Character Driven
“Life Unexpected” star and Exton native Kerr Smith shines in complex roles
by Stephanie Twining

When Kerr Smith first left his home in Exton for New York City, he gave himself five years to make it in show business. He couldn’t believe his luck when, only a few short years later, he scored a role on one of the most popular shows on television, “Dawson’s Creek.” His character on that show made headlines in 2000, when he was the first man to have an on-screen gay kiss on U.S. television.


On his current show, “Life Unexpected,” which recently finished up its second season on The CW this month, he plays a radio DJ whose fiancée reconnects with the daughter she gave up for adoption 16 years ago.


Smith took some time away from shooting the show in Vancouver to talk to Suburban Life about learning the ropes from “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, what it’s like playing a father figure, and how his years at West Chester’s Henderson High School put him on a path to greater things.


Q: How is the second season of “Life Unexpected” going?


The second season is always the most difficult season in a series’ life because that’s the big year where the network says, “Is this going to go the way that we want it?” But I’m here and the network’s really happy. We’ve broadened the show out and there are more characters involved. The first season was really about putting that family together. And the second season is more about exploring what that family is.


How does it feel to be back in the fold of The CW (formerly The WB)?


I’ve been on this network for a long time off and on. You get to know a lot of the people you work with, and they do tend to recycle a lot of their actors from show to show over the years. It’s definitely a family, and they’ve been great to me.


When we first started doing the press for “Life Unexpected,” I kept saying it would be successful because it reminds of old-school WB. It does remind of “Felicity” or “Dawson’s Creek”—those shows that put the network on the map. It works because it’s about the characters, and you really get invested in who these people are. It works because the writing is superb. And it works because it’s a family-oriented show—it’s got heart. I think that’s important.


Your character on the show is a radio DJ, and you learned some tricks of the trade from Ryan Seacrest. What was that like?


Before we started, I wanted to do some research on what a DJ did. I’ve done a lot of radio interviews over the years, but the only DJ I really knew was Seacrest, ironically enough; we did the Leeza Gibbons show together a long time ago. So I called him up, and he was kind enough to let me come in and observe him for a while. And I learned a lot. He put me on the air for a little bit and we did some banter. It was interesting to see. He’s a master at his craft—you wouldn’t believe what he does while there’s a song playing or even when he’s talking on the radio. His hands are doing all sorts of things, editing.


Did you ever consider working in radio?


No, not really. If you want the good jobs in radio, it’s just too early in the morning for me. I’m non-operational until around 9 or 10, so I don’t know how good of a DJ I would actually be [laughs]—unless I had the afternoon drive show.


You’re usually cast in much younger roles than your actual age. How is it different playing a parent?


It’s not my first dad role, but I have to admit it’s still a little strange for me. I am 38, but people don’t see me as 38; they see me as 28. It’s a bit of a weird transition for an actor to go from playing those younger rolls into the parenting rolls. But you get used to it like anything else, and it’s all fun. I love doing all of it.


How did you get into acting?


One of the first things I did was in 10th grade at Henderson. One of the teachers there had a writing class and an acting class. The writing class wrote these children’s plays, and she took the best of those and handed them to the acting class. We then went around to the local elementary schools in Chester County and performed for the kids. It was a really good time, and that kind of gave me the bug.


Then it wasn’t until after college [at the University of Vermont] that I said, “You know what? I want to give this a shot.” So I sold my dad’s truck, and I moved to New York City with one of my best friends. I gave myself five years to see if I could make something happen. I worked my [tail] off up there in New York and things started to happen.


Within the first year, I got a job on “As the World Turns,” and I did that for about a year and a half. It was quite an experience.


How did you end up on “Dawson’s Creek”?


When I moved out to L.A., I had what’s called a general meeting with Kathleen Letterie, who was the casting director for Warner Brothers at the time. Half an hour later, I’m walking out of the meeting and she says, “Kerr, I’m going to find a show for you.” I thought that was a dream come true.


If you had asked me at the time what TV show would you like to be on, I would have said “Dawson’s Creek” or “Party of Five.” And the week before that I had a “Party of Five” audition, and I really screwed that one up, so I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So I’m glad this one did.


Almost everyone from that cast has gone on to have high-profile careers. Do you keep up with any of them?


Over the years I’ve seen James [Van Der Beek] quite a bit. And Josh [Jackson] and I talk online every now and then. He’s up here, too, shooting “Fringe.” The last time I saw Katie [Holmes] was at her wedding reception [to Tom Cruise], and Michelle [Williams] I haven’t seen at all. We’ve all kind of gone our own ways, but once in a while we talk.


Your character on “Dawson’s Creek,” Jack, was gay, which was very uncommon in television at the time. How did you feel when you found out about that plot?


When they hired me, Jack was not gay, and I was being hired to create a love triangle between Joey, Jack and Dawson. But three or four months into the job, I remember [series creator] Kevin Williamson coming down to Wilmington, where we shot the show, and he pulled me aside to go get a cup of coffee. I thought I was either getting fired or I was doing something wrong. But I kind of had a feeling he was going where he did, because each one of the characters on that show is a part of Kevin’s personality—even the girls. So I knew he wanted to have one of the characters represent his sexuality, since at the time he was thinking about coming out publically.


So I had just gotten on this huge hit, this career-making show, and now I had to take this huge risk. It could backfire in my face. I decided to do it—under one circumstance: that we’re not going to change who Jack is, we’re not going to play into any stereotypes, we’re not going to be dressing him differently. So [Williamson] agreed to that, and that’s what we did—and it worked.

It was quite an experience, and I’m very proud of the work we did down there. I think we helped a lot of people that were going through similar situations. It wasn’t always an easy character to play, but I learned a lot on “Dawson’s Creek.”


Do you get back to West Chester to visit very much?


I’ve been back maybe once in the last six or seven years. My mom and dad are still living there, but my sister’s home in Maryland has really become the hub for the family. I also have a place in Park City, Utah, so we tend to congregate there. I do have some good friends from high school still there. This year was my 20th high-school reunion. Shout out to Henderson High School, class of 1990!


Any fond memories of growing up in the area?


We spent a lot of time at Exton [Square] Mall. It was mostly farmland when I was a kid, and it quickly developed into like a Frazer or a Bryn Mawr. I played lacrosse in high school, and soccer and baseball. I was president of my class the first two years, and then my senior year I was representative to the school board.


In those days, it was more difficult for me to get up in front of large groups of people and speak. But my dad pushed me to do that, and I’m glad he did because it really helped me to be comfortable with it later in life. It’s pretty much what I do these days.  


Stephanie Twining is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.