It's nearly impossible to think of James Van Der Beek without immediately thinking of Dawson Leery from the WB's forever-popular teen drama Dawson's Creek. Even Van Der Beek's turn in the canceled-too-quickly ABC sitcom Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 played up the iconic character, showcasing Van Der Beek's willingness to make fun of himself for comedy.
And it's that willingness—as well as Van Der Beek's own self-awareness and insider knowledge of show business—that makes him such a perfect fit for What Would Diplo Do?, Viceland's scripted series that follows around DJ/producer Diplo. It's a strange premise that works, because Van Der Beek's hand is in everything: He's writer, showrunner, and actor as he portrays an exaggerated, fictionalized, and slightly dimmer version of Diplo—all while managing not to veer into mean-spirited territory. After all, Van Der Beek knows what's it like to be the butt of a joke.
I recently sat down with Van Der Beek at Brooklyn's the Box House Hotel to chat about the series, hanging out with Diplo, and EDM culture. Watch the first episode of What Would Diplo Do? above and read on below:
VICE: What drove you to be a part of this show?
James Van Der Beek: [Director] Brandon Dermer was doing a commercial for the Mad Decent Block Party tour, and his idea was, "What if we had James Van Der Beek play Diplo as a Dollar Shave Club type guy?" I'd flagged Diplo as a genius, like, a couple of years back, so when this weird thing came in I took it seriously enough to look at Brandon's reel, which was great. He sent me the FDX file, I did a little rewrite, and we did it. Everyone thought it was just a one-off—no one had designs of doing anything bigger.
Then Brandon and I flew out here and pitched Spike Jonze and Eddy Moretti on parables about life through the eyes of a clown, and they said, "Alright, go for it." So we wrote the episodes, took our little merry pirate band of crew members, and just stole footage wherever we could. It was awesome. I call them band members because that's how Brandon looks at making TV—like, "Hey, it's your band."
This is your first time showrunning. Why did you want to step up with this show in particular?
I called Nahnatchka Khan, who created Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, and I was like, "I feel like I can write and run this, am I fucking crazy?" And she said "No, you should do it." That really meant a lot. She was really encouraging and helpful. So I just started asking advice from everybody.
What was some of the advice that you got?
Everything from "have all the writers sit in different seats every day so no one gets locked into their own thing, just to change perspective"—I thought that was really interesting—to Mark Duplass saying, "If you're only doing five [episodes], and you're writing them before you start prepping, maybe you want to write them yourself." I hired two writers, Jordan VanDina and Hal Ozsan, and Mark's advice worked really well.
I knew I could write, but I didn't know enough about running a show to convey the tone to a writer and have them come back with something that was exactly what I wanted. I discovered so much in writing that I realized the most efficient way to do it was to break the episode in the room. We'd have these long philosophical conversations about whatever the subject matter was for that episode—what are people's experiences? What's the truth, and what's the other side of the truth? Then we'd just layer ridiculousness and stupidity on top of that.
The Diplo character is a little dimmer in the show than he is in real life. How did you approach that without it being offensive?
He was so game for it. I mean, I wouldn't have done the show if he hadn't been completely down, but he was like, "Yeah, make me look completely ridiculous." I wanted to make sure that if you watched the show and heard his music, you might like the music just a little bit more because of the stupid thing you'd watched.
A lot of the show takes place in his imagination—there's no time, space, or motion. In my world, that's how somebody can channel and manifest this music: They're in their alternate reality, and he's always got a toe in that. If you talk to Wes, he's incredibly sharp—especially about music, pop culture, and what's cool. He gets it—big time—so it was fun to make him a little more dim.
That's where a lot of the comedy comes from, too.
Yeah, the comedy comes from the blind spots—the things that the audience knows, but he doesn't. Our sweet spot was him really trying hard to do the right thing and completely failing—especially in a situation where the audience knows that he's failing.
Was there anything you avoided for this character?
Yeah, Wes is by all accounts a very good father, so we wanted to take his kids off the table—they didn't need to be involved in it. We built toward him actually thinking about an actual relationship— that's as far as we get in this arc.
When did you first meet Diplo?
At his house, after we had done the Mad Decent promo. He came out of his front door, saw Brandon and me, and said, "Sup, fam." He was letting us know that he got it. He's a big energy. He's very sharp, and that's what struck me. His thing was, "Make me completely ridiculous."
That's basically what you did in Don't Trust the B, too.
That was why I was like, O kay, if I'm going to run a show, this is probably the one to do. The experience of doing that is unique. It probably won't be in a few years—I feel like everybody's doing it now—but at the time, I felt like I had a couple miles in this saddle that most people don't have.
Are you into EDM?
I'm not in the scene, but I do like the music. I like electronic music, and I like to move and dance and shit—I find it a lot of fun. My taste is so eclectic—everything from indie rock to fucking folk shit. It's funny, my kids are listening to Green Day and Nirvana nonstop. It's great.
Did you learn much about DJing while making this show?
A little bit, yeah. They go out there with certain stems that they manipulate, but it's really about reading the crowd.
The show is also a loving sendup of EDM culture in general.
Yeah, you have to love it to make fun of it—or else it's mean. One of the things I love about [EDM] is that there's definitely room for music that is aggro, but what works in electronic music is vulnerability. Look at some of the biggest electronic hits—people are screaming "don't let me down," or "where are you now that I need you?" Those are very vulnerable statements. I thought it could be really interesting to explore what leads to that kind of vulnerability.
What do you think is the funniest thing about EDM?
That the people who are the best at it are the biggest nerds for it.
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