EXCLUSIVE: James Van Der Beek on Channeling Diplo and Checking Into 'Room 104'

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Photo: Viceland

On the new Viceland series What Would Diplo Do?, James Van Der Beek takes on his most unexpected role yet: the GRAMMY-winning DJ and record producer behind M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and “Where Are U Now” with Skrillex and Justin Bieber among other international hit songs.

But it should come as no surprise the actor would defy the expectations of audiences who grew up with him on Dawson’s Creek. Van Der Beek has taken on darker roles like The Rules of Attraction and playing a fictionalized version of himself on the short-lived Don’t Trust the B--- in Apartment 23. And playing ridiculous version of Diplo is no different. 

“[Fans] have seen me do weird stuff in between,” Van Der Beek says, referring to Dawson’s Creek and more traditional roles like Friends With Better Lives and CSI: Cyber. “I think I’ve prepped them for this moment… they’re going to like it.” 

After portraying a stylized version of Diplo in a promotion for the musician’s 2016 Mad Decent Block Party, the internet took notice and soon, Viceland suggested that the video could be turned into a series. “All of us said no. How are we going to make a series out of this?” Van Der Beek recalls. “Then I put on some headphones that night and listened to some Diplo, and then it hit me: This is a series.”

The concept the actor soon came up with was that Diplo, a musical genius, “sucks at life.” “The guy is amazing in front of 85,000 people but struggles a lot one-on-one,” Van Der Beek says, noting that they were careful to get Diplo’s approval to make him look completely ridiculous.

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Taking on the role of showrunner and writer as well as executive producer (“It’s been crazy wearing all the different hats”), the actor came up with a show that takes big swings as it lampoons the musician. Each episode, which he says “takes a different swing,” goes in an unexpected direction. The premiere sees Diplo trying to make a dying fan’s dream come true and get into a Twitter feud with Calvin Harris, while the second episode sees the DJ pretending to be a baseball player.

The finale is probably the most absurd, with Diplo making a film. “The Diplo movie is the worst, most overly sincere interpretation of making a DJ a hero that you could possibly do,” Van Der Beek says. “So he’s dealing with the ramifications of that, which leads to a whole existential crisis.”

“The meta worlds are collapsing in on themselves,” the actor continues, perhaps bringing the whole crazy experiment to an end in one short season.

Photo: Viceland

In addition to What Would Diplo Do?, Van Der Beek is guest-starring on Mark and Jay Duplass’ new HBO series, Room 104, which premiered July 28. The hypnotic anthology series tells new stories each week, with genres ranging from comedy to horror. The second episode, “Pizza Boy,” which airs Friday, Aug. 4, features Davie-Blue and Van Der Beek in a story written by Mark and helmed by Creep and The Overnight director Patrick Brice.

While Davie-Blue teases that the episode involves her and Van Der Beek ordering pizza, the Duplass brothers promise it’ll be something unexpected for longtime fans of the actor.

“Unleashing that other side of James Van Der Beek was really fun for us,” Mark says, revealing that he and Jay made it a mission to mostly cast relatively unknown actors for most of the show’s 12 episodes. “But we were open to casting known people if we did something completely different than you’ve seen them do before.”

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And according to Van Der Beek, when the Duplass brothers offer you a role, you take it. “I’ve been wanting to work with them for a long time. They’re so interesting; they do such great stuff,” he says. “So when the offer came in, I said yes before I’d even read the script.”

What Would Diplo Do? premieres Thursday, Aug. 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Viceland.

--Additional reporting by Ariana Williams, Claudia Cagan and Kevin Frazier