Cocaine. Cyberporn. Drunken booty calls. Nose Picking. Now who are you calling a Goody Two-shoes?
Like many adolescents acting out, James Van Der Beek is rebelling. Except that at 25, Van Der Beek is past adolescence, and in this case, he’s literally acting, sullying the cavity-inducingly sweet image he’s cultivated on The WB’s Dawson’s Creek. Playing the bad-boy lead in The Rules of Attraction, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ nasty college-set novel, may be teen-idol suicide, but Van Der Beek considers it nothing less than redemption.
”I loved every minute I was on the set,” says the actor, who is, in person, undeniably squeaky-clean handsome. ”It was so liberating.” Van Der Beek is at a restaurant in Wilmington, N.C., where he has lived nine months a year for the last five years filming Dawson’s Creek. It’s a hamlet where a church sign wishes ”Peace to All Who Pass Here,” a sentiment that Van Der Beek — watching his TV stardom flourish and his movie career suffer — hasn’t necessarily shared.
Three years ago, it looked as if Van Der Beek and the big screen were going to get along just fine. Varsity Blues, his first attempt to expand on his TV success, opened at No. 1 in 1999. But with only about a month before his next hiatus, Van Der Beek needed a follow-up project fast and jumped into the ill-fated Western Texas Rangers, which began production without a finished script. Midway through, Van Der Beek was hospitalized with stress-related stomach cramps. ”I felt like Rangers was so important,” he says. ”I had a total warped perception.” (The film sat on the shelf before getting a token release last year.)
The actor’s next hope was Behind Enemy Lines, which was dashed when his TV schedule made it impossible (Owen Wilson stepped in). His consolation: a part as a bisexual college student in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. Soon after wrapping that film, Van Der Beek read the script for Rules and called his agent to say, ”’I really, really like this script — my only concern is that it’s similar to Storytelling.’ To which he replied, ‘Oh, yeah, bad news on that.”’ Van Der Beek’s entire Storytelling role had been excised.
That devastating development left him all the more determined to do Rules — and not just because he was able to take the meeting. With a nine-hour commute to L.A., ”The odds that I can get a day off when a director is available is a crapshoot,” says the Connecticut native, who shares an L.A. house with his fiancee, actress Heather McComb (Party of Five). ”But that’s nothing compared to finding a film where you’re the only actor in the world who can play that part and [they’ll agree] to a stop date,” a guarantee that he will return to his series by a certain day.
Director Roger Avary (who won an Oscar for cowriting Pulp Fiction) was more than willing to accommodate him. ”James has a puppy-dog likability,” says Avary. ”But I could see his eyes were capable of a dark, hollow emptiness. He was perfect.” The problem was finding financiers who agreed. In one year, says the actor, ”I went from being able to get a $75 million [grossing] movie off the ground, to being unable to get a $5 million movie made.”