Tied to the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, we hereby dub the next five days Teen Movie Week. Dig up your varsity jacket, pull up to your cafeteria table, and relive your adolescence as we celebrate the best coming-of-age movies ever made.
There is a famous line from Dazed and Confused that is actually infamous. You know the one. Matthew McConaughey delivers it in his classic, molasses-drip of a drawl. That line wouldn’t work now. It shouldn’t have worked then. But it’s a thing that was said that has been quoted and mentioned for lots of reasons, and I’m referencing it now because it makes me think of James Van Der Beek. I keep getting older, but somehow he’s stayed the same age.
Including JVDB—I just started calling him that, trademark pending—in our Teen Movie Week makes total sense. He starred as Johnny Moxon in Varsity Blues, a generational sports and coming-of-age movie. He also played Dawson Leery for six seasons on Dawson’s Creek, another teen classic. Not including him in any sort of Teen Week would have rendered this endeavor suspect and deeply flawed.
And yet, while he is forever associated with some of the very best teen pop culture content, the man is … well, he’s a man. He’s 43 now. Married. Five children. He’s long since moved beyond his teen heartthrob days, even though sites like ours and people like me keep coming around to ask about them. Fortunately, Van Der Beek doesn’t seem to mind, and he talked with me about his teen TV and movie career, what he thinks of it all these years later and, best of all, how Varsity Blues led to a dye job gone horribly wrong.
I’ve done a bunch of these Q&As since quarantine started, but you’re my first over Zoom. Thanks for doing this.
No problem. This is for print, right?
It is, but I can always screenshot if you want me to show off the tank top.
Yeah I gotta show the guns off. [Flexes.] No, I’m helping my wife set up for our cacao ceremony tonight.
What’s a cacao ceremony? Also happy 10th anniversary to you both.
Thank you, man. A cacao ceremony, there is ceremonial cacao, which is served with a meditation and a consciousness. It’s actually a heart opener, cacao. And so you source it very carefully to make sure the money actually goes to the Indigenous tribes that cultivate it and grow it. You order it and they say it’ll be there in three months and maybe it will show up, but it showed up. And it’s for a friend’s birthday. That’s what we’re doing tonight, socially distanced.
That’s a big night. And happy birthday to your friend. Which reminds me, as I was researching things to talk to you about Varsity Blues, I discovered that we’re the same age. Your birthday is four days before mine in the same year.
Oh, really, wow. So you’re March 12?
I am. So I was thinking about that. This whole teen movie theme week that we’re doing, you’ve somehow managed to be a teen idol for 25 straight years.
A 43-year-old teen idol.
An amazing feat. So when you get calls for things like this, is it strange?
Wait, is this specifically for Varsity Blues?
Yeah. But my buddy, Alan, who also works for The Ringer, is writing about Angus so I wanted to ask you about that, too.
Oh my god, really? That’s amazing. Nobody ever asks me about Angus.
That’s great. Alan is gonna be thrilled. I have questions for you about it.
That’s fantastic. I’d be happy to answer every single one of them.
Excellent. So I saw that you recently showed Varsity Blues to your kids, because your kids wanted to see the movie that everyone is always asking you about. But before we talk about the movie, are you tired of talking about the movie? Sorry this interview got meta so quick.
You know what? I don’t get tired about talking about Varsity Blues. It was such a fun experience and such a seminal experience. It was my first movie that was a hit. Everybody from the cast to the directors to the producers, we were all hungry. We all really had something to prove. The football players we hired, they all really wanted to tell this story. Everybody was playing for keeps. We shot in Austin. That Texas football vibe just couldn’t help but inform everything we did.
I remember one of the set construction guys came up to the director with tears in his eyes and said, “You know, I’m happy to work on this movie because my football coach … ” — this was a grown man crying about the treatment he got from his high school football coach. A local guy. There was a lot of that kind of thing on the set.
It’s a really long way of saying, look, it’s a teen football movie where they go to a strip club and their teacher is there, and there’s a pig that sits in the cab of a pickup truck. We knew what it was. But for everybody there, this was the biggest shot we had. We all took it really seriously. So I don’t mind talking about it. When people are energetic on the other side of it, especially about something you did 20 years ago, that’s a gift. I don’t mind matching that enthusiasm.
You’ve come to the right place. You mentioned some of the things that are a little squirrelly looking back, like the pig, but I thought it also had a message that was ahead of its time in terms of questioning the impact of concussions, and taking shots of who knows what to stay on the field and play through injuries, and just really pointing out how brutal football is as a sport.
For me, the movie was just a straight-up emotional thing. My brother had been a quarterback in high school. I played running back when I was younger. But I knew what it was to stand in that huddle and look at 10 other guys and everyone had the same goal. We gotta stop them here. Or we gotta get this first down. So I knew what the huddle felt like. My brother was a backup quarterback for Cheshire High School, and they beat Greenwich, and he subbed in for that playoff game. And they won. And I thought, “Oh, wow, this is a really cool story.” And I ever went so far as to outline a backup quarterback, and it would be someone who kinda overthinks it a little bit, kind of a different kind of guy who doesn’t buy into the football, rah-rah thing. And I never got any further than that. And then two years later, Varsity Blues shows up and I read and thought “Oh my god, this is what I was trying to do.” But at first they wanted to offer me Lance, Paul Walker’s role.
How did you end up as Johnny Moxon?
I knew I was Mox. I’m the guy who sits on the sideline and reads a book. That’s me. I knew how this guy handled everything. And they didn’t believe me. They said, “This is gonna go away if you insist on playing Mox.” It was a whole dance. They were like, “We’ll let you test for Lance and Mox.” And I was like, “Well, what if they give me, Lance?” They said, “Then you have to play Lance.” And I said no. I was only gonna play Mox. I remember my lawyer telling me the deal was gonna go away. And I said, “OK, then.” I was 21 years old, just trusting it would work out. So they let me screen test, and they tested me against like six other guys.
Who were some of the other guys?
I don’t want to say because I don’t want them to feel blindsided.
Off the record … [Tells me a few names that are soooooo good but that I will now take to my grave because I’m a serious journalist and that’s how these things work when your source goes off the record.]
So they had seven days to tell me if I got it, and they waited until the seventh day.
Were you sweating it?
Yeah. A little bit, yeah. I was recording the voice to Castle in the Sky that week, so I was busy at least. But I got it.
Mox fills so many of the coming-of-age and sports-movie archetypes. Underrated athlete who just needs a chance to show what he can do; smart kid who wants a bigger and better life, if only he can escape his tiny hometown; anti-authority hero who rallies his teammates to win the big game. So many roles. I commend you on the range.
Thank you. I felt like I had something to prove. Because if they really, really believed in me 100 percent, I felt like they would have told me Day 1 instead of Day 7. So I went in with a little bit of a chip, in a good way. We showed up in Austin at some hotel and we all bonded immediately. We all went out. We practiced with the football players. We’d go out with them on the weekends. We’d all go to the gym. We all got gym memberships. This one gym let us join for a month. By the time it came to shooting, we felt like a unit, we felt like a team. We shot all the talking scenes first. Then we shot football for like a solid month. We dedicated more time to football than certainly any other teen movie.
What time of the year did you shoot?
Oh, shit, so it was hot. I lived in Dallas for four years. Texas is brutal in June.
It was hot. It was incredibly hot. We’d show up for walkthroughs at like 4 p.m. Every single play was scripted, drawn up, diagrammed, X’s and O’s with stunting guards, blitzes, everything. Mark Ellis was the football coordinator. He had assisted a guy who had done a couple other big movies, but this was the movie where we could afford Mark, but we couldn’t afford Mark’s boss. And Mark Ellis just crushed it. He became the guy after that movie. But he also had something to prove. It was his chance to show what he could do. He would sit down with the players and talk to them and he knew if they were team players and they were down to do this. Then he would make sure they could run, hit a mark, turn on a dime, lay out on a hit, sell it, make it look big. Every single one of them had played Texas high school football. Some of them had played in college. Some of them played in the pros a little bit. My football double, Peter Gardere, played in the Canadian League, was in the NFL for a little bit, he was a [University of Texas] quarterback. He was like a god in that town because he beat Oklahoma four years in a row.
What about you? Did you take any hits?
We were always tapping our football doubles on the shoulder like, “Hey, they want me in.” Nobody had called for us to run the play. But we were there. We were suited up. There were people in the stands. I had put on 10 pounds of muscle, so I felt invincible.
That gym membership really paid off.
From the 30-day gym membership. I had been working out for a little while, but I weighed more than I ever had. But I didn’t know this story until recently, but my version of it is, I went in and ran a play and I got shellacked, just absolutely crushed. It was one of those things where you’re like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know I even went down. Get up. Get up. Get up. Is anything broken? I don’t think anything is broken. I think I’m OK. Whew.”
Turns out, Brian Robbins tells this story, I was so insistent that I run these plays that Brian told one of the guys, “Just hit him. Don’t kill him. Just hit him.”
So they decided to give you a little.
They gave me a little—a little incentive to not tap Peter Gardere on the shoulder and ask to run plays.
Now it would be the exact opposite. In the same way they protect real quarterbacks as much as possible in practices, you’d think they’d say, “Hey, he’s the lead, let’s not lay him out.”
I think he pulled over one of the guys he knew he could trust and said, “Just hit him hard enough to stop being annoying.”
Did it work, did you stop being annoying?
Well, I don’t know. I’m still me.
You and me both. The football scenes hold up, though.
I did Peyton’s Places last night, so I was watching football clips with Peyton Manning. I saw some of it and it felt like [it held up]. We had guys from NFL Films there working the cameras. For a solid month, all we shot was football. We had all the angles we needed, dolly tracks on the field. And I’m sure [Jon] Voight holds up. That’s an Oscar winner who showed up to a high school football movie, again, with pigs in a pickup truck.
He sells it. He was so evil.
He showed up to play. He was playing for keeps from the moment he got there. And thank god, because he brought everybody with him. I can’t say enough good things about him. He would mess with me, like kind of method on set. He would eat lunch with the crew, which most actors of his stature don’t, and he would grab his tray and he’d say “Eliel, Ron, Scotty, come on, come and sit with me.” And I’d be standing right there.
Everybody but you.
Everybody but me. And he would mess with me a little bit. He’d tell Ron he made a good point and not really talk to me. He wouldn’t really give me that approval.
Classic Coach Kilmer. You had to earn it.
Gotta earn it. And I realized what he was doing in that scene in the locker room when they’re about to put the needle in Wendell’s knee, I had this speech that I gave him. I think I was improv-ing a little bit and it was starting to sound speech-y, because I had a lot to say. And in one take in the middle of it, he turns around and starts to close the door in my face. And I slam it open with my left hand and I keep going. And they yell cut, and I’m a little hot about it, like, “What the fuck, man?” And Voight comes over and under his breath he says, “That was good with the door. Do that again.” I realized he had given that to me as a gift. He saw me struggling and decided to close the door in my face to give me that action of slamming it open, and it got me through the whole thing. I realized that’s what he was doing, messing with me to make me better. He never let it get to the point where it broke my confidence or made me feel bad. And I remember thinking, “That’s the kind of actor I want to be.” Voight not only knew his shit, and knew how to bring it, but he was also looking around making people better, and he just threw me the ultimate assist.
You said a number of times that you felt like you had something to prove. Do you feel like you proved it?
You know, the fact that you’re asking me about this movie all these years later is probably an answer.
Pretty good answer. In addition to being regularly asked about the movie itself, I would guess you regularly get asked about “the line.”
It’s almost journalism malpractice to even ask about it at this point, but it is a theme week so I feel like I have to forge forward. How do you feel about the line?
I think it’s great. As a writer now and a producer, someone who’s writing material, I really admire the simplicity of it. They were able to hinge an entire marketing campaign on it. It’s really direct. It’s to the point. My initial read of it was very subtle and quiet.
It’s gotten this buildup over the years, people mention it and it’s become a meme or almost shorthand for the movie itself. But upon rewatching it, it’s not an over-the-top delivery. It’s pretty even. I’m sort of surprised it took on a life of its own.
My initial read was even more subtle. Brian was like, “Give it to them. Less is less. Let them have it.” One of the reasons, it was in every trailer for the movie. It’s about rebellion. It’s ultimately about making your own choices and recognizing what you think is right and calling out authority when you think authority is wrong. That’s one of the reasons it’s held on a little bit longer, and the movie has held on. Everybody has a little bit of that rebellious spirit and wants to call out shit that’s wrong, especially when you feel powerless and you feel like you could lose everything by doing it.
You really know your audience. That hits a lot of pleasure centers for me.
Those are some stakes.
So some more research. Again, journalism …
… and I read an Us Weekly story—this is how deep I went on the reporting—and it was 25 things we don’t know about James Van Der Beek, and one of them was that you only dyed your hair once after Varsity Blues. Please tell me it was something of the era like Justin Timberlake frosted tips.
Oh man it was worse than that! My natural hair color was blond, like it was Season 1 of Dawson’s Creek. Super blond. Then I dyed it dark for Varsity Blues and I cut it off. I wasn’t gonna ask people to pay $8, back then, to see me do the same thing they could see me do for free on television. That was my modus operandi. Accent? Yes. Cut my hair off? Yes. Dye it dark? Yes. I asked for all those things.
But then I had to go right back to Dawson’s Creek for Season 2, and I had to get it back to blond. So someone said, “Oh, you must go see my hair colorist in Beverly Hills.” So I sat down in a hair chair for eight hours, and at the end they took the towel off and, I’ll never forget it, it was pink. It had the consistency of Muppet hair. It just sticks up. It was wispy. There was no structure to it. I was like, “What the fuck?” And I saw the panic in their faces. Then they did a whole new process and my scalp was bleeding.
Your scalp was bleeding?!
Oh, bleeding. I was like, “Uh, it’s burning a lot.”
Is it supposed to burn like this? Does that mean it’s working?
I was like “I think it’s hurting a lot more than it should.” It was cracked and bleeding. And they finally got it back to a yellow-y color, but it had the consistency of straw. If you watch Season 2 of Dawson’s Creek, if you’re really nerdy, you can watch it grow out.
I’m going to have to go back and watch. I have a confession, while I am a devotee of Varsity Blues, I have not seen Dawson’s Creek, but now I’ll go back and look at your hair. By the way, I also read a story from like seven years ago where you said you hadn’t seen the Dawson’s Creek finale. Is that still true?
By the time I got into Season 3 it became healthier and easier to not watch it and not worry about what song they were going to put to it or how it would be edited or if I liked the performance. It became so much better to not watch. But I did, I watched [the finale] within the last year or two.
How’d you do?
I thought Michelle Williams was fucking fantastic. I thought it was cute. I didn’t have any adverse reaction. It didn’t send me into a shame spiral. So that’s good.
Every now and again I’ll read something I wrote from that long ago and I’ll think, “Oh god, I was really awful, how am I in this business?” Should we do some Angus before you go?
So my friend Alan, who I mentioned writes for us, wanted to do a big feature about Angus but the editors weren’t sure it was well-known enough.
It’s not. I can assure you it’s not. If that’s the question, it’s not well-known enough. But amongst those who do know it, they will love you forever for asking about it.
I haven’t seen it yet. This is also on my to-do list after Dawson’s Creek. It’s gonna be a whole Van Der Beek marathon at our house. But Alan described your character as a “vicious teen bully.” He said you really sold it.
People who watch me in that movie assume that is who I am. Someone sent me an article that said “James Van Der Beek Is Rick Sanford.” ... A whole dissertation of how I had to be that guy. That character was actually based on the guys who used to bully me in school.
And the kid you bully, the protagonist, is kind of a chunkier kid. It feels like it was sort of rare for a body-positive lead character of that type in 1995.
They did a nationwide search to find him. They found him in Wisconsin at, like, a Wendy’s. The director was visiting people he knew and he heard this kid telling jokes to his friends and he was like, “Hey, I’m a director and I’d like you to read for this movie.” And he was like, “What are you, a pervert?” And he was like, “No, I’m not, I swear. I’m a director, here’s my card.” And they hired him, Charlie Talbert.
I’m glad he was a director and not a pervert. Much better that way.
Otherwise it would have been a very dark story.
This interview was edited and condensed.