The romantic sports dramedy Backwards, now available on DVD, tells the story of Abi Brooks (Sarah Megan Thomas), who has spent her life trying to win an Olympic rowing medal, only to be named an alternate at the age of 30. Deciding instead to quit the team and move back home, Abi gets a coaching position at her alma mater, where her old boyfriend (James Van Der Beek) is the head of athletics, and struggles to adjust to life off the race course.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor James Van Der Beek talked about what made him want to help tell this story, being a big sports fan himself (even though he knew nothing about rowing, prior to doing Backwards), the challenge of playing a nice guy, how impressed he was with Sarah Megan Thomas (who also wrote and produced the film), and why he typically loves to shoot as many takes as possible. He also talked about the experience of working with Jason Reitman on his next film Labor Day, the success he’s found in playing a highly exaggerated version of himself on the ABC comedy series Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23, being more fearless since having kids, and why he felt the hiatus he took from acting after the end of Dawson’s Creek was necessary. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JAMES VAN DER BEEK: Yeah. A lot of movies come across my desk, but with this one, because it wasn’t somebody who had already made a name for themselves in the business, I found it that much more impressive that this girl, Sarah Megan Thomas, was able to write a screenplay that worked, serve as her own producer and raise the money, pretty much herself, and she was starring in it. I thought, “This is somebody I need to meet,” knowing how hard it is to get anything made these days. The fact that somebody without a huge resume was able to put this thing together, really impressed me. And I knew that she had come from the world of competitive rowing, so this was a world that she knew and she was writing about what she knew. On that level, the whole thing felt really authentic. And I just liked it.
After Dawson’s Creek, I stayed away from roles and projects that were sweet in nature, and I think now I’ve gotten enough years between that role and now, where I felt like this was a story that I wanted to help tell. It was a passion project for someone that I could help be a part of. I loved the whole theme of chasing a dream and going after something that you’re sure you want, and then pivoting when life presents you with some other options. There’s something to be said for sticking to a goal and really pursuing it, but I hadn’t really seen a story in awhile that’s about reorganizing your priorities, in a way that is effective and satisfying, as a film experience. Plus, I just had a daughter and I thought maybe I could give her something other than The Rules of Attraction to watch.
Was this a world that you knew anything about, at all?
VAN DER BEEK: No. I’m a big sports fan. My dad played professional baseball, before I was born. But, I knew nothing about the world of competitive rowing, and I really learned a lot about it. There’s a real art to it. From an outside perspective, it looks like there’s not much to it. You just row fast, and the first one to the finish line wins. But, there’s really a lot to it, with the teamwork required and the level of specificity, in terms of control, syncopation and synchronization. I’ve heard a lot of rowers describe it as being almost spiritual. You’re eight people in a boat, or two people in a boat, single-mindedly focused and training for the same goal, and there’s something to that. I found it very fascinating.
Is it challenging to play a character who’s such a nice guy, without having him come off as too sappy?
VAN DER BEEK: That’s actually the challenge, to me. It’s about playing someone nice without making them sappy or saccharin or inaccessible. The challenge with playing someone nice is really to make them relatable and real ‘cause no one is perfect. The characters I like to play are flawed, so that’s often what attracts me to people, in life. So, to answer your question, yeah, playing somebody sweet can actually be more challenging than playing the bad guy. The bad guy has the wrong point of view and they’re usually pretty selfish about it, so it’s pretty straight-forward. You don’t have to worry about losing the audience because the audience is supposed to dislike you, anyway.
VAN DER BEEK: Yeah. You wonder, “If this person wrote the script, are they gonna be married to every single world? How is that going to work out?” And I was blown away by how gracefully she was able to wear so many different hats and serve herself and her film so well, in each capacity. As a producer, I watched her handle everything from the food at craft services being bad and the crew complaining and her fixes that situation on her lunch break to then getting right into the script and being totally open to changes and thoughts to then stepping in as an actor and really nailing it. I was really super, super impressed.
Do you enjoy doing a shoot like this, where you can’t really afford to do more than one or two takes? Do you prefer having things move that quickly, or do you like having more time to live with a character?
VAN DER BEEK: I’m a take whore. I will use as many takes as you give me, just ‘cause I love throwing out options. But, there’s something to be said for an independent film because people aren’t doing that for the money. No one is there thinking about just cashing a paycheck. They’re doing it because they really want to be involved with making the movie, so there’s a comradery that can be really special. The other thing that I loved about this film was that we shot where it takes place, and that informs the movie on so many levels. And it was the first prom scene I’d ever done as a faculty member, which was a turning point for me. I’ve shot many a prom sequence in my career, but that was my first time as the chaperone.
VAN DER BEEK: I’ve been a huge fan of Jason’s for a long time. He was right up their on my list of filmmakers that I wanted to work with. I’d met him previously for another project that ended up not working out for me, but he and I kept in touch. He asked me to do this one, and I jumped at it. That was an easy yes, to be a part of a Jason Reitman film. It’s just so much fun because you’re working with A-list crew and talent, and with someone who’s such a sure-handed storyteller behind the camera, but yet he created this mood where we felt like we were in the backyard making a film with friends, in the best way.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d find success on TV again, by playing a highly exaggerated version of yourself?
VAN DER BEEK: If you told me, at the end of the Dawson’s Creek run, that my next successful TV gig would be playing myself in a comedy, I would have thought you were crazy. But, I think it also just speaks to how much popular culture has changed. I don’t think that I could have done this successfully, even three years ago. I feel like people just get it more now and they’re hip to self-parody. The environment was just right. Really, what drew me to the project was just the quality of the writing. It’s got such a specific sense of humor.
You’ve had some great guest stars on the show, and everybody really seems to have a lot of fun doing it. Is there anyone that you’d, personally, love to have in for a guest spot?
VAN DER BEEK: Oh, gosh! I don’t know. We just wrapped up Season 2, so that would have to be a Season 3 question. We’ve got some really fun ones coming up. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) may or may not be in the last episode.
Do you find yourself being more fearless now, as a result of having to go all out for this show?
VAN DER BEEK: For me, I think it was having kids that made me fearless. Having these other souls come into my life, I look at them and just think, “What do I need to do?” The great blessing about Apt. 23, for me, has been that every day, I get to lose whatever vestiges of ego are left. For any artist or actor, self-awareness can be so detrimental. The degree to which you care about what people are thinking of you or how you’re coming across is the degree to which you’re just screwed. So, to be able to throw that all out the window and just go for what’s funniest with reckless abandon has been not only a great exercise, but a lot of fun.
Do you regret having taken such a long hiatus away from acting after Dawson’s Creek ended, or do you feel like it ultimately worked to your benefit because it actually gave you that time to live, which not only enriches you as a human being, but makes you a better actor?
VAN DER BEEK: Yeah. I really needed time to step away, to recharge, to regain perspective, to live some life and to learn some real life lessons that you don’t necessarily have the time or the space to learn when you’re shooting an hour drama for 14 hours a day, nine months out of the year. So, I think it was necessary, to a large degree. I just think I had a lot to learn, and I had a lot of growing up to do, as well.
Backwards is now available on DVD.