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For better or worse, the public appetite for vampires and their seductive ways just won’t die. On a blustery afternoon, Paul Wesley, star of the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” and a beneficiary of this cultural phenomenon, is trying his best to explain the mass appeal of the aesthetically endowed undead, while looking every bit the part. Gray and black T-shirt and jeans ensemble? Check. Furrowed brow and brooding eyes? Check, check. Spiky, artfully disheveled hair that brings to mind another famously mussed mane? Major check.
“What’s great about a vampire is you can incorporate it into real world circumstances, rather than ‘Lord of the Rings,’ where you’re in ‘Lord of the Rings’ world. This is this mysterious, dark, dangerous, omniscient being in the world,” muses Wesley as he nurses an Irish coffee. “The character is very much like the rebellious, sexual, iconic figure that throughout the years we’ve always felt this need to get to know. Like the Marlon Brandos.”
“The Vampire Diaries” has certainly made good on this popular elixir. Currently in its second season, its first episode in 2009 garnered the largest viewership in the history of CW for a series debut and it continues to rank as the station’s number-one show. But Wesley admits to some hesitancy on entering into a project that could have potentially put a nail in the trend’s coffin.
“There was some trepidation of, ‘Hmm, this could kind of go in a really cheesy direction and it could be riding the coattails of something,’” says the actor, 28. “And then as the show developed it really became an independent piece. And what’s great is I think it was able to use the success of its predecessors to get the initial viewership and then had the quality to have longevity.”
On “The Vampire Diaries,” Wesley stars as Stefan, the kinder, gentler of the two vampiric Salvatore brothers (Damon is played by Ian Somerhalder), who returns to the fictional Mystic Falls in search of his love, Elena (Nina Dobrev). She bears an uncanny resemblance to his 19th century paramour turned vengeful blood-sucking villain, Katherine (also Dobrev). Shot in almost pitch-black tones, the show pits the brooding, self-hating Stefan as the almost monastic yin (he won’t drink human blood and practices monogamy) to Damon’s hard-drinking, lascivious and sometimes homicidal yang (though Stefan gets his share of skin time — “When it makes sense to declothe, one must declothe”).
It’s no surprise, then, considering Wesley’s moody features, that producers originally had him in mind to channel the bad brother.
“I think physically they thought I represented Damon more. I think they were envisioning someone even more innocent for Stefan,” he says, though he was initially more drawn to Stefan. “[He] felt more inherent to my own personality. I am a diehard, hopeless romantic. He’s melancholic and I have that dark side that gets very melancholic.”
It was Wesley’s more rule-defying side, however, that defined much of his childhood. A first-generation child of Polish immigrants (mom was a nonpracticing psychologist; dad was a computer engineer who studied in Chicago and at Columbia), he grew up in Monmouth County, N.J., the second of four kids. He began performing in required elementary school productions (“I hated and just resented it. And then a teacher made me Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera.’”) and started pursuing acting more seriously at 15, traveling into New York City by train to take theater and improv workshops.
“I grew up in this town where we all put on this front, we all wanted to be tough. And acting wasn’t necessarily cool. It was kind of something I embraced the hell out of, but then I’d come home and try to be mister tough guy,” recalls Wesley, a self-described “bit of a rebel wannabe trouble-maker” (he attended three different high schools after getting kicked out of the first two for fighting and truancy). “I never thought acting would be something I would make a living on or have a career out of; I thought I was doing it for fun. But then I joined a TV series…and was like, I’m just going to do this and then sort of a domino effect and it became this.”
Wesley has been financially independent since his teens (he got his first apartment in the West Village when he was 16) and, since a long-running gig on “Guiding Light,” has had recurring roles on “Fallen,” “Everwood” and most recently “24.” But “Vampire Diaries” arguably marks his most in-depth experience to date.
“Season one was incredibly taxing on me because I got a little too almost method and it got a little bit intense for me as far as affecting my personal being,” says Wesley (though obviously not literally method considering his character’s proclivities). “I’ve made a very conscientious decision to try not to take home what I do at work, which I was not really capable of at first. But I realized, this is a marathon, not a sprint, so I’m preparing myself for the long run.”