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VAN DER BEEK, JAMES: VARSITY BLUES

A PEEK AT BEEK
In just two years, James van der Beek has emerged as one of Hollywood's most sought after young stars, thanks to his starring role in the immensely popular tv series, Dawson's Creek. Now in his first major movie role, he plays an idealistic footballer in Varsity Blues. PAUL FISCHER takes a peek at Beek, who tells him about the ups and downs of his newfound fame.

While there's no doubt that Dawson's Creek has opened up a lot of doors for James van der Beek, the adulation his fame has brought is less exciting for this rather serious actor, exemplified by the hordes of teenage girls who screamed his name on a recent shopping centre visit in Sydney. He doesn't find it hard, he says, to put all that aside and recognise that it's all part of the fame game. "It's a little frightening because you don't have any control over it; you can't just turn it off. Every time you go out, you run that risk, but it's there and you have to deal with it."

"You can't draw anything from it in terms of self-esteem."

Nor does he try to take it very seriously. "You can't take it seriously, because it doesn't mean anything; you can't draw anything from it in terms of self-esteem."

The upside of such fame is his ability to choose projects outside of the series. His big-screen career got a shot in the arm with Varsity Blues, in which he returns to the turf as a high school football star.

It's ironic that in his first Hollywood film, actor James van der Beek plays a footballer; ironic because it was an unexpected halt to high school football that led to his foray into acting. He even recognises the parallels between the two. "They both require a similar mentality," he explains, holding a football that someone gave him as a present. "I grew up playing sports and so I always had that athlete's mentality, psyching yourself up for a game. I eventually applied that to auditions. I think there are lessons in each that are useful."

Varsity Blues takes place in West Canaan, Texas, where football is a way of life. John "Mox" Moxen (Van Der Beek) is the backup quarterback for the West Canaan Coyotes, the high school varsity team. Under their coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), they have a sterling record. In his 30-year tenure, the team has won 22 district championships. This year, Kilmer intends to make it 23, and he thinks he has the players to do so, starting with his star quarterback, Lance Harbor (Paul Walker). Unfortunately, the coach's need to win has become an obsession, and it causes him to push his players into doing unsafe things (like taking drugs to numb pain).

When Lance goes down with a serious injury, Mox has to step into the breach. He soon finds himself torn between his sudden celebrity status and his desire to stage an uprising against the coach.

"I was able to tap into all the insecurities, fears and doubts that I had when I was 15"

The Connecticut-born actor was deprived of pigskin tossing for a full year on doctor's orders, so the sidelined 13-year-old decided to fill his free time with community theatre, much to the chagrin of his ex-footie team. "They weren't exactly standing up in my glee-club concerts; the two worlds don't necessarily co-exist." When he was cast in the prominent role of Danny Zuko in a production of Grease, the acting bug hit hard. "Originally it was a lot like play acting for me. I mean kids play cowboy and Indian in their backyard, while I grew up loving Star Wars, and I think early on, acting was just a chance to pretend to be someone else." After three years spent doing local theatre, Van Der Beek asked his mother for permission to audition for professional acting jobs in New York. He was 16 at the time. A former Broadway dancer herself, his mum wasn't about to dissuade him from a life of performing, and she even accompanied him on the three-hour train rides to the Big Apple.

Their very first day in the city, Van Der Beek secured the services of both a manager and an agent, but the hoped-for parts in TV commercials failed to materialise. Eventually, he was cast in an off-Broadway staging of dramatic luminary Edward Albee's Finding the Sun, which Albee also directed. "That was really the defining moment for me as an actor; that was when I first realised that I knew this was something not only that I want to do, but something that I think I might be able to do."

In Dawson's Creek, he plays a 15-year old, but the 22-year old actor had no problem playing the adolescent. "I was able to tap into all the insecurities, fears and doubts that I had when I was 15. I think everyone kind of remembers what it's like to have a pit in your stomach the entire day after the girl of your dreams dumps you at that age. So it wasn't as though I had to go back up and dredge up any memories."

Though van der Beek seems perfectly cast in the film, the vast differences between his TV character and Dawson, made it difficult for the actor to land this screen role.

"I wouldn't cast me either."

"I had to audition three times and screen test with 6 other people. Despite Dawson's popularity, they didn't want me to play Mox, because they saw the work I did in television, and were convinced that there was no way I could play him." But van der Beek persevered, despite thinking "I wouldn't cast me either." Eventually, he did win the role, and being the thorough actor he is, dyed his hair black "and devoured the accent, so I could be as far removed from Dawson as possible."

The ploy worked. Despite its mixed critical reception, the actor was singled out for his multi-dimensional performance, and he hopes that Varsity Blues "does well in Australia, because it's far more than a movie about football. It definitely goes beyond that."

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