“I love actors. We’re all freaks, basically, deep down,” says James Van Der Beek to a room of fans during his appearance on the BUILD Series hosted live at the BUILD Studio in downtown New York. “We have that deviant gene that makes us want to channel other people in front of other people.”
The most recent display of that genetic mutation comes courtesy of Viceland’s first ever scripted series, What Would Diplo Do?—which the actor co-writes, stars in and showruns.
Originally prompted by Viceland and director Brandon Dermer to play real-life EDM celebrity DJ Diplo in a short film aimed at promoting Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party, a concert series by top EDM DJs, Van Der Beek eventually turned the concept into a five-episode series. “It hit me: Musical Jesus, sucks at life,” he recounts. “And so we went and we pitched Spike Jonze [Viceland’s co-president]: Parables about life through the eyes of a clown.” Add to the odd concept Van Der Beek’s now undeniable comedic chops, and you’ve got yourself a legitimately funny show.
Although trying to wrap your head around the performance-within-performance-within-performance aspect of What Would Diplo Do? (Van Der Beek plays an exaggerated version of the real Diplo, who is known for playing an exaggerated version of himself on Twitter) proves an arduous task to the average viewer, it seems to come fairly easy to the actor himself, who tackled another “meta” role when playing, what else?, an exaggerated version of himself on the short-lived Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.
“A character is a character,” he says in the studio’s green room following the public appearance when asked about his propensity to take on “meta” parts in recent years. “The kind of fun part about meta, and it’s almost cheating, is that some of the building blocks already exist and already have a connection and resonate with an audience and so you get those pieces for free—and what I love is filling in around those pieces.”
Now 40 years old and a first-time showrunner, the actor has come a long way from playing a seemingly perennially heartbroken teenager on the uber successful ‘90s drama Dawson’s Creek.
Although Van Der Beek doesn’t care to dwell on the past or discuss the long-ago role that, at least until now, audiences have mostly associated him with, the resemblance between him and Dawson Leery, an aspiring filmmaker, is uncanny when the actor discusses his first gig as a showrunner. “A character is always a creation of different shreds of truth, whether they’re your truths, somebody else’s truth or the character’s truth,” he says in response to the observation.
Has any role he’s ever played reminded him of himself? “The most honest answer I can give is that any comparison that I make of myself and any character I’ve played is really just kind of an intellectual exercise that I’ve tried to come up with to try to answer somebody’s question in a way that works for them so that they can write an article.” Point taken.
What Would Diplo Do? is the first scripted series to ever air on Viceland. Is that added pressure?
Because it was the first scripted thing, there was no template, there was no box to fit into and they were totally down with experimentation and just trying some wacky stuff and seeing what worked so, in a way, it was kind of the best situation because it was just a wide open playing field.
Would the show have worked on any other network?
No. No other network would have let me show run for the first time.
Diplo is the show's executive producer. Having met him, do you think the series is an accurate portrayal of who he really is?
No, I don’t think we’re all that concerned about [that]. The point of the show was to just kind of have a laugh, maybe have a think and take the most fun little tidbits that might be true about Diplo as building blocks and fill in the rest with pure fiction that worked for the story and a laugh and for whatever else we were trying to accomplish at the time.
That seems to echo his social media personality.
Yeah. If the social media is a kind of fun house mirror image of who he is, then this is a fun house mirror through a filtered lens with some weird music playing behind it.
In a way, the series is a scripted reality TV show of Diplo’s life. Do you get the fascination with reality shows?
Yeah. The real reality boom happened during the writer’s strike because they had nothing else to show, the producers were like ‘We’ll just put unscripted programming [on TV].’ I feel like reality in a way opened up narrative story telling because in unscripted television there’s a chance that the audience is going to see something that was outside of convention. There is no structure to it. Now, of course, reality television fits a mold and a lot of it is scripted. I think once the audience got an appetite for ‘I really don’t know what’s going to happen,’ then scripted television had to fill that.
It’s been said that you’ve taken a side-door to comedy given the recent “meta roles” you’ve been taking on. Is comedy something that you want to get into?
I do enjoy comedy but I’m not a comedian, I’m not a standup. I don’t know that I could ever do that. I’m not a sketch comedian, I’ve never gone to improv training but I do really enjoy it.
Maybe you’re just a funny person?
There are certain people who anything they say is funny and they just have that gift and that thing. I just know how to make something authentically sincere and if it’s bizarre and goofy, then the more authentically you can deliver it, the funnier it will be. So that’s always been my approach. I think the worst thing in the world you could do is try to be funny.