Prestige Hong Kong, April 2013
A Study in Scarlet
The bloodsucker he plays in The Vampire Diaries kills by instinct, but IAN SOMERHALDER himself takes a more considered approach to life. CHRISTINA KO talks to him about going green, playing Grey, feeling blue and staying true through the ups and downs of a life in television.
It's 8:29 on a Thursday morning. I’m sitting at home in my robe and watching my phone, waiting for a call from Ian Somerhalder, star of The Vampire Diaries, contender for the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey, celebrity spokesperson for all things environmental. Just a regular Thursday morning.
At 8.30 to the minute, the phone rings. Ian Somerhalder speaks with the confidence of someone who’s lived his life in front of a camera. For the last few months, he’s been on set in Atlanta filming the fourth season of his hit show, but at this very moment, he’s en route to the airport, heading down to LA “to try and go get a movie.”
Television thus conquered, he has sights set on furthering his film career, a career that could see a serious upsurge if you put any stock in the rumours that he’s a frontrunner to play Christian Grey in the BDSM-happy runaway hit book trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey.
That’s information to which Somerhalder himself isn’t privy, though he’s no stranger to playing the damaged bad boy. As the vampire Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, he’s had plenty of opportunity to maim and destroy in the name of love and hunger and other such sentiments. Right now, Damon is one half of popular culture’s hottest vampirebrother double act. Throw in a love triangle with a newly turned vamp girlfriend (played by Somerhalder’s real-life love Nina Dobrev), as well as some witches and werewolves, and you have an unbelievably addictive alternative universe whose fans grow only more rabid by the episode.
For the uninitiated, it’s easy to assume that it’s the piercing baby-blues and the patented wry smirk that are the actor’s primary draw, and though it’s true – he is devastatingly good looking – if that’s all he was, he would’ve stuck to being a model. Though he flirted with acting as a child in Covington, Louisiana, Somerhalder ended up a teen model, roaming the world’s fashion capitals and being photographed. Eventually, he settled down in New York City, where he showed his commitment to his former craft by enrolling in an acting studio.
He appeared in teen fodder such as the Dawson’s Creek spin-off Young Americans and the college-disillusionment epic The Rules of Attraction before being the first actor cast in Lost. It was a dream job, but one that came to an end quickly, when his character, Boone, was killed in the first season. The title role in the 2007 television adaptation Marco Polo followed, as well a role in the controversial, skin-baring relationships HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me.
Behind this multitude of parts lies a man both serious and tongue-in-cheek, selfless yet self-aware. The amount of work he puts into being an actor is evident through his constant study, though he’ll insist the credit goes elsewhere – coaches, crew, directors. In fact, the only thing he’s truly willing to take credit for personally is the work he does on behalf of the environment, championed through the Ian Somerhalder Foundation he established in 2010 to help animal and energyrelated issues. And while the sense with many celebrities is that the social-responsibility angle is just that – an angle – Somerhalder’s passion is ardent even over a long-distance phone line.
Do they grow ’em all this good down in Louisiana?
You’re in your fourth year playing the vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries. Have you become attached to the character?
You don’t really have a choice. We’re on episode, I think, 85, which is crazy. And it’s pretty wild when you piece together that you spend about 240 days a year filming like that.
And right now it’s movie season, which means me and the other actors are busy flying between here and Los Angeles trying to get movies, meetings with producers, things like that.
How much do you see of yourself in the character that you play?
He used to be a truly maniacal killer, which I am, so I kind of miss the fact that he no longer is. It’s the way that I work with this woman, Ivana Chubbuck – she’s my coach – that in order for me to be connected to the material, I have to marry it to something that’s truly happening in my life. It’s the only way I can find true connectivity to what’s happening with the character.
Vampirism has become something of a trend in the last few years. What is it about vampires and the mythology that surrounds them that’s so appealing?
We love things that are dangerous; that’s sexy. We love things that are powerful and wise, and that allure of mixing something that’s wildly dangerous, yet wise. To be honest with you, I don’t remember exactly when the switch happened where vampires went from being grotesque anomalies, these kind of ostracised abominations, to these more aesthetically appealing forms. My favourite vampire movie is – well, I loved Interview with the Vampire, but my favourite is Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe. It’s hard to describe what the feeling of death really is, but at the end of the day, these guys are dead.
We used to use a lot of the mythology at the beginning of the show to identify these aspects of vampires. We’re always cold, so can we drink coffee? Caffeine actually brings your body temperature up, so you have this caffeine-drinking lush of a vampire, and that’s totally Damon. Little things like that.
I remember watching that movie, Shadow of the Vampire, watching how committed Willem Dafoe was. And I think that Damon, when you first meet him, has very, very ill intentions. But they were for righteous reasons. He truly believed in what he was doing. Whether he was ripping someone’s head off or saving a kitten out of a tree, this man had the exact same smile on his face. And he was maniacal in that aspect. I think that’s just why people are drawn to this stuff, and this is why I’m drawn to it.
Being on the show has made you something of a teen heartthrob or sex symbol. What’s that like?
I don’t know about sex symbol, but I know that a lot of our audience is skewed towards a younger demographic – look, here’s the great thing about teen enthusiasm about anything, whether it’s a sports figure or an actor or musician. They have this ability to explain to you their commitment or appreciation for a character in a specific decibel level. It’s loud. It’s awesome. You definitely know. It’s a great vote of confidence.
You started your career modelling, I believe. How did you make the transition into acting?
I started acting really when I was about seven, I think, doing a little theatre. My mom brought me into acting classes when I was about 10. I took a break when I was young and then when I was 16 I ended up back in it and did that for a while, and really knew openly that what I wanted to do was acting, and studied a lot. I was enrolled at William Esper, a very well-known acting studio in New York. It was giving up on that world of fashion and moving around the globe a lot and hunkering down in New York City and making sure I was focusing on the work. I was lucky to work with some really phenomenal acting coaches.
There’s a man named Anthony Abeson who when I was 17 taught me so much. Then Will Esper – learned so much. And I ended up now with this woman in my life, Ivana Chubbuck; she’s my entire career. These people change the film business; actors don’t just show up to work, they work on the material with these people that you never even hear of, who really come up with the cohesive, connective tissue to create the words that the characters say and the dialogue and how that fits into your life to bring it alive on screen. I don’t know why people never thank them more.
When did it hit you that acting was the thing you wanted to do with your life?
Here’s the thing. I’ve known I wanted to do this since I was seven years old. So there was never a question of “if” – it was “when”. You know, if I didn’t know I wanted to do this I would’ve been a marine biologist.
Lost was the show that really ended up putting you on the map. But I read that you weren’t even interested in the role. Why was that?
Really, what it was, was that I had come from that New York acting studio world and I’d just finished a television show where actors would show up not excited to be at work, really not giving the material what it deserved. I’m not speaking from a hierarchy standpoint, I’m saying I was really excited to be working, but to be with people who were not as excited, that really blew my mind.
There was a television show I did a long time ago, Young Americans. It was short-lived, and it was disappointing to not get picked back up, but I just wanted to do movies, and I remember having a conversation with my manager during pilot season. She called me and said, “Look, I have this pilot.” It’s not even a pilot, just a set of pages from a pilot called Lost. And I said, “I thought we had a conversation about this. No television shows.” And she said, “Look at it, and look at the director, and look at the location.” So I remember I was driving home, and then I looked in my fax machine, and I looked at the project, this thing called Lost, and I looked at the director, and it said JJ Abrams. The location was Hawaii. I called immediately and said, “Screw that movie thing I was talking about.”
But then your character was killed in the first season. How disappointing was that for you?
Of course it was disappointing to leave such an incredible show. When you work on a show like that your cast and your crew basically become your family. So you don’t want to leave them, and you don’t want to leave such an amazing show. It’s heartbreaking, it’s like going through a divorce.
Given you were averse to television, what attracted you to doing The Vampire Diaries?
Because it had a lot of leg. When you first read the pilot you think, oh, this is Twilight, but on television. But after talking to Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson about the heart of the show and where it was going, it was very clear that the show was going to separate itself very quickly from that, and it wasn’t going to be in that realm of a teen vampire show; it actually had a lot of heart and a lot of soul.
What are some things about the show that we don’t know?
Paul Wesley is one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. We have the best craft service in the business. We have the most incredible crew on the planet and I show up to work and bite hot chicks every day. It could be worse.
Moving onto film, you’ve just done a series of shorts called Time Framed.
Time Framed is a lot of fun. One of my dearest, deepest, oldest friends, Sinisha Nicevic, called me about creating this very cool character. Basically, the theory is that there’s so much energy in the atmosphere that if you were able to harness that, you would basically be able to create a free energy grid. Now what does that mean? Energy is the one thing that’s really destroying us from the ground up. Our desire and need for energy is literally what’s changed the face of the planet. It’s had the greatest impact out of anything in the history of the world. So this machine is built, and somebody steals it, and this guy, this sort of CIA operative, goes after the [thief]. We’ll find out why later, but it’s just a very cool way to get a lot of interesting facts about the environment and the world around us, where we’re going and how it’s happening. I drive the coolest electric car in the world, the Tesla. And wear a really badass suit.
Your name is also on the tip of everyone’s tongue as a contender for the role of Christian Grey in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. What can you reveal right now?
There are so many guys up for this role. I’m having a meeting with the producer of that movie, like many, many, many other actors are. It would be a very cool experience for whoever gets that role, but until there’s more information that’s really all I have.
Both The Vampire Diaries and Fifty Shades have been adapted from books. What’s different about working with source material that’s already popular with the public?
What’s really incredible about that whole thing is that you have a built-in audience. But when people are already excited about a project and already so invested in these characters, they know so much about it, so a lot of times they could be very disappointed, because you’ll never quite get it exactly the way everyone wants it. People always say, “Oh, the book was so much better.” A book you have for days; it might take you three months to read a book. And a film is a 120 minutes. So I always laugh at people when they say that, because they’re not taking that into consideration. But this is going to be a huge franchise, and it’s going to be a huge opportunity to tell a really awesome story.
As you expand your career in film, who are some of the people you’d like to work with?
When I was growing up watching movies, the ones I watched daily, almost, were the old Pacino movies, the Godfathers. If Cary Grant were still alive, I would love to do a movie with him. You have phenomenal directors like Clint Eastwood, actors like Sean Penn, Ed Harris. Look at what Ben Affleck did with Argo. There’s so many incredible filmmakers out there, and so many incredible actors. I would love to do a scene with a guy like Robert Duvall, Daniel Day-Lewis. I met him at this Oscar party, and it was so cool, that guy is my hero, he completely embodies the work that I would love to do.
What did you guys talk about?
Funny enough, just how much of a huge hero he is to me and what a cool experience he must be having. He was looking for his kids – he said, “Where are those little buggers?” And I pointed in the direction. It was just a human conversation, I wasn’t geeking out like a fangirl, even though secretly, inside, I was freaking out, because he really is just so amazing.
What do you get up to in your down time?
I don’t have any. I started an energy company called Go Green Mobile Power, and we have the most powerful LED light system in the world, and we’ve developed these really phenomenal applications for it. It’s very difficult launching a big company like this, and I’m also building the largest tree-free paper company in the world simultaneously, so that is my free time, on top of trying to find a movie that I’d love to do, and hanging out with my animals. My foundation and I are actually building a farm, a huge animal sanctuary out in Louisiana that’s also a youth-education camp and a sustainable agriculture farm.
That’s through the Ian Somerhalder Foundation. What else can you tell us about that?
It’s just been this really incredible experience of uniting people and projects to positively impact the environment, empowering our youth, and bringing together for-profits, other non-profits, government bodies, to really make substantial generational change in the world.