James Van Der Beek remembers 'Dawson's Creek', 'Varsity Blues' and the role that got away

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Image Credit: Deana Newcomb; Everett Collection; Trae Patton/CBS

You know James Van Der Beek, from, well, being James Van Der Beek. The former star of Dawson’s Creek played a fictionalized version of himself on 2012’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, after adding a whole list of credits (like Varsity Blues, Rules of Attraction, and How I Met Your Mother) to his resume in addition to Dawson.

The Beek’s next role? Divorced doctor Will in CBS’s new sitcom Friends with Better Lives, premiering March 31. Before he shows off his comedy chops once again, Van Der Beek took a game look back at his most important roles — and the people who still hold a place in his heart, even after two decades in the biz.

The role my mom loves the most: Varsity Blues
“I think my mom was probably a Dawson fan, but it’s so funny — my mom’s favorite scene is the one in Varsity Blues where I give all the names for the different words for an erection. She just finds it really funny. The fact that I say ‘Pedro’ at the end of it, she just thought was hilarious. Quite frankly, I don’t want to discuss or think too much about why.”

The role that made my publicist the most nervous: The Rules of Attraction
“That was such a departure from everything that had worked for me on a commercial level up until that point, and it was something that I really needed to do artistically. Doing it felt like an exorcism. I had all this darkness that had no outlet whatsoever playing the most sensitive teenager in the history of television. I really relished the opportunity to explore the darker side of the human existence, but I do think there were some nervous conversations [with my publicist] about, ‘How do we spin this one?’ It’s one of those jobs, probably, that’s been responsible for any longevity I’ve had in my career. It showed such a different side of me that made people think twice…before completely dismissing me.”

The role I wish more people could have seen: Finding the Sun
“The biggest break that I had, only because I went from absolutely zero to the New York Times, was this Off Broadway play with Edward Albee in 1994 called Finding the Sun. It was my first legitimate job, and it was at a tiny little black-box theater in New York. It was the first time I had played my age. Up until then I’d only done children’s theater, where I was playing Nathan Detroit with a fake mustache. And it was my first professional production. It was really significant for me because I got a great review in The New York Times, and it’s what allowed me to go forward, because I’d been auditioning for about a year and a half and I could not book a Corn Pops commercial to save my life. But all of a sudden there was this legit theater opportunity. I could take that review back to my school and my teachers and parents and everybody around, and it was kind of proof in writing in black and white that I was actually doing something that I should be doing.”

The role that got away: Primal Fear
“I remember I auditioned for this movie way back when I was doing theater in New York and the Albee play that I had done. I met this guy after one performance who said, ‘You know, I really wanted to play this role, but they told me I was too old.’ This guy had actually read the play when nobody had seen it and wrote Edward [Albee] all these letters saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing this in New York?’ And Edward actually wrote him back and said, ‘I did, you should come audition,’ and so this guy did — but he was too old and didn’t get it. Turns out that was the guy who got Primal Fear, and it was Edward Norton! He was phenomenal. I remember really thinking, ‘Wow, this is a career-maker,’ and I was really happy for Edward. It’s so funny: For years it was the big joke in Hollywood that every young actor claims they were second choice for Primal Fear. I know so many guys for whom that was a conversation, like, ‘Yeah, I was second choice for Primal Fear.’ I was definitely not second choice. I must have been way down the list because I remember thinking I botched that audition.”

The person who gave me the best career advice: Jon Voight
“Voight gave me several things. One was just straight-up acting, and the other was how to handle fame. The acting one…I was doing the speech in Varsity Blues where I’m in the doorway and I’m telling him that he doesn’t really care about any of us, and I was doing it in rehearsal and he said it sounded ‘speechy.’ And in the middle of it, he turned around and started to shut the door in my face, and I angrily slammed the door open with my fist, which then got me through the entire speech without it sounding speechy. And as soon as I did that, he turned around and gave me just the most subtle little wink, like, ‘Attaboy.’ And I realized, he had shut the door in my face for me. It was the greatest assist that he could have given me for that moment. I was 21, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s the kind of actor I want to be.’ Someone who takes care of their own but is also generous and aware enough to see what other people need and throw an assist like that. As far as fame and life, I remember it was right at the time when I was signing tons of autographs and taking a lot of pictures. It was overwhelming, and it didn’t make any sense to me because I felt like the same guy who had been the same before — but now everybody’s screaming ‘I love you,’ and what does that mean? And Jon said, ‘Listen, it’s very simple. You’re able to make somebody very happy by doing something very simple, and that’s an amazing gift, and that’s all it is.'”

I wish more directors would cast me as…
“I’d love to do some action! An action movie would be a lot of fun. I’d love to do a big studio tentpole. That’s a goal at some point.”

The role that really changed my life: Dawson’s Creek
“It changed my daily reality, almost instantly. I went from being recognized for the first time ever, to two weeks later being shoved into a cop car at an event because the fans had gotten out of control and I was posing a danger to anybody in the room. Just two weeks from, ‘Oh my gosh, you want my autograph, really?’ to screaming hordes. [laughs] That was the role that made it impossible to go to a mall.”

The role I’m currently having a ball with: Friends with Better Lives
“I love every time we do that live audience show. Every week. Before introductions, I sit around and I look at five other really super funny people who I genuinely adore, and just kind of pinch myself that we get to do this comedy act for a live audience. It’s new territory for me. I felt new at it. You get nervous, because I’m not old hat at this, which is exciting.”

The role that destroyed my ego: Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23
“That’s the role that reminded people I was still alive. Careers ebb and flow, and that came along during an ebb time, so it was a real gift, number one, in that it allowed me to slay a bunch of dragons all in one shot. It was a way to get into comedy, which I had not been known for until that point. It was a way to run towards the whole persona that I had at the time, and it was also a way to just annihilate my ego. Every day, a little bit more and more. It’s really important — as you become known for something, there’s a real temptation to start to enjoy what you’re known for. And I think the more you do that, the less chances you can take in your work, and the more precious you are — the less interesting you become. That show certainly shattered any preciousness I had from my ‘90s heyday!”

Friends with Better Lives premieres Monday, March 31 at 9 PM on CBS.

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