On the CW's breakout hit The Vampire Diaries, Ian Somerhalder plays a nearly 170-year-old man who — perhaps unwittingly — became a vampire as a teen. Though the actor's luck has been indisputably better than that of his character, Damon Salvatore, both have had the same response to the twists in their lives: outright glee.
For Damon, that giddiness manifests itself in the smirky, wanton torment of the people who surround him. In Somerhalder, fortunately, it takes a more gracious form.
"Right now, where I am, doing what I'm doing, it's exactly where I want to be," he says.
As Vampire Diaries wraps up its first season (Thursday at 9/8c), look to learn even more about Damon's tortured past, as he teams up with vampire hunter Alaric to prevent a massacre at Mystic Falls' annual Founders Day celebration. He won't be entirely successful, and the subsequent tragedy will change Damon in the second season.
From Somerhalder's start in modeling to nabbing the lead role in a Bret Easton Ellis film adaptation to a TV hit, he's always managed to convey joy and pain at once.
In L.J. Smith's young-adult horror novels, on which the series is based, Damon is complicated and misunderstood. When he acts out, it's only because he's hurting inside. Somerhalder's version of Damon seems to be having more fun than his literary counterpart. He pounces on his quarry with almost sadistic delight.
The real-life fun started early for the Louisiana native, who started modeling at age 10. After a brief sabbatical, he got an agent at 16 and, within a week, he says, shot a 12-page spread for L'Uomo Vogue with fashion photographer Steven Meisel. He's grateful for this early success, which gave him the opportunity to travel between New York and Europe. "The best education is seeing the world, understanding how other cultures work," he says. "It's a blessing and a curse [living in the U.S.]. We're cursed in the sense that kids don't leave, a lot of them don't get a sense of the world around them."
Somerhalder began taking acting classes in New York in 1998 as part of a two-year program. Entourage's Adrian Grenier was a classmate. The then-20-year-old slogged through hundreds of auditions during just the first year of the program, without much success.
But his modeling background worked in his favor. In the spring of 1999, he went to Los Angeles for a shoot for Guess? when he caught the eye of writer-director Steve Antin, who wanted him for the cast of Young Americans, a Dawson's Creek spin-off the WB was developing about a Connecticut boys' school. (Kevin Williamson, the creator of Dawson's Creek, is the executive producer of Vampire Diaries.)
The show lasted eight episodes, but it was crucial to Somerhalder's later progress. "Even at that point, I knew it was for a reason," he says, pointing to the subsequent success of his co-stars Kate Bosworth, Michelle Monaghan and Katherine Moennig. "It moved me to L.A. and launched my career."
Next came movies, and Somerhalder started big, with one of the three lead roles in The Rules of Attraction (2002). Roger Avary's adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel featured a slew of young stars, including James Van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Jessica Biel, Fred Savage and Bosworth.
"I read the first three pages of the script [which details a clever, Rashomon-like sequence the audience sees three times from different perspectives] and I called my agent and I said, 'I don't care what it takes, what I need to do, I'm getting this film. I promise you,'" he recalls. "'I know I'm completely unknown, and [the studio is] going to want a name actor, but no f---ing way. I'm getting this role.'"
Somerhalder plays Paul Denton, who is in an unusual, unrequited love triangle with Sossamon and Van Der Beek's characters. Avary's shiny young cast takes on some not-so-shiny moments in Ellis' gimlet-eyed, drug- and sex-soaked look at college life. "James was coming off huge amounts of success, he was flying back and forth every few days to do Dawson's Creek. The rest of us were young and we were crazy, man. There was a phenomenal amount of partying and insanity that ensued on that set. And if you watch the movie, that's exactly how it should be. It was such a rare moment in time."
It only got better for Somerhalder when he was cast as one of the original castaways on ABC's Lost, but his tenure was short-lived. His character, Boone Carlyle, was the show's first major casualty. The news that Boone would be killed was definitely a shock to the actor, but he handled it with his characteristic optimism.
"You go the whole gamut of 'What did I do wrong? What didn't I do right?' It's something that's impossible not to take personally, but you can't," he says. "Actors always think it's about them, but it's really not. It's about the story."
Somerhalder recently returned to the Hawaii set of Lost to film a few cameos for the show's final season. He reports that Boone will get a proper ending in the series finale, an experience to which he assigns several adjectives, including cool, simple, emotional and beautiful. "Wow, man, it was gratifying," he says. "Watching people who've become like my family, seeing what it would be like for Boone to be this certain way." Not surprisingly, he doesn't elaborate what "this certain way" might be.
After Lost, Somerhalder had a small part in HBO's Tell Me You Love Me, an intriguing, experimental series about the sex lives of several couples. He plays Nick, the "rebound guy" for a woman who recently broke off her engagement. The part required total nudity by all the main characters, something the actor says he wasn't entirely comfortable with at first. "The first time you go to [re-record dialogue] and you walk into a soundstage and there's a 20-by-20-foot screen in front of you, and your balls are like the size of taxicab tires, and you're sitting there looking up and you go: 'Oh my goodness, really?'
"At the end of the eight-hour shooting day, being naked all day, it wasn't the fact that it was the nudity. I wouldn't say it was gratuitous. I just thought that there's got to be another way to tell this story. And then I thought to myself, 'No, you moron, that is the show.'"
Network television, for now, is allowing Somerhalder to remain fully clothed. The actor explains that the only nakedness in his current acting style is emotional, as he taps into his own experiences to create a realistic life for the character. As Damon changes, so does Somerhalder's method in playing him. "As far as the shift, the only thing that's really changing is what I'm taking out of my life," he says. "Sometimes you have a lot of big what-ifs. You don't have the experience; crazy, supernatural things don't happen to us."
Some might argue that Somerhalder's career has included its own degree of magic, and of that, he's appreciative. "I never thought I'd be on a vampire television show," he says. "We're the luckiest kids in Hollywood right now."