For six seasons on Dawson’s Creek, James Van Der Beek so wholly embodied Dawson Leery that it became near impssible to pinpoint where the actor ended and the Spielberg-obsessed cinephile began—which is why, following the initial success of the sudsy teen drama, he ran in the opposite direction, playing everything from a bisexual drug dealer (The Rules of Attraction) to a brawl-hungry quarterback (Varsity Blues) to, well, James Van Der Beek (He portrays a fictional version of himself on ABC’s new series Don’t Trust the B**** In Apartment 23). After spending much of his adulthood distancing himself from the charcter who introduced him to fame, the 34-year-old actor returns to his roots with an open letter to Little Leery. (Hey, Paula Cole—you don’t have to wait anymore:)
Sorry I’ve been out of touch for so long… It’s funny, I’ve talked about you here and there, seen your picture pop up online, and even cashed in on you for a few laughs, but just this week, someone asked me to write about where I thought you were now, and I realized I had no idea. It’s been that long since I stopped to think about you or get inside your head.
Of course, there are the easy answers to questions about what you’re up to now—you’re making movies like Spielberg, you’re still friends with Joey—but I’ve never been one for easy answers. I guess that’s always been the main difference between you and me. You saw things in absolutes: good or bad, right or wrong, black or white. I’m fascinated by shades of gray. I love exploring the duplicity in life’s great dilemmas; I can’t pick a favorite movie or director the way you can—my taste is far too eclectic. I suppose that’s why I’ve been able to play so many people you could never think of relating to, let alone becoming. One trap of my perpetual open- mindedness, however, is an occasional tendency toward inaction, which is probably why I always hated that same trait in you.
But make no mistake, I love you like a little brother. Always have. I’ve always cared about you, wanted the best for you, and, of course, went through that inevitable period when I hated it if people couldn’t tell us apart. I’ll admit now that it really tripped me out when strangers first started shouting, “I love you!” at me, thinking I was you. I felt so disconnected from whatever it was they thought they loved, and in my early 20s, I didn’t know how to handle that. They don’t make handbooks for this sort of thing. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but it’s no coincidence that neither of the women I’ve married since we parted ways ever watched anything you did.
But now that I’ve got a few years on you, I’ve found myself becoming proud of you. I honestly forget most of what we did together, so eager was I at the end of each day to dive back into my own world of things you would have hated (football, Fight Club, Radiohead, The Rules of Attraction). But you’ve still got a number of fans out there, and, from what I gather, you did something right.
One thing you always were was sincere. And open. And vulnerable. It’s dangerous to wear your heart on your sleeve, to be so earnest about your passions, but you never let that stop you. You never took the safer, cynical, noncommittal route, and the older I get, the more deeply I respect you for that. You drove me crazy with your ineffectual approach to life, love, and simple misunderstandings (part of which was a necessary construct of drama that could be wrapped up in 47 minutes—I get that), but what people have told me they appreciate most about you was that you always tried to do the right thing. You screwed up quite frequently (about 22 times a season from what I recall), but you were quick to apologize once you realized the error of your ways (usually about three commercial breaks after your mistake), which, to me, is more important than being right in the first place. And you truly cared about making sure your moral compass always pointed true. Can’t ask much more of a man than that.
All of which made you exhausting to play, of course, but when my daughter gets old enough to Google my name and your picture comes up, I think we’ll be able to feel good about the example we set for her—maybe even good enough to forgive you for your hair. (On a side note—Seriously? You couldn’t have thought that looked good, even in the late ’90s.) Anyway, once again, sorry for the huge lapse in communication. I hope that wherever you are, you’re still following your passion, and you’re surrounded by people who appreciate you. I still wish we made more in residuals, but every career door I walk through today wouldn’t be within my reach had you not broken down that first giant one for me, and for that I am forever grateful to you.
With respect and gratitude, James
P.S. I hope you’re finding all the jokes I’m making at your expense funny. Remember—it’s all out of love.