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The Biography of the Vampire Diaries' Ian Somerhalder
By Amy Rickman
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Amy Rickman
All rights reserved.
Ian's Green Beginnings
Damon: I'm here to eat cotton candy – and to steal your girl. (1.22, 'Founder's Day')
The first thing everyone notices about Ian Somerhalder is his startling eyes: they're deep blue and piercing, almost magnetic, and they immediately set him apart from the pack. 'He can look you in the eyes and make you do whatever he wants,' says Julie Plec, one of the creators of The Vampire Diaries. Ian even has a nickname among his cast-mates that is especially appropriate: 'Smolderholder' so it's hardly a surprise that this gorgeous man from the Deep South of the USA has ended up playing the sexiest of all monsters, the undead seductor: a vampire.
It helped as well that he grew up in the homeland of vampire authoress extraordinaire Anne Rice (author of Interview With The Vampire and creator of one of the greatest vampire characters of all time, Lestat). Ian's home lay just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans in Mandeville, Louisiana. It's a place known for its rich history, gothic atmosphere and mythical creations: 'I grew up on the lake in New Orleans, on the north shore, in a more rural area, and I could look across the lake and see New Orleans. I remember always thinking, "There's vampires over there."' Not that Ian would ever admit to being scared, not even as a child. 'Sometimes we'd go over there when I was a little kid, and it wasn't that it was scary, but it was enticing. It was the not-knowing. Now that I'm on [The Vampire Diaries], it's cool to go back there and see it. I thought, "Wow, I used to look at that skyline from 26 miles away, across this huge lake, and think, Are the vampires going to get me, mom and dad?"'
Of course they would come to get him – but not quite yet! There were still many years to go before Ian would cease to wonder about vampires and start becoming one.
Ian was born Ian Joseph Somerhalder on 8 December 1978 in Covington, Louisiana, and he is the middle sibling between his older brother, Robert (better known as Bob) and his younger sister, Robyn. Both of Ian's siblings have gone on to have successful careers of their own – Bob was a professional cyclist and Robyn worked in broadcast journalism. Ian didn't have the same kind of sibling rivalry with Bob that his character Damon has with Stefan, though: 'There wasn't much rivalry,' he told Metro. 'My brother was seven years older so he just kicked my ass.'
His dad, Robert Somerhalder senior, worked as an independent building contractor and his mother, Edna, was a massage therapist from Mississippi who grew up on a pig farm! It's obvious that Ian's good looks come from the unique mixture of his background: his dad can claim English and French heritage, while his mother is Irish and part-Choctaw Native American.
The Somerhalders have a really interesting family mythology surrounding their last name. They can trace their history right back to their biological great-grandfather, who was a wealthy landowner in England with the surname Hull. He had an affair, and when the woman fell pregnant he didn't want to deal with the consequences. Instead he decided to pay off one of his immigrant workers to marry the mistress and take the baby far away. The worker's last name was 'Somerhalder' and the rest is history.
Ian's parents divorced when he was fourteen and he lived with his mum. Edna was a very spiritual person, who sent her children to Catholic school and gave them herbal medicinal remedies when they got sick before giving them Western pharmaceuticals, part of the legacy of Ian's Native-American grandmother. Edna is very health-conscious and taught her kids proper nutrition and how to eat healthily and organically; these were the values she instilled in her son from an early age and he has continued to follow them. According to him, his mother 'made my baby food and had me on blue-green algae probably since I was in third grade. I never had sugar, I never got to have white bread or any white-flour products.' Indeed, his only indulgence was a slice of chocolate cake on his birthday. Even now he maintains healthy eating standards such as drinking between three and ten cups of green tea every day, his favourite being Jasmine Pearl tea.
Like any kid, Ian sometimes yearned for the treats that his classmates got to have. One day at elementary school, during lunch hour, he looked down at his über-healthy sandwich (said to be grilled vegetables on marble rye bread), compared it to his friend's lunch of peanut butter-and-jelly smeared between two layers of white bread, and felt a twinge of envy so he asked for a trade. He would never make that mistake again. The sugar-and-preservative laden lunch made him sick to his stomach. 'I can't eat fast food ... I haven't eaten McDonald's in ten years. I eat fish every day,' he explains.
Even more than eating healthily, Ian's mum also taught her family to live healthily and encouraged Ian and his siblings to go out and enjoy the great outdoors. His favourite toy was a red BB gun (a kind of air gun) that he would take out among the marshes and fields around his house to play games. He must've gotten up to lots of high jinks with that gun as he wouldn't give one to his own children: 'I grew up in the country and would I give a child (I mean a six-to nine-year-old) a gun? Absolutely, without a doubt, hell no!'
The rich cultural history surrounding New Orleans also enabled the energetic Ian to release some energy as he used to participate in reenactments of the American Civil War, where he would dress up in eighteenth-century costume and run around a fake battlefield. Little did he know this would be the perfect practice for a role to come!
Ian also found fuel in his father's stories. Robert Somerhalder had served in the military during the Vietnam War but it wasn't his tales of warfare that Ian found appealing, but the adventure and travel in South-East Asia that his father had experienced. It made Ian realise the world was so much bigger than Louisiana and he wanted to travel and see it all: 'I've had these feelings since I was a kid ... Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to travel to new cities, new hotel rooms – I should have been a damn rock star.'
Ian's ambition and thirst for life steadily grew as he experienced more and more: 'I had a great [childhood]. We had horses and motorcycles and boats, but I always wanted more – a bigger horse or a faster bike or whatever,' he recalls. Being greedy was not a value that Edna wanted to encourage and besides, the family didn't have the money to give Ian all he wanted; instead, his mother wanted him to learn that the only way to achieve your goals and get what you want is through hard work. Edna suggested that Ian get a job as a model, so he could work and earn some money. She knew some people in the business and Ian was keen: 'I said, "Sure, sign me up!"' His mother then scrimped and saved so they could rent an apartment in New York for three summers. It worked, though, as Ian landed a three-year contract with Ford Modeling Agency in New York, 'and I was making more money an hour than people with PhDs.' He was only ten years old at the time.
And so it was that in the summertime, when most kids went to camp or were away on holiday, Ian went to New York to model, with his mum as his manager. Almost immediately he started to get bookings for big-name clients, his first being for Ralph Lauren: he modelled their kids' range, becoming one of the company's 'little polo boys'. As he told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show: 'It was a blast, it was so fun.' Other modelling jobs quickly followed, for Calvin Klein, American Eagle Outfitters, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Versace. The experience was to change him for life: 'I was exposed to a lot of interesting things, talented photographers and cool intellectuals, and New York City got into my blood. It was a juxtaposition of New York and this quiet, rural area of Louisiana my family lived in. It changes your outlook on childhood – you grow up really fast.'
In fact, Ian was so successful as a model that by the time he turned thirteen and started at junior high, he was already pretty burned out of the fashion world. He took some time off to focus on his studies, sports and his friends back home. Like many successful teens who balanced school with modelling (and soon, acting), he often felt ostracised at high school and wasn't part of any particular group. He didn't let it bother him though, as he knew he was destined for great things beyond school. And so to make the most of his time there, he joined the high school's drama society and focused on working towards his dream. 'I was just "me" in high school,' says Ian on his website. 'If anything, [and it's] my motto still, ... I didn't care what others thought/think of me, to be honest. I was doing the whole modeling thing at that point and caught tons of shit because of it. If you do what you love (music, art, sports, writing, academics, etc.), who cares what or whom is deemed as "rejected" you know? As long as you aren't hurting anyone and obeying your parents for the most part, as well as obeying the law for the most part, who cares who is "rejected"! I was a reject at times, sure – we all are!'
Ian's hiatus from the big city worked for a little while, but it seemed as if New York wouldn't leave him alone. The agencies, designers and photographers all wanted him back – and this time as an adult star. The week after he turned sixteen, he left his Louisiana home to live permanently in New York and pursue his modelling career. This meant going through a complicated process called 'emancipation' – where a minor (i.e. someone under the age of eighteen) leaves home in order to pursue a business or occupation without the involvement or approval of their parents. 'I left home a week after I turned sixteen and started working,' Ian told Tribune. 'My parents trusted me. There's a whole emancipation process where you can live on your own – we just had this understanding that it was OK. Now I look back and go, "Wow – sixteen!" But when you have agents who make sure you're driven around the city, you're protected; you have someone to watch out for you.'
And this time it wasn't just going to be New York for Ian: he had a new manager, a woman he considered his surrogate mother called Brenda Netzberger, and with Brenda and Ford Models (and later DNA Models), he travelled all over the world – from New York and Los Angeles to Paris, London, Barcelona and Milan. For Ian, it felt like a dream come true and he quickly realised that one of his passions was travelling and exploring – he loved being opened up to new cultures.
Living in Europe was an incredible growing-up experience for Ian and he soon found himself immersed in a world he didn't always understand: 'I went off the rails and down the side of the mountain. I went nuts for a while, but I soon grew out of it,' he told Metro. 'Kids in Europe go crazy at a slower pace than kids in America. There are things that are accepted in Europe that aren't in America: you can drink at 16 in Europe, kids have a good time, but it's not like in the States when you have to wait until you're 21, end up pounding a case of beer in one night and end up in hospital – kids don't need to do that in Europe.'
More big fashion names continued to fall over themselves to hire him and Versace was his first massive campaign: 'Versace was my first campaign as an adult (meaning it was after modelling when I was ten to thirteen) at sixteen. It was shot in Massachusetts with Bruce Weber and basically kicked off, what I guess for lack of better words, this "journey" if you will. It was that week or so that would introduce me to the individuals whom I would be seeing, travelling with, partying with and doing some very crazy, not-so-legal activities in the company of over the coming years.'
Modelling took him to some amazing places. One of his best memories was of a shoot in Mexico. He was shooting with a photographer named Ken Browar and a female model when they had to hike deep into the jungle in order to get to the specific location. On arrival, they were treated to an incredible wildlife encounter: 'While shooting and learning about this area of the country, we venture up a steep mountain to a magical place where the Monarch butterflies migrate every year. Hiking into some enchanted forest at an elevation I couldn't tell you, but high – you find yourself on a grassy plain, asking yourself: "Where are the damn butterflies?" Upon turning around I saw and will never forget: the entire tree line was moving. So many butterflies that the branches sagged, imagine that! You could walk into the trees and be greeted by thousands of them, dancing all over you – an unbelievable experience!'
Modelling was certainly taking Ian around the world and setting him up financially, but he still wanted to pursue his other passion – acting. 'Modelling was lucrative but not intellectually satisfying,' he told Copley News Service. When he was seventeen, he enrolled in some acting classes and by nineteen he knew he had the bug. His very first experience on a set was in 1997, for a TV series called The Big Easy, based in New Orleans. 'Showing up on set ... I kept looking at the matte-box [the device used to prevent glare on a camera lens], and the director kept saying: "Don't look in the camera, don't look in the camera." And I thought, "What am I doing, I know not to do that." ... When I look back on that I laugh, hysterically,' he told Newsweek. To improve his craft, he worked with acting coach William Esper and he was learning with the best. Esper is one of the most pre-eminent acting teachers in the world. He has worked with many famous faces, including Sex and the City's Kristin Davis, Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You For Smoking) and Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential). While he continued to model to make money and pay the rent, he began turning up for auditions as well. But it wasn't until he got spotted in a crowded room that he really started to make it big.CHAPTER 2
Damon: Your life was pathetic. Your after-life doesn't have to be. (1.07, 'Haunted')
In interviews, Ian comes off as surprisingly self-conscious about his very traditional career trajectory: 'Models-turned-actors are a bit of a cliché,' he told Metro. 'It is a huge cliché but you have to look at the positive aspects – I learned a lot about the world and took a lot of knowledge away from it.'
It was now the late nineties and Ian had just turned twenty. He was on the set of a feature film called Black and White (1999) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Elijah Wood, about a group of white high-school students who get involved in a predominantly black Harlem hip-hop scene. Ian was only an extra – one club-goer among a 400-strong crowd, but he clearly stood out from the group. He was spotted by a talent manager who signed him up right away.
From then on, the acting jobs came thick and fast. It must have been fate – Ian did four auditions and booked all of them. After his The Big Easy experience, and a brief stint on a short-lived TV series called Now and Again, Ian got a part in a spinoff of Dawson's Creek – the series that launched The Vampire Diaries' creator Kevin Williamson's career. The show was called Young Americans and followed Will Krudski (introduced briefly on Dawson's Creek as one of Pacey J. Witter's childhood friends) as he starts at an exclusive American all-boys' boarding school. Ian's character was Hamilton Fleming, the son of the dean. Hamilton is confused about his sexuality and thinks he's falling in love with a fellow student. It turns out though that the student is actually a girl disguised as a boy. The series also launched the career of another teen star, Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush and Superman Returns).
This wasn't to be the only time when Ian played a character confused by his sexuality. In fact, it seemed to be a bit of a theme in his body of work pre-Lost and The Vampire Diaries. In his next two roles, he played bisexual characters. The first was in a TV movie called My Life as a House, a tear-jerking drama about George Monroe (Kevin Kline), a man with terminal cancer who struggles to reach out to his estranged son, Sam (played by a pre-Star Wars' Hayden Christensen). Ian played Josh, a hustler, pimp, drug dealer and all-around bad guy who tries to turn Sam to a life of drugs and prostitution. '[My Life as a House] was the first studio film I was part of, and it was amazing. I remember, after some takes, Kevin Kline would just walk around singing,' he told TV Mania. The movie was well reviewed and although Ian's role in it was small, he helped bring some edge to an otherwise overly saccharine drama.
Excerpted from Blood Brothers by Amy Rickman. Copyright © 2011 Amy Rickman. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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