The Virtuous Vampire: Ian Somerhalder

By Angela Arsenault
Posted On Jan 12, 2015

By Andrew C. Stone

If all celebrities took a cue from Ian Somerhalder and used their notoriety to inspire social change, this world would be a beautiful place, indeed. Somerhalder (a 35-year-old Louisiana boy who began modeling at age 10) made waves in films
like The Rules of Attraction and turned heads on TV shows such as Lost and Smallville. For the past six years, the blue-eyed leading man has heated up the CW, playing dreamy Damon on the hit show The Vampire Diaries. Somerhalder, who boasts a social media following in the millions, founded the Ian Somerhalder Foundation to support and raise awareness about conservation, green energy, and deforestation. He is currently developing its first sanctuary for abandoned and abused animals—the first of many. Passionate, confident, and talented, Somerhalder is leaving his mark—and no, we don’t mean vampire bites.

Ian, how does it feel to be six seasons into The Vampire Diaries?
At this point, we’re well-seated in our roles. But while some people would go on autopilot, those of us on the show don’t take this situation for granted. We’re family. We pull from our lives to keep the work fresh, and help each other do that. It helps that we make fun of each other all day. We take the work very seriously, but insist on having fun.

What would you say are your defining traits?
I push myself from morning to night. That’s how I’m built. I can be a total space cadet as a result. I left my wallet home this morning and when I arrived at the Warner Bros. lot they wouldn’t let me in. It’s amazing how often I forget my wallet or my keys. I get spread thin, but I would never change any of it.

“Balance becomes unbalanced when we take more than we give.”

Your foundation has created conservation initiatives, facilitated youth education, funded green energy research, and broken ground on an animal sanctuary. You also participated in the Emmy-winning documentary Years of Living dangerously. Why do you live this way?
I’m from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. My mom’s a beautiful Mississippi farm girl, with a lot of Native American blood, and my father is a bayou boy. Both taught me about the balance between humanity and the environment. When I was little, my dad would take me out in the swamp to fly fish on a pirogue—a French canoe that puts you right down in the waters with the snakes and gators. I learned to respect the flora and fauna. Meanwhile, Mom taught me about farming and the soil. I saw that balance becomes unbalanced when we take more than we give.

How did you decide to create the Ian Somerhalder Foundation?
I was part of the Lost cast, living in Hawaii. I witnessed so much environmental degradation. Then the BP oil spill took place in the Gulf of Mexico, and the home where I grew up was essentially destroyed. I felt totally disempowered. I never wanted to feel so helpless again.

Is the average person ready to pitch in?
When we empower people, their contributions are incredible, and the most undervalued people are our youth. If we give them the tools to make a difference, they will.

How do you feel when someone critiques the younger generation?
I was on a panel at SXSW last year [with Bryn Mooser and Sophia Bush], for RYOT.org, moderated by Matthew Bishop, the New York bureau chief of The Economist. He brought up this concept of “slack-tivism”—the notion of a bunch of 14-year-olds and middle-aged housewives sitting on their couches, Tweeting about change. We need to “86” such disempowering words. It’s namecalling. It’s also inaccurate. Our new education program, [U]Factor, is focusing on unlocking potential in young people, helping them identify their skills and passions, and teaching them how to fit it all together. I have to believe it has the potential to change education.

You’ve used social media brilliantly—millions of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram followers. You’ve also mentioned the need for technology breaks. Why is that important?
It’s about maintaining sanity. Our brains are bombarded by stimulation. Taking a Sunday off from the computers and mobile devices may be uncomfortable at first, but it feels incredible.

In addition to a healthy state of mind, you’re clearly in great physical shape. What are your guiding philosophies on eating?
I spend a few months every year abroad, eating fresh foods and greens. After just two days back in the U.S., I think, Why am I so bloated and tired? It’s from food. Our ancestors were nomadic, eating foods that were in season and naturally
available. We now eat the same things every day and have developed allergen responses. We eat strawberries every day; hamburgers every day. We drink coffee every day. If we’re using our precious immune cells to fight off food allergens
they’re not available to fight off cancer cells. A food allergy test, once or twice a year, can reveal what we need to cycle out or cut out entirely. That’s how I stay healthy, and it’s how our society can be healthy, too.