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Interview With a Vampire

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Ian Somerhalder may play the bad guy on TV, but in real life the actor is a model humanitarian


Southeast Louisiana is wonderfully rich in natural resources, and dynamic actor Ian Somerhalder is certainly one of the state’s most precious. Born in Covington and raised on the Northshore, Somerhalder grew up boating, fishing and horseback riding like other kids. But at 10, he began a modeling career that eventually launched him into campaigns for such industry heavy-hitters as Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Versace. But the acting bug sank its fangs deep into the teenage Somerhalder, and the über-talented native son went on to star in scores of projects for film, television and the stage. Today, Somerhalder is wildly popular thanks in part to his roles on two of the hottest shows on television: as Boone Carlyle on ABC’s critically acclaimed drama Lost, which aired its final episode in May, and as Damon Salvatore, the elder and more dangerous of two vampire brothers on the CW’s megahit series The Vampire Diaries, which makes its highly anticipated second-season debut on Thursday, September 9.

But it’s not the scintillating scenes as a diabolical vampire that curdle Somerhalder’s blood most. The thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate actor is just as incensed, mystified and heartbroken as other locals over the outrageous Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster that has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of both man and beast. Somerhalder wisely channeled his anger and frustration into becoming the first celebrity to be actively involved in bringing attention to the foul aftermath in the Gulf. He cleaned oiled wildlife, taped public service announcements and spearheaded a star-studded telethon in June on CNN’s Larry King Live that raised nearly $2 million for oil spill victims.

Somerhalder’s involvement in humanitarian efforts doesn’t stop there. The keen environmentalist has also teamed up with Go Green Mobile Power, a clean-energy company that has created a prototype of a portable solar-wind-biodiesel generator to green up everything from disaster relief efforts to the film industry, including The Vampire Diaries’ set in Atlanta. In addition to the awards and accolades Somerhalder has won during his illustrious career—including the 2010 Teen Choice Award for “Choice TV Villain” for his portrayal of Damon—he also completely won over New Orleans Living Magazine with his undying dedication, love and concern for home, its people and its creatures, great and small.

Hello, Ian! Wow, you have proven yourself to be such a versatile actor. And I think the amount of humanity and concern you have shown for this state in the wake of the oil disaster is truly commendable. Louisiana has good reason to be proud of you.

Thank you, Christine! Thank you so much. It’s been a tough bit for Louisiana, and it’s been a pretty rotten summer for the most part for everyone. It’s baffling to me that we’re in this situation. We gotta truck on, you know.

It is so honorable that you were the first celebrity to become actively involved in bringing attention to the oil spill’s devastation through the PSAs you taped and the funds you raised on Larry King Live. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you to be on the scene in the Gulf witnessing the tragedy of the oiled wildlife firsthand.

Honestly, WGNO Channel 26’s news director Rick Erbach was very instrumental in making the PSAs happen; he’s become like a brother to me. It’s guys like him that are fighting tooth and nail to get relevant information out quickly. I’m so thankful because it made a huge difference in my life and my home. I arrived to the Gulf after day seven. I was on a boat and saw oil about 14 miles offshore, when they were saying it was 30 miles offshore or whatever. There were maybe two pelicans at that point coated in oil. And I remember thinking, Man, I hope this doesn’t go another week because there will be a lot of animals covered in oil … cut to almost a hundred days later …

Seeing the oiled pelicans crushed me. It really did me in. No one can get over it!

Talk about heartbreaking! When I was on Larry King, I sat next to Philippe Cousteau, an awesome guy. If I weren’t doing what I was doing, I would want to be that guy. He told me that the formula for figuring how many animals are actually being affected is generally 10 times what you find. They claim they found 1,000 birds dead, so that really means 10,000 or possibly more. So when the heavy oil started hitting Grand Isle, you realized that thousands and thousands of animals were indeed perishing. Personally, it was impossible for me to drive into Grand Isle, because the whole way over the bridge by the Bridge Side Marina, to the right and the left, there were pelicans everywhere with their wings out, which means these guys were covered in oil, in the 96 degree heat, basically baking in the sun until they die. You’re sitting there, just thinking, Awww, man, really? And no one was going to be able to help those animals. Elmer’s Island was just … imminent death. You look at these animals, and it’s nearly impossible not to have tears in your eyes, and it’s a mixture of anger, hurt, sadness and you realize the stupidity surrounding this whole thing, and that’s when you just kind of come out of your skin.

Then you find out things like the last head that they used to cap the well, they had it for 47 days or something? It’s just that kind of stuff that makes you go into these weird thoughts of conspiracy theories. You think, something is so off here, and we probably won’t really know what happened until Obama’s out of office and then we’ll discover why BP was allowed to handle everything, and why they also, just by chance, happened to be gigantic donors to President Obama, and just all the weird things that you read about that used to happen in politics that happened right in front of our faces, and there was nothing anyone could do a thing about, no matter how much anyone screamed or kicked. This entire generation is so disillusioned and disheartened by what we’ve seen; people went into this election with the promise of hope and change, and you then realize, well, that doesn’t happen. Large multinational corporations run the world, and we must figure out how to make the best of it and turn the negatives into positives. And if the government won’t make that change, then we have to. There’s a very famous Radiohead song and the lyrics are “Stop whispering, start shouting,” and I’m so tired of whispering that I’m going to start screaming!

You’ve partnered with Go Green Mobile Power to change things.

Yes, this company is about to launch a completely green, hybrid, portable solar-wind-biodiesel generator that you can drop out of a C-130 during disaster relief, whether it’s Katrina or Haiti, for mobile surgical units, and also for use in the film industry, within the oil industry, airports. There are just so many applications for it. I see so much waste created in the film industry. We have to start using renewable energy. And you can’t fight the oil companies; you must work with them, and if we can help fund renewable energy research, or at least help the oil industry use renewable energy sources to light and power their operations, that’s the way to go. I would love to help put that into motion with the state of Louisiana. It needs to happen, and there’s no better time than now. Louisiana is the largest producer and refiner of petroleum products in the country, and I understand that we need that to produce the energy this country needs. However, years of senselessly polluting the environment—after Katrina, what, was it 9 million gallons of oil that spilled and no one was liable for it? That should not go unpunished.

You’ve traveled all around the globe, yet home is still one of your favorite places….

Absolutely! I love being home. There’s no place in the world like Southeast Louisiana. And I’m so excited to start spending a lot more time at home, some of it because we film the show in Atlanta. It’s just ironic that it’s taken me so long to get close to home with a job like this that I love so much, to be able to spend as much time as I can on the marshes, lakes and bayous and now, a lot of it’s destroyed. Grand Isle is one of the coolest places on the planet, and it’s destroyed. There have been fishing closures in Lake Pontchartrain and the Rigolets because of tar balls. It’s just a bummer! I just worry about this state and what will result, like when we get in the boat on Lake Pontchartrain, and go through the Rigolets and into Lake St. Catherine and Lake Borgne, and catch the specs, shrimp or crab coming out of the Gulf. I mean, are we literally going to die a horrible death in 10 years from toxicity levels that are unfathomable from eating all this? We don’t know! And the incredible people at the Natural Resources Defense Council set up headquarters in Buras and were doing soil, air and water samples and monitoring all the aspects of public health. We owe them a huge thank-you for disseminating unbiased information, because you won’t get that from BP. And how does the EPA, a federally appointed agency, say, “Hey, you can’t use those chemical dispersants!” and get told, “Guess what? Screw you, we’re using them!” by a private company? A foreign private company can actually say to the United States government, “No, screw you!”? I cannot for the life of me understand how that was allowed, and it needs to be investigated. I’d been boycotting BP, but then I realized: We can’t boycott BP. We need to buy their gas to help them financially because they need to make good on their responsibilities. I cringe when I pass a BP station, but BP is claiming their revenue has dropped substantially because the American public is shunning them and that’s the thing we cannot afford. I have to Twitter that today!

Ian, it is such a blessing to have someone like you with the platform you have as a popular actor to keep the message alive and move forward in a positive direction.

Oh, thank you so much! And you know—that’s our home, Christine. It’s one of those “blood is thicker than water” type of scenarios where you’ll do anything to protect the ground you grew up on, that place that holds your heart and your roots. And smearing, blaming and finger-pointing, as we saw the administration doing, clearly doesn’t work. Instead, we need to start making our own movements, and with enough people and technology behind this movement, it will happen, and eventually governmental bodies will have to follow suit. It’s going to be a slow road, we just have to stay on it.

Like many who grew up here, you too were intrigued by the mystery of New Orleans and vampires.

I used to sit out on Lake Pontchartrain at the marina in Mandeville and cast my rod off the breaks, and just stare out toward the city, and think, “Wow! They’re over there!” I went to Our Lady of the Lake, and I always remember walking the lake, and I was young, like in kindergarten or pre-K, going to get snowballs and stuff right there on the lake—and my mom loved Anne Rice and the whole vampire thing—and I just remember looking out at the city and thinking, [whispers] “They’re over there. Wow!” And I remember being, not scared, but sort of so intrigued that it makes your heart race a little bit. Those are some of the really cool memories I have, which is kind of funny now that I’m doing The Vampire Diaries.

So what’s going on with your character Damon Salvatore in this new season of The Vampire Diaries?

Damon will have an interesting season. The relationship between Damon and Stefan will shift. Some elements will show up that will force them to reevaluate their sibling rivalry, and they may actually have to bind together in order to protect what they love. And we’ll see a bit more of Katherine and start to understand how that whole relationship really worked. I think it will be telling in itself about the brothers’ relationship and how it became the way it is. And there are some new challenges they are going to face that are really dangerous, and they’re going to have to figure out how to fight together. We’re also going back to 1864 to see even more how things went down, and who’s telling the truth. In season one, Damon was so in control for the most part, and he had a plan, whether it was a maniacal or sadistic one or it wasn’t, it doesn’t matter. This time Damon will find himself in a situation where he’s not necessarily that in control. And Damon showing more of his vulnerable side was tough for me as an actor, because it was so counterintuitive for me to be that way; I felt like Stefan, it was driving me nuts! But it’s all good, it’s going to be a great season. It’s like Christmas when you get these awesome scripts, like, it’s on! And it makes us a bit nervous, because we had such an amazing run last year and so much support from the fans, the network and the studio, so we have a responsibility to make this season an even better one.

Ian, it is so cool that you’re obsessed with rescuing stray animals!

My mom and I were driving to Frenier Landing, this amazing restaurant in LaPlace right on the lake, and I took a wrong turn down this marshy, swampy road, and we found this 2-month-old abandoned boxer puppy. She was so scared! She came up to me, wrapped her legs around me and just held on. We took her home and got her to our contractor’s family, and we named her Bayou Girl, and she’s just so unbelievably happy! I think about her all the time and how she would have died. It’s just the best feeling ever! I work with the St. Tammany Humane Society, and with New Leash on Life in Los Angeles, which turns stray animals into service animals. We were trying to find money and legislation for feline and canine sterilization drugs. We need to get the government behind it. If there is any legacy I could ever leave, it would be to have my grandchildren never know what a stray animal was. I don’t want to put humane society workers out of a job, but I think they would gladly go find something else to do!

No more strays would be a total dream come true. Okay, I can now say I officially share the same fantasy as Ian Somerhalder! [Laughs]

You got it, sweetheart!

-CHRISTINE FONTANA