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James Van Der Beek on Surviving Teen Idoldom (Barely)

Since Dawson’s Creek went off the air in 2003, James Van Der Beek has sporadically popped up in various TV guest spots, but he’s never had as high profile a role as his ultrasensitive high schooler Dawson Leery, pining for Katie Holmes back in the days when she blinked. But starting tonight, he’ll be back on TV full time, joining the cast of NBC's Mercy as cocky, womanizing Dr. Joe Briggs, the new head of the ICU. Vulture spoke with Van Der Beek about his new role, and what it’s like dealing with people who just think of him as Dawson. Like, uh, us.

Your new role seems like a pretty big departure from the considerate Dawson Leery …
It's so funny. People keep talking about it as being a departure from something I stopped thinking about years ago, but it's actually really fun, and I've gotten to play a lot of really interesting characters over the years.

Are you tired of the Dawson comparison at this point?
No, not at all. It's just funny when it's put that way, like the characters are bookended right up against each other. I'm not sick of it at all. It's how everyone was introduced to me. But just in terms of the function of who this character is on the show, it's completely different. When you're the lead of a series, things happen around you, and you react to them. Now I get to be the catalyst. I get to poke people and prod people and ruffle some feathers and knock people off balance a little bit, so it's a lot of fun. And I don't have to worry about being likable all the time.

What have you been focusing on since Dawson's Creek?
By the end of that run, I was pretty burnt out on working and acting, so I disappeared for a little bit. I laid low, I kept under the radar. I had some guest spots over the past couple years and recently started saying yes to some of the things I'd been saying no to, and I really started to have a lot of fun. I think my focus was on figuring out a lot of life stuff. I got married, I got divorced. I had a lot of personal growth, and I recharged, and really discovered my passion for what I do. From the time I was 20 to 26, it was a pretty crazy time. I was shooting during the week, doing photo shoots on the weekends, shooting movies during the hiatus, then coming right back and doing the show. Being the lead of the show and working a lot of hours — all good stuff, a tremendous education, incredible opportunity, it changed my life — it was a marathon, and by the end of it I was pretty beat. I came back to New York, did some theater, and then just laid low.

In its day, Dawson's Creek was known for tackling some pretty racy topics among high schoolers. Does it seem squeaky-clean relative to shows today?
I was in my trailer the other day, and one of these other teen shows was on, and a lot of these characters are pretty outwardly conniving. I think our characters were pretty well-intentioned, and very smart, very precocious as teenagers are. And we were one of the first shows where we all had movie careers.

You've all gone in pretty different directions since the show, but you've all had successes since then. What do you think contributed to that?
I joke that none of us are in jail and none of us are in rehab. To go through something as crazy as that, and be so famous, so quickly, in so many places, it really is a strange thing, and you don't ask for sympathy because obviously no one's going to be sympathetic towards you, but it's an adjustment that has to be made, and it's a little tricky to have to navigate your way through it. But for us, being in Wilmington and being raised as professionals in that environment helped tremendously, but we're all doing really well and we're all doing really good work.

2002's Rules of Attraction was your first departure from Dawson's clean-cut persona. How do you think that affected your career?
I think honestly that it was the reason for every good role I've ever gotten or been considered for since. After that movie, people started to look at me as a real actor, and I think before that I was a teen idol. Dawson was very well received and we all got a lot of respect for that show, but I know in terms of directors and Rules of Attraction, that's the role they always point to. Even when I was doing nothing and laying low, agents and producers would look at Rules of Attraction and say, "Yeah, but he's got that in him."

Has it been tough to get past Dawson, given that it was such a defining role for you?
In the very beginning, I passed on everything that was even remotely similar to Dawson, and I have gotten offers for really different, darker, interesting characters, but in terms of breaking free of the Dawson stereotype, I've always just gone with my instincts. I've never really had a problem with the imagination level of an audience. They're always smarter and savvier than any studio exec will give them credit for. If there was any resistance, I think it was just from people in the industry, people in Hollywood.

Do you think you're more like Dawson, or more like Joe Briggs?
So are you asking me if I'm a nice guy or if I'm an asshole? I just think of Dawson as so much younger, frozen at that age in my mind. Friends would probably say I'm a lot nicer than Joe Briggs. But I do have kind of a wicked sense of humor, so I guess I have a little of him in me, too.

Photo: Patrick McMullan