From TV's Dawson to Philly's Diplo: James Van Der Beek's work life just got stranger

James Van Der Beek in What Would Diplo Do?-28072017-0002
James Van Der Beek writes and stars in Viceland’s new comedy “What Would Diplo Do?”

James Van Der Beek knows who he’s playing in his new Viceland comedy, What Would Diplo Do? and it’s not Thomas Wesley Pentz, the Temple-educated, Philadelphia-launched DJ and music producer whose stage name is in the title.

It’s not even Pentz’s public face, Diplo. At least not exactly.

“In real life, he’s incredibly smart, incredibly sharp, and a hard worker, and he’s by all accounts a very good dad to two kids,” Van Der Beek said in a phone interview last week.

“In our version, he’s much more dim. And he’s not at that point of his life yet where he has kids or is even thinking about a relationship. It’s better for us as storytellers to have him at that place in life. We create a character like this out of real parts [but] the fun is in the blind spots,” said the former Dawson’s Creek star, who once played a version of himself on the ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23.

And so in Thursday’s premiere, Diplo manages to mess up after agreeing to spend time with a seriously ill child who’s a big fan. He’s also having a Twitter war with Scottish DJ/producer Calvin Harris (played by Tom Stourton). If all this induces less cringing than you might expect, it’s because Van Der Beek’s Diplo is charming, even at his dimmest.

“The charm and the kind of childlike wonder and sense of humor — that I did kind of steal from him a little bit. Because the people in his life do seem to be charmed by him,” the actor said.

Diplo, like Van Der Beek, who writes the show, is an executive producer. One thing he apparently isn’t is a control freak.

“I met with him, obviously, before we even pitched, just to see if this is something that [he wants] to do, is it something that he’s game for, and he was completely game. He is smart enough and confident enough in his abilities and where he’s at in life to just not take himself too seriously at all. He’s actually allergic to the idea of taking himself too seriously,” Van Der Beek said.

The show, which so far has only five episodes, grew out of an online commercial, “Day in the Life of Diplo.”

“Diplo’s management wanted to make a little commercial, online, for the Mad Decent Block Party [tour]. They attached Brandon [Dermer], who’s a young up-and-coming director, and he then submitted videos to them. Brandon’s idea was for me to play Wes. And I did a little rewrite on the commercial that we made, and we all thought that would be it. … And then Viceland came to us, and said, ‘Where are you taking this?’ ” Van Der Beek said.

“And we all said, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t a series. This is just a one-off.’ But then we thought about it, and that night I put some Diplo in my headphones and I just kind of gave it a chance. And [thought], wait a minute, this could totally be a series. This could be ‘musical genius sucks at life.’ I thought that would be a funny way to tackle it. So I presented it to everybody. I said, ‘I think I know how to write this. So let’s go pitch it.’ So we pitched it to Spike Jonze at Vice, and they greenlit us for five episodes and Brandon directed every single one of them, and I wrote them all, and we were off.”

Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation — two movies that played with fictional versions of real people — “had such great thoughts and such great notes,” Van Der Beek said.

“They’re the antithesis of what typical network notes usually are. A typical network note would be, ‘How do we make sure he’s likable?’ We got notes like, ‘What if he didn’t have a moral victory at the end of this episode?’ Or, ‘What if he learned nothing? Maybe he should not learn anything.’ And you go, wow, that’s even more interesting. I love it. Let’s try it.”

Because, in the end, it’s always about us, I had to ask: Did Diplo ever talk to Van Der Beek about his days in Philadelphia?

“Yeah, definitely,” Van Der Beek assured me, noting that he had his own Philadelphia connection, having filmed the 2012 film Backwards here, set in the world of women’s rowing(He still can’t pronounce Schuylkill, but, hey, he said he loved the city.)

“He told some stories about his time in Philly … and how he used to drive to get the CDs to copy to make his mixers [and then] sell them out of the trunk of his car,” the actor said. “The Philadelphia time in his life, even though it doesn’t appear in the series directly … for sure was incredibly formative and it informed our view of how we created this fictional version of him.”

Asked if playing Diplo was his most unusual gig yet, Van Der Beek laughed.

“I feel like this is the project that made me look and say this is the strangest life I’ve ever known, to rip off a Jim Morrison quote. Yeah. I thought playing myself on Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 was the strangest thing I’ve ever done. I thought the Kesha video I did not long after that was the strangest thing I’d ever done. But now, taking this treatment to somebody else, who actually exists, was liberating in a way that made it a lot of fun.”

What Would Diplo Do? 10 p.m. Thursday, Viceland.