By Jaimie Kourt Edited by Jeanette Zhu
There are many ways you could describe the multifaceted entity that is Ian Somerhalder: Actor. Non-sparkly television vampire. Philanthropist. Authority on sea turtles. Southern gentleman. So blessed in the genetics department, he could start modeling at age 10. And while he may currently play a dead creature on The Vampire Diaries (dangerously attractive Damon Salvatore), in reality Somerhalder is very much in tune with his living counterparts, as evidenced by his inspiring resume of environmental work that includes his own charity, the Ian Somerhalder Foundation.
Here, Somerhalder talks to ContentMode about his work, philanthropy, style, and the people that matter.
Your photos for us were shot in a beautiful landmark 1920’s Hollywood apartment once owned by William Randolph Hearst. You spoke of the broad differences between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. What does that statement mean to you?
Old Hollywood was a time that image and sound carefully and deliberately came together to paint a beautiful portrait of life in motion. While art is surely present and continuous, today you have to sift through the commercialization of it all to find the artistic integrity that was standard in the past.
Milan Kundera once wrote, “Nostalgia is the suffering caused by the unappeased yearning to return.” Do you have an unappeased urge or wish to have lived in another time?
Every era can be distinguished by its own unique features and characteristics, but I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of our present one. This moment in history is truly an awakening. When Time deemed the person of the year in 2011 to be the protester, it really struck a chord with me. We live in an age of tremendous information that can be obtained effortlessly, therefore empowering us to find what truly resonates within us. I mean, if you are truly asking [for] a decade, maybe—if I had to answer this question as a life or death thing—I’d say that a wild and artistically abundant period in time would have been the roaring 20’s. Perhaps. However, the excess and richness in life at that moment got a bit out of hand and was quelled by the depression.
What are you personally nostalgic about?
Growing up in rural Louisiana, I find myself reminiscing about stepping outside of my house and absorbing the magnificence of untouched nature... connecting to the array of life demonstrating its presence in our ecosystem. This experience was very meaningful in shaping who I am every day still to this day. We need to protect this experience so future generations have an opportunity to appreciate the interconnectedness of this earth and all of her creatures.
You have worked for at least half your life. Do you ever contemplate taking a break and doing something else? Are you the kind of person who can chill and do nothing?
I saw a sign the other day—I actually tweeted it too—that said, "Life is shorter than you think." Every minute we are alive is a pretty darn fortunate one. I really believe if you spend those opportune moments knowing you’re leaving the world a better place than you found it, that is time well spent and ultimately more fulfilling.
Was there any other career choice(s) you ever entertained, even as a small child? What was it about being in front of the camera that drew you in?
I always found myself writing as a child... that was definitely a path I would have also greatly enjoyed. Acting, though, is a unique craft in that it possesses a distinct obligation to find the undeniable truths within the character you are taking on. It allows you to be truly open to discovering the many layers of our reality and relay the ultimate vulnerability of the human experience. As an actor you hope to never stop growing and each new role guarantees that. I also wanted to be a marine biologist most likely because I grew up on the water. However a friend of my parents asked me the question, in regards to my wanting to be a marine biologist, if I wanted to spend the rest of my life begging people for money for projects that no one cares about. Well now, fortunately, I can use the entertainment business to help those marine biologists find the necessary means to conduct the studies and use the awareness to protect our precious waters.
How exactly does a ten-year old kid (unless your name is Brooklyn Beckham) become a professional fashion model?
There actually seems to be a similarity between Brooklyn Beckham and me: a supportive, loving family. As a child, my dreams were uninhibited and I was encouraged to explore every aspect of my personality and seize opportunities that came my way. It was a pretty unique childhood, but one I would never take back.
I’m sure it was an amazing experience. Was modeling something such a young kid can intellectualize? What have you absorbed into your life and learned from that time?
Regardless of age, every person, at whatever part of their journey they are at, can intellectualize the experience in their own way. Being so young, I was absorbing the way in which relationships work... how people effectually relate to one another... what it takes for a human being to connect to another human being. Every day is a study in humanity and that was just one remarkable entrance into that lifelong study.
Your foundation, philanthropy, and environmental work are so interesting. Can you talk a little about them—what they are, where they came about, what rewards/learning experiences you’ve gained, and what challenges you faced?
By observing the current state of the world, it’s apparent that we each have the responsibility of lending our abilities to fix the messes we humans have made. I’m profoundly grateful that my life has led me to have access to such a public platform. With this platform, we at the Ian Somerhalder Foundation can act as a megaphone for the many unheard voices spanning the globe. These voices join to make an incredibly strong and beautifully unique tapestry that has remarkable potential for this planet. These empowered voices have also become my family. The only real challenge is honing the vast array of skills and passions we have to face our goals one day at a time.
What was your experience like in Trinidad and Tobago filming Blue August, a documentary about sea turtles? Did you get to investigate any of the culture or meet the local people? Most species of sea turtle are endangered, so what can/is being done to reverse their potential extinction?
Trinidad and Tobago was a truly eye-opening experience. The people are amazing and the topography is as well. However, seeing the jungles destroyed haphazardly and legally for their teak and seeing how these turtles are almost extinct because of terrible fishing practices, loss of habitat, and poaching of eggs... what I realized is that the loss of one species will have an effect on the entire ecosystem. An example is leatherbacks: [they] eat one thing, jelly fish—hundreds of pounds of them per year. If and when (and it’s not far off) the leatherback sea turtle becomes extinct, jellyfish blooms will proliferate and overpopulate the oceans. What does this mean? Jellyfish kill the young of large, top-of-the-food-chain fish on the surface, ultimately destroying fish populations which lead to food shortages, a situation we cannot afford to experience. However, it also gave me so much energy and understanding that a creature that has lived on earth for 100 million years has virtually been wiped out in the last 50 by mankind. That in and of itself should give such spirit to anyone who wants to protect the magnificent creatures for the balance of our life on this planet.
Where have you never traveled to, but find yourself yearning to visit?
In my line of work, I find myself traveling almost nonstop. But regardless of the frequency of my travels, it’s never dull. Every time we leave our home routines, we are allowing ourselves to venture outside of our comfort zones to grow. There are many really beautiful places on this earth that I would love to travel to, especially places in need of ecological and environmental awareness: Maldives, Haiti, Vietnam, and the Arctic just to name a few.
Damon, your character from The Vampire Diaries, is a complex guy. He seems anguished in figuring out and living his true nature. What were your initial thoughts in understanding him and what goes into nurturing a deeper and broader character each season? Is this something that comes naturally or consciously?
Understanding Damon has been quite the journey, but my guide through that journey has been Ivana Chubbuck. She is a phenomenal acting coach who has had a penetrating effect on how I’ve come to comprehend Damon. We take every script and really break it down to find the needs of Damon and the truths he possesses within his own reality. To get those truths, I have to find a marriage of things in my own life that will be the "connective tissue" between what’s on the page and what will be on the screen.
How do you describe your style? Do you like fashion? Do you have a strong sense of style and enjoy the sprit of dressing or is it a lot more fun to have someone else tell you what to wear?
Fashion to me is comfort. I think the more comfortable and natural you are in your clothing style, the more genuine you feel. I have always appreciated fashion, but personally I’m relatively simple in my style choices.
Do you have any input into your looks for work and productions?
Absolutely. What you wear completely alters the way you carry yourself and even the way that you speak dialogue. I appreciate working with a team that carries a collaborative attitude towards making the character come to life within every detail, including wardrobe.
You were on the brilliant but short-lived HBO series Tell Me You Love Me. That show had all the makings of a knock-out hit but was cancelled. Obviously, this whole business is a big crapshoot. Do you find it very frustrating? Is it difficult to roll with the punches?
It was a very complex story and I think it [the cancellation] was much too soon.
Who are the people you count on most in your life to tell you the truth? To make you giggle? To make you think?
My family. My friends. The crew. The people that make up the Ian Somerhalder Foundation. In life, we seem to magnetically draw people towards us who are like-minded or necessary for our own personal growth. In my life, I’m surrounded by all kinds of different people on a daily basis who simultaneously encourage me to think, make me laugh, and definitely inspire honesty.