James Van Der Beek talks ‘wacky and weird’ new show What Would Diplo Do?

The actor tells us what it was like channelling the controversial DJ for his new Viceland comedy.

Since breaking out as a lovelorn teen on the iconic late ‘90s hit Dawson’s Creek, James Van Der Beek has played everything from a battlefield forensics expert on CSI: Cyberto a tongue-in-cheek take on himself in Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.

Now, the 40-year-old actor is taking on what might be his strangest role yet in What Would Diplo Do?, based on the real-life DJ and music producer famous for hits such as “Lean On”, “Paper Planes” and “Where Are U Now”.

With James playing Diplo (real name Thomas Wesley Pentz), the series – billed as a next generation take on This Is Spinal Tap – makes the most of the actor’s talents both behind and in front of the camera.

We caught up with the Hollywood star to talk about the real-life inspiration behind the show, his involvement as the star, writer and producer, and what it’s like poking fun at yourself for laughs.

How did the idea for the show come about?

James: Viceland came to us [after James had initially portrayed Diplo in a commercial for his label, Mad Decent] and said, we think this is a show. At first, I was absolutely resolute that it was not a show – which shows you how much I know! – but then I thought about it, and I started getting really excited. Because it’s a real guy who is this popular, there were some really fun storytelling opportunities that wouldn’t exist if you had to create a character from scratch.

So I thought, you know what, I think I can write this. So I went to my director, Diplo’s management and said, “If you let me run this and write it, I think I can do this”. They all said yes. Brandon [Dermer, the director] and I flew out to New York to pitch Spike Jonze, the Creative Director at Viceland, and we went from there.

What does Diplo think of the show and how he’s portrayed in it?

He’s been completely un-precious the entire time. When we sat down with him, he said, “Just make me look completely ridiculous”. He was really unafraid of anything, gave us total free reign to just do whatever was funniest and that’s really the only way the show could have happened.

There was no moment where he came to us and said, “Hey, we can’t do that”.

Did you change any aspect of his real life for the purpose of the show?

I did do certain things in the very beginning. I made this character have no kids, and he’s by all accounts a very good father to his kids. I took those off the table because there’s no reason to drag the kids into this.

I’m a dad as well, and I’ve played a version of myself on TV before, so there were certain things that I knew about – I had a little bit of experience in this space.

How does playing a real-life character inform the way you approach these kinds of projects?

[Even playing myself,] it has to be a character, and you build characters in the same way whether they’re based on real people or something completely fictional. With a character that’s fictional, there are certain building blocks in the script that I have to be true to.

But really, at the end of the day they are just characters – otherwise you’re dealing with a one-off joke that’s not going to last past the episode.

What are you most excited for viewers to see with this series?

Because it’s Viceland, and it’s their first scripted series, there was really no rulebook. We could do these wacked out little experiments. [Every episode is] different, a different swing at tone, humour, theme.

I am really excited for people to see the last episode. It’s different – it’s wacky and it’s weird but there’s kind of an odd gravity to it.

What Would Diplo Do? airs Mondays from September 25 at 7.30pm, on Viceland (Sky Channel 13).

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