Paul Wesley talks “The Vampire Diaries”

By Jeff Pfeiffer

Paul Wesley carries on the "brooding vampire" tradition in "The Vampire Diaries"

When he was in his late teens, young heartthrob Paul Wesley played his first supernatural being — werewolf Luke Cates in the short-lived 2001 series Wolf Lake, which remains a cult favorite among some. It was a role that seems fitting now, to Wesley, for the age he was then.

“I always associate werewolves … with this kind of instinctive anger,” he says, ” … More like animals with rabies. When I was playing the werewolf, I was like 18 years old, and I think I was just like this teen who was running rampant. And I had a great time, and it fit the character perfectly, this alpha male machismo … and that was me.”

But the Paul Wesley of today, who was at the recent CW presentation at the Television Critics Association (TCA) tour, has obviously grown beyond that. He’s calm, thoughtful, and quietly enthusiastic about his new series The Vampire Diaries — one in which he plays another sort of monster, but a show that looks poised to have more staying power than Wolf Lake. He plays a vampire named Stefan Salvatore, and again it’s a role that seems to be a good fit for where the actor is at in his personal and professional life.

“Vampires,” he says, contrasting with the werewolf role, “Stefan at least … he’s more of a thinker. He’s an introvert, an intellectual, he sits there and writes. There’s more finesse.”

Vampires do occupy a higher chain of command among monsters in pop culture because of their intelligence; werewolves are pretty one-note. In addition to that advantage, Wesley and the crew behind Diaries also have the good timing to be striking while the iron of the Twilight franchise is very hot, and the sex appeal of vampires is again in the forefront of audience consciousness.

Like Twilight, this series is based on books (these by L.J. Smith) and features a vampire in love with a human girl (Elena, played by Nina Dobrev). But it’s got a dash of ‘Salem’s Lot thrown in as well, as executive producer Kevin Williamson’s (Scream) script seeks to explore the undercurrents of evil beneath a small town’s facade, which the arrival of Stefan and his more sinister vampire brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder) brings to the surface as they battle for Elena’s soul. For good measure, there’s a bit of Southern Gothic a la True Blood as well (the show is filmed in Atlanta and set in Virginia, with Stefan and Damon having a history dating back to the Civil War).

“Stefan hates being a vampire,” Wesley points out. “He doesn’t want to be a vampire. He’s constantly struggling with the dark side. He has a need to feed on human blood. It’s not easy for him not to do it. He wants to experience life as a normal human being, whereas his brother loves vampirism; he’s enjoying it.”

This conflict and loneliness turns Stefan into the brooding type of vampire we see often in these types of stories, but that archetype seems to have more appeal than perhaps some happy-go-lucky vampire would. And it seems to have always drawn in women particularly, as Wesley has noticed.

“It’s certainly empowering [to play a vampire]. There’s an omniscience. Being a lowly human, it’s nice to play a character who has this omniscience. But it’s so easy to make that one-dimensional. Vampires are flawed, flawed individuals. It’s just that they come off as really stable, and I think that’s what women gravitate towards. Of course, it must be amazing [for vampires to have that power]. But I assume if you’re thousands of years old you’re probably used to women throwing themselves at you.”

Wesley may need to get used to that himself in real life, should the show take off along the lines of Twilight, and with the unique crowd of vampire fans of all ages. And as a human, that may be a tough adjustment for a man who currently likes to remain fairly under the radar.

“I do everything anonymously,” Wesley says. “I walk around Atlanta and nobody bothers me. I think my whole life would change if this [series] were to take me to a different place. I’m a city boy. I thrive off culture. There’s something about, like, Manhattan (I’m going there this weekend). So walking around and not having anonymity would really take away that experience of being in the city.”

On the series, Wesley won’t even be covered in special makeup effects to help keep him anonymous, either. But that he somewhat likes.

“Makeup’s never fun,” he says. “Nobody wants to show up at 6 in the morning to get makeup. The good news is we don’t have a lot of makeup [for the show]. We have these contact lenses that we put in. I’ve worn contacts my whole life, so it’s not a problem for me.”

Not having been exposed much to vampire stories growing up — but being very interested in mythology — Wesley has found himself researching the myths of vampires. “There’s so much history,” he says.

One element of the mythology of the vampire that Wesley finds a little melancholy is that whole immortality part.

“You know what’s bad about that? Being like a nomad. You can’t really establish relationships with anyone without revealing your secret for more than like a decade before they realize that you’re not aging. So I think Stefan hasn’t been able to establish relationships with anybody, and that’s lonely.”

But Stefan’s loss will be Wesley’s gain, as — like it or not — he should be anything but lonely once The Vampire Diaries reaches rabid CW fans Sept. 10.

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© 2009 The CW Network, LLC. Credit: Bob Mahoney