And to think, from 7 to 8 p.m. every Wednesday he's such a nice kid--solid, ambitious, clean-cut, respectful, on his way to becoming a first-rate filmmaker, about to turn his best friend into his girlfriend (again). If he were that other guy, he'd have screwed her and dumped her five years back; today he wouldn't even remember her name--Jody, is it? Julie? (Damn, what is it?) But you know him not as Sean Bateman, only as Dawson Leery, that kid with the sunshine smile and eyes as bright and shiny as all of Capeside. You just can't imagine him as this other guy, this Sean--the one with eyes that reflect only himself, eyes as dead as those of a corpse, eyes that bore a hole through you so he can better tap your heart and drink its contents. You can't see the golden boy tarnishing his image. Dawson Leery, the brother of a serial killer, an American psycho? Dawson Leery, coke pusher and back-door man? Yeah, good luck with all that.
And because no one else could imagine it, either, James Van Der Beek came awfully close to killing writer-director Roger Avary's dream of turning Bret Easton Ellis' 1987 novel The Rules of Attraction into a film.
Avary, a possessor of an Academy Award for his contributions to the Pulp Fiction screenplay, had read the book, a dense bit of work set at a Northeastern liberal-arts college featuring two dozen narrators all speaking-screaming-shouting in the first person, and spent nearly a decade reconstructing the novel into a remarkable screenplay. He did not own the rights--no one did, as it turned out--but that didn't stop him from banging out a script and putting it in his drawer. Only after producer Greg Shapiro read it did Avary start approaching studios about financing his dream. First he went to the now-defunct Shooting Gallery, where it was embraced by a female acquisitions exec, then to Fine Line, which suggested an unlikely lead: "The Beek," as Avary sometimes likes to call his star.
It was good timing. Van Der Beek had long been on the lookout for a role that would allow him to separate himself from Dawson. Time the boy took it like a man. When his agent gave him the screenplay for The Rules of Attraction, he discovered what he craved: Sean Bateman, the anti-Dawson.
"It's not like I'm trying to destroy Dawson or anything like that, but, yeah, I'm an actor--a young actor," he says from the Wilmington, North Carolina, set of Dawson's Creek, which begins its sixth and final season this week. "I'm 25. I don't wanna retire yet. I have a lot of instincts that just aren't appropriate for 8 o'clock on a network, ya know? This is a completely different character--the exact opposite of the one I play on TV--and the idea of playing it was thrilling. There's only so much appropriate for 8 o'clock. And especially as the characters on Dawson's Creek get older, now they're in college, this is the other side of college life. Dawson's Creek is a very romantic show. They're kind of idealistic people. Rules of Attraction is about people who make the wrong choices."
At first, Avary figured Van Der Beek as the wrong choice; no way was he interested in making so explicit and pointed a film using kids from the WB. Might as well film it using hand puppets. He'd be up Dawson's Creek without a paddle. Says Avary, speaking with the same machine-gun tongue used by his ex-video-store colleague Quentin Tarantino: "I had the same reaction most people seemed to have had: 'James Van Der Beek? Are you kidding?'" Then he met with Van Der Beek and found not a Teen People icon, but an actor of astonishing depth and range--the kind of guy you want to love but end up almost fearing, a succubus in Banana Republic clothing. He had his Sean Bateman, and for the first time in 15 years his dream became tangible. In Van Der Beek's eyes, Avary could watch his movie come to life. It did not hurt that Avary was also a big fan of Varsity Blues, in which Van Der Beek had played a Texas high school quarterback with balls made of pigskin.