A lot of things give Life Unexpected that long-lost ’90s feelin’ — delightfully bordering-on-insane character names like “Lux” and “Baze,” the casual use of land lines, references to Spin Doctors and Zima. But it’s the people, too. Along with Roswell‘s Shiri Appleby (pictured, right), Dawson’s Creek alum Kerr Smith is responsible for giving the show that yummy old-school WB vibe, and it could help draw viewers in. The last cast member to jump on board, Smith called EW.com last week to talk about the first season of Unexpected and sit through my awkward insistence that he has total “CW face.” Click through for Kerr’s answers on what to expect throughout Life Unexpected‘s first season, how he approached playing one of the first realistic gay characters on TV, and whether he still listens to Paula Cole. And leave your comments about tonight’s new episode, airing on The CW at 9 ET.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you have any illegitimate children?
KERR SMITH: Not that I’m aware of, no.
There’s been some talk of tackling something to that degree next year if we come back. It would be interesting to put Ryan in the same situation…
It seems like the character of Ryan may have been set up as a fourth wheel to the family of Cate, Baze and Lux, but I understand that he’ll actually be much more involved in their lives?
Yeah. Originally, at this time last year when the script came out for the pilot, the character wasn’t guaranteed 13 episodes, I think he was only guaranteed 9. But after reading the pilot, I very much wanted to be a part of the show, so we made a deal that he was gonna be a series regular. You don’t see much of Ryan in the first three episodes but after that we get pretty heavy into it.
So Ryan’s like the voice of reason in the show, Mr. Responsibility?
Yeah, he’s definitely the most responsible in the group. Ryan’s the kind of guy who has the hero complex, you know — he likes to take on people in situations where they don’t have it quite together. He helps Lux out — I have about a half a dozen scenes with Lux throughout the season — and it’s always me, you know, giving her advice and putting her on the right path. And sometimes it’s even her giving me advice with something I didn’t see at first glance.
Will the characters of Ryan and Baze be set up as total enemies?
It gets to the point where all Ryan wants is for Baze to get out of their lives as much as possible — you know, understanding that he’s the biological father of Lux, which is totally fine. But, you know, getting out of Cate’s life so we can have our own little family. I didn’t want to go with the hate-hate relationship between Ryan and Baze. I went with the idea that there’s a part of Ryan that is Baze, or was Baze, I should say. In every guy’s life, at least in my experience, you hold onto those college years as long as you can, until you finally decide to grow up. I think at some point in Ryan’s life, he just decided to become a responsible adult and Baze did not. And that’s the difference. But there is that similarity, too. It leaves in the possibility that one day they could possibly be friends. Who knows?
When does Ryan find out that Cate slept with Baze? I thought that’d come up in the first episode.
We’re gonna let Cate deal with that internally for a little while. That happens mid-season. Her world falls apart mid-season and then the second half of the season is about her repairing that world.
Ryan and Cate are radio hosts in the show. That seems very ’90s. Are they confused about which decade it is?
No, I don’t think so. Originally, I don’t even think our jobs were in radio. I forget what it was but it wasn’t something as high-profile. They thought it would be much more interesting to have these two local celebrities dealing with this in the town of Portland. This show’s got something to say. It’s all about the characters. It’s all about the story. It’s not about the cell phone, it’s not about some shallow plots. It’s about, you know, a bunch of people trying to make it through life and figure out how to deal with this newfound situation of a 16-year-old girl entering into their lives.
It’s tough out there for any new series, but to begin mid-season, and on The CW…Does it feel like you’re the underdog and do you think the show might surprise everyone?
Well, The Vampire Diaries does nicely on the network, and so does Gossip Girl. Hopefully, we’re gonna be included in that list of shows that are gonna do really well on the CW. Are we an ABC show? No, absolutely not. It’s just not right for that network. We were definitely written with the CW in mind. Yeah, we do very much feel like the underdog. We were picked up at the last second last season and we were given the mid-season spot, so it feels like we’ve been hanging in there by a thread the whole time. But on the other hand, The CW is behind the show 110 percent, so it’s been really nice. We’re having such a great time making it, and it just gets crazier and crazier.
Speaking of Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, I feel like you and Chace Crawford and Ian Somerhalder all have “The CW Face,” with the light eyes, dark hair, and, like, chiseled male features. I’m starting to think they must recruit specifically for that.
Yes, they like that. There’s definitely a CW look. Hey, I’m not complaining. Dawn’s [Ostroff, network president] got good taste.
A lot of people I’ve talked to about Life Unexpected, their first reaction is “Oh yay, I love Jack from Dawson’s Creek!” and then “Whoa, Jack from Dawson’s Creek is an adult? Oh no, I’m so old, etc.”
Well, to defend that, when I first started on Dawson’s Creek I was 27 years old. Now I’m 38. So you didn’t get old, I did.
Was it scary at the time to wonder if you could pull off playing a teenager?
No, just because I have a younger-looking face, so I’ve always played younger roles. It hasn’t been until the last couple years that I’ve started playing close to my age. But it’s fun playing the younger roles because it takes you back to the teen years. You can play that naive kind of character who knows less — but as a a person, you’re older and you know more. So it’s like you’re playing a teenager with an older soul. In my opinion, you get an older person to play a teenager, it works a lot better.
Do you keep in touch with the Dawson’s Creek gang?
I talk to Meredith [Monroe] a lot.
Would she have cheated on her PSATs like Andie McPhee did?
Meredith? No, not in a million years!
Anyway, I think the fact that you and Shiri Appleby starred in WB shows helps give Life Unexpected that old-school WB vibe that people are nostalgic for.
I hope so! I hope I got some PR value left with that show. It is very much old-school WB. It parallels Dawson’s, which was very character-driven. I think it’s very much the same audience. The people who watched Dawson’s Creek when it originally aired aren’t too old to enjoy Life Unexpected. And then you’ve got the whole next generation that’s hooked on the Dawson’s reruns seeing this show, so it’s perfect for them.
I think more people should be watching Dawson’s Creek reruns.
They should! God, it’s on, like, four times a day.
Do you ever watch them?
No. When you’re making TV, the last thing you want to do is watch TV. It’s too much.
When did you find out that Jack, your character on Dawson’s Creek, would be gay?It wasn’t until about three or four months into that second season that Kevin Williamson decided he wanted to go down a different avenue with the character. He actually gave me an option. He said, “you can do this or, basically, we can get someone else to do it” but it was something he really wanted to do. It was obviously a huge decision for me. At the time, if you were to ask me which show I wanted to be on I would have said Dawson’s Creek or Party of Five, and I royally screwed up the Party of Five audition. So this was a big deal for me but to make that decision was even bigger. I mean, it was a risky thing to do at that time. Nowadays, it’s like, who cares? You got a gay character on every show. So I guess we did our job. We opened people’s minds and it’s not a big deal anymore, which I think was great.
We’ve seen so many stereotypical gay characters on TV since Jack. I thought that character was so realistic.
Well, when I agreed to play the role as a gay character, I told Kevin, I said “Look: The only way I’m gonna do this if we don’t play into any stereotypes whatsoever. I’m just gonna play Jack straight, and it’ll just be the words and the situations you put me in that’ll be gay.” And he agreed. I think it worked. You gotta play against that. You can’t just play what everybody assumes you’re gonna play.
Did you find you were approached by fans as a sort of gay hero?
Well, I stayed out of that. In the beginning, yeah, I was getting a ton of mail from people who had gone through similar situations, and it was just too much for me to deal with, it was too scary. But it did make me realize the responsibility that I was taking on, so that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to play into any of these stereotypes and I just wanted to tell a truthful story. The story actually ended up being the story of Greg Berlanti, because he took over the show after Kevin left.
Did you think that from then on, people would only want to cast you as other gay characters?
Some people have tried, I got straight-out offers to play these characters, and I just turned everything down. It’s already been done; you don’t want to do that again. I was very persistent in making sure I played characters — when we were on hiatus from shooting Dawson’s — that were very different from Jack.
Final question: Do you ever listen to Paula Cole just for old time’s sake?
The “I Don’t Wanna Wait” song? No, I don’t turn that on. It’s on the radio enough.
Maybe Ryan should unexpectedly play it on the radio on Life Unexpected.
Come on, that would completely take away from the moment!