EXCLUSIVE: James Van Der Beek Talks Transforming into World-Famous DJ for ‘What Would Diplo Do?’

James Van Der Beek is most commonly known for his role as Dawson Leery in Dawson’s Creek or as Mox in Varsity Blues, and for those of us who grew up during the Van Der Beek ascension, it’s hard not to think of Dawson or Mox when we hear the Van Der Beek name.

But, in 2012, that all changed for me when Don’t Trust The B—- in Apartment 23 shot onto broadcast TV like a shooting star but fizzled out and was canceled just as quick as it had arrived. Luckily, it was around just along enough to make a wish that we’d see James Van Der Beek in a unique comedic role that truly only he could play, and starting August 3, that wish will have come true.

 

Talk about how What Would Diplo Do? came together. I’ve seen A Day in The Life of Diplo, which I think was shot for his tour, right? Did it just snowball into a series?

Brandon Dermer had been tapped by Diplo’s manager to make a commercial for the Mad Decent Block Party, and Brandon’s idea was to have me play Wes, which is kind of a crazy idea in and of itself. Brandon didn’t know me and I didn’t know him but his reel is amazing and I flagged Diplo as a genius a couple of years back after hearing him talk about music and how he approaches it. Brandon was super collaborative and open, and we had a good time — loved the crew and never thought it would go any further than that until Nick Weidenfeld at Viceland got in touch with us and said ‘We think this is a series,’ and me, in my infinite wisdom said, ‘Guys, this is not a series, come on. This is just a one-off.’ It was such a great experience making it I thought, ‘Well, let me give it a chance.’ I went back to my pool house and put on some headphone and listened to Diplo that night and that’s when it hit me: Wait a minute, this could be musical genius sucks at life. That feels like a show. Brandon and I went to New York and pitched Mike Jones parables about life through the eyes of a clown. We got a green-light, put together his carefully curated crew of hardworking, awesome people he had known since film school. I wrote five episodes and had Hal Ozsan and Jordan VanDina in the writer’s room. We’d fix, rewrite, elevate and then we got to go shoot.

The real Diplo is listed as an executive producer, but how much is he actually involved? Are we seeing real scenarios from his life that are exaggerated, or is it all fictional?

Well, it’s almost all fictional, but the fun thing about doing something meta like this is you get to take little bits and pieces of truth and create fiction around it. Diplo, as an executive producer, was incredibly hands-off in terms of story line. He didn’t micromanage anything, he was totally game to just run towards it. What he said to me was, ‘Make me look completely ridiculous.’ If anything, I had to convince him that we had to make this character somewhat likable so the audience would want to hang out with him every week — that’s really the only answer he could’ve given to make this show worth it. He’s allergic to taking himself too seriously. He’s confident enough in his own abilities that he’s not worried about it. We also got his music, which was a huge value add — music that no other show could afford.

I noticed some of his popular music is in the show but there’s also music I’ve never heard before. Did he create new music for the show or was it found elsewhere?

A lot of it is from his Mad Decent label, so it’s other artists on his label.

I have to ask, how does one prepare to play Diplo?

[Laughs] I hung out with him a little bit —

What was that like?

You know, he’s a workhorse, man. He does not stop, he’s always looking to innovate and he’s incredibly sharp about his work and music and pop culture and celebrity — he’s a sharp guy. Of course, we made our fake Diplo a little bit of a doofus. The fun thing about the character are the blind spots — everything everyone else seems to have down he struggles with, like one-on-one relationships, delineating reality from fantasy, vocabulary. Then, you give him a superpower of musical genius which is 99.9% of people are still struggling to achieve — it’s a fun mix.

In terms of playing him, the voice is kind of fun to figure out — he’s got a unique way of talking, it’s some part Latin rhythm — probably from living in Florida — then there’s this kind of street thing from Philadelphia and then there’s this enunciation every once in awhile of a consonant. [Laughs] The way he talks is a launching point, it’s not an exact impersonation, but the way it was formed by some elements of its speech that could be exaggerated and made into a character for TV. We also threw me up on stage as him at two different shows.

REVIEW: James Van Der Beek, ‘What Would Diplo Do?’ is Lit, Fam

Really? Did anyone catch on right away?

It was only for a minute — like a minute-forty, it was timed very carefully. I don’t think anyone past the 10th row could really tell the difference because from 50 feet away I could be his stunt double. With a dad hat, a mustache and the same clothes as him, it kind of works. [Laughs] Anybody in the first 10 rows may have noticed or they may not have noticed. There’s this weird phenomenon — I’m sure there’s a psychiatric name for it — I think when people see somebody they recognize, there’s a switch in the back of their head that goes, ‘Oh, I recognize that person.’ Whether they recognize them from TV or from social media, it just kind of goes off and they accepted it to be Diplo. It should be Diplo. There’s no logical reason on earth why it should be me in the middle of his show, so I think most people didn’t even notice.

What was that like for you to have that rock star moment?

I was really thinking like an executive producer. I knew we wanted those moments and how valuable they’d be for the show. There’s one moment where I had my finger in the air and everybody was waving in the same direction as I was and I knew the camera was over my left shoulder getting this show, and I’m just thinking in my head, ‘This is going to look like a bazillion dollars. This is going to be great for the show.’ I realized stepping into Diplo’s shoes, literally, that the energy can’t come from the audience and stop at the DJ, you’ve got to give it back to them. Otherwise, it’s just the DJ getting off on himself and no one is having a good time. I had heard people talk about that but to see all those faces staring up at you saying, ‘Move me, make me throw my hands in the air,’ you get it on a concrete level.

All these crowd shots we see are you at an actual Diplo show?

Yes.

That’s so cool!

That was part of his involvement, too, to be completely down to monkey around. I went in so careful about not wanting to screw anything up but Wes and his crew were like, ‘You can’t screw anything up. Just go up there and mess around.’ It’s a pretty free-form party. There are incredible effects and dancers and a lot going on but there also very open to whatever chaos in the moment might come along.

I think that’s apparent with what we see in the show for sure.

That’s how we ran our set, too. As a writer, the most joyous moment for me would be when an actor came in and improved something that was better than what was written. The discovery of that was so much fun.

Did you actually learn to DJ?

Just enough to be annoying.

You look like you know what you’re doing.

[Laughs] Thank you. I’m really good at faking it.

Based off the first two episode, it looks like you’ve gotten to shoot a lot of really fun stuff. Was there a favorite thing you’ve shot so far?

We got to do a scene in a baseball stadium and I’ve been wanting to do a baseball scene for a long time, so I wrote one. [Laughs] The most fun scenes are the ones where the whole cast is involved because you see everybody bringing what they have to the table and improving here and there. This cast knew intrinsically when to step up and throw our new ideas and when to kick back and let somebody else grab the mic for a minute. That was really fun — it was like a band. The whole set was like a band playing in our garage. That was Brandon’s thing. He talked about directing as playing in a band — he’s the lead guitarist, the art director is the drummer and I got to step in as lead singer/songwriter and we all just got to jam.

It sounds like a lot of fun. Speaking of the cast, I was pleasantly surprised to see Dillon Francis — a fellow DJ — acting in the show. How did he get cast?

He was at the Mad Decent Block Party when Brandon and I were shooting footage for a tone reel to pitch and Dillon just jumped in and starting improving with me and he was great at it. Brandon said to check out his Snapchat and see what he’s doing, so I did and I saw these characters that he was creating and how creative and clever he was and I came back to Brandon and said, ‘We have to create something for this guy.’ We created this role of this hanger-on who has been friends with Diplo since they were in middle school — this like low IQ dude, who is Diplo’s best friend and like a feral child who would come over to Diplo’s house for, like, a bologna sandwich or something, and he’s still around and Diplo’s assistant wishes one day Jasper would miss the plane or somehow get left behind but he never does. He always finds his way and is always there. Dillon is so good and funny in the show, and what’s amazing is when we yell ‘Action!’, you can watch the IQ just evaporate from behind his eyes — it was an amazing thing to watch. I’m so glad we had him. He can do things that nobody else can do. He’s got this inherent likability that’s there when he’s doing the most despicable, stupid s—.

That’s something you guys have done really well — while all these characters are, on a basic level, very annoying and not the best people, they are very likable and easy to root for.

That’s amazing. Good!

I know it’s early to talk season two, but I would be surprised if the thought hadn’t crossed your mind yet. Do you anticipate — if and when — the series would continue as What Would Diplo Do? or might it change to What Would [insert celebrity name here] Do?, like an anthology?

You could totally do it as an anthology. The hardest work has already been done in the Diplo world in terms of breaking the characters and casting and figuring out tone and what kind of stories we could tell and what’s important and what works. We could definitely do another season of Diplo. There’s certainly enough ideas and places to go but that’s only if everybody wants to — there’s a lot of moving pieces to this, obviously. I don’t know, we’ll see.

 

What Would Diplo Do? premieres Thursday, August 3 at 10pm ET on Viceland.