What’s better than a dad? A superhero dad. And, yes, my friends, they do exist. Look no further than John Wesley Shipp. Not only did he play a bonafide masked crusader in The Flash as, um, The Flash but he was also the most kick ass dad Capeside ever had on Dawson’s Creek.
Shipp and I discussed Mitch’s most memorable scenes, the heyday of soap operas and his independent film work.
TeenDramaWhore: What was it like living and filming in Wilmington? It’s so far from Los Angeles where most things are filmed.
John Wesley Shipp: You know, it’s funny. Not just in terms of where to work but at different points in my career when I’ve really wanted to have an experience, I’ve noticed that if I really hold it in my mind, the experience will present itself. Right before Dawson’s happened, I was thinking, you know, I’m sick of living in L.A., the land of perpetual glare. I sure would like to do a series somewhere that had seasons. I’m from the Southeast, so close to my family, which is all in Atlanta, would be nice. Not a series like The Flash, where I’m killing myself every day, practically opening a vein with each episode. But something that had some interest and was cool. Dawson’s Creek presented itself so it’s kind of what I asked for. At least in the beginning, the parents had vital storylines. Of course, they were subsidiary but they were independent and intersecting with what the kids were experiencing. That was fun. It was fun for a couple of years and then it was fun again at the very end. But in terms of working in Wilmington, Wilmington’s a cool town. I love the fact that the water–which Dawson’s Creek used very effectively–was almost a character in the series. It was very effectively used. It’s very much a part of the landscape. And the town is sort of like traditional, small town, historical society, Southeastern coastal town meets Hollywood. And then there’s the beach culture. On one side, it’s all new, the Outer Banks, cool places, houses to rent, condos. The other side, which is on the Cape Fear River, is older, historical. They had downtown candlelit carriage rides to view the houses that had been restored. There’s a river culture. There’s even a little sophistication in it. They had this wild club there for a while. They have cool cigar bars and eateries and restaurants down on the river. So I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. I also think that given the fact that the show exploded the way it did and we had such a young cast–and I know it was a pain in the ass for them being separated as the years went on–I think the production probably benefited from the fact that we weren’t in L.A. or we weren’t in the fastest-track place, because those kids became international stars overnight. Even as intelligent and well-intentioned as they were, it probably would’ve been very heady stuff for them had we been, say, in L.A.
TDW: Let’s throw New York into the mix, because you filmed in New York City, too, when you were on Guiding Light.
Shipp: Yeah, I lived in New York City for 14 years. I love New York City. I started my career there and I had my first success there. When I was living there, I was living there the way you’d want to live there. I had a great apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking the river and I had a house on six-and-a-half acres in Woodstock to go to on the weekends. So that kind of was the ideal way to live in New York. Then I went back in 1992 for a year when I did Dancing with Lughnasa on Broadway and a stint on All My Children. I don’t know if it was my youth or my success that I remember fondly or if it’s entirely New York but I’m actually wanting to move back there. L.A. can be very oppressive. There’s many opportunities about L.A.; I don’t want to be a whiner about it. But it is a one-industry town and everyone is in the motion picture industry. Everyone has a script in tow and everyone is an actor and everyone is a producer and everyone is on the hustle, getting this project made–you know what I mean? It can be a bit mind-numbing. Plus all that sun. New York is, as they call it, the great teeming metropolis. It’s teeming with life. Everybody does something different and nobody is particularly impressed with what you do because everybody is so busy carving out a piece of the rock themselves, a piece of that island for themselves. It’s just such a melting pot and it’s exciting. You walk out onto those streets and you’re alive. So many different people from so many different worlds. I think for an artist or an actor, it’s probably much healthier creatively to live in New York than L.A. But I’ll only speak for myself.
TDW: If you came back to New York City, would you want to do Broadway again or another soap? One of the ones that’s still here, anyway.
Shipp: I don’t know about daytime. Daytime seems to be in a pretty tough spot at the moment. I wonder, and I’ve heard speculation, about whether there will be any daytime dramas left in 5-7 years. Certainly I would like to do theater. I’m attached right now to the production of a little play with the Firebone Theatre Company called Song of the Bow. I’m attached to that and they’re looking at production next September. I’m also, after our phone interview, talking to a producer from Atlanta. He’s actually in New York right now checking out theater space. They’re taking the play from Atlanta to New York in January and he’s talking to me about the possibility of whether it would be a good fit for me. I would love that. I would love going back to New York doing a play. I think it would be the best thing for me right now so we’ll see. We’ll see if it holds true that what I hold in my mind happens. Of course, first choice, I’d really like to do an interesting series in New York because (whispers) that’s a lot more money. We’ll see what happens.
TDW: What was your reaction when you found out Guiding Light was going off the air after 72 years?
Shipp: Well, the Guiding Light I knew, from everything I had heard, no longer existed. They weren’t shooting in a studio anymore. It was practically students with handheld cameras in driveways.
TDW: That was very much my understanding of it as well, from what I’ve read and from watching it.
Shipp: I would watch it. It would be on at the gym and I’d look up. I just thought the production values had flipped. I was at a Guiding Light Emmy party at Krista Tesreau’s on August 29 in L.A. I have some pictures up from that party on my Facebook page. It seemed like ancient history. I left that show, what, 25 years ago? A quarter of a century. It was exciting. Guiding Light was a great time and it was a great time to be in daytime. That and when I went over and did the story on As The World Turns with Julianne Moore and Steven Weber. It was a time when the youth explosion, the numbers, the ratings were way up from what they had ever been before. As a consequence, the networks and Proctor & Gamble were putting money in. I went to the Spanish Islands on location. I went to St. Croix on location. Of course we also went more regionally. I don’t think they did even local locations anymore. We went up to Connecticut, Kent Falls, where we did the whole Laurel Falls Kelly-Morgan wedding and story. It was an exciting time. If you were going to do daytime, the early to mid-80s was the time to do it. I was very fortunate to work for Douglas Marland on both Guiding Light and As The World Turns. I had the best of the best in my daytime experience.
TDW: So if that was so wonderful, what 10-15 years later made you switch not only to primetime but a teen drama?
Shipp: It was what was offered. I mean, I had been through The Flash and that was disappointing in many ways. It was handled so badly by the network and that’s not just my opinion. That’s the network’s opinion. We had a number of things going against us for that show, even though we were a critical hit and the industry really dug us. But we had a network that had the oldest demographic so all of our in-house advertising fell on deaf ears. Plus we debuted in the fall and then we were off for baseball because CBS had the World Series that year. So we went on and off then we went back on. Then the Gulf War broke out. Then we went back on and George H.W. Bush threw up in Japan so we were preempted again. Then they moved our night. So it was impossible to find an audience, although it’s doing well now on DVD. It was released in 2006. So after that I went back to New York and did the play Dancing at Lughnasa on Broadway and a series of guest shots and TV movies and things like that. And then Dawson’s Creek presented itself. The interesting thing about that is they had already shot the 20-minute pilot presentation. I believe at the time they were auditioning for Mitch, I was in Moab, Utah with David Carradine, Lee Majors, Cathy Lee Crosby and Michelle Greene doing a movie called the Lost Treasure of Dos Santos. What a cast, huh? It was a riot. But, anyway, then I heard about this project. They were deciding to go in a different direction with the father and they sent me the pilot presentation. If you can think back to before Dawson’s Creek exploded on TV–and as a result of it, so many spin-offs and so many teen dramas and so much saturation and copy-cat shows to the point where it became something of a cultural joke almost–if you think back before Dawson’s Creek, there was nothing like it. I mean, yeah, you had Beverly Hills 90210 but it was completely different in tone. The kids were beautiful and–ours were, too–but theirs were popular and sexy and with it and hip, slick and cool and, let’s face it, didn’t have the brain power of our characters. What was interesting about Dawson’s is that it was not slick. The kids were not hip, slick and cool. They were a little bit on the outside. Joey Potter [Katie Holmes], that whole story–not exactly your typical teen queen there with the problems in her family. Pacey Witter’s [Joshua Jackson] father being a drunk. And that Michelle Williams [Jen] character being a real outcast at the beginning. And even Dawson [James Van Der Beek], his mom cheating on his dad and experimenting with an open relationship. There really was nothing like it. And, also, I noticed the language that these kids were using. I thought, wow! We were even criticized for that. We’re writing up to the youth audience; we’re not writing down to them. Why would you criticize that? Isn’t that a good thing? You mean the dialogue is too smart? That’s a criticism? But, anyway, how did I come to do it–I didn’t really look it as a teen drama. Now, when [creator] Kevin Williamson left the show [between seasons 2 and 3] and it became more and more of that and the parents were increasingly de-emphasized, that led to my leaving. At the end of the four seasons and the kids were going to be going to college, I saw the handwriting on the wall. We would be standing in the background with Lily and waving at Parents Day and I really had no interest in doing that. So when they wanted to renegotiate our contact, I set my price really high. Then they started production on the fifth season and two weeks into production, the WB shut them down because they had no story and that’s when Paul Stupin came to me in L.A. and said if we gave you the money you were asking, would you come back and kill the character? I kind of budged my heart for a minute but I have to tell you, it was a great decision. It was the perfect time to leave Dawson’s Creek. I did indeed get two beautiful episodes that made me feel like the previous four years had been about something. You know what I mean?
TDW: Yes. Those episodes [5.03, Capeside Revisited & 5.04, The Long Goodbye] are just incredibly moving. For a show that was, at times, a lot about sadness, those really stand out as sadder moments and turning points for Dawson, his mom, for the way that it affected his relationship with Joey. We got that in that episode after Mitch’s death. We see how his death has affected everyone as there’s those flashbacks or re-imaginings of Mitch with each of the characters.
Shipp: And imagine for me–what a sendoff?! And what a tribute to Mitch. I mean, I really got to tie up each relationship. I got a retrospective of what Mitch had been and, as you say, what he had meant to everyone and went out on a real high note. It worked out really well for me.
TDW: The other scene [in episode 2.05, Full Moon Rising] that stands out in my mind–and I was talking about it to someone just a few weeks ago; they were watching the series for the first time–was the scene where you’re in the kitchen with Dawson and he’s kind of confronting Mitch about having an open marriage and Mitch kind of breaks down and says, you know, “I was never taught what to do if my wife had an affair.” And the way that you just delivered that line was just heartbreaking.
Shipp: Honey, thank you so much. I loved that. Kevin Williamson wrote that episode. I didn’t even have to act it, you know what I mean? Just the idea of this man and those words. You can barely even say them. I think I even heard you choke up trying to say them.
TDW: Yeah, it’s true.
Shipp: “My dad taught me how to do this, he taught me had to do that but he never taught me what to do if my wife cheated on me. I never knew to ask.” I mean, I can barely say those lines now. So beautifully written and so incredibly vulnerable, particularly for a male character on television. I love that scene. I love that episode.
TDW: Did you keep up with the show or its storylines after you left?
Shipp: Not at all. I never saw it after I left. And it’s not that I sat down and made a conscious decision and it’s not that I had a resentment about the way things went down, because it was totally a collaboration. They needed something from me and I wanted something from them and we both got it. But, having said that, when you’re such an integral part of a family–and that’s what you become and it’s also an impact of being in Wilmington because we only really had each other. So on the weekends, you’ll be going out on boats and going out to Masonboro Island, we’d throw the football around, ride around on wave runners. We did everything together so it was very much a family and to know that your family was going on without you, it was too sad for me. I really had to make a clean break. It’s interesting. They had asked me to come back recently. AFI–was it in AFI?
TDW: The Paley Center. They had the panel.
Shipp: They asked me to come and be a part of it but I couldn’t do it. I think James did it and Meredith [Monroe, Andie].
TDW: Yep. It was James, Meredith, Kevin, Paul Stupin and Busy Philipps [Audrey].
Shipp: They had actually asked me to do it and I wish I could’ve. That would’ve made me feel like a part–it would’ve completed something for me to be able to do it. But I’ve been up in San Jose. I’ve been very busy and I just got back from doing an independent film in Ohio that I’m very excited about and had another, a comedy with Jodie Sweetin, play to really good notices at two film festivals, one in Wilmington. And another film I had premiered in New Orleans at the New Orleans Film Festival in the last several months so, you know, I’ve been busy. But one thing James had said–they said something about the death of his father and he said “I was really sad because I wouldn’t get to see John anymore” and that’s the way it was. I was literally killed off. When you leave a show, you leave a show. And it was accentuated by the fact that we were sequestered in Wilmington. So, no, I never saw an episode after I left.
TDW: Well, I can tell you that, in the series finale, Gale [Mary-Margaret Humes] actually remarried.
Shipp: Yeah, I knew that because I keep in touch with Mary-Margaret. But do you know that I just found out–and I mean a couple of months ago–that Jen died, right?
Shipp: I just found that out, like two months ago.
TDW: If you have the time, I really recommend picking up the complete series and watching the last two seasons. The emotion that we talked about earlier was there for Jen’s and maybe that goes back to the fact that Kevin Williamson returned for the series finale after he had been gone for so long. You really had his voice, his emotion and his rawness that he would put into things.
Shipp: I’ll tell you, those are good words to describe it. It seemed to me that–this goes back to the pilot presentation when I first watched it–this had a sound and a look and a feel that was unlike anything that was on television. It’s difficult now to imagine as there’s been so many copy-cats and spin-offs and it’s been run into the ground. There was a rawness amidst the sophistication. There was a bumpiness, a sense of dis-ease about the emotional lives. And also I always felt that Kevin really was Dawson, I think. I haven’t had this discussion with him. I could be wrong. But I thought we were seeing all of this life on the creek through the eyes of Dawson, which were Kevin Williamson’s eyes. I felt for James after Kevin left because I really felt that Kevin is the only one that really gets Dawson and I’m sure that was difficult for James after Kevin left. It was much easier to write for Pacey, much easier to write for Joey. To a lesser degree I think it was easier to write for Jen. I don’t really think they quite knew–they experimented with different things. But it was easier to write for Pacey and Joey. But the more awkward unique perspective of a Dawson was Kevin’s voice. I mean, my god, Greg Berlanti is a wonderful writer and oh, god, the man–I just blanked on his name–who wrote my last two episodes was just brilliant and some of the best stuff I had. But I do feel the show suffered from Kevin’s awkwardness and the lack of the Kevin’s awkwardness. There was something really awkward in the writing of Dawson that Kevin really got that we missed after he left.
TDW: Going back to you and your storylines, did you think the show gave a realistic portrayal of parent-child and husband-wife relationships?
Shipp: I don’t know about realism. I think realism is overrated. I would say it gave an interesting perspective. One thing I will say is with the explosion of information with the Internet and the sophistication of kids–I mean, my nine-year-old niece and twelve-year-old nephew have their computers in school and their this and their that and they’re so much more aware of the world and what’s going on–that I sort of think that the parents, adults, have a much wider ranger of possibilities. They’re not locked into authoritarian roles in modern society. In other words, in the 40s and 50s you started wearing suits and you got a corporate job and the dad was the head of the house and the mother was the nurturer and the father was the provider and everybody knew what their roles were and everybody got old very soon. I sort of think after the 60s and 70s and all that, and certainly today, there’s a much wider range of possibilities and, in a sense, the kids are growing up faster and the parents aren’t growing up as fast, getting old as fast. So they’re meeting in the middle. Does that make sense? I know what I’m trying to say. It’s that consequently you have a lot of more options. What I enjoyed was when Kevin would turn the–and he did it many times–he would turn the father-son relationship on its head. Another thing we were criticized for. I read things saying what kind of parents were these, what kind of role models, blah, blah, blah. But what I enjoyed was the intentional flip-flopping, the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent. I think that was interesting writing. Is it realistic? I don’t know. Again, I think realism is overrated. If I want realism, I don’t have to ever turn on the TV. I just live my life. But I think it has to be true but it doesn’t have to necessarily be real if there’s a sense of truth in it, and I think there was. I was tickled to death that Dawson goes out on his first date and I’m more comfortable talking about it than he is. I tell him, “Have fun, play safe.” And he’s all “For chrissake, dad!” You know, coming in and finding his parents making love on the coffee table, he’s totally grossed out and disgusted by that but I thought that was great. I loved that. It certainly was more fun for me as an actor than if I had to come in and be “the dad,” you know what I mean? I mean, who was Mitch? What did he do for a living? Who was this goofy, kind of lovable, sensitive, lost character? There was a certain wisdom that he had, simple wisdom. Certainly he wasn’t the stereotypical patriarch of the family and I was glad ‘cause that would’ve been boring as hell.
TDW: Are you recognized for the role at all when you walk down the street?
Shipp: Oh, yeah. Constantly. You know what I’m most amazed about? And my mom has picked up on this, too. The amount of times I get recognized for Guiding Light. I wouldn’t even recognize myself from Guiding Light! But the two things I get recognized the most for are, of course, Dawson’s Creek and The Flash.
TDW: Are you back in touch with any of the Dawson’s Creek cast or crew?
Shipp: Yeah. I never was out of touch with some of the people. Mary-Margaret and I, in fact, our friendship if anything has grown deeper since the show. We’re very close. We’re constantly in touch and she kind of plays the mom role and gets the gang together every now and then. I haven’t talked to Katie in years but she and I have messaged. She sent a message through an agent at the premiere of a movie but she’s got her own thing going on now and that’s consuming her. I’ve actually seen Meredith several times and her husband. Michelle, of course, has been in New York. The person I’ve most consistently been with–and I keep up with everybody through her–is Mary-Margaret.
TDW: One of the films–I think you already mentioned it–that you’ve been working on is Port City.
Shipp: Yeah, that was the comedy with Jodie Sweetin at the festival in Wilmington.
TDW: Well, coincidentally, that also stars Matthew Laurance and Barabra Alyn Woods, who also played parents on teen dramas.
Shipp: Oh, yeah.
TDW: Matthew was on 90210 [as Mel] and Barbara was on One Tree Hill [as Deb].
Shipp: It’s like, where do teen drama parents go to die? Port City. (laughs) And then this last film that I did–I just got back a couple of weeks ago from Ohio where we filmed it–was a company out of Chicago called Glass City Films. It’s a wonderful script called Separation Anxiety, in which a young man either falls to his death accidentally from an icy dam or commits suicide and we don’t know which. His two best friends, one female and one male–there’s also some sexual tension there that we find out about–and his father, who is me, spend the movie trying to make sense out of his death based on what we need to believe. Interestingly enough, the father needed to believe it was suicide, which I immediately found interesting. He saw his son as kind of a drifter, where his life was just sort of a series of accidents. It was intolerable for him to think that at the end of his life, it was just one more accident. He needed to believe that it was an intentional act that he set out to accomplish and accomplished. Now isn’t that an interesting perspective? That’s not something I’ve ever seen, where his father needs to believe his son committed suicide. We fight it out, the three of us–me and the two best friends. Most of my scenes are with the girl who–that’s a complicated relationship so I won’t go into it but it’s more than just best buddies with her and my son. We spend a lot of time hashing and thrashing that out and what we need to believe and finally come to an accommodation where I’m able to go bury my son. It was a good group of people, a talented crew and cast. I can’t wait to see it put together.
TDW: Where we can we actually see you next? Is Port City going to get a wide release or is it just doing festivals?
Shipp: I don’t know. Karma Police, which debuted at the Dallas Film Festival the year before last, is out on DVD and on I think–I can’t keep up with these sites–Blockbuster Online or Netflix, so I know it’s out there. Grotesque, my little short film that I’m so proud of, we banged out in New Orleans last year in about a week. I play a priest with a dubious past. That’s online and the trailer for that is in my Facebook videos and there’s a link to the actual 29-minute version. And then Separation Anxiety will also do the festival market.
TDW: Do you like the festivals better than a major motion picture that’s in theaters everywhere?
Shipp: No. I would rather it be straight to theaters. Again, it’s a matter of what’s offered. I will say one thing–and it’s not just my particular insight–but there’s a lot more creative freedom the less money there is riding on a project, you know what I mean? The more money, the more hands in the pie. The more sets of suits that have their handprints on the script and the edit and the this and the that, the more of a business it is. I understand that. It’s wonderful and spontaneous and creative working in an independent film atmosphere but make no mistake: I would not turn down an A film that would be set for a major release.
TDW: I hope to see you in one soon! And I’d really like to see Port City.
Shipp: You know, it’s funny. I was kind of worried about it because it’s sort of a screwball comedy and my character’s really a jerk, a goofy filthy jerk and that’s not necessarily been my trademark but all the feedback I’ve gotten is “Wow! What a great departure! You should do more comedy!,” which my brother has been telling me for years because he knows how innately ridiculous I am. But I’ve managed to shield the rest of the world from that.
TDW: Hopefully not for long!
Shipp: I’ve actually taken off the last year, for all intents and purposes. Those projects that I mentioned came to me of their own volition. I’ve not been interviewing. I’ve not been auditioning. My dad came up to San Jose to pastor a new liberal church out here that’s been facing some difficulty and then he had heart surgery. Well, I came up to San Jose and they ended up losing their music director and my background is music. I was an opera major at Indiana University in Bloomington before switching my major to theater and I’ve studied keyboards since the age of 5 so I grew up with music of the church and for the last year, that’s been my primary occupation–rediscovering my love of music and my spirituality in a very inclusive and liberal atmosphere. It’s been great for me being of service to my parents, who are now back in Atlanta. My dad’s doing fine. And I agreed to stay on at the church through Christmas, the Christmas Eve service. So I have two more Sundays to plan musically and then I’ll be flying to Atlanta to be with my family and probably re-engage my career full-time beginning in February.
TDW: Mary-Beth Peil was an opera major as well.
Shipp: Yep. She has a glorious voice. A wonderful woman. People who only knew who her from Dawson’s Creek have no idea who that woman is.
TDW: I interviewed her, via e-mail actually, last month and I would’ve loved to hear her real voice because I know her Grams voice isn’t actually hers.
Shipp: No, she’s young and sexy and funny. You just wouldn’t know her with her hair down and all that. And she tends to be play those severe, more matronly parts because she’s good at it. She’s on a series now, isn’t she?
TDW: Yes, The Good Wife with Julianna Margulies.
TDW: Alright, well, I’m glad we were finally able to connect.
Shipp: My pleasure, Shari. It’s been great talking to you.
Come back next week for another exclusive interview!