When Dawson’s Creek producers were casting about for the right actor to play the WB drama’s verbose, Spielberg-loving lead, not everyone was in agreement that it should go to James Van Der Beek. But Kevin Williamson, the prime-time show’s creator, overlooked worries that his top choice, with just a few theater credits and a movie called Angus to his name, lacked the star power required to carry the role and gave the part to the 20-year-old Connecticut native anyway. By the spring of 1998, mere months after the series’ January 20 debut on the WB (R.I.P.), Van Der Beek was being ogled by millions of girls on the cover of YM (also R.I.P.) and risking death-by-stampede during simple shopping excursions to the mall. As part of our weeklong look at celebrity culture in the year 1998, Vulture spoke with Van Der Beek, now 36, about his breakout year, why he prefers Twitter followers to tweens, and the night he met Leonardo DiCaprio at the Playboy Mansion.
I don’t know how often people say “1998” to you, but let’s say they do. What runs through your mind?
God. I went from signing my first autograph in 1998 to, literally two weeks later, being rushed by an angry, screaming mob of teenage girls — girls getting crushed against barricades, and [me] being shoved in the back of a cop car to escape the melee. Literally, two weeks after signing my first autograph. That’s what I think of when I think of 1998.
I was reading some of the interviews you did at the time. It does seems like it was a traumatic experience for you.
It was just a lot, instantly. I had been doing theater in New York before [Dawson’s]. I used to tell my friends that the most famous I ever wanted to get was “Mandy Patinkin famous.” He was in The Princess Bride, he was awesome, he did a lot of theater, he won Tonys. I was like, “That’s the career I want. That’d be great.” Then I became super-famous at age 20 and completely blew that one.
I read that you were asked to leave the mall once. Can you talk more about that?
It was the first Christmas where I actually had money to buy presents for my family. [Laughs.] I went in thinking, All right, this is going to be a good Christmas for the Van Der Beeks this year! And, uh, I was asked to leave the mall because I was causing a scene.
Security just came up to you?
It was a store owner that said, “I think it’s best if you leave,” like it was a foregone conclusion. She was really right; there wasn’t mall security, from what I remember, so it was a better idea if I peaced out.
On the plus side, technology back then didn't really allow for people to snap compromising cell phone pictures of you and put them online. Were you comparatively more relaxed at parties, and in general?
Yeah, in 1998, nobody had cameras on their cell phones. So if somebody was taking a picture of you, or a video of you, you knew it. There’s usually a big flash. If it was a video camera, there was this big honking thing with a red light, and so you knew what was happening. You could go out and do the stupid things you do when you’re 20 or 21 years old and wake up the next morning and go, Wow, that was dumb. I’m not going to do that again. It didn’t follow you around for the next six months to a year of your life. It wasn’t splashed all over some magazine. Not everyone you ran into was a potential paparazzi in 1998.
The other big thing, the thing that really changed for me: Us magazine was a respected monthly publication that actors were dying to get into. I remember auditioning in New York in complete obscurity and meeting with friends of mine who I’d lived with in the theater, or people who had done some independent movie work, and we were aspiring to be at the point where Us magazine did a feature on you. They really got in depth, they talked about career, they talked about projects you wanted to do. It was a very different thing. And then it went weekly and it went tabloid. And it was a very successful tabloid. It really got into people’s lives and sold a lot of magazines. And I think it changed the tenor of tabloid journalism, which went from “Mel Gibson Is an Alien” to actual pictures of him with his kids.
You guys had a YM cover in '98 and an EW cover. You alone appeared on the covers of Teen People and TV Guide. Do you remember any of those shoots or interviews?
I remember there was a photo shoot every weekend and being tired constantly.
Were you good at it? Did you guys love hamming it up?
I hated it. Right now, I have a much deeper appreciation for being on a successful show — I look at it as part of the job and I’m grateful for it. Back then, man, I was working fourteen-hour days, sixteen-hour days, five days a week, and then on the weekends you show up for photo shoots for eight to ten hours. It was exhausting. And for me, personally, it all happened so quickly and I felt like I hadn’t really asked for that much.
Right, you were trying to be Mandy Patinkin.
I showed up at a set and somebody put a bigger helping on my plate than I had gone in there for. I certainly did not have the perspective to appreciate how rare that opportunity was in life. For all those photo shoots and all those covers, I remember thinking, Can’t they just use a picture of the shots from the last shoot that we did a week ago? In my mind, it was practical. They didn’t use every shot they took, so why don’t we just use those? And then give me some time to sleep. If you look at those first billboards from Dawson’s Creek, we all look exhausted.
How into Internet culture were you then? Were you Googling yourself?
I remember Googling myself after Angus, hoping somebody had realized that this movie had come out. It was my first movie. And then by the time '98 hit and my world changed, I had no interest in Googling myself.
We’re saying Googling but Google was launched in 1998. So we were all using another search engine at that point.
Was it? Maybe I was on a Yahoo search engine.
Or maybe HotBot. Has the Internet made interacting with fans a little less stressful? Is it better than girls mobbing you?
There are a lot of clever, smart people out there, and I enjoy interacting with them.
Yeah, yeah. I love it when people are, like, tweeting me funny things I hadn’t thought of. Even if they’re making fun of me, I find all of that fun and interesting. I kind of choose to embrace it. These people might get my sense of humor. At least on Twitter, I put out some bits of my sense of humor. Whereas in '98, when I was being mobbed by girls, they were just looking to go crazy about anything and could use the excuse, you know, to scream and go mad. I had a real hard time taking that seriously, because I just thought, This is based on something completely fake. I was an English major, so I probably took everything a little too seriously back then. But I remember trying to wrap my head around it and just staring. And then at one point, somebody shouted, “I love you!” from across the street. What do they want? It’s not me. What do I do with it? Jon Voight actually had the best advice of anybody I ever talked to. He said, “You’re able to make somebody very happy by doing something very simple. And that’s all it is.”
What did he mean by simple: the acting or the signing?
Signing an autograph, taking a picture, having a conversation, shaking a hand. That’s really kind of all it is. And that’s [another] difference between '98 [and now]: You signed autographs. Now everybody wants a picture. Back then you were signing some ticket stub or receipt or page of a book that somebody ripped out after scrambling for a pen. So thumbs-up for pictures over an autograph — um, thumbs-up for cell phone pics over those disposable wind-up cameras that Dad never knew how to use. You'd get some poor 13-year-old girl who’s shaking, she’s got her moment and she’s taking the picture with you, and the dad goes, “One, two, three!” — but he has neglected to wind the camera. So then the poor girl just wants to crawl in a hole and disappear at this point. She goes [in an embarrassed teen voice], “Dad, you have to wind it.” And then they have those stupid flash bulbs, where you have to push the stupid flash button and you have to wait for the red light to start blinking before the flash would work. I gave more tutorials to dads in front of mortified girls on how to use those disposable cameras … So thank God for the iPhone in that respect.
Were there any celebrities you were dying to hang out with in 1998? Leonardo DiCaprio was another heartthrob that year.
I remember meeting him at the Playboy Mansion, actually.
What was that like?
It was just really quick. I remember him just being really respectful and not doing that thing that some famous people do where they pretend to not know you. He knew who I was and introduced himself. He was really down-to-earth and very cool. We had mutual friends, too. For somebody who was as huge as he was at the time, I remember him being very down-to-earth and cool.
Were there any publicists telling you to act as wholesome as Dawson in your day-to-day life?
No, nobody ever did. I expected that, but no one ever sat me down and said, “Hey, do this. Don’t do that. Be careful." I got zero tutorials.
Some young celebrities back then were publicized as being virginal. Britney Spears, for example, actually talked in interviews about not having sex, even though it wasn’t true. That doesn’t seem to be expected of teen stars today.
It’s kind of swung a little far in the other direction, in my opinion. I feel like teen girls now, as they're approaching their twenties, they're starting to equate artistic integrity with nudity. I’m not sure that that’s the case either, but I think at least people are now acknowledging the fact that you don’t have to proclaim to be a virgin in order to be accepted by society.
Do you think that today's teen idols, like Justin Bieber, have it harder than you had it?
Absolutely, 100 percent. Those kids — No. 1, they’re so young. No. 2, they’re under such an intense microscope. And there’s a lot more money to be made off of them than there was when I was famous. I mean, I don’t know. I just don’t judge. It’s very easy. People love to judge. People love to be self-righteous. They get a lot of energy from that. Listen: Fame is not hard. Right? Being a soldier is hard, digging ditches is hard, coal mining is hard. But it’s tricky. It’s not something you can ever get any sympathy for, nor should you, and it’s not something you can really explain to someone who hasn’t gone through it. But it’s tricky because ... you’re the same. You feel generally like the same person, but the behavior of everyone around you starts to change. I remember we did season one of Dawson’s Creek in complete obscurity. Then when we were shooting season two [which was shot after everyone was famous], my trailer door had a latch that stuck, so the only way to get it closed was to slam it. And I said something to one of the producers, but it kept on breaking, whatever. But within a week, I had all the producers in my trailer for a very serious sit-down, because they had heard that I was slamming my trailer door. That never would have happened in season one.
They thought you were mad about something, but it was just a broken latch?
Yeah. It was the difference between being on the air and not being on the air. You have to take a lot more responsibility for every aspect of your behavior, which is just difficult to do when you’re a kid.