Kerr Smith is best known for playing gay football player Jack McPhee on the hit 90s teen series Dawson’s Creek. Now he is playing the stepfather to a teenage girl on the new CW series ‘Life Unexpected‘ (Monday’s 9 p.m.). His character, Ryan, finds himself in an unusual love triangle with the biological father of his fiancee’s long lost daughter. Smith opened up about becoming a TV adult, the joys of character driven drama, and the hidden benefits of premiering mid-season.
You played a teen on ‘Dawson’s Creek.’ Is it strange to now be playing an adult on a teen drama?
Yeah. It is. It’s been a gradual process. The last couple shows I’ve done in between here and Dawson’s, I’ve gradually played older and older. But this is my second Dad role, or step dad role in this case. It’s different. It’s an adjustment. But I’m going with it.
What attracted you to the role?
It wasn’t necessarily the role so much. It was the script. It was just great. The way Liz Tigelaar writes is just natural. It just flows. I read [the script] this time last year which is early in pilot season. If you get a script that’s really fantastic in January when you’ve got three or four months of possibly entertaining other great scripts you know it’s got to be good to pull you out of pilot season for the rest of the season. So I just jumped on board right away.
You are paired romantically with Roswell’s Shiri Appleby. Do the two of you ever reminisce about the WB mascot Michigan J. Frog and the glory days of that much missed network?
I didn’t know Sheri until we started this show. I never even met her at the mondo shoots for the network. I’ve officially now worked with everybody from Roswell.
What is Ryan’s arc going to be over the season? Do you think Cate really loves him?
I do, but she’s got so much going on in her life. She’s just trying to figure it all out and categorize it in her own chaotic way. Ryan’s path is going to be dealing with Cate and dealing with [the biological father] Baze mostly. Figuring out how to deal with this other guy that’s in her life and is always around because he’s the biological father. It’s going to be crazy. We’re together. We’re not together. A lot of chaos is going to ensue this season.
How does Ryan feel about being forced into being a stepfather to a child he did not even know existed?
It’s a big deal for him. If he’s going to spend the rest of his life with this woman, essentially Lux is going to become his child too. It’s a big decision. It’s one he decided to jump right into, maybe not weighing all the circumstances properly. In the script there’s three of four times I say, “Look, it’s a lot to deal with. You’ve got to give me some time here to figure all this out.” Imagine having a fifteen year old daughter showing up on your doorstep all of a sudden when you’re 32 years old.
Where do you tape? What is the vibe like on the set?
Vancouver. We spend a lot of time together. For me, it’s really important to love the people that you’re working with. Just even doing the pilot last January we immediately gelled. There’s no divas on this set. There’s no attitudes. Everybody’s great. Everybody, crew included, is becoming a family. I got to experience that with Dawson’s and a couple other shows that I’ve done. That makes all the difference in the world, especially when you know you’re making really great TV, you’re telling really compelling stories and everything is character driven. It just makes everything that much more enjoyable.
Your character on ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ Jack McPhee, was one of television’s first gay teens. Do you feel like you helped pave the way for all the gay teen characters on TV now?
I never thought about it, to be honest with you. I didn’t think about it that much then, either intentionally or subliminally about the door that we were opening. But I am proud if we helped a bunch of teens come to terms with who they are. For me, life is just about accepting people for who they are. It’s about loving thy neighbor, doing undo others as you would have them do unto you. The sooner we get there, the happier we’re all going to be. Today it’s like, gay teenagers, who cares? It’s a normality. As a society, we’ve made great progress.
Your first big break as an actor was on ‘As The World Turns.’ How do you feel about its cancellation?
Oh my God. I didn’t even know. That was the craziest experience I’ve ever had in my life. Right out of the gate, working thirty pages a day. I don’t think I’ve done that since. It was do it or get out. It was like boot camp for me. I haven’t seen the show in a long time, but I’m sure a lot of the original cast is still there. Wow. That brings back memories. I remember Helen Wagner, who played my grandmother, was one of the original cast members. You could have a whole career on that show. It’s a shame.
How do you feel about launching mid-season?
I think mid-season is a blessing in disguise for us. I feel like we were the underdogs from the beginning because even though [CW President] Dawn [Ostroff] was totally pro Life Unexpected, I felt like we were hanging on by a string. We got a very late pick-up, and mid-season at that. But I’ve always known that it’s a great show. Beginning of the season, mid-season, I don’t think it really matters. Dawson’s Creek was mid-season and we went for six years. They’re putting a lot of weight on this show to do well.
The show has been through a number of title changes. Do you think you found the right one?
Life Unexpected is by far the best title. We’ve had some real doozies like Parental Discretion Advised. It started as Light Years. I really liked the title. I told Liz right away, “It’s a cool title but you don’t get it until you watch the pilot because then you know that Lux’s name means light and it’s the years of Lux.” But if you don’t watch the pilot, you think it’s a sci-fi show. I guess a lot of people agreed because they decided to bag it. Eventually they came up with Life Unexpected. I think it fits perfectly.
The CW’s big hit this season is ‘Vampire Diaries‘, created by Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson. Are Dawson’s alumni taking over the CW?
We’re trying. Kevin and I were talking about that at the TCAs this past summer. Anything he does turns to gold. He’s a great writer.
The CW has tried overt 90s remakes like ‘Melrose Place’ and ‘90210.’ But both ‘VD’ and and ‘Life Unexpected’ tonally feel more like the relationship oriented shows of the 90s. Is this the start of a 90s revival?
Absolutely. Why not use a formula that has already been proven to work? People enjoy character driven shows. It’s refreshing. All these procedural shows are popular. I don’t quite get it. If it’s not character driven, I have zero interest. Why not get back to the old school roots?