From Dawson’s Creek to Dad of 5: James Van Der Beek on Fame and Family Values

The actor and father of five discusses fame, getting recognized with his kids, and why he knows, one day soon, his cool cred will expire.

Originally Published: 
Kreg Franco for Fatherly

James Van Der Beek, in the eyes of the Internet at least, will always be the patron saint of pouty boys. His portrayal of Dawson Leery, the wise-beyond-his-years teen who was more often than not a sack of teenage angst, helped reinvigorate the teenage drama in the 90s — and spawned an extremely shareable meme: an image of Dawson’s scrunched up face at its weepiest. But Van Der Beek, of course, has had a nice career since he left Capeside, Massachusetts. He made “Ah don’t want your lifuh,” a phrase for the ages in Varsity Blues. He’s danced with the stars. He investigated cyber crimes on CSI Cyber. He Posed alongside Billy Porter.

In other words, between Internet and on-screen fame, he’s instantly recognizable. It doesn’t hurt that Van Der Beek, now 42 and, with second wife Kimberly Brook, a father of five, still looks remarkably like Dawson. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s very, very often, stopped on the street.

“My kids seem to be cool about it,” he says about being recognized. “Right now, they’re young enough where everything that I do is cool. So, I’m just relishing that while it lasts.”

Van Der Beek is self-aware — and good-humored — enough to know that his fame and former ‘90s heartthrob status will one day mean zilch to his children. But that’s okay with him. All he cares about is being a good dad and doing some good in this world.

Van Der Beek recently partnered with Walmart and Always to raise awareness on period poverty in the U.S. An issue that affects one in five girls in the United States, it makes them unable to go to school or engage in public life when they have their periods. Van Der Beek spoke to about period poverty, how he’ll talk to his kids about puberty, and what it means to be a great dad.

How did you get involved in the fight to end period poverty in the United States?

Walmart and Always approached me about this campaign. I was really honored that I was considered enough of an ally to be someone who they reached out to to stand at the forefront of this. Period poverty is something that I, quite honestly, didn’t really think about until I had kids and then, it’s one of those things in which you hear about it and you’re dumbstruck and you go, Oh, yeah, of course that would be an issue.

And then you think about all of the implications of it. I think about how busy I was as a kid, and how active I was and how much even just extracurricular activities meant to me as a kid. I mean, they saved my life — they were my outlet and my passion and it ended up being my career.

It really does have a significant impact.

If I had to miss a week of school or rehearsals, or even three days, because of something that is natural and unavoidable and healthy — that would have been devastating. They’ve done these studies that show that 1 in 5 girls dealing with this have a lack of access to period products in this country right now. That’s not okay. Nobody should be okay with that.

It’s a really important issue. And, I was really honored that they came to me. The campaign is not just about donations. It’s also about awareness and chipping away at the stigma, and I thought it’s so cool that they’re going to ask a man to be at the front of this campaign. I was very, very happy to do it. One of the cool, possible superpowers you’re able to wield as a celebrity is the ability to chip away at stigmas that don’t make any sense. Certainly, the stigma around puberty and periods is just completely ridiculous. It’s not only a normal thing that happens to young women, it’s an absolutely necessary thing.

When I grew up with puberty education, it was treated as such an awkward thing that wasn’t meant to be discussed. The boys kind of pretended it wasn’t happening and it didn’t exist. As a father, I realize that that kind of approach and mentality is really detrimental and is very damaging.

How so?

It’s nothing anybody should be ashamed of, and I’m more than happy and honored to help chip away at that stigma.

So it sounds like with your own children, you’ll be really up front and honest with them about puberty and what might change for them.

I think it’s crucial that you talk to them without any weirdness. There’s a doctor that I met today and she was saying that it’s crucial to call everything it’s proper name, to not use cute little monikers.

As a parent, you do the best you can, and you make the best decisions you can based on what you think is best for your kid. But no parent is without their own baggage — from their own sex education and their own puberty education — and it’s really important to separate that and not put that on your kids.

I’m just highlighting how important it is to “normalize” what’s normal.

Right. What do your kids think about your career? I mean, I imagine they haven’t seen Varsity Blues or Dawson’s Creek yet.

It’s funny, with kids, you never know what they’re going to connect to. As much as you would like it to be the really highly prestigious thing you just got nominated for an Emmy for, they tend to gravitate towards the Hallmark Christmas movie you did ten years ago.

So it really [laughs] democratizes everything that you do. You know, it’s interesting. They see people come up to me and they see people ask for pictures and, for the most part, it’s how it’s always been for them. We try not to make it a big deal. They seem to be cool about it. Right now, they’re young enough where everything that I do is cool. So I’m just relishing that while it lasts.

One day you’ll still just be dad.

And nothing I do will be cool.

You have five children. What’s your favorite family activity that you love but also includes all five of your children?

Trips. Travel. Vacations. We got in an RV this holiday and we just drove. We had no idea where we’d sleep or where we’d park at the end of the day — we’d just get a map and try to find some out of the way place in nature. That kind of adventure, I discovered, is my favorite thing. You put your phone down. In most places, your phone doesn’t even work. And you’re just present with them.

It’s amazing, the conversation and the bonding that comes out of just focused time spent with the kids. It kind of goes back to what I keep thinking to be true — what [kids] want is just connection. You know? Just putting myself in a position where we get to connect is always the goal. But traveling like that? And going on those adventures, to places I’ve never been and we’re all discovering at the same time? When you travel, you leave with kids and you come back with teenagers.

What has having such a large family taught you?

I joke that having this many kids, you see your parenting mistakes in real time. So you realize that wagging your finger at them and saying, “Because I said so,” doesn’t work because they immediately use it on each other. So, we’ve really had to dial in our conflict resolution and brush up on it and read books about it.

If you had to pick just one, what’s the most important value that you and your wife want to pass down to your kids?

I would say it’s empathy. The importance of being able to understand, or trying to understand, where someone else is coming from. It’s something you don’t see in the news, certainly, from talking heads. You don’t see it from political figures, really, ever. But just how important it is — and how much good and harmony can come out of really taking the time to try to understand where somebody is at and where they’re coming from is important.

It’s not sympathy, necessarily. You can still disagree with them at the end of the day. But just the importance of really taking the time to listen and putting yourself in their shoes and understanding the world from their point of view — because you just might learn something.

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