It’s a hard decision that many student-athletes in high school are forced to make: choosing between the sport they love, which can lead to a ticket to college, or other interests that may provide stability and long-term satisfaction.
For Drew Van Acker, a former star on both the soccer and lacrosse teams at Shawnee High School, his backburner passion was acting. It had been since he was little, when the spark was lit by watching the Star Wars trilogy along with pretty much any film that featured Robert De Niro in a starring role.
“But I couldn’t do any of that because of sports,” Van Acker admits, though not with an ounce of regret in his voice. “Sports was my way to college. That’s what I grew up doing, whether I liked it or not.”
And he has no reason for regret. He dabbled in nearly every sport when he was young, from wrestling to basketball to lacrosse, but it was soccer that ended up taking him from Medford—where his family settled after moving around until he was 10—and landing him a scholarship and hard-earned spot as a forward on the Towson University team in Maryland.
But true passion has its way of sneaking back into your life; and if it’s going to happen, it might just be in college, where a world of courses and experiences in an almost countless list of disciplines are at your fingertips. By his sophomore year in 2005—thanks to some theater classes and a chance encounter with a talent scout—he had the courage to uproot his student life and trade it for one in front of photographers in New York City.
It was a risky yet completely family-supported move he can credit toward leading him on the path to his breakout role—one that has quickly garnered a fan following, considerably made up of the young and female variety—as Jason DiLaurentis, a main character on the hit ABC Family mystery teen drama Pretty Little Liars.
That Early Spark
“Growing up, I always had a huge imagination,” Van Acker, 26, recalls. “I was always fascinated by movies, but I never really knew how to get involved or how to get into it.”
His story started to unfold when he took creative drama and theater electives in place of English 4 as an upperclassman at Shawnee. He decided to “dive in and give it a shot,” he says, but as much as he fell in love with it, his strict sports schedule kept him from going much further or even participating in high school performances.
Once at Towson, he was afforded the opportunity to mix a little more into his routine. Still a lowerclassman, he was just beginning to make his mark on the soccer team his freshman year—even scoring the final goal of a shutout against Blackburn Rovers Academy of the English Premier League during a trip abroad. But he also started taking acting classes and soon saw a shift in focus coming.
“Acting was still one of those things that was burning in my mind,” he says, adding taking two theater courses that first year was a no-brainer when it came to picking electives. “It got to the point where I finally had an opportunity.”
Shortly after, he just happened to have an off campus run-in with a talent scout, who urged him to attend a ProScout convention in Philadelphia. He was wary—that is, until he was told it was the way into acting.
ProScout is one of the country’s leading talent agencies, holding interviews around the country for the young and eager looking to break into acting and modeling. For Van Acker, it began with a few years of notable modeling work, the majority as an underwear model, for International Jock, Abercrombie & Fitch, and American Eagle. It was certainly a confidence-builder, he admits, which was a great help down the road.
“I didn’t even know modeling existed for guys,” he says. “I was very naïve. But they said, ‘Trust us. You can do this to make money while supporting your acting career. It’ll help you get your foot in the door.’”
And it did.
But first, he had to make the decision to put his education on hold. He faced some trouble when officials at Towson found out about his modeling work; when an athlete is awarded a scholarship, it is with the agreement they will not accept any endorsements or outside earnings of any kind. “It was one of those things where I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I talked to my parents about it. I said I only played sports to get into college. I’m not tied down here, and right now there is this opportunity for me.”
And with that, he packed up a U-Haul his sophomore year, at age 19, and moved to New York City. Along with modeling, he also served as an extra. You might catch a glimpse of him in the background of 2006’s The Good Shepherd, which starred none other than Robert De Niro. “I got to meet him. That was kind of a trip for me,” Van Acker says. “I was just getting started and didn’t know anything about the business. That’s one of those things I will never forget. Hopefully as my career goes on, I’ll get to meet him again in different circumstances.”
After working with B-1 Models in New York City, he made the move to Los Angeles to pursue the transition to acting. He soon signed with Shepard Smith Management, followed by the WME agency (William Morris/ Endeavor).
His first credited role came as Donny Kendall on ABC’s Castle, a murder victim and son of a once wealthy family gone broke. Donny was a rebellious teen, a theme that would be played out again for Van Acker in future roles. Next came 12 WB.com webisodes of The Lake, directed by former Beverly Hills 90210 star Jason Priestley, followed by an episode of ABC Family’s Greek, all in 2009.
His break came in 2010 as the lead in the live-action Cartoon Network show Tower Prep, when he played Ian Archer, a teen suspended from high school who wakes up in a mysterious prep school, unaware of where he is or how to get out. While filming in Vancouver, he caught the eye of executive producer Glen Morgan (known for his work on TV shows such as X-Files and whose movie credits include Willard and Final Destination).
“I really, really like this kid Drew Van Acker who was on Tower Prep,” Morgan said in a 2011 interview when asked if there were any upcoming actors the public should be watching. “The level that he brought to [the show]. … He was terrific with comedy, he had the tough guy thing; he’s a great-looking guy. I think good things for that kid.”
It turns out, Morgan was a good friend of a producer working on Pretty Little Liars, a show based on a popular series of books that was looking for an actor to replace Parker Bagley, who had been playing the role of Jason DiLaurentis, after its successful first season.
“They set up a meeting and they said they had this role I’d be perfect for,” Van Acker says. “The rest was kinda history.”
Now in the middle of his second season with the show (which wraps up with a summer finale on Aug. 28), Van Acker is becoming a household name among the fanbase of the show, which is centered around a clique of teenage girls that begins to crumble following the mysterious death of the group’s leader, but quickly bands together once they start receiving text messages threatening to unveil the group’s deepest secrets—secrets only their queen bee knew.
When Van Acker debuted as the new Jason, he was quickly adopted by fans, with Sara Shepard, the writer of the original book series, even taking to Twitter to say he was more like the character she had imagined on paper.
“As I sit down and watch this show, I have to admit: It’s one of those shows that gets you hooked,” Van Acker muses, crediting the “phenomenal” writing of the books for the show’s draw and its success. “It leaves you questioning what’s going to happen next. I get all this fan mail from people dying to know what’s going to happen, saying they’ll do anything for a hint.”
The show has been so popular, in fact, that the original book series was extended from eight to 11. “I’ve read the first three,” Van Acker says. “I hear it gets juicy.”
Working on the hectic Warner Bros. set with a cast mainly made up of girls was a little intimidating in the beginning, especially for a newcomer facing multiple story lines that are always twisting and tying into one another, but Van Acker embraced the challenge. “We all get along great,” he says. “I hang out with a bunch of the girls and guys offset. A couple of us have gone and done this really intensive cardio cycling class. We’ll go grab drinks; we’ll go on a hike.”
What Lies Ahead “My goal is to stay busy,” Van Acker says of his future. “And I think I’m doing that.”
His next project is Devious Maids, just picked up by Lifetime at the end of June and set to air in 2013. The show will focus on a group of maids working for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. Van Acker will be among the wealthy hierarchy, playing Remi Delacourt, with Susan Lucci, of All My Children fame, as his mother.
“I have a couple of other things in the works, too,” he says. “I just want to keep working and gain experience. My long-term goal would be making that full transition into movies and being able to choose which projects truly interest me.”
And with the drive and determination he says was learned from his father, his chances are strong. Van Acker moved around a lot as a child, and says people often assume he was a military brat. But it was his father who they followed as he pursued better job opportunities to provide for his family, still residing in Medford. “My dad is definitely my role model; there’s no doubt about it. The work he put into raising this family and supporting this family…,” Van Acker says, trailing off a bit.
“At the time, I was young and didn’t want to move. But then I might not be doing what I’m doing now. … He never once put anything above his family. As you get older, you realize that and you look back and think, ‘Wow, I never really had to worry about anything.’ He just worked so hard. I watched him go from being at the bottom of a company to now being the vice president of a company. He always told me, ‘Do what you want to do. Make yourself happy, but work hard.’”
That advice appears to be paying off.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July, 2012).
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