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Joshua Jackson: What Pacey did next

There's more to Joshua Jackson than being a Dawson's Creek pin-up. He plans to be the next Tom Hanks, but first he must conquer the West End. Ben Walsh meets him

Monday 24 January 2005 01:00 GMT

"It's such a new thing for me," says Joshua Jackson. "I mean, 10 minutes before we start, I may say: 'Look, Patrick, dude, I can't do this. This is ridiculous. I don't know what I was thinking. It was a big mistake. I apologise, but I'm out of here.'"

"It's such a new thing for me," says Joshua Jackson. "I mean, 10 minutes before we start, I may say: 'Look, Patrick, dude, I can't do this. This is ridiculous. I don't know what I was thinking. It was a big mistake. I apologise, but I'm out of here.'"

"Patrick" is the 64-year-old British über-thespian Patrick Stewart; Jackson is a 26-year-old American television star; and the panic is over Jackson's first stage appearance since playing the lead in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he was 12.

If all goes to plan, on Thursday the pair will appear together in the two-hander A Life in the Theatre, David Mamet's take on the acting profession. Jackson, best known for playing Pacey Witter in Dawson's Creek, plays John, a brash newcomer who is partnered with the hammy stage veteran Robert as they share a series of cramped dressing-rooms. The casting couldn't be more appropriate. Stewart, before his incarnations as Captain Picard in Star Trek and Charles Xavier in X-Men, has copious experience of the vagaries of repertory theatres. Jackson, obviously, has zilch.

Set on stage and behind the scenes in a fading, small-town repertory company, the piece follows the two actors' friendship and their rivalry as they battle with the cruel uncertainties of their profession. "It's not by accident that people become actors. There are certain personality types who are drawn to the job," Jackson says. "Particularly if you're in Robert's position and you've been working your arse off for 40 years, working for some shitty company in the middle of nowhere. I can understand why you would feel a little bit bitter and why you would feel the need to overemphasise everything that you do."

Jackson is, however, keen to point out that there is nothing harder than doing a 24-episode-a-year US television series. "There were definitely times, especially in the last third of the Dawson's Creek season, when I was saying to myself, 'Man, I can't do this, I'm going to have a breakdown. I will physically cease to exist,'" he says, throwing his cap on the floor. "I had that when I was 19 or 20; I can only imagine what it would be like in your mid-sixties and there is an actual possibility that it just might end you."

Jackson, who appeared in his first film at the age of 13, was the main draw on Dawson's Creek. The show, intended as a drama series for teenagers, became a guilty weekend treat for hungover adults when it was screened on Channel 4 on Sunday mornings. A quasi-intelligent soap with a heavily ironic "postmodern drawl", it spawned hundreds of imitators (such as The OC) and unleashed a generation of wholesome, all-American heart-throbs. Jackson was the quick-witted school drop-out who eventually got the girl (Katie Holmes) and always got the best lines.

"Originally, I was just the funny sidekick - and I'm not even that funny," Jackson says. "The show dramatically changed over six years. Honestly, I don't think my character was supposed to stay. One of the executives said I wouldn't make it past the first six episodes." Instead, he became the pin-up boy for a generation.

Did he buy into all the hype? "I would be a bald-faced liar if I told you I didn't know the show was popular, but when we were down there [filming] in Wilmington, which is this small town, we weren't immersed in it. If it had been Los Angeles or New York, we would have felt it more," he says. "We would get crazy interest, though, especially during the summer. People would travel from around the world to see us. But ultimately you still had a 12-hour day to work and you had to respect the other 75 people at work. It wasn't about thinking, 'Man, I'm such a massive, brilliant young man. Look how cool I am.'"

Jackson appears refreshingly self-deprecating - like Pacey, in fact. However, he is taking a sizeable risk taking on Mamet in the West End. After all, many TV "hunks" apparently destined for big things - from Beverly Hills 90210's Luke Perry and Jason Priestley, to Party of Five's Scott Wolf and Matthew Fox - have failed before him. But Jackson'sstar is still in the ascendant. Although his film career so far hasn't matched the gargantuan success of the Creek, he has four films coming out in the next year, including the big-budget horror flick from Wes Craven, Cursed, starring Christina Ricci.

While he is not embarrassed in the slightest by his "silly, popcorn films" and strenuously defends them, one of his standout films was The Laramie Project, which centered on the murder in 1998 of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die because hewas gay. "I'm proud to have been involved with The Laramie Project," Jackson says. "I like to stay away from this word as much possible, but it was important. It had a resonance in people's lives.

" The Skulls and Cruel Intentions don't have a powerful message, but I don't think entertainment has to change the world. In my experience of life, very rarely when important things are happening do people sit around and say: 'OK, let's take this very seriously.' I find myself much more attracted to the idea of the Tom Hanks style of acting. His ability to convince you is something phenomenal. I can really see myself as an astronaut through this guy's eyes. I can see myself as an idiot savant. He makes it so accessible to me. He makes that character just like they're sitting next to you in the theatre."

A Life in the Theatre could be a major turning point for Jackson - and it seems as though he senses that. He is palpably nervous, and has avoided watching any versions of the play. "You can't rough it in with Mamet like you can with television," he says. "The script is not a guideline, it is not a blueprint, it is the Bible. Once you get into the rhythm of the language, it is so much fun and it's so particular. We were trying to think of wanky phrases to describe it and we thought of 'stylised realism'. It's not supposed to be arch and its not supposed to be mannered, but it is incredibly mannered and it has its own cadence."

Jackson's ability to master this cadence, not to mention his enviable charm, could well provide him with a Hanks-like career. He certainly needs a hit and some real kudos. "Hopefully, the bulk of my career is still in my future," he says. "When you're young, you hope something better will come along. There's a lot of sadness in that, at Robert's age, nothing better is coming along. He's stuck in the middle of nowhere without an audience." Jackson must be hoping he will never know how that feels.

'A Life in the Theatre' opens on Thursday at the Apollo Theatre, London W1 (020-7494 5070)

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