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James Van Der Beek: Formosa Betrayed

This inspired-by-true-events political thriller feels like a '70s throwback, and that's high praise. And with that, James Van Der Beek has decisively left The Creek behind.

James Van Der Beek: Formosa Betrayed

You know his face. In fact, he feels like that guy you run into at a reunion—one whose name is on the tip of your tongue, and for whom you feel a certain fondness, but whom you just can't place because he's grown up, lost the babyface, etc. Well, reintroduce yourself to James Van Der Beek (aka Dawson Leery), who this week proves a convincing leading man in a decidedly grown-up, smart, political thriller.


Formosa Betrayed is the feature directing debut of cinematographer Adam Kane, and the brainchild of Will Tiao. Tiao, the Taiwanese-American son of political dissidents, had a story to tell, one inspired by the politically-motivated (and government-backed?) assassinations of his parents' peers in the '70s and '80s. Van Der Beek plays Jack Kelly, an FBI agent dispatched overseas to investigate the suspects and their potentially complex motivations. Because of the time period, the movie has a refreshing lack of techno-gizmos—Van Der Beek's character may be named Jack, but he's no Jack Bauer—when Kelly's hunt takes him to Taiwan, he has to check in with his home office, once a day or so, from a pay phone.


Last week, a poised, mature (he turns 33 next week) Van Der Beek sat down with to talk about the roots of the film, his more recent TV work (including Mercy), and his favorites in the '70s thriller genre. Our Facebook fans even chilmed in with some questions; read the answers below! Can you give us a little backstory about the real-life events the film is based on?


James Van Der Beek: Oh, I love that I can do this in an interview. I'm usually afraid to give a history lesson. There were two murders of Taiwanese-American dissidents, and this movie takes both of their stories—different facts and different characters—and blends them together in a story that's entertaining, and doesn't feel like a history lesson, hopefully.


I think every character is inspired, at least in part, by somebody, or is a conglomerate of a couple of people, but it is a work of fiction inspired by true events. How involved were you from the beginning? Or did you come in near the end?


JVDB: I came in actually very late. Will [Tiao]—it's an amazing story—Will started this, Will's parents were Taiwanese political dissidents who came to the US—Will was born in Kansas. And within the Chinese community, he would get flak because his parents told him to say he was Taiwanese.  And so when he grew up, he worked in Washington for a while, and then decided that this movie needed to be made. So he started raising money amongst his parents' friends and then eventually raised $8 million to make this thing. He got a script written, he got a director on board, produced it, and is now actually going to get American distribution. It's going to be in theaters. It's a huge success story.


I came in when the script was already written. They were ready to go out, ready to go shoot, and I was one of the last pieces of the puzzle to come in. I read the script, loved it as a thriller, and said, "This didn't really happen, did it?" And they said, "Yeah," and then they told me that this story had never been told before. I'm in! It's screened at film festivalshave you gotten any political pushback from the US government or on behalf of the Chinese government?


JVDB: None of it's come back to me… I know online there have been some squawking back and forth, here and there, but we didn't set out to indict anybody, didn't set out to purposely make anybody look bad or tell anyone what to think. As artists, I think our job is to ask questions and not to answer them, so I think that's what we try to do. And the situation did happen in the '80s, it happened a little while ago, but a lot of [the ramifications] are still ongoing and it's still tough for Taiwanese people to say they're Taiwanese or even speak Taiwanese. The film feels like a '70s political thriller, especially with the lack of the Internet and cell phones and techno wizardry we have all come to expect from recent films. It's jarring to see Jake making calls from payphones, and just how isolated your character was. Was that a goal or something you and the director talked about?


JVDB: Adam [Kane] and I talked about Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men and… The Parallax View, and then also The Constant Gardener... We both love those '70s movies, and we love the look and the feel of them, so that was really what we set out to make. And the tone, I thought, lent itself perfectly to this kind of story. What was it like working with a first-time feature director?


JVDB: It's so funny, I would have never considered Adam a first-time anything director. I guess maybe this is technically his first full-length feature, but it certainly didn't feel like that. He's had so much work… cinematography, as a cameraman, and then he's directed so much great television, and he's DP'd so much great television. That's very funny. Never once did I consider him a first-time director. It didn't feel like a first-time movie.


JVDB: No, I feel like Adam is a pretty accomplished filmmaker. And a lot of times, we work with filmmakers and they're like, "We want it to be [like] The Constant Gardener but with an All the Presidents Men feel," [and then] you get on set and they don't know how to pull that off. But Adam actually did, so it was fun. We really had a good time. Did you have a lot of discussions about your part in the script and so on?


JVDB: Yeah, Adam did a lot of work on the script, and a number of writers contributed to it, and it felt like a really good collaboration. It was a fluid process: how to tell the story, how to get the information across, tracking this guy's journey as he becomes more and more disillusioned about the institution and has to make these tough choices and how much does he listen to his moral inner voice versus [FBI] policy. We asked our Facebook audience for questions to ask you, too. What do you enjoy more, working on a film or working on a television show?


JVDB: Film is fun because you can take a character to the most severe extremes, and you can work on it for a finite amount of time and move on to something else. Television is a little bit different in that you have more hours to tell that person's story, if you're lucky and you're on [the show] for a long time. It's more work, but it's also more—you can just get into the subtleties of that person and their life more, so if you've got a good character that you enjoy playing, and that's rich enough to merit all those hours, then you can grow with them. They can actually grow over the course of years, which you don't necessarily do on film. Everyone on Facebook was very excited about this interview.


JVDB: Well, tell them I'm on Twitter. VanDerJames. They also want to know: is your role on Mercy going to be recurring?


JVDB: Well, I was supposed to do 8 episodes, and [now] they asked me to do 10. And then we'll see. I'm having a really good time. I'm really loving the writing. I'm really loving the cast. And I'm loving the character. There is a lot going on with this guy, you know? He's brilliant, he's arrogant, he thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, but he's right 90% of the time. But he's got some demons too. Very complicated and a lot of fun to play. You've got a lot of interesting guest roles too, like on How I Met Your Mother and Ugly Betty. How do you choose whether or not to say yes?


JVDB: Well, for the longest time after finishing Dawson's Creek, I was just burned out. I just said no to everything. And a couple years ago I started saying yes. And I started having a lot of fun. So essentially, if it was a character that I hadn't played before that I thought would be fun, I would just say yes. I wouldn't care what people thought or if people thought I should do it… because then I realized if you start making decisions based on what other people think, who are you really doing it for? And so I really started just to have fun again. I started to love it, which is why I started looking for a reason to get back on TV and to get back into film, and to just start working some more. It became my outlet and it became my passion again… Thank God. It took a while. You know, 6 years, I did how many movies and [the] television show. It was a grind, and by the end of that, I think I'd lost a little bit of the passion I had when I started. Another Facebook question: does having a regular gig limit you more in the choices you can make?


JVDB:  Having a regular gig limits your time, for sure. If you're going to do a film, it's going to have to fit into it the [TV show's] hiatus. They're going to have to be going in the exact window that you're available, so yeah, it does, but at the same time it also creates more opportunity because you're out in the public more. The only limits that it places are on opportunities that might not even be there were it not for the TV show that created the opportunity. So it all works out. It's nice to see you in this kind of role, an adult, serious role.


JVDB: Thank you. It's amazing what they'll let you do when you grow up a little bit. [laughs]


Formosa Betrayed opens Friday at City Cinemas Village East in New York. Find tickets.

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