James Van Der Beek
There are many things that could be said about the career of 90’s heart throb James Van Der Beek. His fans have never quite been able to let go of his sweet, sensitive, portrayal of fictional character Dawson Leery on the nostalgic hit drama Dawson’s Creek. But what Van Der Beek has surely proven is that he’s unpredictable. He shows this again in his latest role—a bombastic parody of renown music DJ Diplo in Viceland’s first-ever scripted series, What Would Diplo Do.
“He's got a million blind spots and the show kind of takes place in Diplo's head. So [he’s got] one foot in reality and one foot in his fantasy world, which is kind of our explanation of why he's able to channel such great music.”
With the world of What Would Diplo Do centered in and out of reality, it draws on inspiration from the musical artist's real-life personal experiences, riddled with a quirky and outrageously fabricated backstory.
“We have an origin story for the song ‘Lean On,’ which also collides with a really shitty thing he tweeted back in 2014. [So] we dealt with both of them at the same time,” he reveals.
In the series, blows dealt from the chaos and gut wrenching emotions of social media squabbles manifest in ninja attacks. And don’t think they left out the backstory behind the bouncy, dolphin flute hook iconized in the pop hit, 'Where are Ü Now.' That, Van Der Beek chuckles, is a sampled version of Beiber’s voice.
‘“The show is pretty much my midlife crisis,” he jokes. "But it’s a lot less obnoxious than a sports car.”
While less obnoxious, creating the series was also a whole lot more work than a sports car.Van Der Beek’s job didn’t stop between action and cut. For the first time Van Der Beek had a strong voice in content, a walk through locations, a seat in long and tedious pre-production meetings, choices in the budget, and time behind the closed doors of the editing room making scripts of gold. “I've learned more in the last 6 months than I've learned in the last 6 years,” he admits.
His humility, inventiveness, and flippant disregard for making a fool of himself are a huge part of what carried Van Der Beek through the multitude of decisions and helped hurdle the production over some minor setbacks.
In an episode that touches upon Diplo’s early music career, they needed a scene in which young Diplo gets booed off stage while opening for a hardcore metal show (oh yes, this really happened). But the budget wouldn’t allow them to create their own concert, let alone pay hundreds of extras to boo him off stage. But that didn’t stop Van Der Beek, who admits that he’s always doing something a little bit stupid.
At an Every Time I Die concert in Camarillo, California, Van Der Beek sauntered on stage to “surprise” an open sea of heavy metal fans donning black band-tees.
The announcer was energetic as he hyped up the crowd, fooling them into the euphoric belief that their beloved metal group was mere seconds away from coming on stage. That is until the announcer suddenly cut in, “But first, all the way from Florida, DJ Wesley Pence!”
Braving the heated glares of a disappointed crowd Van der Beek hopped up onto stage and played some really slow and soft electronica music. It took a total 2 minutes and 30 seconds before the crowd started chanting ‘asshole’ and Van Der Beek got off.
Although, it turns out some of the audience did have a heart. “What broke my heart more than anything was while they were chanting ‘asshole’ some really cool kids at the metal show-- because metalheads are usually pretty sensitive, sweet people who get the aggression out through their music-- so some were chanting ‘asshole’ and others were saying ‘let him play, shut up!’ --that’s what broke my heart. I was like ‘aww man I can’t. These people are standing up for me, God bless them. I can’t fake this anymore. It’s gold.’”
The six episode series, which airs August 3rd, started with just a promo video for Diplo’s 2016 Mad Decent Blok Party tour. Director Brandon Dermer envisioned a video with Van Der Beek cast as a wacky, egocentric rendition of the musical DJ. And it worked, really well.
With short YouTube videos like Funny or Die’s, Vandermemes or Asshole for Hire and several short-lived grandiose roles (notably when he mocked his own celebrity in 2012 by playing himself on the ABC sitcom Don’t Trust The B---- in Apartment 23) it’s easy to see why Van Der Beek’s face came to mind as the perfect person to play the absurd role: he’s not afraid to make fun of himself. And neither is Diplo.
“It got picked up by press and then Viceland came to us and said, ‘Hey we think this is a series.’ To which we all, at a certain point initially said, ‘Yeah that's really cute, but it's not a series, it's just a one-off. But then we all kind of separately came to our own realization that yeah, this is a series,” says Van Der Beek.
Upon discussing the direction of Diplo’s character, Van Der Beek recounts Diplo saying, “Yeah just make it completely ridiculous.”
“So I then knew he's allergic to taking himself too seriously,” says, Van Der Beek. “If anything I kind of had to convince him that we couldn't make the character completely ridiculous, we had to make him somewhat likeable so that an audience would follow him.”
But the character Diplo in What Would Diplo Do is still a brilliant and narcissistic asshole, albeit a lovable one, who rides a horse sometimes. Despite a past of playing a man of sweet romantic tenderness, capturing fake Diplo’s character was no daunting task for Van Der Beek.
In the last fifteen years of his career he has played a multitude of rather detestable characters. Whether it’s his various cameos, his role as Rocky in the Power Rangers short, his character in Rules of Attraction, or Robin Scherbatsky's has been ex-boyfriend in How I Met Your Mother, it’s undeniable that he’s great at acting like an asshole. But through interviewing and later from the Googling of videos where he is actually giving parasitic, pushy paparazzi the time of day, it becomes pretty apparent that the father of 4 children is actually a sweet guy. So, where do all these assholes characters come from?
“I love blind spots. I love character flaws. Anytime somebody is so narcissistic that they don't see the truth that everybody else around them can see, I find that funny,” he says. “It's just that that is the character’s absolute truth. There is no other possible way of moving through that situation. The dickishness comes from absolute certainty when none is narrated.”
Diplo has a lot of flaws. But the magic of fictitious Diplo is that although he’s riddled with megalomaniac flaws, he has the ability to channel wisdom at the most comical and inappropriate times, Van Der Beek explains.
Each episode, Van Der Beek says, began with a long and boring (to any outsider) philosophical conversation: the irony in hypocrisy, the effects of ego, and whether or not success is valuable if there is no one to share it with.
Pooling together the creative minds of fellow writers Hal Ozsan and Jordan VanDina, they took Van Der Beek’s wonderfully absurd concepts, tore them apart, fleshed them out, sewed them back together again, and helped layer “the ridiculousness of the world on top of it, then undercut it with stupidity and ninjas and whatever else we could think of. It was definitely a team effort," he says.
Creating Diplo’s character is more than just another acting gig to Van Der Beek. It’s an opportunity to showcase another little-known passion of his: writing. Most don’t know that he’s been writing and ghostwriting for years, having been credited only once, for his role rewriting a fan-based Power Rangers short.
“This is the first time I had enough of a vision to say, let me run the room, let me write it, I think I got this."
The entertainment business has had its fair part in shaping who Van Der Beek is today. His many successes, some less short-lived than others, are a continual reminder of how he wants to live and what passions he wants to pursue. What Would Diplo Do is a highly unusual series. And that’s just one of the most exciting things about it. Whether or not the series may see a second season will not negate the invaluable experiences he’s cultivated into his skill set. Ask him what his greatest achievement is, and he’ll tell you it’s that he’s still here and working in the industry.
“I get credit for being a risk taker, but really it's the only option for me. The riskiest, worst thing I could do would be to keep doing the same thing.”
Photography by John Michael Fulton
Styling by Angel Terrazas
Grooming by Thea Istenes for Exclusive Artists
using Sisley Paris
Written by Cheantay Jensen