When we were watching James Van Der Beek romance a young Katie Homes, we never could have imagined he would one day star in a Ke$ha video or become the best internet meme of all time, or play a douchey version of himself on a show with profanity in the title. Van Der Beek’s renaissance is the sort of thing teen soap sensations fantasize about (take notes, Mischa Barton). In his new film Backwards, Van Der Beek takes a break from being hilarious to step back into a romantic role. The film, which highlights the cutthroat world of competitive rowing, is Dawson’s Creek meets Varsity Blues. With role in a Jason Reitman film starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet on the way, it’s safe to say Van Der Beek isn’t leaving the party anytime soon. We caught up with the charming family man to discuss Backwards, his onscreen persona, “Fake James,” and the Internet.
You’re experiencing a bit of a renaissance. How much of it was a master plan and how much of it was by accident?
I think it just started with the decision about 3 years ago to start saying yes to things. I think for a while I suffered from overcalculation as to what career move to make and I passed on a lot of things and said no to a lot of things and eventually you say no to enough people enough times and people stop making offers. I reached the point, whether it was a Ke$ha video of a series of Funny or Die spoofs on myself, or a guest spot on How I Met Your Mother, or this opportunity to play a demented version of myself on a sitcom. I just started opening myself up and saying yes if it sounded like fun.
Backwards is quite charming and endearing. What drew you to this project?
Oh I’m really happy to hear you say that. Sarah Megan Thomas came from the world of competitive rowing and she wrote the script, she got the movie made and she was going to star in it. You know how hard it is to make any movie, so I just thought this is somebody I already have respect for. And she wrote a really great, really sweet little movie. I had just had a daughter and I thought this is the kind of thing I wouldn’t mind her watching.
As opposed to The B—- in Apartment 23.
As opposed to The Rules of Attraction.
Save that for when she’s older.
Or maybe never! I hope she doesn’t get too good at Google.
As someone that grew up on Dawson’s Creek, it was nice to see you back in a romantic role. What was that like?
You know it’s interesting, after doing Dawson’s for so long I think I really resisted a role that was sweet, romantic or nice or Dawson-esque in any way. Now I think I’ve just got enough years behind me. It was no longer something I thought I would get bored doing. I’d grown up enough and I thought maybe I could do it a little differently.
Let’s talk about your comedy projects. Is there a point where you discovered you were hilarious or were you always hilarious?
(Laughs) I’ve always been a smartass. I was lucky enough to become very famous very quickly with a teen following, which is something that if you’ve ever been through it or around it, it makes no logical sense. Girls like to scream about something and you happen to be the object of that scream. Half of it is just because the girl next to them is screaming and they just want to scream about something. My response to it privately amongst my friends was always to have a good laugh at it. It’s never something that I did in public because it might have been disrespectful, but really the humor is what kept me sane through the whole thing. Now, with pop culture being what it is, the environment was just right for me to bring that humor into the light of day and people seem to enjoy it, thank god.
Has your sense of humor about yourself evolved as you’ve gotten older?
Yes and no. The temptation when you have success is always to take yourself a little too seriously. I’ve certainly been guilty of that at times in my life but the sense of humor has always been there. Sometimes it’s a little more dormant than other periods but right now it’s out and it’s freak flag is flying.
Your Funny or Die videos as well as the infamous Vandermemes got a lot of attention. How instrumental would you say the Internet was in your career resurgence?
Absolutely crucial. It was a major, major component. It’s so funny, and this is going to make me sound really freaking old, but it’s something that did not exist when I first started doing this 20 years ago. I started auditioning when I was 15 and doing theatre at 16. I thought I would be a stage actor my whole life, at the ripe old age of 16 that was my forecast. When I got on twitter that was when I first became aware of that meme and I guess you can say this whole career renaissance is due to somebody having a sense of humor about my work.
A sense of humor and a little too much time on their hands.
God bless them. Whoever the first person was who put them out there, I owe them a bit of gratitude.
You’re excellent in the role of James Van Der Beek on Apartment 23. Has “Fake James” permeated your real life at all?
I’ve got a 2-year-old at home, so Fake James gets checked at the door, but with a 2-year-old around you’re more playful. My wife certainly would not tolerate any Fake James around the house but just having a job where you go and laugh all day, that’s really made my home life even happier.
Would you like your kids to follow in your footsteps? Maybe they could meet Fake James on the air.
If my kids want to do school plays I’m all for it, but at an early age I’d do my best to dissuade or even prohibit that.
The Dawson’s Creek reunion on Apartment 23 got a lot of buzz. Will we get see you reunite with any of your former costars again in the future?
There aren’t any more in season 2 but those guys are all pretty funny. They each have a very different and very unique sense of humor. It would be a lot of fun. But for Apartment 23 we really have the most fun when we deviate from real life. The Dawson’s stuff is fun to do once or twice a season just because its there but we have more fun with the stuff we make up.
Has it been interesting or amusing for you to see the different career trajectories you and your former castmates from Dawson’s have taken?
Yeah, we’re all such different people and we knew that even when we were working together. It’s been really interesting to see how everyone has done so well for themselves. It’s really nice. Selfishly, when I’m doing interviews it’s really nice not to have that black sheep, like the one guy who’s in jail. It’s really nice to see that everybody came out of it so well.
Given that you’re so open to a variety of different projects, is there something you haven’t done yet that you would like to do?
One thing I haven’t done in a while is get back on stage, so I might need to get back to that. I started doing that and it’s just kind of like pushing a reset. I did a Jason Reitman film this summer as well. It’s called Labour Day and it stars Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet. Go figure that as soon as I stop taking myself seriously I do the most serious movie I’ve ever done. It’s straight up drama.
I hope you cry so we can get another meme out of it.
I don’t even cry. I don’t want to ruin it, but I don’t even cry in this one.