Van Der Beek Is a Smooth 'Criminal'

The episode description for Sunday night's post-Super Bowl episode of "Criminal Minds" describes James Van Der Beek's character as a "troubled young man," which may explain why the actor is troubled by how much to reveal.

"I'm not quite sure what I'm allowed to say," says Van Der Beek. "I'm trying to... well... hmmm... He's not quite what he seems. There's a big twist that'll be revealed."

So, um, what does the character seem to be?

"You're not really sure when you're watching the episode," Van Der Beek says, seemingly skimming his non-disclosure agreement after each word. "He seems almost kind of an unwilling accomplice pushed into this barbaric bastardization of religion."

Somebody, it turns out, is taking the Bible literally and killing people for a multitude of sins, big and small. Van Der Beek plays Tobias Hankel, a computer tech support guy who rigs up a Trojan Horse program that allows people to see back into the homes of customers. Is Tobias just an accomplice helping the episode's killers get access to their sinners or is he something darker? Let's just say he's troubled.

"I got a call from Ed Bernero, one of the executive producers, and he told me about the role and it's kind of one of those roles that every actor salivates over," explains Van Der Beek. "I think he also mentioned the word 'Super Bowl.' He just had so much enthusiasm and passion for it, so I read the script and it was great. It was kind of a no-brainer actually."

Van Der Beek describes the job as one of the most challenging he's ever done and says he dedicated much of the holiday season to researching the psychological profile (don't ask, because he isn't saying) of his character, not that he carried Tobias with him off-camera once shooting began.

"Just to keep myself sane, I tend to separate who I am from who I'm playing," he says. "That's the only way I really know how to do it, is to keep them in their own compartments as much as possible. The line kind of blurs a little bit in the beginning of something -- if I'm not used to stepping into somebody's skin, it helps to hold onto it a little more tightly. Once I've found my way there and know my way back, I can really keep it separate."

Before this part came along, Van Der Beek admits that he never watched the show, but he gained instant admiration for the "Criminal Minds" cast at an early table-read. Although the second-season drama has already become a smash for CBS, it exists somewhat under-the-radar, which Van Der Beek seems to envy after his run on the less-watched, more-hyped "Dawson's Creek."

"It creates a different lifestyle," he says of the stealth success of "Minds." "For the most part, from what I sense, most of those people can go to the grocery store or walk anywhere that they want without getting mobbed, whereas that was not the case for us. We were all, all of a sudden, thrown into a bizarro universe where the entire world looked at us and treated us differently and it doesn't seem to have happened too much to that cast."

The two-episode run on "Criminal Minds" marks Van Der Beek's first series television work since the end of "Dawson's Creek" and he sounds almost surprised at how well it worked out.

"It was actually very healthy for me," he laughs. "I was so burnt out on it by the time I was done with 'Dawson's Creek.' I hid out for a while. And when this opportunity came up, it reintroduced me to the medium in a good way."

After doing a pair of comedy pilots for CBS the past two years, Van Der Beek knows that his "Criminal Minds" turn might be a good showcase for casting directors looking to staff dramas this development season.

"If it works toward that, then I can say for the first time in years that I'd be open to it, which really speaks to the experience that I had working on this thing, with Ed and the crew and the cast," he says. "It's also where I'm at personally. The last couple years have really afforded me some perspective on it all and made me realize how much I missed it. For a while I didn't miss it. For a while I was just trying to figure things out. I'd just gotten married and that was great, so I could disappear into that and hide out a little bit and get away from a lot of the things that I wasn't comfortable with that came with being out in the public eye so much."

Although the intense heat from "Dawson's Creek" has burnt off, Van Der Beek can't avoid being recognized, though DVD releases and syndication have changed the tone of his fan interactions.

"It's funny, the fans have gotten a lot older," he reflects. "I have a lot of people in the 30s, 40s, even 50s, admitting to me begrudgingly that they watch. And sometimes they say they watch it, but then they make up an excuse as to why they watch it -- because of their wife or daughter -- but some of them actually admit that they enjoy it."

There will be millions more eyes on Van Der Beek on Sunday when "Criminal Minds" follows the Big Game.