Arts & Culture

Ian Somerhalder: From Bayou Kid to Hollywood Heavyweight

An interview with the Louisiana native, whose winding journey has taken him from Cajun cowboy to television star to bourbon boss

Photo: Eric Ray Davidson

Ian Somerhalder, photographed in Malibu, California.

“It helps curb the cravings. But…makes for a lot of lushy vamps.” That’s a line from an early episode of The Vampire Diaries—the TV series that became a worldwide phenomenon over eight seasons—describing vampires’ love of spirits. In the show, the two vampire brothers, Damon and Stefan Salvatore, played by Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, raise this to an art form with their consumption of bourbon. It’s also a story element that inspired Somerhalder and Wesley to start a distillery and release their bourbon, Brother’s Bond, earlier this year.

The venture fits with Somerhalder’s childhood in Louisiana. On Sundays after church, he says, the adults would enjoy mint juleps, creating indelible scenes in his memory. Even though Somerhalder now lives in California with his wife and daughter, the South—and its greatest drink—seems to have a powerful pull on this model turned actor, who also starred on the hit series Lost

Did you learn about the “rules of vampires” by watching The Lost Boys?

Oh, my, I loved that movie—and it still holds up. I knew a lot about vampires because I grew up near the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In the distance you can see New Orleans glimmering. It has a mystique for vampires, and my mom loved Anne Rice; plus my family is Cajun. As a kid I was always saying, “Yeah, let’s go find a vampire.”

When did you begin to love bourbon?

I still remember the smell of fresh cane juice muddled with fresh mint from when I was growing up. I’m not a sweet drink guy, but there’s something about a mint julep that is unbelievable. During The Vampire Diaries, Paul and I would film sixty hours a week in Georgia and then travel home every weekend—we lived on Delta [Air Lines]. Because it was Georgia, you couldn’t drink until a certain time, so the first thing we’d do when we got on the plane on Saturday mornings was say to the flight attendant, “Bourbon. Now.” After that, we’d take a four-hour nap.

photo: Eric Ray Davidson
he actor with a snifter of his Brother’s Bond bourbon.

Walker Percy once wrote that bourbon is best used “to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cure the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.”

I was raised down the street from him in Covington, Louisiana. One of his daughters is a close family friend and was a teacher at our school. And one of my dearest brothers, the writer and director Aaron J. Wiederspahn, who put me in his film The Sensation of Sight, is adapting Percy’s novel Lancelot. It would be a dream for me to be in it. I grew up reading Percy’s books.

How did your childhood there impact you?

Louisiana operates a little like Europe. If I was having a sleepover with my grandmother, who was French, and got wired on candy or Coca-Cola, she’d let me have a tablespoon of wine and I’d pass right out. Childhood is different on the bayou. My uncle had a beautiful house on nine hundred leased acres where I kept a horse. When I didn’t have football practice, my best friend and I would saddle up with our rifles and camp for two full days and not come back until Sunday evening when it was absolutely the last chance to get home before dark. If we were pushing it too late, we’d hear a foghorn that meant, “Get your asses back here.” That’s how I lived. Many people are working to get out of small towns. I’m working hard to get back to a small town.

What’s the path from there to modeling for Guess?

My parents divorced, and I grew up super poor. My mom used every dollar we had to put me in modeling and acting classes. When I was ten, we made a mock commercial of me advertising Nike, and she took me to a modeling convention on Hilton Head. On the plane, I played with the other kids to see who could eat the most Altoids all at once. I woke up at two o’clock in the morning vomiting, right before this huge competition. Mom stayed up all night with me and said, “Ian Joseph, we worked so hard to get here—why did you do that? I’ve got you, you’ll be okay, but never do that again.” 

Well, I won in every category. The prize was a three-year contract with Ford Models. I started appearing in ads for Ralph Lauren, the Gap, Toys“R”Us. We would go to the Ford office to pick up our checks. I was hanging out with all these girls, making them paper footballs. Later, they became the biggest supermodels in the world. They were so sweet to me, but they didn’t want to talk about remote-control cars.

photo: Eric Ray Davidson
Somerhalder at play on the beach.

One of your first major roles was in the 2002 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction.

Bret’s the man. I love him. I was in the Florida Keys when my agent called and said the producers wanted to see me right away. I had my car there and had to drive across the country [to California] for this big-ass meeting. I stopped in Texas to get my tires changed, and my only clean clothes were a tight pair of hipster black jeans, a white tank top, and a pair of Hush Puppies—I looked like a Beat poet. The station was air-conditioned, so I waited between these two huge dudes and worked on playing the character of Paul Denton, who’s bisexual. To my right is this giant, sweaty man, and to my left is another giant, sweaty man. They looked at me like, What are you doing? 

When I got to Lionsgate, the executive said, “There are so many other actors out there. Why should we give you this role?” I said, “I might not be as good as they are, but I will work harder than anyone and promise to be unique and nuanced and will listen to everything the director says.” Boom, I got that one.

How does running a bourbon company compare to your Hollywood successes since?

Yesterday I went to a Total Wine & More store in Woodland Hills, one of the largest movers of alcohol in the United States. To see our bourbon next to some of my favorites is emotional. I sold two bottles talking to a guy. I said, “Hey, man, what are you looking for?” He said, “Something I don’t have yet.” I said, “I can guarantee you
don’t have this. It just hit the shelves four hours ago.”