“I’ve always been a clown trapped in a leading man’s body.” Making his television debut at 16 years old in an episode of Clarissa Explains It All in 1993, James Van Der Beek was thrilled with the opportunity to finally launch his acting career after spending two years working in New York. So, how exactly did he get his start in the business? Born on March 8, 1977 in Cheshire, Connecticut, Van Der Beek enjoyed a seemingly quiet childhood in the northeast when, at 15 years old, he asked his mother to take him to New York City with the hopes of signing with an agent and launching his acting career. Fortunately, he had just enough charm and appeal that he got exactly what he wanted and made his professional debut at 16 years old in an Off-Broadway production of Finding the Sun.
Receiving outstanding reviews for his debut performance, Van Der Beek finished up his senior year in high school and took the stage at the Goodspeed Opera House in a production of Shenandoah. He snagged his first role on television in an episode of Clarissa Explains It All and made his feature film debut in Angus. “I remember being so excited about Clarissa Explains It All,” Van Der Beek said. “I remember being nervous and what really tripped me out was how the actors were treated. There are all of these adults doing their job and they’re all getting paid to do what they do to bring money home to their families. It’s all based on kids… if one of us decides to not show up that day, then they’ll have to wait. I remember being like, ‘Wow, I can see why child actors end up like child actors.’ There were very few repercussions for your behavior. It was weird. It was kind of a trippy experience.”
Determined not to be like other child actors, Van Der Beek wrapped up his small part in I Love You, I Love You Not and accepted an academic scholarship to Drew University. He continued to pursue his passions for acting and performed at the Vineyard Theater in New York while appearing in smaller roles in independent flicks and taking a huge leap of faith and auditioning for three different television pilots. Van Der Beek hit the Hollywood lottery when the first pilot to call back was for a new show on The WB Network called Dawson’s Creek.
“I went to the audition for Dawson’s Creek and said, ‘Fifteen years old? No,’” Van Der Beek recalled of being 20 years old and playing the 15-year-old Dawson Leery. “I put that at the bottom of the pile. I thought they’d never cast me as a 15-year-old, I’m 20… I remember when I first read, I just read it the way I normally would. And the casting director said, ‘You’re reading a little bit older.’ So, I pitched my voice up and she loved it. I thought, ‘Well, OK, I’ll never hear about this again.’ Then I got a message that night to come back for the producers. I went back in and said, ‘I’m 20, just so you know that.’ They said, ‘No, we like that.’ But what was interesting about doing it was I was far enough away from being 15 that the scars had healed, pretty much.”
Winning the part of Dawson Leery opposite young stars like Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson and Michelle Williams, Van Der Beek spent the next six seasons on the show as his popularity skyrocketed. He was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” and cashed in on his status as a young heartthrob with appearances in flicks like Texas Rangers, American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and Varsity Blues, the latter of which earned him an MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Male Performance. Even his appearance in Scary Movie earned him an MTV Movie Award in 2000.
After wrapping up Dawson’s Creek in 2003, Van Der Beek did his best to break free of his early work and took on a variety of roles that included voicing characters in Robot Chicken as well as making cameos in episodes of Criminal Minds and Ugly Betty. In 2008, he joined the cast of How I Met Your Mother and stunned producers with his enthusiasm to play a quirky balding man. “I’ve always been a clown trapped in a leading man’s body,” he said. “As soon as I saw the bald cap and the fat suit, I said, ‘Absolutely, I’m in.’ The network or the studio, I forgot who, tried to talk me out of wearing the bald cap. I walked in at rehearsal and they said, ‘Maybe you just use your own hair?’ Absolutely not! I was actually pushing for an even balder version of the wig, but we settled on the one in between.”
Adding in credits in One Tree Hill, Medium, The Forgotten, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Franklin & Bash, Van Der Beek found another home on primetime television when he starred as himself in Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. “I was 33, I had my first kid and I thought: ‘OK, what doors are open right now?’ Van Der Beek said of starring in the comedy. “And I was thinking, ‘I'm having more fun doing this comedy than I would crying every day!’” Wrapping up the series in 2013, Van Der Beek spent a few years working on smaller projects before winning the role of Elijah Mundo in CSI: Cyber. Although the role only lasted a year, it opened up even more doors for the actor who joined the main cast of Carters Get Rich before creating, writing and starring in What Would Diplo Do? in 2017.
Although Van Der Beek is busy working on the 2017 series, Vampirina, fans can’t help but wonder if a Dawson’s Creek reunion is in the works especially with spinoffs like Fuller House and Girl Meets World bringing classic series from the 1990s back to life. However, the 40-year-old actor and father of four isn’t as quick to jump on board as you might think even though he’s incredibly grateful for the show. “It changed my life. It was a huge opportunity… I learned how to be on camera and I learned how to deal with celebrity,” he said. Even so, a reunion isn’t exactly at the top of his list. “Some characters live with you for a while and you wonder how they’re doing and what they’d be doing now, but I felt pretty complete putting that one on the shelf and not looking at him again.” It looks like we’ll just have to stick with reruns for now!