James Van Der Beek’s sly reinvention continues in Diplo
It turns out that James Van Der Beek is funny.
Defined for years by his title role as the earnest Everyboy in the teen drama “Dawson’s Creek,” Van Der Beek, 40, managed a sly reinvention this decade by playing an exaggerated version of himself on the ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.”
Experimenting in “that meta space,” as he calls it, prepared Van Der Beek for his unlikely — and delightfully niche — role as the underground DJ-turned-pop macher Diplo in Viceland’s first scripted series, “What Would Diplo Do?”, a satirical (and often flat-out mean) look at the life of an irrationally confident EDM star.
“In our loftiest ambitions, we were somewhere between ‘Louie’ and ‘Spinal Tap,’” said Van Der Beek, who is also writing, producing and serving as showrunner for the comedy, which begins on Aug. 3. (Diplo, born Thomas Wesley Pentz and known to friends as Wes, is an executive producer.)
Initially conceived last year as a three-minute online short, the gag grew in scope at the behest of Nick Weidenfeld, Viceland’s president of programming, who raised the possibility of a full series.
“That night I went back to my pool house, poured some wine, started listening to Diplo, and it just hit me,” Van Der Beek said, noting the comedic potential of a “musical genius” with real-word blind spots. “This is ‘EDM. Jesus sucks at life.’”
On the phone from L.A., the actor was thoughtful on silly subjects, seeming to approach the project as if he were a kind of cultural anthropologist. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How did you and Diplo first meet?
A: I heard him on NPR years ago talking about using Latin beats and reggaeton. I had him flagged in my head as somebody to watch. Then last summer, Brandon Dermer, this music video director, was tasked with coming up with a promo for the Mad Decent Block Party tour. “What if James played Wes, but in a Dollar Shave Club-type vibe?” I look enough like him to be a stunt double from far away. With a dad hat and moustache, it works.
Q: How could you be sure that this was an idea worth pursuing as opposed to something that just sounds funny when you’re stoned?
A: Part of it was the miles in the saddle I had playing myself on TV. When I did that, it was like, “OK, this could easily be a one-off joke that gets really stale really quick.” What you have to do is develop a fully fleshed-out character. You have to come up with a reason to want to follow this person, to want to stay with them and be in their world.
Q: What is it that you like about playing with reality? Has it been helpful in getting out of the Dawson pigeonhole?
A: Any time you experience successes as an actor, that becomes part of the narrative that an audience brings to your next project. I kind of wish we lived in that halcyon era of actors disappearing into every role, but that’s just not the case any more. To try to run away from it is just not effective. So part of the meta thing was just running toward it and playing with it — and then subverting it.
Q: What was your process like for getting into character?
A: Being around him was the biggest thing. An impression is more about energy than anything else. His Major Lazer show on Beats 1, I listened to that every week just because I love the music. It’s funny — as I start talking about him, I start talking like him. It’s weird to go say music instead of music.
Q: What is it about this moment of festival EDM that makes it so ripe for satire?
A: Wes speaks to this better than I do, just in terms of how ridiculous it is to take yourself too seriously when you stand in front of people pressing buttons. I’ve heard him say, “We’re all so [expletive] cheesy.” But there are very few places in life where everybody comes together in one spot to experience the same thing. There’s a line [in one episode] where Diplo says, “Are we just posers pushing buttons?” And Calvin Harris [played by Tom Stourton] says, “No, we’re shamanic heroes offering glimpses of enlightenment through music.” Which we kind of play off as a joke, but in a way, I think both sides are true.
Q: As Diplo, you say “fam” a lot. Did you learn any other ofthe-moment slang for this role?
A: You know what’s really interesting? There’s this fear of being “basic,” which seems to motivate a lot. People live in mortal fear of being basic! Maybe it makes me basic that I’m not.
James Van Der Beek plays the underground D.J.-turned-pop macher Diplo in Viceland’s first scripted series, "What Would Diplo Do?"