October 22, 2007 12:00 PM

Driving his mother-in-law to jury duty, listening to NPR, relishing nights at home with his wife and dog: Four years after the Dawson’s Creek finale, James Van Der Beek leads a quiet life fans might have imagined for small-town good guy Dawson. But few expected the heartthrob himself to drop off the Hollywood radar so abruptly. Van Der Beek says he took time out to “focus on life—on being a good husband, a good friend, doing all those things that take a back seat when you work 14 hours a day.” Back on TV Oct. 18 as a guest star on Ugly Betty, he talked about life since Dawson’s.


Van Der Beek shot to fame in the WB’s angsty teen drama and the hit movie Varsity Blues. But he was never comfortable with celebrity. “When you’re trying to figure out who you are in the first place, it’s confusing when every stranger has a fully born idea of what you’re about,” says the actor, who speaks carefully with a touch of Dawson-like self-examination: After six seasons on Dawson’s, “I was really beat. I was ready to move on.”

So he focused on his home life and stayed behind the scenes, writing scripts and optioning books for potential movie or TV projects—none yet out of development. “You want to talk about fruit, and I’ve got a bag full of seeds,” he says. But recently, “for the first time since the show ended, I found myself missing acting.” This year he guest-starred on Criminal Minds, starred in the unaired TV pilot Football Wives and enjoyed his turn as a bigoted ad exec on Betty. “He liked playing against type,” says producer Marco Pennette. “I told him to show people something different than who they think he might be.” The gig “really started to reignite my passion for what I do,” Van Der Beek says. “This is me stepping out into the limelight very gently.”


Van Der Beek met his wife, former Party of Five actress Heather McComb, 30, while crashing on the couch of her sister Jessica—whom he met while filming the Dawson’s pilot. Two months after Dawson’s ended its run in 2003, they wed in Malibu. The best thing about being married? “Having a best friend around,” says Van Der Beek, who lives in L.A. with McComb. Time for more company? “We get peppered with the [baby] question all the time,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll see. That’s the answer I give everyone, including relatives.”


“I freaked out two weeks before I turned 29. I realized, ‘Holy s—, I’m a year away from 30!'” says Van Der Beek, who rolled the odometer this March. “But I can tell different stories now. I’ve done so many coming-of-age stories as an actor. But as you get older, you get a different perspective.”


He practices the branch of Jewish mysticism favored by Demi Moore and Madonna. Spiritually “I had been searching for a while,” he says. “I went into it very skeptically. Some friends of ours wouldn’t shut up about how it changed their lives so we said, ‘Fine, we’ll go.’ It made more practical sense than anything else I had looked into.”


The rumor started on the Internet. “Someone brought it up to me when I was on the Ugly Betty set,” he says. “I looked at them like they were crazy!” Still, he did play Danny Zuko in a school production of Grease. And “there was that episode of Dawson’s in which I got drunk and sang,” says Van Der Beek. “I can sing. It’s one of my deep, dark secrets.”

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