"It blows my mind to think a decade has passed," says Nina Dobrev
In 2009, before zombies or superheroes were everywhere, the vampire craze was in full swing. Both HBO's gothic romance True Blood and the first Twilight movie debuted in the fall of 2008, sweeping teenage girls (and yeah, a larger than expected group of moms) away in a frenzy that would dominate the pop culture conversation for years to come. One year later, on Sept. 10, 2009, The CW debuted its own take on the trend with The Vampire Diaries, a new show that hoped to follow the same book-to-screen recipe to success that had been proven profitable with True Blood and Twilight.
Much like many of the other popular vampire stories of that era, The Vampire Diaries, based on the L.J. Smith novel series of the same name, told the story of a young girl, Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), who found herself torn between two supernatural loves -- in this case, the vampiric Salvatore brothers: the devilish Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and his younger, more noble brother, Stefan (Paul Wesley). While the combination of this tried-and-true premise and the increased interest in vampires at the time seemed to indicate a bright future for the fledgling series, co-creator Julie Plec said that the sensation surrounding the Twilight saga, in particular, was as much of an obstacle as a blessing in terms of helping The Vampire Diaries get on its feet.
"We had a really big burden putting The Vampire Diaries together because it was very similar to Twilight -- very, very similar -- and none of us are in the business of being rip-off artists," Plec told TV Guide. "We wanted to create something that felt new. We wanted to build a world that was our own, and characters and dynamics that are our own. But when all is said and done, it's a love triangle with a hundred-and-something-year-old vampire and a pretty, pretty teenage girl. So there was a lot for us to overcome early on so that we could make it feel unique."
Ten years later, TV Guide caught up with Plec and the stars of The Vampire Diaries to look back on how they built a show that would not only stand out at the height of the vampire craze, but become one of the defining -- and most epic -- shows of the era.
The first step in making a splash in an already-crowded genre was developing a stable of young, talented actors who would connect with The CW's audience. The series didn't just need three show-stopping leads, it needed a full roster of stars in the making. The first group of fresh-faced actors to book what would turn into career-defining roles were Candice King (Caroline Forbes), Steven R. McQueen (Jeremy Gilbert), Kayla Ewell (Vicki Donovan), Zach Roerig (Matt Donovan), and Michael Trevino (Tyler Lockwood). Kat Graham, who would play witch Bonnie Bennett, was soon to follow, though the actress remembers they were auditioning redheads for the role, likely to match the character in the novels, so her casting was a bit of a divergence from the books. But while the casting process for the show's supporting players was simple and nearly instantaneous, per Plec, the search for the lead actors proved to be a more difficult journey.
Finding the perfect Elena Gilbert was a particularly tall order given how much of the show's narrative and emotional heart would rely solely on the young actress who nabbed the part. Eventually, the casting process led the creative team to then 20-year-old actress Nina Dobrev, who was best known at the time for playing a teen mom onDegrassi: The Next Generation. After a self-proclaimed flameout in her first audition, Dobrev asked to re-tape herself. She eventually won the role, in part, because Plec said she admired that Dobrev had the "moxie" to admit she hadn't done her best and demand a second chance. (That's exactly what Elena Gilbert would do, after all.)
Before Dobrev even knew whether she had landed the part, though, Plec and co-creator Kevin Williamson had her start testing with potential actors for the roles of Stefan and Damon, a process that presented its own share of problems. "We did a whole round [of test reads], but they didn't respond to any of those guys, so we started from scratch and they brought in a new slew of boys for me to read with," Dobrev recalled of the laborious process. "Finally, they found Paul and Ian, and the rest is history."
As it turns out, Dobrev wasn't the only one of the show's three leads to nearly miss out on a role due to a flubbed audition. Although it's hard for viewers to picture anyone but Ian Somerhalder in the role of Damon Salvatore now, the actor -- whom Plec lovingly dubbed a "terrible auditioner" -- nearly lost out on the part during the brutal process. While Somerhalder told TV Guide that he blew the initial audition, with the production studio, Warner Bros., out of the water, he apparently didn't manage to recreate that razzle-dazzle for the network test.
"It was very difficult to get this show. That was the pilot to get that year, and it makes sense why because it became this giant f---ing hit," Somerhalder said of his audition process. "I don't know if I went home [after the studio test] and drank too much coffee, or I think I gave myself a [vitamin] B12 shot. I don't know what the f--- I did, but I went back and my first take at the network test was terrible. I was just sort of jittery, I wasn't in control. Kevin Williamson stopped the audition. He's like, 'We'll be right back,' and he grabbed me, pulled me outside the room, and he goes, 'Well, that sucked.'
Luckily that wasn't the end of the road for Somerhalder, who went into his next audition with a can-do attitude, telling the powers that be, "This is my role. I know I can make this something that is fun and push myself, and this can change my whole world," the actor recalled.
Somerhalder's speech was no doubt integral in securing the role of the charismatic bad boy -- anyone who's watched The Vampire Diaries knows that man can deliver a monologue -- but Plec noted that the eye candy he could bring to the role probably didn't hurt Somerhalder's prospects either. "He probably got cast on those pretty blue eyes," Plec joked.
This is my role. I know I can make this something that is fun and push myself, and this can change my whole world.
Stefan was the last role cast for the series, and Paul Wesley had a difficult time proving he was right for the role of the 171-year-old vampire masquerading as a typical high school student. "I thought he was too old, truth be told," Plec admitted. But once they saw Wesley read with Dobrev for the first time, the decision to cast him was unanimous.
However, when looking back on the audition process, Wesley doesn't recall the numerous test reads he had for the part. Instead, what comes to mind is the very first time he was brought in to audition for Stefan, when he found himself quite starstruck. "I remember Kevin Williamson, he was in the room, and I was like, 'Oh man, that's the guy who wrote Scream,'" Wesley said, recalling his initial nerves. "Now he's a really good friend of mine and we're doing another show, [CBS All Access' Tell Me a Story, together]. It's interesting. It's interesting to see how one audition can lead you to suddenly move to Atlanta for eight years and be on a show that people recognize you from."
Before anyone fully understood that they had just booked the roles that would shape the next decade of their careers, the actors first had to come together to film the pilot, which already had buzz predicting it could be the next big vampire hit. The excitement over The Vampire Diaries' potential success translated into a palpable chemistry on the Vancouver-filmed pilot that clicked into place as quickly on-screen as it did off.
With the entire cast staying together in the same hotel, which also housed the casts from several other shows and productions, Michael Trevino told TV Guide it felt "like some kind of dorm situation."
"It was the funnest experience ever," Trevino, who played werewolf Tyler Lockwood, giddily recalled. "I had filmed a few pilots before then, but this just felt like a party. ... We'd have dinners together and we'd maybe go out late at night and have a good time, but then we'd all work together. We all moved as one unit. We didn't really leave each others' side."
"I remember being freezing," Kat Graham said of the pilot shoots, many of which were filmed outdoors, in the woods of a frigid Vancouver. "[Steven R.] McQueen and I would hang out in a truck in between set-ups so we didn't freeze to death. I also remember paparazzi hanging outside our hotel, which I'd never experienced during a filming of any pilot."
With the exception of Dobrev and Wesley, whose relationship was apparently strained for the first five months of shooting the series before they eventually grew close, the cast quickly became a family while shooting the pilot. Between long days on set, group trips to Whistler, and some very cold, very late nights, the bonds between cast members solidified behind the cameras, something that only added to the magic of the show and gave an already strong pilot a commanding edge in the race for a series order.
It's nice to know we've all shared this experience, and I know not to take it for granted because that doesn't come around very often.
"For me, it's the people. It's the relationships. It's the instant connection we all had," said Kayla Ewell, whose character, Vicki, was attacked by Damon in the pilot and eventually turned into a vampire. "Everyone was young, in their 20s, and really focused and driven and just all in this together. I just remember the excitement level. I think you go through something like that with people and you never forget that experience, and then you just formulate this bond that is unbreakable."
"It's nice to know we've all shared this experience, and I know not to take it for granted because that doesn't come around very often," added Candice King, whose Caroline Forbes grew to become a fan favorite and eventually took over as the series' female lead once Dobrev left following Season 6. "But it was just so special. We had so much fun filming the pilot."
While it's heartwarming for fans to hear how well the cast members clicked personally, the pilot still had to click with viewers. But the cast and creatives didn't have to wait until the show's September premiere to know whether or not The Vampire Diaries had what it took to be a hit. While filming the scene in the pilot in which Elena and Stefan meet for the first time, it immediately became clear to everyone on set that they had something truly special on their hands.
"It was such an important scene for our characters, and Paul and I jumped [in] headfirst," Dobrev said of the scene, which featured Wesley's Stefan sweetly removing a leaf that had become tangled in Elena's hair after she'd tripped in a graveyard.
"When we were shooting [the scene], it was so potent and so magical that we all did look at ourselves and each other and say, 'If this works for everyone else like it's working for us, I think we're going to be good,'" Plec said.
Plec was proven correct when The Vampire Diaries debuted on The CW in the fall of 2009. The pilot delivered a record-breaking 4.8 million viewers, taking the title of the most-watched premiere in the network's history. It would be a record they'd hold for five years, until the premiere of The Flash, in 2014.
"I feel like a question we get asked a lot is, 'Did you know it was going to be successful?'" said King. "I think we all knew it was going to be OK. There wasn't a sense of filming it thinking like, 'Oh, who knows what's going to happen?' I felt like we were all sitting on the surfboard knowing that the wave was coming and we were just so excited."
"I knew this was Twilight on television and Twilight was the biggest thing since sliced bread then," Somerhalder joked, adding that while the pilot impressed him, it was while watching the series' fifth episode that the success of what they'd made together fully sunk in. "I looked around the room and I looked at those guys, [including Paul Wesley], and I said, 'This is a hit. This is a very well done television show. Sure, it's a teen vampire soap opera on The CW, but this is a hit.'"
Dobrev, on the other hand, wasn't as confident that the show would become the runaway success it quickly proved itself to be. "No, in fact it was quite the opposite," Dobrev said. "True Blood and Twilight were already cultural phenomenons, so we thought the market was oversaturated. ... This was my first pilot ever, and a lot of the other cast had warned me that most pilots don't get picked up. So we crossed our fingers and toes and hoped for the best, but my expectations were [tempered]."
Graham recalled having a similar experience despite the fact the pilot had a lot of support from the network. "I don't think that I honestly looked that far ahead," said Graham. "I do my job and go home and figure it might be the sixth pilot I shot that didn't go anywhere. I didn't have the best luck at that point, so my bar was set pretty low."
Even with a realistic attitude, Graham said it was undeniable that they were creating something big. "Social media hadn't exploded then and most of the cast didn't even have a Twitter, but we could just feel that something major was going on," she said.
Once The Vampire Diaries premiered, it was clear there was no need to temper expectations any longer. From the show's first episode, it raised the bar for The CW's programming, which had previously consisted of leftovers from The WB and shows about pretty people with pretty normal problems, and paved the way for better genre programming moving forward, including two Vampire Diaries spin-offs, The Originals (2013-2018) and Legacies, the latter of which will return for its second season in October.
It would also build the foundation for several life-long friendships between actors, many of whom have stayed close since the series wrapped in 2017. "You become a family whether you like it or not," said King, who currently co-hosts a podcast, Directionally Challenged, with Ewell that regularly welcomes Vampire Diaries alums, including Dobrev and Plec, as guests.
"You were dialed into a family, a group of people that you sort of have to stick with," Somerhalder said of the bonds created during those first few months shooting the show. For the actor, his connection with his on-screen brother grew so strong that Somerhalder said that not only did he and Wesley get apartments next to each other during filming, but they unwittingly started dressing alike.
"We landed in Atlanta, Paul and I," Somerhalder recalled, "he shows up off the plane and we're wearing the exact identical jeans, we had on the exact same boots, we had on the exact brand of white T-shirts -- I think they were like Calvin Klein T-shirts -- and black Ray-Ban sunglasses. Oh, and black leather knapsacks. I'm not kidding you, we looked like the f---ing Blues Brothers."
From the very first episode through its last, The Vampire Diaries was a story about a young girl who came alive thanks to the love of two vampires and the family she built around her. The fact that the cast and creators of The Vampire Diaries still feel like family 10 years later proves that the message of the show struck just as much of a chord with them as it did with the millions of fans who tuned in weekly to watch the show on The CW and who continue to rewatch the show on Netflix.
Looking back on The Vampire Diaries' origin and its rise to pop culture dominance, we think Damon Salvatore said it best when he said, "It's been a hell of a ride."
All eight seasons of The Vampire Diaries are currently streaming on Netflix.
Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)
Additional reporting by Sadie Gennis