Dawson Creek heartthrob opts for a change of image on the controversial Rules of Attraction, while admitting to Paul Fischer that this is the final year for the TV show that made him a star, and he couldn’t be happier. James van der Beek doesn’t seem to be in the mood for being interviewed.
Perhaps having been in the spotlight for over 5 years in TV’s Dawson’s Creek he has a clear disdain for the spotlight. Wearing an unironed denim shirt that hangs loosely over his faded jeans, van der Beek, currently starring in the drugs ‘n’ sex college satire Rules of Attraction, recalls the craziness that was once a part of his life at the peak of his television success. “It’s absolutely bizarre and completely strange to wrap your mind around.”
He recalls having dealt with all of the unwanted attention by “just surrounding yourself with the right people and create your own life independently of what goes on because of that.” That includes his upcoming marriage to actress Heather McComb whom he had been dating since 1996. “I don’t talk about that much and it’s pretty private but it’s also what keeps my life real.”
Now 26, van der Beek has changed a lot since, as a fresh-faced 20-year old, he became an instant star as Dawson’s Creek became a solid hit with a generation of teenagers searching for a television show that would speak to them. “When I first got really famous, I wasn’t really in Hollywood, but in Wilmington, North Carolina,” which was a blessing, he adds. “In retrospect I can say that I was lucky, that at the height of all this insanity, I was still going to work with a bunch of people, most of whom that just kind of happened into the industry and who were unimpressed with anything that had to do with fame.”
As critical of his Dawson experiences, Van Der Beek also admits that he still learned a lot from working on the show. “The thing that comes immediately to mind in terms of what I learned, is just the technical process of filmmaking. I remember going from stage, which came naturally to me, and being on a film set and having all this stuff thrown at you. I’ve been making TV for 9 months of the year, 6 years in a row and there’s no substitute for that to just be aware of finding the lines and the light and getting those kinds of technical skills down without them becoming a distraction.”
Given the clean-cut image van der Beek personifies as Dawson, it is no surprise that he chose the starring role in Rules of Attraction, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ dark novel and says he was pleased, more than surprised “that Roger [Avary, director], had confidence in me to do it.” The actor admits that “was also a lot of resistance to me taking the role”. After all, this character is the very antithesis of his clean-cut TV image. The film Rules’ casts a satirical eye on a surreal sex triangle between three students at a New England college: drug-stealing Sean (Van Der Beek), the younger brother of Ellis’ famous ‘American Psycho’ character Patrick Bateman his bisexual friend Paul (Ian Somerhalder); and Paul’s ex, Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon). Far from playing the nice guy audiences know from Van der Beek’s television work, here he goes all out to play a character that can be defined as both unsympathetic and even repulsive.
The actor concedes that while it might be difficult to get into the skin of such a character, his job is, he explains, “to find some reason to love him a little bit. Not that you can excuse a lot of what he does in the movie, but certainly you’ve got to go beyond the whole notion of him being some kind of psycho or bad guy; you can’t play him like that, but rather come up with a reason for why he does what he does.” And being the young brother of the American Psycho, “imagine him having grown up in that environment.”
Rules of Attraction is a film that is already polarising audiences, and those who hate the film, of which there are many, argue that its characters and narrative have an inherently mean spirit. Van der Beek disagrees. “I think it’s more just disillusionment and confusion and an inability to make sense of what’s going on.” While it can be argued that both. Van der Beek’s character and those around him are cruel; the actor responds that “it’s not my job to stand in judgement of these people. I feel sorry for them, because it’s not a happy existence that they lead.”
Van der Beek argues that it is relevant to tell even the ugly stories “because these people exist, are out there and I think some of what they think and what they go through, exists in all of us. We all have an Id, we all explode, and we all have flashes of rage. It’s all about how you process it, especially at a time in someone’s life when they go to college and they’re free for the first time to find themselves outside of their home environment. It doesn’t matter what their parents or high school thought of them, they can come up with any definition that they see fit. Consequently it’s a very experimental thing and people do not make good choices at that age.” To Van der Beek, Rules of Attraction is “ultimately a movie about consequence. I don’t think there was any attempt to make a movie that is representative of the majority of people’s college experiences, but rather to zero in on three very specific people”, argues the actor.
Van der Beek spent 2 years at university studying English and Sociology, before landing the gig in Dawson’s Creek, and admits he found it easy to relate to the drug and sex-hazed world of Rules of Attraction, “to the point when I read the script I thought it was very honest and truthful. This is the kind of movie I wish somebody had made when I went to college”, admitting that the film can be seen as almost a cautionary tale. “I have a sister that is in college right now and so this is DEFINITELY the kind of thing I would want her to see.” As Van der Beek was required to shoot both Rules of Attraction and Dawson’s Creek simultaneously, going from one character to another proved an interesting challenge for the actor. “It forced me to build Sean as the exact opposite of Dawson in just about every way,” explains the actor. “With Dawson, I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s almost like working on Rules was like swimming upstream and then when I got back to Dawson I kinda drifted,” Van Der Beek confesses.
This is why he is happy to bid the show farewell after six years. “I’ve been told that this will probably be the last year even though we haven’t been told officially.” Van Der Beek says that he has no idea what the series finale will have in store for him, nor does he apparently care. “Honestly, in terms of the television show, my attitude is give ’em what they want. I mean I’ve gotten everything that I could possibly want out of it, so I just want to give the fans a great send off that they’ll enjoy and appreciate, which is the most important thing to me.” Although it is television that established Van Der Beek as a star, the actor has been acting since he was a teenager.
Asked if, with the TV show and some film work now behind him, he has gotten everything out of acting at age 26 that he intended to when he began, Van Der Beek ponders the question thoughtfully. “To me, it’s a never-ending learning process. I’ve had different perceptions of what it would be based on different times in my life, but at least Rules of Attraction I KNOW was everything that I wished it would be, working on it and seeing the finished product. It was incredibly rewarding because it was something that I’d never done before.” And Van Der Beek’s timing was perfect proving that he could go beyond Dawson in its last year. “I obviously want to keep working, broaden my horizons and play a variety of characters, because Dawson is obviously not the only thing I can do.”
Clearly for Van Der Beek, there is life after Dawson’s Creek, and is currently wading through offers and preparing for his wedding. Dividing his time between North California and Los Angeles, the actor is undecided as to where he would like to raise his children. “I guess it depends on where I’m at in my career. If I’m at a point where I can afford to live outside of Los Angeles, where the kids can take advantage of four distinct seasons, then I’ll do it. But at the same time you don’t want to have to be pulling them out of school and be absent all the time. Maybe I’d better wait till we’re ready to have kids before we worry too much about it,” he laughingly concludes.