Ian Somerhalder Has Done It All On "V Wars"

Ian Somerhalder requires very little prompting to talk about his new Netflix show "V Wars" — a dystopian sci-fi drama adapted from the IDW comic. He has spent over a year working on the series as the lead character Dr. Luther Swann as well as a director and producer. With so much work put into the various facets of the creative and filmmaking process, his enthusiasm for finally being able to talk about the project is immense.

When my group of reporters are brought in, Ian still has his lunch in front of him. There's a salad, some seasoned potatoes, and what I assume is a cup of coffee. He greets everyone in-between bites, a bit sheepish about doing an interview while eating. With a busy schedule of promotional media sessions to do, it's understandable that he doesn't have enough time to eat alone.

"I promise I won't smack," he jokes about the possibly annoying chewing sounds that could come from starting the interview while he's still eating. He takes a moment to pick up my back-up audio recorder, an older Sony model, and examine it's shape and design while everyone begins placing their own devices in front of him. "Wow, this looks like one of of those little spy ones and then you just pull this trigger and it shoots out two bullets."

"How did you know?" I quip.

"Oh great. After I bore you with this interview you might want to shoot me. I want you guys to listen to the bullshit that I have to tell you." The reporters can't help but laugh at his self-deprecation, but then he begins to open up without anyone having asked him a question yet.

"This has been such a passion, such a legitimate journey for me, for my team and for us as producers from the beginning. This has been fifteen months of my life and the last eleven months [were] in post-production just fine tuning. We knew we had something special. One of my producing partners is here with me. We go everywhere and do everything together now." He introduces James Gibb, one of the show producers who is in the room while he is being interviewed.

"He's the man who saw this whole thing through and got us to where we are. We did it together so there's this attachment we have now doing all of this together. Getting this to where we are now was such a feat."

It can be considered bad form as a reporter to push out too many questions about other projects talent have done in their career when the main purpose of an interview being conducted under limited time is to promote something new. Ian is best known for his roles on the hit series "Lost" and "The Vampire Diaries", with the latter being the main reason for a highly passionate fan following even two years after the show's series finale aired. However, he brings up "The Vampire Diaries" entirely of his own volition.

"You guys know me. I did a hundred and seventy-one episodes of Vampire Diaries. It was my life. I worked hard to make sure that that character came to life, that the story always came to life and felt real. People always say, 'I'm an actor. I make believe all day.' I disagree. I would say, as an actor I try and tell the truth all day. You're in a make-believe situation but you're trying to find truth in whatever it is that you're saying. As a producer of this show and as the lead of this show, it wasn't just about what we got onto film. It was also about what we did to it after, being in post production for almost a year crafting this. That was what's so great about working with Netflix and with IDW. We knew we had something special so we begged and pleaded and grovelled to get more time to do that, and they allowed us to do it and so here we are."

It's at this point that he seems to realise he has been talking for three minutes unprompted. "This isn't about me. This is about you guys asking questions. Talk to me." He jokingly interrupts the first reporter when they begin to speak ("No!"), before smiling and fist-bumping them, encouraging them to continue. "Sorry I'm munching, guys, I'm just starving," he says while popping another potato slice into his mouth.

The first question is about what he learned when adding the responsibility of being a director and producer of a show as opposed to only being the lead actor the way he was on Vampire Diaries.

"On Vampire Diaries I still took so much stock in every frame. But on set I didn't have the ability to go into the mix, into a mixing stage of technicolour and say, 'I'd really rather move this sound over here and can we bring this sound up thirty percent and bring his voice up a little bit here.' No one was gonna let me do that. The skill set that I learned on Vampire Diaries, I was able to bring into V Wars and I'm so grateful for it, for those skill sets. It allowed me to produce this show at my best. It's a great responsibility. It's a lot of different stressors. When you're on set as an actor you just want to do the best job. But also too, as a producer I'm there thinking, 'We've got to get out of this scene in a half hour otherwise we're not gonna make our day. What can I do... I'm not directing this, what can I do....' [You] make sure you go talk to the DP and you talk to some of the crew. You go, 'Guys, look. I love you guys. Don't kill me. We've got to jam. Let's bring craft services a little closer, maybe everyone has a cup of coffee, but we gotta go now. I swear I'll get you out of here on time but we gotta get this one shot so please guys, help me. Can we just barrel through this?' It's not just being an actor. You're producing this thing. It's part of your DNA. It's like your baby."

Another interview faux-pas is to ask intrusive questions that focus on personal life. Ian is a relatively new father to a two-year-old daughter with wife Nikki Reed, both of whom he brings up in the conversation. Fatherhood has shifted his perspective on life and work, and being away from his family can make the long months spent on set far more challenging.

"The show took me away from my family for months although I got to be with my family a bit cause my wife is so supportive. She's building her company. While we sit here and talk about V Wars my wife is with Forbes right now talking about how fast her company is growing. We were together for part of production. She came and did us a huge favour. She was in the show with me. She did, I think four episodes, played an amazing role, turned in these incredible performances and was with our baby, played this amazing character, gave these beautiful, nuanced, incredible, powerful performances, and then went back to run her company. She was doing all [of] this simultaneously. She's just a rockstar. When something takes you away from your family and your tiny baby... for the eleven months we've been in this post-production vortex. I was working until three and four o-clock every morning for like four or five months and then the baby's up at eight or eight-thirty. When you're running on three and a half to four and a half hours of sleep for months on end, it gets you. I put my heart and soul into this show. We worked so hard on it."

It's hard to tell if Ian has caught up on any sleep at all since the post-production wrapped, though he pushes through any exhaustion to share as much as he can about V Wars, without spoiling any major plot points of course. Vampire Diaries always had longer seasons fitting the network format with new episodes airing weekly, whereas V Wars will have just ten episodes released simultaneously on Netflix.

"Season one of shows are tough because you're just finding your footing. You're finding characters. You're also finding the look. You're finding everything out. You're really building. Everyday you're building. You get it to that place where now you've got enough fluidity, and this is non-linear television. I had never done Netflix. It's always been on a network format. The thing about a season one on a network show on a network format is you've got a really long runway. You've got twenty-two episodes. It's nine months. You can stumble through a couple places. It's like if you read a book, it's got twenty-two chapters, or you read a book that's got ten chapters. When it's condensed, every frame tells an even bigger story so it's more condensed and more intense. This was all this learning experience to find this fluidity even with different directors with different points of view."

Though V Wars is another show with vampires, it's clear after watching the first episode that they are an entirely new creation. Their overall look when in the throes of hunger is more grotesque, with a face contorted through a combination of practical and special effects.

"Now we've got the world at least started. I am encouraging anyone who watched me on Vampire Diaries or has any spare second to watch the show, and not just give it a chance, just dive in. We worked really hard on it and I think people will enjoy it, but it sets up the world going forward."

Though there hasn't been any official announcements about an early renewal, Ian speaks about the show's future with a confidence and enthusiasm to continue the story.

"Getting into season two and subsequent seasons, [we] really get to expand the world and blow it out of the water and create these really unique, socially relevant, controversial juxtapositions."

V Wars introduces Dr. Luther Swann as a scientist giving a talk at a medical conference. He discusses how with global warming melting the ice caps, long dormant pathogens may emerge and pose a serious threat to humanity. Works of fiction such as these have a greater capacity to resonate with the audience due to their topical relevance.

"This show deals with a lot of the stuff we're dealing with now. Borders, racism, disease, fear, politics, politics of fear, how that plays into the psyche of society. These aren't things we're only hearing in our own echo chambers. There are things that are out there. This is out there in the world around us. The climate issues that we have, which is where this disease came from... as this ice melts it's exposing things that have been safely trapped in this ice for millennia, possibly hundreds of millennia. As it's being exposed it has the potential to wreak havoc on our society and that's not just happening in our show. That's actually happening in the world right now. There's scientific article after scientific article after scientific article right now, another one just came out this morning, of the effects of the melting ice. We're gonna see it in wildlife. We're seeing it now in wild-stock. These pathogens, if they hit, it's like Luther Swann says on the show, 'An ancient form of ebola uncovered, exposed from melting ice could wreak havoc and create an epidemic so big that it makes the bubonic plague look like a chicken pox party.' Now there's seven billion of us so that's what makes this so unique to me. It's very grounded and science-based."

Another aspect that Ian is excited about is the diversity. With more conversations than ever about the importance of creating works of fiction that show the world as it truly exists, those who resist that inclusivity run the risk of antagonising audiences.

"Once I get to blow this out of the water, it's global, so we get these really unique perspectives and we get to bring in characters from all over the world."

This diversity starts from Jonathan Maberry's original source material. Though the story starts with Luther Swann, there are a number of other characters and perspectives showcased in the comics.

"That's what's so beautiful about it. That's what's so brilliant about Maberry's approach. It takes balls as a writer to not want to take all the credit. Maberry is so cool and so smart. He says, 'Look, I'm a white guy, I live in San Diego, but I want to tell a story about a young girl on a border town. You guys are writers. You know, write what you know. He brought in these amazing writers to weave these authentic perspectives and then intertwine them and weave them into thread of this overall fabric of this story. Those specific perspectives, that's what I love. It wasn't difficult at all going through the source material because those voices are so special and the perspective is so dense and palpable. That's what's exciting."

One of Ian's favourite V Wars stories is of Mooney in book one. "It's really one of my favourite ones about this young Latina girl in a border town who's been beaten, raped, is pregnant... her story is amazing. She's hunting jack rabbits and coyotes to feed herself. It's so powerful. I cannot wait to get down and shoot in season two in New Mexico and Mexico."

Ian has already mentioned developing the look of the show in passing, but I press him to elaborate further on that. Whether it's the storyboarding as a director in pre-production, collaborating to design the cinematography, or the lengthy colour grading process in post-production, I'm eager to hear whatever technical details he feels inclined to share.

"It takes a huge team. We've had a team of, I think eighty people working around the clock on this for a while now. If you think of The Office, you've got about thirty and on set you're about ninety, that's a hundred and twenty people. Then you have an additional eighty people or so in your post-production team, effects, all that stuff. You're talking about a lot of people, and then the artisans building sets and building the stuff, it's an amazing amount of people."

Vampire Diaries was only shot on Alexas, a digital motional picture camera that has become a dominant model in the film industry over the last few years in both major motion pictures and television shows. Ian says he loves that format but V Wars had to be shot on RED cameras for their 4K capabilities.

"We had an amazing, very strange location that gave us a very unique look. It's supposed to be New York. It's the top tip, it's the rust belt. It's good, strong, working class families, [and] university. The colour grading, which is another amazing art, you're sitting with your colours for hours, weeks, in a dark room looking at these. It's crazy because Netflix has [you] broadcasting in 4K but you don't want to watch everything in 4K. 4K to me is the devil. For actors and actresses and set designers, you can see every pore on someone's face. It takes away from feeling like you're watching a piece of art. It makes you feel like you're actually sitting and talking to someone. We took great care, weeks, months actually, finding a colour palette that would advance with the story. When you start out where there's no problems, everything is nice and normal and colourful. As this story unfolds and as things sort of start taking a downward spiral, you can start to suck the colour out a little bit. [For] the viewer, it's very subconscious but it's a very specific thing that we do. Just the creation of it all and the endless conversations, literally four a.m. conversations... cause then you're under a gun, then you've got to deliver. The four a.m. conversations about literally the light in someone's eye in two or three or four frames. Then you just say, 'Okay, it's four a.m., I love you, what are we doing? We have to sleep.' Then you get up fresh, you have another perspective, you have your cup of coffee and go 'Yes! That is it. Team, we made the right decision. This looks amazing.' This is the detail of what I've been doing for the last year of my life and it's the most amazing, rewarding thing. Even if you guys hate the show, for me to just sit here and actually talk about it being a delivered television that's gonna be on the air in three weeks is like a vacation. You guys are like a vacation for me right now."

Ian says that preparations to learn all these new technical skills involves with being a director and producer happened rather quickly.

"There was a lot of learning on the job. That's kind of the whole point. You find really unique and amazing things on the day. One of the unique parts whether it's acting, producing, or directing, it's all about preparation. At the end of the day, if you're prepared, you're now open to new things that are maybe great [or] new things that are maybe not so great and you can deal with them all in a level, constructive, and efficient manner. You go through great lengths to prepare."

This work ethic was something he honed on Vampire Diaries because of the busy, rigorous schedule he was working under.

"It was so important for me to play that role to the best of my ability. I would get the new scripts. I would read through the scripts then I would literally wrap on Saturday mornings at like five in the morning, get on a plane, fly to LA, either do press or something that morning, then work on the script with my acting coach for hours and hours, leave her house, get back on a plane, fly back to Georgia, try and get some rest on a Sunday, and then go back to work at like four o'clock Monday morning or work all day on a Saturday, break down my script all day with her Sunday, get on a plane, fly back to Atlanta, land at like midnight or five in the morning on a redeye and go straight to set. I did this for eight years. That was dedication to make sure that that character, Damon, that I did him as much justice as humanly possible. If there were times I failed, it was still failing while doing the best I could.

Finally, Ian is asked about whether delving deep into this new character has taught him anything new about himself as an actor. He is instructed that he only has two minutes left before a new group of media needs to be brought in, agreeing to try to hurry before proceeding to answer the question for almost eight more minutes. What he's most surprised to learn about when playing this new character is the plight of the parent.

"I just became a parent, well now she's a little over two years old but when we first started shooting the show she was nine months old. She was a tiny little baby. As a parent, your sole job in life at this point is to stay alive to protect that kid. That's it. That energy, you bring it into every scene with you. It's always there and I learned there is nothing that can take that away from a parent. That through line is the most organic, natural, unimpeachable emotion. It's not even an emotion. It's like part of your DNA.

Another thing I learned was that on a set, when you're trying to act, you also have to trust the process and the team around you cause it's my job to get it on camera to the best of my ability. Again, if there are times in scenes where I fail, it's failure at me trying to do my best so I accept it. You learn more from your failures than you do your successes. Like, 'that performance didn't work as well as I wanted it to because of X, Y, and Z. I'm not gonna let that happen again.' But it rarely happened on V Wars.

I was learning every second but also so open and nimble because I would make sure that I was prepared. I didn't want to step on a set as an executive producer or a director or as a lead actor if someone comes up to me and says, 'Hey, I really don't understand this scene or this set-up. Why are we doing this?' There's not a second that I want to have to say, 'Um hey guys, can someone explain this?' It's my job to know every spect. It's kind of like being a father. This show is our baby.

I did this to the best of my ability, working so hard that it's put me in the emergency room for a second. For me, I think, hell, it makes a great story. I won't do that again cause now I know my limits and you learn, again, from your failures more than your successes. C'est la vie, as they say. What an amazing journey. I'm excited to share it with you guys because this is the first season of what I hope is something that resonates with you guys, that's a hit show.

Fortunately for me, even my first show is a show called Young Americans which was this WB show, it only went a season but it still created a lot of chatter and launched a lot of careers. Lost and Vampire Diaries were these sort of tentpole, water cooler kind of shows, right? I don't have any plans to not build water cooler shows, ones that make you think, ones that make you talk. We just set up the world enough in season one to give you a taste of what we can expand this world to be and the journey that Luther Swann is gonna go down and the world's that gonna be created.

With viewership, that will give us season two so I can create these really sexy, dangerous, unique, and quite controversial storylines that I think will be hard-hitting and still, not even diving into but also addressing and getting under your skin and under your fingernails of those big, current things we're dealing with which are borders, racism everyone is experiencing, disease that we're all battling and fighting, the fear that all of us whether it's individuals, households, and our governments are sort of experiencing, and the politics that surround it all but without bludgeoning people on the head. It's not like I'm giving you my perspective. It's actually what's happening in the world.

I also can't wait to sit in a room with an amazing diverse group of men and women writers and really whiteboard out, 'What are the big things that prop society up?' If you think about how fragile our economies and our systems are, what happens? It's a one in four infection rate so if you get exposed to this there's a one in four chance you will turn. There's seven and a half billion of us. What do you think a quarter of that is? What happens when there are so many Bloods that a new mortgage crisis happens because people are sick? It's like cancer but worse. They're not paying their mortgages. What happens when telecommunications companies can't function or utility companies can't function because people aren't paying their bills? What happens in this giant Jenga game when wrong pieces are pulled out?

Underneath all of it, for a time, Luther Swann is the one trying to hold these pieces up to race to find a cure so that he can stop this because that's his passion and that's his expertise is infectious disease. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for listening. I'm sure I bored the shit out of you. It's gonna be fun, just check it out. Share it with your peeps and let's get into expanding this world and creating some really unique social juxtapositions that flip us upside-down and build community around it.

If one person has a constructive and amazing conversation of something they learned from society or about society or about themselves as a result of the show, then we have succeeded. Hopefully that's on a much bigger scale but I'll just take one."

Science has no border, no agenda, only truth. This is a particularly distinct line from the pilot episode that rings true to the viewer and nicely introduces the layers of the show's writing. Luther Swann is not only the scientist searching for a cure to a deadly outbreak, he is the man trying to save his best friend who gets infected with the vampire disease and his family from a dangerous new world. Somerhalder's performance is earnest and vulnerable in all the right ways.

The horror elements are far more striking than what Vampire Diaries fans may be accustomed to, given Netflix's lack of censorship regulations compared to network television. It's considerably more mature and sometimes explicit, but never gratuitous. The creature design is striking and unique, with a somewhat nostalgic feel considering the practical components when the vampires reveal their more animalistic side to feed.

Whether you are tuning in due to an interest in supporting Ian Somerhalder's work, or because you're interested in exploring a dystopian portrait of today's sociopolitical issues wrapped up nicely with a sci-fi flair, "V Wars" is sure to appeal to your liking.

"V Wars" premieres on Netflix on December 5.

Watch the full interview with Ian Somerhalder here:


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