Ian Somerhalder is no stranger to television. Some of us remember his early performance as Hamilton on The WB’s “Dawson’s Creek” spin-off “Young Americans” in 2000. More remember his arcs on “Smallville” and the racy “Tell Me You Love Me.” With a decade of TV work under his belt, Somerhalder truly hit his stride during the 2009-2010 season. Not only was he asked to reprise his role as Boone on “Lost,” but he managed to do it while still appearing in every single episode of “The Vampire Diaries.”
When “Diaries” wrapped on Season 1 in Atlanta, Somerhalder, a native of Covington, La., planned to relax. “I was honestly going home to Louisiana to hang out with my family, eat some of mom’s cooking, and fish,” he says. “Other than publicity work, that was my entire schedule for the break.”
That all changed on April 20 when tragedy struck the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig positioned on the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. An explosion destroyed the ship, which sank, triggering an oil spill from a deep-water oil well operated by BP. Weeks later, thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush into the water Somerhalder grew up playing in.
“I never wanted to be one of those actors with a political agenda,” Somerhalder says. He’s only been in Los Angeles for two hours since returning from Louisiana, where he’s been doggedly working to help the cause. “But this has become Obama’s Katrina in the way he’s dealt with it. It’s a massive disaster, on a scale we haven’t even begun to fathom, and it could have been stopped by a valve that cost half a million dollars.”
He struggles to contain his emotion as he speaks, apologizing several times between expressing his frustration. “I’m not a negative person,” he says. “I’m just scared right now. No one really knows what’s happening. From what we see on the surface, NOAA and the oceanographers can estimate what’s coming out of the rig. But BP has denied scientists access to the footage of the gushing leak below the surface, so there’s no way for us to know the actual realistic scale of the damage that’s still happening. NOAA is a government administration! Why isn’t Obama stepping in and demanding that footage, demanding a live view of what’s going on?”
He curses, and then apologizes again. “I never talk about politics, but right now is a time to be angry and sad. There are countless people, children and families, who depend on that Gulf. It’s their livelihood. I’m afraid for them.”
Last week, Somerhalder shot several PSAs to promote awareness. “There are a lot of people who can’t physically get to Louisiana to help,” he says. “What’s going to happen is, there’s going to be a massive wildlife cleanup recovery effort, and that’s where most of the help and donations will be needed.” He suggests that we visit the Audubon Institute’s website to learn more about the cause that’s so close to his heart.
“I feel like I could cry right now,” he admits sadly. “It’s not just because it’s my home. Just watching all these very proud, hardworking fishermen, who have never asked for anything in their lives, who support themselves and their families for generations with this one industry. Now it’s likely to disappear. If it’ll ever recover, we’re talking decades and decades. It’s beyond tragic.”
It’s nearly impossible to reconcile him with his callous and calculating “Vampire Diaries” character, Damon Salvatore. “I never saw it coming that by the end of the season, Damon would even give a **** about anything,” Somerhalder laughs. “Damon is a character who, from conception, has never had anything to lose. But right now, suddenly, he cares about people. He cares about places. When you care, you stand to lose.”
When the series returns for Season 2 in the fall, Somerhalder hopes Damon returns to some of his old ways. “I hope he gets back to biting people and having fun and getting high on blood all the time. He’s been so serious lately, forging these relationships, and I think it makes him wildly uncomfortable.”
It’s no secret that Damon’s damage is the result of the beautiful Katherine. “She wrecked him, man,” Somerhalder sighs. He considers the inevitable confrontation between Katherine and Damon. “I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I’m curious. Damon is used to being the strongest guy around. He has no fear. Katherine is stronger than him, she’s smarter. She out-foxed him.”
“Damon knows he got played. There was this naivete that he had as a 23-year-old boy in 1864, and somehow, he allowed that naivete to stow away with him through 150 years of living and traveling and understanding the world. Now, finally, he’s smart enough to understand the irony of that.”
Though “The Vampire Diaries” is only on its first season, Somerhalder is already nostalgic for the good old days. His favorite episode to shoot, he says, was “The Lost Girls,” their fifth episode and, interestingly, his castmate Nina Dobrev’s favorite as well.
“It’s the one where Damon turns Vicki,” Somerhalder says. “It’s still my favorite. I read it, and I called Kevin [Williamson] and Julie [Plec, co-creators] to thank them. Me and Kayla Ewell had so much fun shooting that episode. It was before Kayla was gone. Her leaving really put a damper on the show for me, but when we shot that episode, it was innocent and it was happy. We didn’t know anyone was dying. We all thought we were safe. We were just having a blast with the beautiful, tight script.”
Along with the fans, Somerhalder has delighted in every new plot twist. “The fact that Damon actually killed Elena’s mom and had an affair with her, and now he has the hots for Elena? It’s all so twisted and sick and I love it!” he laughs, some of his earlier melancholy shaking off.
“Oh, and when you hear the story about how everything went down between Stefan and Damon? What happened was that Stefan wanted Damon to turn so that he wouldn’t lose his brother. He wanted to spend an eternity with his brother.”
Always up for a challenge, Somerhalder is looking forward to more flashbacks into Damon’s past. “There are always decades that interest people,” he says. “For me, that’s the Roaring Twenties. I’d love to see Damon in the ’20s. The ’30s, the ’40s… oh, God. The ’70s! Could you imagine Damon wearing a polyester shirt? Just this huge lapel and really fluffy, long hair? Oh man.”
When asked what he thinks Damon was really like back then, Somerhalder pauses for a drawn-out moment, almost as if he’s deferring to Damon for an answer. “Of course he had to get a little fun in,” he says. “A little action. But she was always there, Katherine was always there. He’s fiercely committed to her. What’s that Beatles song?” He hums to himself. “‘You ought to know that I’ve been good, as good as I can be.’ It’s like that.”
He’s referring to the song “Wait,” which is, of course, what Damon has done for the last 150 years. It’s also what fans will be doing all summer long after “Founder’s Day,” tonight’s season finale.
“The Vampire Diaries” cast is notoriously hard to break when it comes to spoilers, but one thing he will tell us about the season ender is that it marks a turning point for Damon and Elena. “You see an interesting kind of change happen in the relationship between them,” he says. “It was refreshing; something really new. Something different for Nina and I to play with.”
When describing his co-stars, Ian jokes, “Well, we’d better love each other, because we’re stuck with each other for 185 days a year!”
“I remember right when we finished shooting those beautiful billboard ads that were everywhere last fall, Paul [Wesley] and I went to a restaurant that’s a mutual favorite of ours and we got a bottle of wine and we toasted. I said, ‘Man, we could have been doing this with anybody else in the world. That would’ve sucked. But instead, it’s us.’ We’ve got such a great understanding of each other. Sometimes you come into people’s lives for a reason. There’s an attraction there, between the energies. We’re lucky. I tell these guys just to remember, we are the luckiest kids in Hollywood.”
Somerhalder’s own good fortune makes him all the more concerned for those struck by tragedy. “The thing is,” he says, “I know I’m not being all bubbly and positive right now. I want everyone to know that I’m excited and ecstatic about the show. I love it. I’m so glad it’s doing well. But my heart is back in Louisiana, you know? Honestly, my heart is crushed.”
Please visit AudubonInstitute.org to learn more about what you can do to contribute to the Gulf of Mexico wildlife recovery effort.
— Carina MacKenzie (follow me on Twitter @cadlymack)