James Van Der Beek has a gun to his head. Okay, it’s plastic — but still, the guy doesn’t even flinch. On this warm March day in L.A., the 35-year-old, who for six seasons played good boy Dawson Leery on the hit series Dawson’s Creek, is in the midst of a brutal session of Krav Maga, a martial art employed by the Israeli army. Barefoot and rocking a sleeveless shirt that more than justifies his free admission to the gun show, Van Der Beek kicks, punches, uppercuts, and roundhouses away at his instructor, fourth-degree black belt Jarret Waldman.
By the time Van Der Beek wrests the fake firearm out of Waldman’s hand with a precision that would make even Jason Statham’s jaw drop, you definitely don’t want to make a joke about his wavy-haired, weepy Creek alter ego.
And yet James Van Der Beek is about to invite millions to laugh at him. Following a series of self-spoofing spots on the comedy website Funny or Die and in Ke$ha’s ”Blow” music video, the actor has a new scene-stealing role as himself — albeit a smarmy, douche-bag version of himself — on ABC’s slightly twisted sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. The comedy focuses on naive New York newcomer June (Dreama Walker), who moves in with the possibly sociopathic Chloe (Krysten Ritter), whose ex-boyfriend/best pal just happens to be James Van Der Beek. The Apartment 23 incarnation of the Beek is a womanizer who seduces fans to the strains of Creek‘s ”I Don’t Want to Wait” theme song and launches his own line of jeans with the slogan ”Put your cheeks in a Beek.”
”I love doing it,” says the actor. ”I love the ego assassination that comes with it. It’s just so healthy and so good for me.” It’s also good for Van Der Beek’s career, which, post-Creek, hit a lull as the actor struggled with his own ego, his image, and finding the right roles. But now the Beek from the Creek has his swagger back. ”I always wanted James to get some age on him,” says Creek creator Kevin Williamson, who’s remained close friends with his former star. ”He’s turning into a handsome leading man. He’s getting to the place where he’s going to be right for 100 roles, whereas before he was only right for two or three.”
Adds Van Der Beek, who lives in L.A. with his wife, Kimberly, and their two children, ”I feel a lot more comfortable in my skin.”
In January 1998, The WB’s Dawson’s Creek transported viewers to Capeside, a small coastal town inhabited by a group of hormonally charged teens with the vocabulary of Ivy League grad students and the wardrobe of American Eagle salesclerks. With its frank sexual dialogue and racy plotlines, the show became a huge hit for the network and its then-unknown leads: Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, Katie Holmes, and Michelle Williams. Shortly after the premiere, recalls Van Der Beek, The WB asked him to make a publicity appearance in Seattle. ”It was over 500 screaming girls,” he says while enjoying a post-workout burger. ”I stepped on stage and I just remember the wall of noise. I remember thinking, ‘There’s no volume control on this,’ and it really freaked me out.”
But as Dawson’s face was tacked to more and more bedroom walls, Van Der Beek started to become more uneasy with the attention. ”I remember a woman following me out of the [grocery store],” says the actor, who shot Creek in Wilmington, N.C. ”She wipes dirt off my car, and she holds up her hand and she goes [in a thick Southern accent], ‘Thank you, I will take this home to my children.”’ Van Der Beek was also frustrated with his character’s milquetoast persona and yearned to play something edgier. After starring as a charismatic high school football player in 1999’s Varsity Blues, he decided to go darker with 2002’s The Rules of Attraction, which featured him as masturbating, drug-taking, toxic college student Sean Bateman. While the film garnered a cult following, Attraction was a box office flop that grossed only $6.5 million — and cooled studios on Van Der Beek’s big-screen prospects. ”Right about that time movies had started being financed by pre-selling foreign rights,” explains the actor. ”I had very little foreign box office value. So that made it very tough to get things financed with me in them.”
Creek wrapped its six-season run in 2003, but instead of capitalizing on the moment, a burned-out Van Der Beek retreated. ”I think I did see [playing Dawson] as a burden, which now I look at as an opportunity. I think that just comes with age,” he says, adding with a laugh, ”and unemployment.” The actor ended up passing on many projects that he now admits he should have taken, like 2005’s remake of The Amityville Horror, which went on to star Ryan Reynolds. ”It would have been a very smart, strategic move at the time,” says Van Der Beek. ”I just think I wasn’t ready. I needed to go through a lot of growth and a lot of maturity, and get over myself a little.”
By 2010, after spending several years doing TV movies and guest spots on shows like Criminal Minds, Van Der Beek was ready for something a little different. A longtime fan of Funny or Die, Van Der Beek contacted the humor site’s offices and asked for a meeting. The collaboration yielded so many ideas that they decided to shoot several of them — including a mock ad called ”A–hole for Hire” — and branded the series ”Van Der Week” on the site in January 2011. ”He was very smart and willing to try new things,” says Mike Farah, Funny or Die’s head of production. The shorts drew the attention of the producers of Apartment 23, who thought they might have a role for someone that game to play with his image. ”Comedy is a question mark when somebody hasn’t done it before,” says creator Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad!). ”As soon as I saw the Funny or Die stuff, I was completely confident.”
So the previously generic best friend to the series’ titular bitch became a broad version of the Beek. While Van Der Beek says he’s never traded on his Creek past to come on to a woman as his sitcom persona does, the actor gives the show’s writers fodder from his own life, like having his character compete on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. ”I have been offered [DWTS],” says the actor, who passed. ”This was the most fun way to do it.” As Williamson sees it, Van Der Beek’s new foray into comedy isn’t surprising — it’s just the actor’s own personality finally coming to public light. While promoting the first season of Creek, Van Der Beek often stayed at Williamson’s house in L.A. Remembers the producer, ”ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s review had come out and it said James Van Der Beek had a ‘cereal box’ head. So I come home one night, I go into the kitchen, and on the butcher block he’s taped his head shot to a box of Raisin Bran. Then, I realized he had a sense of humor.”
Today, having found this second act in his career, Van Der Beek is able to look back on his time in Capeside with affection. ”Now I have a fondness for it like you would a little brother,” he says. ”The fact that it still resonates with people is kind of crazy. I’m able to appreciate now how rare that is.” He still runs into his castmates from time to time and says watching costar Williams at the Oscars made him ”really happy and warm inside.” And with his new series, Van Der Beek is getting the last laugh. Says the actor, ”I’ve always known that I have so many other tricks in my bag. It’s been fun to surprise people.”