The problem with interviewing former teen idols is that you have a fixed view in your head about how they'll be. Thus, before I talk to James Van Der Beek, I imagine that he'll be something like his character oninfamously angst-ridden teen drama Dawson's Creek: verbose, serious, prone to weighty proclamations and intense bouts of self-examination.
The reality is completely different. Instead of weighty proclamations, there are sardonic one-liners. In place of furrowed brows, frequent laughter and a fine line in self-mockery. It's as though you turned up to meet Dawson Leery and found his best friend PaceyWitter there instead.
"I think there was a time during and post-Dawson's Creek when I took myself too seriously and felt I had something to lose," Van Der Beek says with a slightly incredulous laugh. "Plus, there's the whole thing about doing a teen show and having young fans and they're supposed to see you in a certain way..."
Such is the curse of teen drama. Van Der Beek, now 35, played Dawson Leery, melodramatic deliverer of angst-ridden dialogues, would-be Spielberg, uncertain seducer of Joey Potter and possessor of television's most over-the-top crying face, for six years from 1998 until 2003. And, just as to many thirtysomethings Claire Danes will always be Angela Chase, no matter how many terrorists she tracks down on Homeland, so too is Van Der Beek forever Dawson.
Luckily it's not an association he minds, these days at least. "In retrospect I look back and I'm grateful," he says. "But it was an exhausting six-year marathon. I was shooting movies or doing photo shoots when the show was on hiatus. I felt burnt out when it ended. I needed time to duck away and disappear, figure things out and grow up a bit. When I was 24 the character I played on TV was a teenager losing his virginity..."
It helps that Van Der Beek is that unusual thing, a former teen idol whose looks have improved with age. Where Dawson was all wrinkled forehead and bad hair, Van Der Beek wears the passing of time well, a fact he attributes in part to being more at ease. "When Dawson's ended I just reacted to having been on this highly successful teen show for the last six years. I get very bored doing the same thing so, for example, I did Rules of Attraction [an adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, filmed just before Dawson's final season] because I felt finally I had a chance to try something like that."
Yet while Van Der Beek received good reviews the big movie roles never quite materialised. While fellow cast members Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson went on to carve out careers on film and television with varying degrees of success, it seemed as though the series' official romantic lead would be an also-ran.
"I look at some of my decisions in that time and I think 'why did I do that?'" admits Van Der Beek. "I turned down auditions for things I probably shouldn't have like the role that went to Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers because I was worried about being seen in a certain way." A pause before the sardonic aside: "In retrospect that was something of an unnecessary worry..."
Such fears are in the past. In recent years, Van Der Beek has reinvented himself as something of a go-to-guy for smart cameos – he's been described as a straight Neil Patrick Harris, a comparison he describes as "a huge compliment" – turning up in everything from sitcom How I Met Your Mother to police procedural Criminal Minds. Now a clever turn as a more self-absorbed version of himself in the acerbic and very funny sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23,which starts on E4 tomorrow, should thrust him back into television's spotlight. Like Matt Le Blanc in Episodes, Apartment 23 uses Van Der Beek's history as a teen idol as a starting point, painting a picture of a self-obsessed former star, happy to use the remnants of his fame to talk fans into bed.
"It's been a lot of fun not only to send up my own history but also because it's evolved into more of a parody of actors in general," says Van Der Beek. "I see fake James Van Der Beek as the sort of guy who is quite talented but in this very savantish way. He can be sweet, he's a good friend to Chloe [the show's (anti) heroine and the B of the title] but he's also completely self-absorbed."
Most entertainingly as the series progresses so the careers of the two Van Der Beeks diverge. Thus, fake Van Der Beek has starred in a Guy Ritchie film, is considering doing Dancing with the Stars and has his own jeans line that he markets with the brilliantly cringeworthy slogan: "Put your cheeks in a Beek."
He is also single, unlike his real-life counterpart who is married with two children. "It's not so much that my family life was off-limits as that it's much funnier if he's single," says Van Der Beek. "When I started working on the show I said: 'Don't be afraid of offending me, I'll tell you if something goes too far.' Nothing has."
That's largely because Van Der Beek's sense of humour is surprisingly caustic. "Yeah, I've always had a dark sense of humour," he admits. "When I was filming Dawson's I felt awkward about letting that be seen. There was always a sense that you were representing the show and you had to take the material seriously and show a level of respect. One of the funniest things about doing this show and the videos I've done recently was my mother said to me: 'It's so nice to be able to see you showing your sense of humour.' So she was obviously worried..."
Ah, the videos. Shot for comedy website Funny or Die the videos changed Van Der Beek's career trajectory, ensuring that instead of ending up a "whatever happened to?" punchline in a trivia quiz he reinvented himself for the internet generation. "Basically, I ended up working on the videos because of the crying Dawson meme," he says.
The crying Dawson meme, a GIF (video grab) of Van Der Beek's hilariously over-the-top crying face, is used to mock people all over the internet. Van Der Beek met the writers of Funny or Die. "They said very tentatively 'so you know there's this GIF...' and I said 'I know, I love it' so we decided that we could provide people with all kinds of Dawson needs."
Those needs can be seen on the Van Der Meme website, which features the actor doing everything from sarcastically clapping to disco dancing, all with an admirably straight face. "I'd always had that sort of sense of humour but only my friends had really seen that," he says. "Suddenly I had the chance to show people I know how to laugh at myself and my image."
His recent marriage (he married second wife, Kimberly, in 2010) and the arrival of his two children, the youngest of whom is just two months old, played a big part in his transformation. "That just showed me what was important," he says. "It gave me a foundation so I realised that everything else didn'tmatter. I could get back to being who I really was."
And what of that much fantasised-about Dawson's Creek reunion, which pops up as internet gossip every six months or so? Van Der Beek laughs. "You know what I love most about that?" he says. "That Michelle [Williams] is always so up for it when they ask." He pauses again, adding with deadpan timing. "Well, of course she is, her character died."
'Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23' begins tomorrow at 9.30pm on E4Reuse content