“I don’t want to wait.” Eight years after the Dawson’s Creek theme bleated across America for the last time, those five words still have a strange Pavlovian hold on James Van Der Beek. You’d think he might have a bit of nostalgia for the piano notes and Paula Cole’s breathy “doo doo doo” intro, but even a simple trip to the drugstore proves perilous, Van Der Beek explains over a late-afternoon lunch in Philadelphia, where he’s wrapping up an indie film before shooting begins for his new sitcom, Apartment 23. As soon as the melody floated over the sound system, “I felt this overwhelming instinct to run and hide somewhere,” he says. “Like, literally duck behind the condom rack and ride it out. I’m a 34-year-old grown-ass man. Why is my first instinct to run and hide when I hear this song? I am severely traumatized in ways I need to address in therapy.”
That Van Der Beek can laugh at himself is the cornerstone of his current career strategy—his turn at the Hollywood-douche-bag self-portrayal once spearheaded by Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold & Kumar films, then tried out by a parade of male guest stars on Entourage and, most recently, by Matt LeBlanc on Showtime’s Episodes. You could call it the Good Sport meta-makeover: If you’re willing to parody the worst version of yourself, that can’t possibly be you. In the real world, Van Der Beek’s a doting husband and father who can’t resist showing off an iPhone snapshot of his 10-month-old, Olivia. In Apartment 23, he plays a Dawson-dogged “James Van Der Beek,” ex-boyfriend of the show’s roommate from hell, played with gleeful nastiness by Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter. In the pilot, he’s hooking up with two groupies—one who begs to wear his Dawson-era flannel shirt, the other dressed in a whipped-cream bikini, à la Varsity Blues. He answers to the nickname Tiger Beat. He had a gig as spokesman for a Vietnamese energy drink. “It’s not the most flattering portrait,” Van Der Beek says of his TV alter ego. “But I think it’s the funniest.”
Back in the nineties, Van Der Beek dropped out of college for the lead role on a show full of no-name actors on a network no one had heard of. “The model in my head was My So-Called Life,” he recalls. “It will be really good, no one will watch it, it’ll get canceled after a season.” Dawson’s Creek put the WB (now the CW) on the pop-cultural map, and the show—along with such big-screen roles as Varsity Blues—catapulted Van Der Beek to a level of teenage hysteria that rivaled late-nineties lust objects like ’N Sync. “I literally went from being not recognized at all to kids causing stampedes.”
What followed after the series ended wasn’t enough to inspire an E! True Hollywood Story, but Van Der Beek admits his warped self-image stunted his career. “There were meetings I didn’t take that would have kept me relevant. [I thought] I should be doing big movies with great directors. ‘If Matt Damon passes, sign me up!’ ” With his career running on fumes and his marriage to actress Heather McComb ending, Van Der Beek surfaced on How I Met Your Mother in a fat suit and bald cap. His agent told him, “You’re like a fuckin’ clown trapped in a leading man’s body.” Soon the artiste realized that when you’ve become a punch line, you need to make sure you’re the one who’s telling the joke.
Van Der Beek’s comic renaissance was cemented with a quartet of Funny or Die videos that have tallied more than 1.8 million views. In “Vandermemes,” he reclaims the clip of a weeping Dawson that’s been mockingly passed around the Internet and offers some new “intense emotional close-ups,” ranging from “Lilo Eye Roll” to “Sheer Panic.” Thanks to an appearance in Ke$ha’s “Blow” video, he’s earned a new generation of tween fans by taking the ridicule to new surreal heights: They lock eyes in a club full of unicorn-headed black-tie revelers, she calls him “James Van Der Douche,” a rainbow-laser battle ensues, and his head ends up on a plaque that reads JAMES VAN DER DEAD. “That’s all stuff I wouldn’t have done four or five years ago,” he says, picking at a plate of wild salmon. Now, instead of waiting for his Oscar moment, he’s playing a wrongly accused statutory rapist in an upcoming Lifetime movie. “I can intellectualize myself out of anything. What are you protecting at the end of the day? Some image of you that you think exists in the minds of other people? That’s a mind-fuck.”
The actor credits fatherhood, his wife, Kimberly, and his faith for the new Van Der ’tude; the red string on his left wrist signals his passion for Kabbalah. (“I was very skeptical—‘the Madonna cult’—but it helped me take responsibility for myself and where I’m at.”) When talk turns to what’s ahead on Apartment 23 when production starts up—it’s scheduled for mid-season on ABC—he giggles at the proposed story lines; picking up college girls and getting stoned seem likely. “Then, later on, we’ll see what happens with the movie career,” he says of his doppelgänger. “If that picks up, we might get to take him through the whole fame ride.” There’s a slight pause. “Again.”