Paul Wesley on his ‘Vampire Diaries’ character’s addiction and more
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After 10 years as a successful but under-the-radar TV actor, Paul Wesley is suddenly everywhere. Last summer his face was on more than 30 ‘Vampire Diaries’ posters at the Century City/Westfield mall alone, not to mention billboards over seemingly every major boulevard in Hollywood. A Twitter search brings up a dozen of ‘his’ accounts (none of which, by the way, are run by Wesley or his representation). L.J. Smith’s ‘Vampire Diaries’ novel series, first published nearly 20 years ago, is now being reprinted with images of Wesley and his co-stars, Nina Dobrev and Ian Somerhalder, on the covers.
Still, none of it seems to have gone to his head. There’s no third-party publicist on the line when he calls me during a short break from filming in Atlanta, and he mentions that he’s only recently gotten himself a Los Angeles-based cellphone number. ‘I kept my New Jersey number literally until a year ago,’ he says. ‘There’s something comforting about it.’
Now that ‘The Vampire Diaries’ has returned from its extended fall hiatus, Wesley’s character, 162-year-old vampire Stefan Salvatore, is struggling to come to terms with his girlfriend becoming friends with his brother, the bloodthirsty and often maniacal Damon. Paul let me in on his dream role, Stefan’s potential dark side, and how Stefan might handle Katherine’s possible return.
Before we talk about what’s up next on ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ I wanted to ask you about ’24.’ You’re playing Jack Bauer’s son-in-law. We haven’t seen a lot of your character, and obviously you’re busy out in Atlanta, but do you have any plans to return to ’24'?
Not that I’m aware of. I’d auditioned for the show so many times over the years, and one day this character came about and they offered it to me, without an audition. I said ‘Absolutely.’ When we shot my first two episodes of ’24,’ I didn’t even know that I had ‘Vampire Diaries.’ I love the show, I’m a huge fan, and I think the acting is so good. The writers are great. If they were to expand the character, and I could make time for it, it’d be fantastic.
In ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ it seems like Stefan and Damon are in for a bit of a power struggle. What’s it like working with Ian Somerhalder on the scenes where the two brothers are at each other’s throats? You guys have great chemistry together.
We do have a natural chemistry, because I adore Ian. When we’re acting together, it’s like a tennis match. It’s always nice to play with someone who can hit the ball back to you, you know? And I hope he feels the same way about me. He always gives me something new to react to or to feed off of.
The dynamic of the characters is so interesting because they love each other, but they hate each other. I don’t have a brother, I have sisters, but I would imagine it’s very love-hate. It’s just exaggerated to the nth degree for Stefan and Damon. As the season progresses, they develop more love for each other, but they keep doing things to make each other distrustful, then we go back to ground zero and start again. There’s always this thing in Stefan’s head where he hopes that one day Damon can just be as normal and functioning as possible.
I can’t imagine Damon as a normal, functioning brother.
Exactly. But maybe not a sociopath, maybe not psychotic. When you go to the flashback, it breaks my heart sometimes. I think about their relationship, and it’s so beautiful. They loved each other so much back then.
I know you guys have a big flashback episode coming up. How do you approach Civil War-era Stefan differently from 2010 Stefan?
The key difference is that with young Stefan, I don’t really think about anything. When I was 18 I was just absorbing everything around me: whatever happens, happens. I was so naive and willing to ride whatever wave life threw at me. Stefan’s like that: He’s easily manipulated, innocent. He’s got this beautiful young soul.
Then Stefan at 160 years old has the wisdom of my grandfather, times two, which to me is unfathomable. It’s a complete 180 from who he used to be.
It’s become clear that Stefan isn’t as hung up on Katherine, romantically, as Damon is. When that tomb finally gets opened, if Katherine comes back, do you think Stefan wants to see her again?
I’ve thought about that so much, but I don’t know if I have a definitive answer for you. He’s in love with Elena; that’s his true love. No doubt about it. Still, there’s always something to be said about that ex-girlfriend who created such a lasting impression in your mind. Even if you know she’ll be somewhere, and you’re like, ‘Uh-oh!’ it’ll still be kind of interesting to see her.
Last week Nina [Dobrev] told me that her favorite episode was ‘The Lost Girls.’ Do you have a favorite episode or scene?
‘The Turning Point.’ It was a really beautiful episode for Stefan and Elena. The moment where he turns around because he’s ashamed of his face -- the blood is rushing through his eyes, his veins are popping out -- he’s terrified, and he hates himself for it. He runs from that part of himself, but she turns him around and tells him not to be afraid. She touches his face, and she thinks he’s beautiful. It’s so intimate, that moment, because she accepts the darkest part of him.
When Stefan vamps out, how do they do that to your face? Makeup? Is it CGI?
There’s a lot of CGI, and some makeup around the eyes. I put some crazy contact lenses in. They put these four dots on my face, for the CGI guys to use as markers in post-production. I think that’s how they do it in ‘True Blood’ as well. It’s actually very funny, because we do these scenes and Nina has to pretend to be in love with me, and I’m standing there with polka-dots on my face.
Kevin Williamson told me that he’s looking forward to Stefan eventually falling off the wagon and drinking human blood again. Do you look forward to playing the darker side of Stefan, or do you prefer him as the more morally sound of the brothers?
I wouldn’t want to play dark, evil Stefan forever, but I think everybody has a dark side, especially a vampire, and it’d be unrealistic not to explore that. I really look forward to playing that, especially because right now, he’s so noble. You always want what you can’t have when you’re an actor, you want to try something new.
It’ll have to be something very severe to drive Stefan to drink human blood, though. He’s resisted it for so long. I can’t wait to see what that catalyst is. Whatever it is, it’s going to be tremendous.
In one of the episodes, Elena asked Stefan about his past, and he said he’s done a lot that he’s not proud of. Do you know much about Stefan’s past?
I don’t know anything other than what I’ve created in my head as an actor in order to make that line come from a more honest place. Still, I think for sure, he’s killed. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: He’s killed. When Stefan was trying to help Vicky, trying to coach her, he was speaking from experience. It’s like an AA coach, or something -- your AA coach was most likely an alcoholic at some point.
Stefan has always reminded me of a recovering addict.
I constantly think of him that way. Stefan is like a recovering heroin addict.
Surrounded by heroin.
Exactly. I’d be depressed too! No wonder Damon is so damn chipper. He’s like a junkie with heroin growing in his backyard, with clean needles everywhere! It’s perfect! Damon is always high; he’s having a blast! The moment Stefan lets go of his guilt and consumes that human blood, and indulges, he’s going to be high, and it’s going to be like a split personality.
Stefan doesn’t let loose or have fun often. When Lexi visited, he laughed and relaxed a bit, but that didn’t last very long. He’s very broody with Elena. Do you think he’s ever going to be able to have normal friendships and loosen up a bit?
Maybe, as he becomes more assimilated into society. He’s 160 years old and hanging out with high school kids. There’s a naiveté, something so beautiful and wonderful about being 17 or 18, and he’s sort of regressing to that point, hiding from his true self. He’ll always have a sense of misery, to an extent, though as he becomes more social, he’ll develop more human characteristics. I mean, I hope so! I don’t want him being broody all the time! That’s so boring!
I want him to have fun and show some colors. When Stefan and Damon were messing around in the bar, throwing darts -- Stefan was manipulating Damon, but it was still freaking fun! It was great to not be thinking about the problems in his life. For that moment, they were able to have a good time.
One of the great things about playing a 160-year-old character is that you’ve got an extensive back-story. Right now, we’ve explored 2010, and we’ve explored the 1860s. Are there any eras in Stefan’s lifetime that you’d like to go back to?
So many! Any time that I haven’t lived in as Paul would be fascinating to explore as Stefan. Any revolutionary period in our history. I did a show that took place in the 1960s called ‘American Dreams,’ and I really enjoyed that. People were so confused at the time. They didn’t know what to do with themselves, trying to figure out where they stood in terms of women’s rights and segregation. It was such an interesting time.
Stefan’s had the unique experience of living through the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Amazing! Imagine the experiences he’s had. It’s really nice to have all these options for Stefan’s and Damon’s pasts. The show will never get boring.
Are there any particular characters from literature or history that you’d really love to play?
Holden Caulfield. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ changed my life when I was a kid. I read it as I was a boy turning into a man, and I was so fascinated by the values. I believe in it. Of course, I’ll never play him because J.D. Salinger will never allow anyone to play him. To be honest with you, if I were offered the part, I might be too terrified to accept. But in my perfect world, that’s who I would play.
Now that you’re working in Atlanta, is there anything you miss about L.A. or New York?
I feel weird being inland. That’s odd for me; I miss the water. That’s the only thing. The thing I love about being an actor is the ability to travel and experience new cultures. I filmed a bit in Charleston, but I don’t know much about the South. I can now say that I’ve lived on the East Coast, I’ve lived on the West Coast, I’ve lived in the South, I’ve lived in Canada. It’s nice to have the freedom to experience that while I’m young.
I love working in Atlanta and being around these people. We get through our days constantly teasing and picking on each other, in the most lighthearted, loving way. Nina, Ian and I are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, other than when we go to bed at night. We just rip on one another in the most affectionate ways, and that’s what makes the day go by better. I’m having so much fun.
Me and my depressed, recovering heroin addict, miserable vampire -- we have a damn good time.
Don’t miss ‘The Vampire Diaries’ at 8 tonight on the CW and be sure to come back to Showtracker for the episode recap/review!
-- Carina MacKenzie (chat with me on Twitter @cadlymack)