James Van Der Beek On Dawson, Regrets, & The Appeal Of The Mean Girl

Moment of truth: We totally tried to play it cool when we recently sat down for a 1:1 with Dawson Leery James Van Der Beek. We didn't tell him about our childhood obsession with the show, or this story, and we certainly didn't tell him how, when we first watched Friday Night Lights (the show, not the movie), we didn't even notice our budding obsession with Tim Riggins, because all we could think was: Didn't James Van Der Beek already make this movie? Wasn't it called Varsity Blues?
Instead, we chatted with him about his heartwarming new movie (Backwards, in limited release now, as well as on VOD and iTunes, if you can't find it in your area), the spiritual experience of being an athlete (and particularly rowing), and so much more.
We think we did a pretty good job of being adults about the whole thing, and we're happy about it. Because it turns out, picking James' brain on fatherhood, the film industry, his biggest regrets, and — surprisingly — mean girls was pretty fascinating. Read on if you want to judge for yourself.

How did you come to be involved with Backwards?

"I had heard first about Sarah [Megan Thomas], and that she’d come from the women’s competitive realm [of rowing]. She had written a script and had gotten the money to shoot it and was producing it and starring in it. And I thought, ‘That sounds like someone I need to meet.’ And I read the script, and it was a really sweet movie, ya know? I had just had a daughter, and so the idea of doing a movie that focused on women’s sports and life in general — I just thought it was a really sweet story."

It really is a sweet, heartwarming story, which is a wild swing from your last few projects. Your body of work — from a Bret Easton Ellis adaptation to Dawson's Creek to Criminal Intent — spans such a range of characters. Is that intentional?

"It’s like someone with a severe case of multiple personality disorder."

But is there a master plan here?

"I know what I respond to viscerally as soon as I read it. I’m a very curious person. And I just like to shake things up and try different things every time. I love the idea of trying something new or collaborating with somebody on something I haven’t done before or trying a tone I haven’t tried before. Getting to tell different stories and experiencing life through in people’s shoes — that’s exciting to me. I mean I would get bored if I did the same thing every time, I think. Backwards came after a diet of straight serial killers films, so the idea of playing somebody who wasn’t scheming or killing or kidnapping or whatever else I’ve done was kind of a nice change of pace."


As far as trying new things goes, you've been so open to making fun of yourself and even playing a character that’s sort of a warped version of yourself on TV. Did you ever hesitate, thinking it would backfire?
"I think before all that came along, I made a very distinct decision to just say yes to things that sounded like fun that I hadn’t done before. I’d said no enough times in my career and in my life that I just got to a place where I thought, ‘Why not?’ Let’s just have some fun and not take things too seriously and let everybody else see the kind of humor that only my friends had gotten to see up to that point."

Have you had any regrets over the years? Missed opportunities?

"Absolutely. Like I said, I went through a period where, I don’t know if it was subconscious, but maybe because I was burnt out or maybe out of fear of what people would think of me, I didn’t want to work, and so I would kind of pass on a lot of things that would have been a good idea to have done at the time. But, thankfully, because of where I am right now, they’re not regrets, they’re great mistakes that I learned from them. Nobody’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes, everyone makes bad decisions. And if you can learn something from them and adjust and attack the future more effectively, then that mistake becomes the greatest gift you could have gotten."


What's the one piece of advice you'd give yourself, if you could go back?

"I would say you can always spend less energy thinking about how to impress people."

Photo: Courtesy of Dada Films

The many faces of James, clockwise, from top left: Backwards, Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23, The Rules of Attraction, Varsity Blues, Dawson's Creek, Ke$ha's "Blow" video.

Do you ever get annoyed at all the Dawsons Creek references, even if you're the one who's making fun of it?

"People are curious about it. It’s funny. I show up and I do what I do and I invest very heavily in it, and then I walk away. So, I sometimes feel a little bad if people are so attached to one piece of it that I feel so much distance from. But whatever people associate me with is up to them, and they own it in a way. If they wanna just keep me as one thing then that’s up to them. I mean, there are some people who only see me as the guy from Varsity Blues or the really dark guy from Rules of Attraction. It’s always interesting to see what people carry with them. And it’s fun to play with that.

"If people are still talking about something you did 10 or 15 years ago, that’s a huge compliment because it’s rare. You do this work and you never know what sticks or what will work and what will still be resonating with people so many years after the fact. It’s so weird. People say they like something I did a long time ago, and I’ll say thank you as if I had nothing to do with it."

Because you feel completely disengaged?

"Yeah, and there are so many other people and things that went into it — people’s work and input and creativity — that I’ve always had a hard time feeling like I could or should take any credit for it. I felt like it was just something I was a part of and lucky to be associated with in a way. It’s strange. There’s just a disassociation with every role that I play after. I immerse completely and then I’m out."

At R29, we obviously love the Internet. You’ve embraced it in a lot of ways, too, on Twitter, making YouTube videos with Michelle Trachtenberg, doing that Ke$ha video.... Do you love the Internet, too?
"It’s tough with kids. My Internet time is rationed. But I have fun with Twitter. I like posting things and seeing the really clever responses I get from people. I probably should post more on Facebook. I haven’t quite dialed in how to get it to post on my fan page as opposed to my personal page. So, every time I try to post to both on the Instagram app, it always goes to my personal Facebook page. And I have like two friends on it. Then it's like, okay great, my mom now sees this picture that was meant for fans."

Who do you follow on Twitter?

"I like Sarah Silverman. She’s always funny. And Conan. Mostly comedians. They're the most entertaining ones, especially in 140 characters. I think I follow the Dalai Lama but I don’t know how deep you can get in 140. Although you really can, especially with Buddhism. They just put out little riddles and you’re like, 'Hmm, that is true. Or is it? I don’t know. But I’m contemplating.' Maybe that’s the goal."


You now have young kids and you’re a family man; do you see yourself letting your kids watch your work?

"I always just think that they’re gonna be so uninterested. I think that’s gonna be the reality, like 'Oh my God, Dad, why would I wanna watch something you did 20 years ago?' They’ll just have no interest in it. But, with something like Dawson’s Creek, at the end of the day those are characters who were really trying to do the right thing, and so once I had a kid, I thought 'Oh, you know I could kind of be proud of that.'"

So, as a counterpoint to always doing the right thing, we're fascinated by Apartment 23, and particularly Krysten Ritter's character. She feels like a part of this wave of the return of the mean girl. What do you think is so appealing about that?

"I think she’s completely different from any other character out there. She’s arguably amoral. She is completely unafraid. Totally owns it. And we do some things that are completely outside the norm of accepted societal behavior. But she’s not cynical. To me, that’s what makes her likeable. She’s not snarky. She’s not pessimistic. She’s not putting people down. Even these terrible things that she does, she does with such a sense of optimism. Krysten calls her character a combination of Holly Golightly and the devil, but I actually think she’s the love child of Lucille Ball and Sid Vicious. She’s somebody I think who, despite the fact that you might get arrested by hanging out with her, you still wanna hang out with her. You still wanna be her friend."

Photos (clockwise, from top left): Courtesy of Dada Films, FOX, Lionsgate, Paramount Picture, Warner Brothers, and Sony.

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