time, the WB decided to pull the plug on “Dawson’s Creek”. Van Der Beek was saddened, but also rather relieved – because he too could see that the show had detioriated in its last couple of seasons.

“We had a number of writers coming through – 6 head writers in 6 years – so the tendency was to do something that had been done before – so the show started repeating itself a little. Some of it started to feel like ‘OK, I’ve played this scene a couple of times before’. Had [original writer, and creator] Kevin Williamson stuck around for all six years it may have been a very different story?

Williamson actually returned to write and direct the series finale, which Van Der Beek says, was “interesting”. In the end, Dawson never got the girl – Joey rushed into the arms of Pacey – but did get to meet his idol, Steven Spielberg.

“Yep, that was the big pay-off after six years – meeting Spielberg”, he grins. “I didn’t get the girl – but I got to meet him”.

Van Der Beek says he likes Spileberg’s films as much as the next guy, but he’d never salivate over him the way his character did. “Yeah I was a fan, but only as much as everyone else was. I appreciated him as a storyteller, but wasn’t as obsessed.”.

Since the end of “Dawson’s Creek”, he has seen some of his former co-stars – but not on a regular basis.

“Yeah, I see quite a few of them. I’m very close to Michelle – she’s awesome, such a great girl and she’s doing well in life. When she came on Dawson’s she was like 16 years old. She was playing this girl that you were meant to hate. It’s good to see her getting hers. I don’t see Josh at all. I see Kerr, Michelle, Busy, Hal [Ozsan] who was in it towards the end…. But you know, sometimes I have to think about how I know these people, I don’t automatically think of them as being my former co-stars, they’re just friends.”

Surprisingly, since he couldn’t wait to escape the limitations of it, Van Der Beek recently filmed a television pilot.

“I did a half-hour sitcom. I’d never done one before, so I wanted to. It was called Sex, Power, love & Politics. It didn’t get picked up – but it was fun, and I’m glad I got it out of my system. I use to do theatre, so I missed the live audience. And also, the schedule would have been so easy that I could’ve wrote, produced – acted in other things, at the same time. ”

If he is considering television again, it’s only because series television is “getting better. There’s something very interesting stuff out there”, he says, adding that he watches both “The Sopranos” and “Grey’s Anatomy” religiously.

While he waits for Roger Avary to write him another juicy role (“I’ll follow Roger wherever. Whatever rathole he decides to dive into”), Van Der Beek has decided to turn writer himself.

“I’m writing something at the moment – a baseball film. Love baseball. My dad played professionally before I was born. It’s about a guy who realises his dreams of playing in the major leagues, and at the same time, he falls in love. It’s about trying to reconcile the two. It’s the first thing I’ve written, and actually handed in, and gotten comments on – just ironing out some kinks right now, and it’s going to out to producers in the next few weeks. I’ve also got another idea for a film, and I’m in the outline stages of that right now.

“It’s a way of creating your own destiny. You can hang around and wait for the right script to come along, or you can go ahead and get onto it yourself. As long as you believe one hundred percent in the scenario, I believe it’s worth doing. The people I have the problems with are the ones that say ‘do this, it’s based on a comic book’ or ‘It’s a studio film – it’s going to be huge!’ There are good ones, sure, but so many of them are just terrible – and you can’t even get past page thirty. Why should I?

Making your own films eh? Like Dawson?

“I resisted doing this for so long because his [Dawson’s] idea of what a writer and director is, is so far away from what mine is. It really is. But I guess, it’s an easy comparison for people to make”.