May 19, 2003 12:00 PM

They’re shooting the final scenes of Dawson’s Creek, and as expected, the actors are having a tough time keeping it together. While filming a highly emotional moment—James Van Der Beek’s last lines as Dawson Leery—a red-faced Joshua Jackson finally breaks down…and collapses in a laughing fit. “The inside of my mouth is bleeding from trying to not laugh!” he exclaims, as the crew joins in. “It’s literally bleeding!”

After six such seasons, Dawson’s Creek will finally run dry on May 14, with a two-hour series finale. When it launched in 1998, Creek quickly became a signature show for the upstart WB network (it’s still one of the top-rated TV series among female teens) and made instant stars out of cast members Van Der Beek, Jackson, Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams and Kerr Smith (who joined in the 14th episode). Now the group is preparing to say farewell not only to each other, but also to Wilmington, N.C.—which stood in for the show’s fictional Cape-side, Mass., setting—the town that helped insulate them from the pressures of celebrity. “For a bunch of young people who became very famous very rapidly at a very young age, it’s been a bit of a safe haven for them,” says Dawson’s Creek executive producer Greg Prange.

“We all grew up together, and we’ve been through so much that I’m pretty confident that the bond will forever be there,” adds Holmes. “I started this experience kind of alone, and I ended up with so many friends. It’s been such a welcoming place.”

For his part, Van Der Beek is ready to return the favor. After wrapping his final scene and receiving a standing ovation from the crew, he gives an impromptu speech. “It’s time to move on, but at the same time, it’s very sad,” he says to the group. “You guys brought us up in this industry and you brought us up right, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you. We have a lot to celebrate.” This time, there really are tears.

Katie Holmes

She played Joey Potter, Dawson’s best friend and first love.

•WARM FEELINGS: “When I got the part, I’d never heard of Wilmington,” says Holmes, 24, then a Toledo, Ohio, high school senior. “I was excited to go to a warm place because we weren’t going on spring break that year.”

•TV DINNERS: In season 1, Holmes frequently ate at the local Deluxe restaurant: “I was like, ‘How do you cook? What do you buy at the grocery store? Mom?’ I’ll have to come back in 20 years, when I have children. They can listen to my stories and get bored.”

•POST-CREEK PLANS: Moving to L.A., where she’ll continue her movie career (she most recently starred in Abandon and Phone Booth) and “be happy” with boyfriend Chris Klein.

Joshua Jackson

His sensitive Pacey Witter battled Dawson for Joey’s heart.

•TIME IS MONEY: He was new to series work, “but they said 13 episodes, so I was ecstatic,” he says. “For an out-of-work actor, a six-month job is a wonderful thing.” The cast and crew bonded quickly: “These are the guys I watch hockey games with.”

•DOGGED PURSUITS: His perennial on-set companion, Lab mix Simba, “goes with me everywhere,” he says. “It’s the one sticking negotiating point in any contract. I don’t care about trailers and the rest of that, but I’ve got to have my dog.”

•POST-CREEK PLANS: “I’ll take some time to myself,” says Jackson, 24, who will follow his yearly cross-country road trip with a summer in his native Vancouver.

James Van Der Beek

As Spielberg-obsessed fledgling filmmaker Dawson Leery, he pined for Joey.

•IN THE BEGINNING: “We were shooting in this tiny little town down South for a network that none of us had ever really heard of,” says Van Der Beek, 26. “We were so far removed from anything Hollywood, it never occurred to me that it would become popular.”

•ALTERED EGO: “In Hollywood, your behavior can go unchecked,” he says. “Down here, if you let it get to your head and start taking advantage of your position, you’re going to be really lonely on weekends.”

•PLAYING THE FIELD: When he researched a baseball film at local E. A. Laney High School two years ago, the head coach invited him to be an assistant coach. The players “were a little shy at first,” says Van Der Beek, who stops by whenever he has a free afternoon, “but they adapted very well and started giving me a hard time.”

•POST-CREEK PLANS: After playing an anti-Dawson in the movie Rules of Attraction last year, he segued into the Off-Broadway drama Rain Dance and is planning a fall wedding to Party of Five actress Heather McComb.

Kerr Smith

As Jack McPhee, he was intended to be a love interest for Joey, until producers decided to make the character gay.

•LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: “It took me a few years to say, ‘I live in Wilmington,’ but now I love it,” says Smith, 31. “The summers down here are amazing. We spent a lot of time on the water just having a blast.”

•SOCK HOP: In season 2, during a scene in which Holmes sketched him in the nude, Kerr asked the prop department to outfit him with a three-foot sock. “She thought it was the real deal, turned bright red and didn’t look at me for the rest of the day,” he recalls.

•POST-CREEK PLANS: Smith, who starred in the hit movie Final Destination, is moving back to L.A. and getting hitched next month to actress Harmoni Everett.

Michelle Williams

Her Jen Lindley was mature beyond her years, but grew up too fast.

•SUNSHINE DAYS: Williams, 22, most cherished spending time with the cast “on the ocean in the sun,” she says. “Josh, James, Kerr, Katie and all of our friends would go out on the boat. I have really good memories of going out to islands with beer and hot dogs.”

•LEAVING THE PAST BEHIND: She used to be most proud of the episode in which she confronted her father in New York City, until she stumbled across a rerun of it last month. “I watched it and it was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so embarrassing,’ ” she says. “I was really young. I don’t think I’m going to look back again.”

•PERFECT TIMING: “Everybody agrees that it’s the right time for it to be over, so there’s a lot of peace that comes along with that,” she says of the Dawson’s Creek finale. “But it’s a lot of people to miss.”

•POST-CREEK PLANS: She’s moving to New York City—”I have good friendships there, and I’m excited to see how they mature,” she says—and plans to keep acting in films (she starred in Dick and Halloween: H20) and on stage.

Jason Lynch

Kristin Harmel in Wilmington

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