For the better part of the late '1990s and early '00s, James Van Der Beek was the doe-eyed, curly-locked, flannel-clad Dawson Leery, the centerpiece of the WB's "Dawson's Creek," the kind of guy who idolized Steven Spielberg and rebelled by masturbating to a popular morning news show. He was Ryan Gosling before there was Ryan Gosling. The standard against which a generation of young women judged their (inevitably subpar) boyfriends.
Even then, the "Dawson's Creek" star, now 35, couldn't take the corniness.
"When I was paying Dawson, I'd be in character in rehearsal and I'd be playing the sweetest human being on the face of the earth," Van Der Beek told ABCNews.com. "To lighten the mood, I'd say something just vulgar and gross that Dawson would never say. The crew loved it."
Van Der Beek revels in the inappropriate on ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23," premiering tonight. He plays a version of himself, the famous best friend of the "B----" (Krysten Ritter's Chloe) who enables her sadistic brand of roommate torture when he's not hooking up with girls in whipped cream bikinis (a la his 1999 teen drama "Varsity Blues") to the tune of Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" (the "Dawson's" theme song).
You'd think it would make him self conscious. Van Der Beek's career since "Dawson's" ended in 2003 has been more "Joey" than Jennifer Aniston. And yet:
"It's always been my sense of humor," he said. "I'm shameless. You know a self deprecating joke always gets more laughs."
Cases in point: His appearance in Ke$ha's video for "Blow," in which she dubs him "James Van Der Douche," and JamesVanDerMemes.com, a site where he acts out emotions for the benefit of fans obsessed with his "Dawson's" cry-face.
With "Don't Trust the B----," Van Der Beek, mulled the risk of parodying himself on network TV "for a second, for a beat. But we relate to the audience differently now than we did when I first came of age. The audience gets it, it's just funny. What made it an absolute no brainer to do was the people involved. It was a real comedy dream team."
The role was written for Van Der Beek after the show's casting director suggested him to series creator Nahnatchka Khan, who wanted a celebrity BFF to "add to the mystique of Chole."
"There's such a small, small list of people who could credibly be in these girls' lives," Khan said. "What convinced me is that he had such a great sense of humor about himself. He's so brave and so funny."
Van Der Beek said becoming a father (he has two children with his wife, Kimberly Brook) helped him loosen up and embrace experiments like his new role.
"I look at it as an exercise in abolishing ego," he said. "The less seriously you take yourself, the better work you're going to do."
Which means, "Dawson's" fans, you will see The Beek in all his shirtless glory.
"There are definitely some Dawson delts," said executive producer David Hemingson. "There's a good deal of bicep. He even does some knee bends and squats."