Alice + Chris
Styling by Christopher Campbell
For a man who spends most of his time thinking about conservation, Ian Somerhalder expends an awful lot of energy. Like, nuclear amounts of it. It’s as impossible to ignore as his eyes, the most striking blues this side of Sinatra. He radiates passion and infectious positivity, and before I know it, a cynical writer is confessing long-forgotten passion and positivity to one of The CW’s hottest young stars over a bottle of Barolo at Gemma restaurant in The Bowery, Manhattan’s last remaining nabe where Ian Somerhalder exists in the wild. “I never go above 14th Street,” he confesses, smoldering with that knowing look that the incomparable Damon Salvatore, vampire extraordinaire, also flashes, charming millions of Vampire Diaries viewers over the past ﬁve seasons. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I, too, was being compelled.
Fresh from a shoot in trendy Noho for Watch!, Somerhalder looks the part in his downtown uniform: black leather jacket, skinny jeans and his trademark hat, tilted at an effortlessly cool angle. The jacket comes complete with a bullet pocketed during a recent retreat to 1,000 acres he keeps in rural Georgia, where the cozy confines of an Airstream trailer offer respite from a hectic filming schedule in nearby Covington. The bullet has followed him all the way to Gemma, where it’s discovered in a room illuminated by candlelight and mirrors—the perfect setting for “Smoldy,” as Nina Dobrev, his Vampire Diaries co-star, calls him.
On the cusp of turning 35, the actor doesn’t look a day beyond the 23-year-old he plays on the show. His vampire persona and ageless energy are partly thanks to a strict regimen of healthy food, boxes of vitamins and supplements, meditation and a medical spa he recently built in the 1,900-square-foot townhouse he shares in Atlanta with six dogs and two cats. And, he keeps the 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys on repeat.
“I feel like I’ve lived 100 lives. I am a vampire,” the Louisiana native says between bites, thinking back to his boyhood growing up on the swampy shores of Lake Pontchartrain. “When you look out over the lake, you can see the city twinkling in the distance. I would think, ‘I’m safe ’cause I know that they’re over there.’ I associated New Orleans with vampires, always. My mom was a huge fan of Anne Rice and I knew all about the whole folklore with Marie Laveau, voodoo and vampires.”
In this latest lifetime, Somerhalder plays bad boy bloodsucker Damon Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries, a role he seems preternaturally suited for. And yet, his résumé (and Twitter feed) reads more like a Boy Scout’s Eagle Award project than a model-turned-actor starring on a hit show that recently taped its 100th episode. No stranger to the city’s hungry streets, Somerhalder savors another sip before recalling how he first came to New York a quarter-century ago.
“My mom used every dollar we had to send me to acting and modeling classes when I was 10. And then we would come live here for the summers. It was incredible, man.” Working two to three jobs a day for the likes of Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Versace and Guess (which he served as the face of for two fall seasons), it wasn’t long before the 16-year-old model was living on his own uptown, traveling the world for jobs in Paris, Milan, London, Madrid and Barcelona. He also quickly realized that being in front of the camera was a means to a much bigger end.
“In the fashion business, if you’re a creative director or you’re a designer, it’s a very creative business and you can drive it,” Somerhalder explains. “As talent in the fashion world, it’s significantly more vapid.”
At 19, he quit modeling and turned his attention to acting classes, earning roles in 2002’s The Rules of Attraction alongside Jessica Biel and Kate Bosworth, and later as Boone Carlyle on Lost (2004) until ultimately landing his current spot on The Vampire Diaries in 2009. Meanwhile, he earned a self-guided degree in humanity. “You don’t have to be in an institution to study. The world has been a really cool classroom that we’re all in together, sort of bouncing around, learning, failing often, and passing sometimes. And just like in school, the kids who are nice make the experience a lot better. The kids who are bullies and assholes make the experience not as wonderful. The thing we’re lacking the most in the world, and yet what everyone wishes for, is compassion. My mom, Edna, is the one who instilled all of this in me at a young age.”
Once instilled, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 was the catalyst for unleashing it. “I just felt so helpless, so angry. When you’re from southeast Louisiana where everything is a microcosm that’s only indicative of that one place in the world—the biodiversity, and the interconnectivity between humanity and the environment is so closed-looped, it’s scary. Both of my parents made me understand that the balance is what you have to protect your whole life.”
In December 2010, he created the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF), a nonprofit that brings about change by empowering the next generation to solve global problems. Ever since, the actor has been a constant presence on the green carpet as a tireless advocate for everything from conservation, habitat preservation and green energy to animal sanctuaries, youth development, charter schools and the eradication of poverty. As head of the ISF and founder of five other companies, including Go Green Mobile Power and Ryot.org, he spends the few moments between film and sleep building for-profit entities “that will feed the necessary nonprofit initiatives in ISF, which is my most favorite baby.”
Like I said, nuclear amounts of energy.
So how does a man focused on such a profound, bigger picture reconcile with the day-to-day of playing a vampire for tweens and their moms on TV? “Hollywood gives me access to 200 million people who can read these messages [on ISF’s site] and be inspired. Here’s the deal with me getting to interact with millions of girls who really wouldn’t otherwise care about what I’m saying: The fact that they actually go and they look at it and read it, they’re still getting the information. If that’s the conduit, so be it. As long as they see it.”
Teen girls aren’t the only ones paying attention to his message. In the summer of 2012, Somerhalder was invited to breakfast in Los Angeles with other members of young Hollywood for a talk with President Obama. Somerhalder quickly pulls up a photo on his iPhone of him speaking with the president next to an American flag. “He said, ‘What is it that you know that I don’t know?’ And he genuinely wanted to know. He said because of the access that I have to people, I have a pulse to what’s going on in the world. How awesome is that?”
His work as an actor/advocate also earned him a spot as a correspondent on this spring’s seven-part documentary, Years of Living Dangerously, premiering Sunday, April 13, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime. “Hands down it’s the most important thing I’ve ever worked on in my life,” he says, beaming. James Cameron and producer Jerry Weintraub send him and familiar faces such as Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, America Ferrera, Harrison Ford, Olivia Munn and Lesley Stahl to cover the most pressing environmental stories facing us today. “It’s basically 60 Minutes meets Homeland, but it’s true,” Somerhalder explains.
And if that weren’t enough, Somerhalder also serves as a designated goodwill ambassador to the United Nations’ environmental program alongside one of his Dangerously co-stars, Don Cheadle. “That’s pretty badass,” he laughs.
As the interview draws to a close, I notice a small tattoo on his right forearm. “It’s ‘here and now’ in Latin,” he explains, which comes as no surprise from someone doing so much right here, right now. And yet, it’s the future that keeps Somerhalder most inspired. “Create the future, ’cause you’re going to spend the rest of your life there,” he shares, leaning away from his now-empty glass and reflecting for a moment before dashing off into the cold night to join the city’s other vampires.
—Jennifer Goddard Huete
Originally published in Watch! magazine, April 2014