LOS ANGELES -- James Van Der Beek will forever be known to most of us as Dawson Leery from the late-'90s hit television show "Dawson's Creek." But just last week, Van Der Beek made his Los Angeles stage debut in the play, "The Gift," at the Geffen Playhouse.
It would be a disservice to the extraordinarily well-written play to reveal too much, but Van Der Beek plays a conceptual artist who goes on a balmy vacation with his art critic wife. The two become close with a middle-aged couple who, after a certain event, insist on giving the young couple a gift of their choice. A year later, the course of both couple's lives have undeniably changed.
The 6-foot, blond hair and blue-eyed dreamboat, now age 35, played himself in ABC's recently-canceled comedy "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23." He has starred in hit movies "Varsity Blues" and "The Rules Of Attraction" and been in countless other films and television shows. HuffPost LA caught up with Van Der Beek to chat about opening night jitters, eating peas from a child's mouth and whether LA really is "all style and no substance."
The Huffington Post: I was at the opening night of "The Gift" at the Geffen Playhouse last week. It was a fantastic play and actually quite provocative. This was your LA stage debut -- when did you start doing theater in New York?
James Van Der Beek: I started out when I was 16 -- I was in a production of Edward Albee's "Finding The Sun" that he directed. That was my first professional stage job. The first stage job I had where my music teacher wasn’t standing in the wings banging something out on the piano.
How did you get involved in this play, "The Gift"?
My manager actually sent me the script and said it's a really interesting piece and I think it's definitely worth reading. He said I think you're gonna love it and you should read it.
Did he know you were looking for theater specifically?
Yes. He knew it had been a while since I had done stage and I have been wanting to get back to it. This play fell in a window right when "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" was done filming and it was in LA and I could stay with my kids. I read it and thought it was such an interesting, provocative piece. I had a real reaction to it on the page. It's such a tricky argument that these characters make and I thought to try to pull that off every night on stage was going to be a really fun challenge.
There is a line that I loved early on in that play that said, "LA is all style and no substance." Do you agree?
[Laughs] No. I mean that could be said of any city. There is certainly an element to that here, but LA is all about who you know and who you hang out with.
Your character in the play is an artist and at one point he says: "I question whether I'm a good artist or a bad artist everyday." Can you relate to this?
Certainly. Anybody who is in an artistic field deals with insecurity. It’s so subjective. And ultimately at the end of the day, you're following your instincts and you're just flying by your gut, really. And so there's always that question of "Am I crazy?" This feels right to me but I might be completely off. You never know what anybody else's experience is going to be.
Who are some of the people in your life that you look to when you’re wondering, "Am I crazy?" or "Is this bad?" Who is your sounding board?
I find the only way to not go crazy is to trust the people who are involved in that project with you. So you trust your director, you trust your fellow actors; sometimes there's a really great producer on set to let you know what they're getting from it and what works for them. But everything you do belongs to the audience, ultimately. And their reaction and their opinion of it is completely valid because it's a totally subjective experience. It’s great when people like it. [Laughs] But you really have to just trust your instincts.
A lot of time is spent in "The Gift" discussing WHAT IS ART? What is your personal definition of art? How do you explain art to your children as a concept?
It's one of the things I loved most about the play; the whole art aspect. And the fact that it’s a really practical and pragmatic look at it, too. It's not a high-falutin', esoteric theoretical argument about what art is. And the whole conceptual art world wasn't something I was very familiar with going in, so it was great to verse myself in that world.
In terms of what art is and how I explain it to my children, art is an expression. Art is what you go to when a clinical description fails you. It's how you're feeling or how you're understanding life.
How long have you been rehearsing for? And how different is it for you to be on the stage versus shooting film or television?
It was standard rehearsal time, about 4 weeks. It is very different being on the stage. I started out doing theater, so that’s what I cut my teeth on. But I've done so much film and television in the interim. When I did my first movie, I was seventeen years old and I remember thinking, "Oh my gosh, this is such a bastardization of my process!" At the ripe old age of seventeen [laughs]. But everything was broken up and things are shot out of sequence and you just focus on the minutia. Over the course of the last, gosh, almost twenty years, I have really grown to love film and love the experimentation and love the whole process of it. Getting back to theater feels very familiar but the difference is, film is running a number of sprints throughout the day and theater is running a marathon.
What are the biggest challenges for you in being on the stage? Is it just that, the feeling of running a marathon?
Honestly all the challenges I looked at as opportunities to get better. The differences in terms of projection and diction -- those matter a lot more on stage. But the trade off is you get to follow a complete thought and a complete character arc from A to Z in one sitting. And that’s really thrilling. That allows you to get into this space where you buy the illusion you're selling so completely that you don’t have to manufacture much. You don’t have to use any of the other tricks of the trade. You can let this thing live in front of a live audience.
Stamina, certainly, is another challenge. I have two kids so they’re constantly bringing home colds. My daughter recently offered me a pea, and she was so sweet, she took it out of her mouth and put it on the end of her finger [laughs] and said. "Daddy!" And I was able to actually summon up the wherewithal to tell her thank you but no. Daddy can't afford to get the flu.
How has being a father changed your relationship to your work? Do you have a different kind of feeing about what you do now that you have kids?
Yes. It's deepened it on every level. My daughter is two years and five months and my son is almost eleven months. You do think again about what you want to put into the world … in terms of what your contribution to the whole conversation is.
What did the energy feel like on opening night? Are there lots of jitters? You have so many shows ahead of you.
It was electric. In television or film, every day is pretty much opening night and closing night and everything between. So you do a lot of the work before you come in. With theater, part of what I love about it is you get the rehearsal process and the preview process. So everybody is finding it at the same time and certain people rise above the surface and find moments -– I felt like it all peaked at exactly the right time for all of us. Backstage we were all a little excited and a little bit nervous, which is a great feeling.
Another major theme in the play, without giving too much away, deals with the challenges of being a parent, what it means to be a parent in the world and be solely responsible for another human life. Do you think you would have had a very different relationship to your character if you had done this play, say 10 years ago?
Yes, I don’t know how I would have been able to do it. It's one of those experiences in life that I don’t know you can replicate without living it. But some people do it really well.
What are some of your biggest fears in parenting? And some of your favorite parts?
Oh my god. The best way to put it is accepting the fact that your heart is now living outside of your body. I've never loved anything so much. Aside from my wife, but my wife is an adult. She can take care of herself. She's not having as many formative experiences on a daily basis. Your kids are just the most precious thing in the world to you.
And the best thing is just watching them develop. Watching them as they reveal themselves to you bit by bit. They come out with their own personality and their own destiny and their own idiosyncracies and then every once in a while, some of them you recognize in yourself, and you roll your eyes and go "Oh sorry about that [laughs]." I like to think that my kids have come in having already corrected all of my shortcomings and only get the good stuff.
That’s the hope for sure! I have to mention all the Funny or Die stuff you have done, which is all so funny. How did you start working with them?
You know it was back in a moment where I just decided to start saying yes to things. And do things that sounded like fun and just try to be a little less calculated about my career. I thought what they were doing on their website was so funny so I just asked for a meeting. And went in and said, "I want to play, what do you got?"
Did you come in with any ideas or did you just start from scratch?
They basically started from scratch and came up with some ideas and I said, "Wow there are so many that I love, how do we choose? "And they said we don’t have to. Let’s do a bunch. So we shot three. It's a great group over there. A lesson I learned hosting "Saturday Night Live" back in the day is go in and be completely open and just jump in with both feet. You have to just throw caution to the wind when it comes to comedy.
This interview has been edited for length.
"The Gift" will run at The Geffen Playhouse until March 10, 2013.