James Van Der Beek laughs a lot. Which is surprising, considering we know him best as ultra-earnest, ultra-sensitive teen Dawson Leery from The WB's hit drama "Dawson's Creek." But Van Der Beek is all too happy -- delighted, really -- to set fire to that persona once and for all with a wickedly funny turn on ABC's midseason comedy "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23." We chatted with the actor this week about his new role, his reflections on "Creek," and how he really feels about that Paula Cole theme song.
As the "straight gay BFF" to "Apartment 23's" diabolical roommate from hell Chloe ("Breaking Bad's" Krysten Ritter), Van Der Beek plays himself, but a seriously skewed version of himself: a smarmy douchebag who uses the "Dawson's Creek" theme song to seduce female fans and cashes in on his fame by shooting cheesy ads for Vietnamese energy drinks. "It's kind of this Frankenstein monster of me on my worst day and people I know and people I've read about," Van Der Beek says of the character, adding that sending up his teen-idol status like this is "an absolute blast."
Watch Van Der Beek in this clip from "Apartment 23":
He admits that it took him a while to get to this point, to come to terms with the effect that playing Dawson had on his career and be able to poke fun at it. "When you're lucky enough to have success at a young age, there's a tendency to feel like you need to protect whatever's happened to you, and that leads to taking yourself a little seriously at times," he says. "So it's incredibly cathartic and fun to actively do away with that, and assassinate the ego a little bit every day."
He was the main character on "Dawson's Creek" (it was his creek, after all), but on "Apartment 23," Van Der Beek plays sidekick to Chloe as she emotionally tortures her naïve new roommate/victim, June (Dreama Walker, "Gossip Girl"). He doesn't seem to mind taking a backseat, though. In fact, now that he has a family of his own (he has two children with his wife, Kimberly), Van Der Beek appreciates the shorter shooting hours involved in doing a sitcom: "It's much better hours with comedy. If I was still on 'Dawson's Creek,' I would never see my kids."
[Photos: 'Dawson's Creek': Where Are They Now?]
Six seasons of "Creek" did make Van Der Beek -- along with co-stars Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams, and Joshua Jackson -- into household names. And when the series went off the air in 2003, he admits to feeling a bit lost. "In your early twenties, you're trying to figure out what kind of a man you want to be… As soon as 'Dawson's' ended, I felt this sense of relief. But now what am I going to do? Who am I?" That existential search led to Van Der Beek rejecting his cuddly Dawson persona and seeking out edgier roles in indie films like "The Rules of Attraction."
But the real turning point for him came last year, when he teamed up with Funny or Die for a series of hilarious Web videos mocking himself and his "Creek" legacy. He says it opened up a whole new set of roles for him: "Comedy is something that they don't know that you can do until they see it. It seemed like a calculated career move, but it was really just a lark." And as fate would have it, those videos went live on the site just as "Apartment 23" was casting. "Sometimes when you're following your muse and letting go and having a laugh, good things can happen."
And those good things include landing his first regular comedic role on TV, which he says is a welcome change of pace from "Creek's" soapy melodrama: "I get to laugh all day rather than cry all day." All the self-parody on "Apartment 23" has given him some much-needed perspective as well. Nine years after saying goodbye to "Creek," he says he's finally made peace with the role that launched his career: "Now it's nothing but fond memories."
One part of "Dawson's Creek" that Van Der Beek may never look back on fondly, though: that damn theme song, "I Don't Want to Wait" by Paula Cole. "I have this weird reflexive response where, if I'm in public when I hear it, I want to crawl inside a hole," he says with a laugh. "I don't know why. It's time to get over this. It needs to be addressed. If we're lucky enough to do this show for a couple years, maybe I'll get over this Paula Cole reflex." Might we suggest tackling the song at a karaoke bar in Season 2? We don't want to wait to see that.
Watch the series premiere of "Apartment 23" in full right here before it airs:
"Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" premieres Wednesday, 4/11 at 9:30 PM on ABC.