March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

IT WAS “WEIRD ENOUGH,” RECALLS James Van Der Beek, to be tooling around Hollywood last January in a stretch limo. Just nine months earlier, the English major at New Jersey’s Drew University had put his studies on hold to Pursue a full-time acting career. Now he was en route to a press conference to promote the popular series, Dawson’s Creek, in which Van Der Beek, 21. plays Dawson Leery, a small-town teen striving to become the next Steven Spielberg. Glancing out the limousine window the newcomer suddenly beheld his own image on a billboard in all its larger-than-life glory. “I started laughing.” he says. “because I didn’t know how to deal with the hype. I keep asking myself how did I get here?”

Credit millions of rabid teens for making Dawson’s Creek a Peyton Place for the Clearasil set, the WB’s highest-rated series, and one of the top prime-time shows among teens. Since its debut Jan. 20, the series has even bested Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which Creek follows on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET). But reviews have been mixed. While many find the characters appealing, others have complained that Dawson and his horny young friends have an unseemly preoccupation with sex. “We get dialogue about ‘sex,’ ‘breasts’ and ‘genitalia’ in the very first scene,” wrote Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. “Dawson’s Creek is a raging stream of hormones.” Van Der Beek disagrees. “It’s been adults mainly who have the problem,” he says. “No one under 20 has said, ‘That’s too much sex; that’s not the way it really is.’ ”

The controversy doesn’t seem to have dimmed Van Der Beek’s charm. “I think James is going to be a huge star,” says Creek’s creator, Kevin Williamson, 33 (who wrote Scream and Scream 2). “He’s very serious and single-minded about acting. But what is nice about him and the other kids is that they’re unaffected. They’re not yet stars, so they’re not concerned with the size of their trailer…yet!”

Costar Joshua Jackson, 19, who plays Dawson’s libidinous pal Pacey, says that Van Der Beek is just as “sweet” and “earnest” as the character he plays. “He’s the good-looking, polite, college-educated kid who says ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ ” That squeaky-clean image is no act. Jackson shared an apartment with Van Der Beek during the show’s four-month shoot in Wilmington, N.C., last fall. “People called us the Odd Couple,” says Jackson, “and I was definitely not Felix.”

Perhaps Van Der Beek’s proper New England upbringing accounts for his good manners. His father, Jim, a phone company employee, and mother, Melinda, a Broadway dancer turned gym teacher, raised James, brother Jared, 18, and sister Juliana, 16, in Cheshire, Conn. In the eighth grade at public school, Van Der Beek traded football for footlights after suffering a concussion trying to catch a pass. Landing the role of Danny Zuko in a community-theater production of Grease, he was hooked. “They dyed my hair black, and I was still a boy soprano,” he says. In 1994, Van Der Beek, by then a junior at the private Cheshire Academy, was commuting by train into New York City after school to rehearse for his Off-Broadway debut as a young idealist in Edward Albee’s Finding the Sun. That same year, he made his feature-film bow, playing an arrogant jock in Angus. “[People] told me, ‘Oh, this is going to catapult you.’ But the movie came and went. Now people tell me the same is going to happen with Dawson’s Creek, and I take it with a grain of salt.”

In fact, he almost botched his L.A. audition last April. “He was really nervous, and it showed,” says Williamson, who calmed his protégé down with a pep talk. “Then he came back into the room and stunned us. We knew he was Dawson. He’s very bright, but he’s also very vulnerable. I like that, because that keeps him 15 years old.”

It’s a quality that Van Der Beek, who’s currently not dating, projects offscreen as well. “I’ve met some cool people in L.A.,” he says. “They took me around and showed me the whole Hollywood scene.” Among his discoveries? “I saw people wearing sunglasses at night! I always thought that was a joke, but they really do it!”


PAULA YOO in Los Angeles

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