Interview with the (very environmentally friendly) Vampire
With piercing ice-blue eyes, HD-ready good looks and a starring role as Damon Salvatore on hit TV show The Vampire Diaries, you could easily be fooled into thinking that Ian Somerhalder is just another perfectly moulded actor off the Hollywood conveyor belt. But when Rebecca Banks caught up with him, she discovered far more than just a pretty face. This staunch environmentalist launched the IS Foundation to “help people understand that there are green alternatives to everything we know.”
The former model was dubbed “supernaturally spectacular” in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man issue. He was runner-up to Robert Pattinson in Glamour Magazine’s hottest vampire poll, and has an army of female followers begging him to bite them. He laughs at the mention of over-exuberant fans: “They really get into it! I do get a lot of biting requests, but since we have a young teen audience I have to politely decline. There’s a lot of legalities involved in biting another human being in public!”
Louisiana-born Somerhalder doesn’t come from the archetypal Hollywood background. His father was a building contractor and his mother a massage therapist. “We were a struggling young family and my mom spent every last dime she had allowing me to take modelling and acting classes and giving me the opportunity to work in New York. I got a three-year contract with a big modelling agency at the age of 10 and I’ve been doing theatre since I was about seven.”
After successful modelling stints with Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Versace, Calvin Klein and Guess?, Ian met with the woman who was to become his manager. “She was almost a second mother to me. She navigated the crazy landscape of this industry and set up the second stage of my career. She sent me all over the world and taught me the ways of the business. Basically, these two extraordinary women in my life invested time and energy into me and it ended up working.”
Work it did, with Ian picking up parts in Smallville and The Rules of Attraction. But, it was his role as Boone Carlyle in Lost that proved to be his breakthrough performance. Although the character died in the show’s first season, it was reprised several times between 2005 and 2010, including in the show finale. “To be involved with Lost was just incredible. It was such a unique show and it opened up this whole new style of dramatic storytelling on television. It was all high production values, high intensity, with amazing writers and a lot of great actors putting their heart and soul into it. It proved to be an amazing six years of storytelling.”
On the surface, the successful TV programmes he has worked on have tended to fit into the sci-fi genre, but Ian believes the success of these shows is less to do with the supernatural elements and more about the great characters and storytelling. “The supernatural genre is not something I gravitate towards. If I want to see a film I tend to go for more dramatic stories with less CGI. Lost was sci-fi but it was predominantly dramatic and that’s what made it so great. With The Vampire Diaries, there is a supernatural element but at the end of the day it is a story about a town and the people in it and what their lives are about.”
Ian’s high profile is allowing him to spread his crucial message about the environment. And he’s not just any old celebrity jumping on the philanthropy bandwagon to intensify his fame. He was brought up on organic food and Eastern medicine by parents he describes as “spiritual” and is fiercely passionate about environmental matters. “Both of my parents are very natural people. I grew up on the marshes of Louisiana, which is a very delicate eco-system that you have to respect. It is a phenomenally beautiful area and I was taught at a very early age to protect it and love it.” His love of the Gulf Coast led to personal devastation during the 2010 Gulf Oil Disaster, when around 60,000 litres of oil was pumped into the Gulf every day, destroying wildlife and the surrounding environment. Ian was on hand to spread the message of what was going on and to help clean up the affected wildlife.
Somerhalder had been involved with environmental causes for many years, but it was his first-hand experience during the Gulf Oil Disaster that led him to set up his own foundation. “The situation during that time was very intense and it spawned the creation of this foundation. There’s too much that needs to change. There are so many people who have so much time and are willing to put it towards these initiatives, and they just don’t have the outlet. I have so many incredible, loyal fans – this is about social networking, empowering youth and people to make a change.”
The foundation was launched on Ian’s birthday on the 8th of December, with the actor urging fans to donate to the cause rather than buying him gifts. It is the fans, he says, that will contribute to the foundation, and not just in terms of funding. “This is a social and
ecological movement. I want to set up an environment where people can come and work and blog and start dealing with the issues we face. It will create a snowball of goodwill – and that is already happening.”
The IS Foundation focuses on three separate areas – habitat (landscape and seascape), green energy, and animals. Ian is confident that the situation can improve. “You’ve got to be positive. People and governments are starting to realise that green is where it’s at. We need to free ourselves from this pit we’ve dug ourselves into. It’s going to take a lot of work, creativity, science and the drive to make changes happen, but we will do it. As the older generations running governments and big companies peter out, the next generation will
come to the fore and start steering us to a different place.”
On the green energy side, the IS Foundation is focusing on research possibilities, promoting the use of green energy and looking into the creation of new energy sources. Ian is a realist when it comes to energy and doesn’t want to preach. “I drive and use energy but the key is that we need to start moving towards green energy.” He recently became involved with a company called Go Green Mobile Power, which uses Department of Defence applications to produce portable green power units using solar, wind and biodiesel power. The units have been designed for use in disaster relief but the company also wants the generators to be used by the film and events industries. It isn’t easy to persuade people to change though, as Ian has discovered. “I’ve become involved with this company to try to reduce the amount of disgusting ethofuel that is used. The restrictions and efficiency laws in the car industry means manufacturers have to create a certain type of energy and have to produce a restricted amount of emissions. With production generators those laws don’t exist so the film industry has these giant generators running day and night, spewing this black toxic stuff into the air. It’s astounding. I’m in a position to use my name to get a message across but getting studios and networks to agree to help is proving a lot more difficult than I expected.”
As well as the environment, Ian is active in animal welfare causes, and that has led to the third arm of his foundation. “If we can start creating energy and using farming methods that are sustainable and healthy for the environment, then in turn it becomes healthy for the animal population. For example, if we stop coral bleaching on reefs we can stop the decimation of our fish. We can really create biodiversity.”
It’s clear that Ian is not overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. “I actually find it incredibly inspiring – these are things I feel so strongly about. And what’s more amazing is watching other people become inspired and seeing all these incredible kids wanting to take action.”
During his rare breaks, Ian heads back to Louisiana to holiday with his family. If he had more time he’d like to go hiking and bike-riding in “beautiful Georgia”, but for now he’s off to tackle some of his 3,900 unread emails, his starring role in a hit US series and the small matter of saving the world. So reader, if you think this vampire is a villain, bite me.
This piece was written for the January 2011 issue of RECOGNISE magazine.