Everyone is going crazy over Ian Somerhalder, the former Guess? boy who's now turning heads as a decadent undergrad with a crush on James Van Der Beek in Roger Avary's sizzling The Rules of Attraction.
"See this bump?" Ian Somerhalder says, indicating a minor abrasion on the bridge of his nose. I might not have noticed it if he hadn't pointed to it; his crystal-blue eyes are that distracting. Seems a few days ago he was sitting on a couch in the Hollywood Hills, minding his own business during the shooting of a short film, when all of a sudden "a fucking pair of steer horns fell on my nose."
I can't help chuckling. "Did they get it on film?"
"No," he says. "It is kinda funny, but my whole face is bruised, my eyes are black."
"Your cheeks look a little sunburned."
"No, they're always like that. But this is never there and I've never had dark circles under my eyes. It hurts like a bitch; I mean, I've been on Vicodin for the last [few days]. It was wretched."
Truth is, though, there's little sign of bruising under his eyes, the wound is almost healed, and the bump on his nose only serves to compliment how spectacularly handsome he is. A model since the age of 10, Somerhalder, now 23, is well-suited to play one of the smug, upper-crust students in The Rules of Attraction, director Roger Avary's adaptation of the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel about rampant sex, drugs and "rock 'n' roll" on a Northeastern college campus. It co-stars the pretty ensemble of James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Kate Bosworth, Jessica Biel and Kip Pardue. Avary (Pulp Fiction's Oscar-winning co-scripter) employs visual derring-do to bring Ellis' typically shallow, spiritless, libidinous, characters to vivid life and wrests extraordinary from his young stars. Perhaps too extraordinary. As this publication goes to press, Avary is embroiled in a struggle to trim his film to meet the MPAA's arbitrary standards for an R rating. Rules is currently rated NC-17, an indie death sentence. "This is a film about moral decadence," an irritated Avary told the Los Angeles Times. "[I]f you take out the bad behavior, you rob the film of its message. I made the film because Hollywood teen movies lie about what it's like to be a teenager. What really disturbs the MPAA is that this film shows the truth."
"The Rules of Attraction is gonna help smash that campy, lovey-dovey, fake teen genre," says Somerhalder, taking a long sip of his iced mint tea. He has shown up at this hideaway coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard wearing an extremely abused gray Camel T-shirt and worn blue jeans. A maroon baseball cap with a rooster insignia hugs his head and strands of unruly brown hair stick out around its edge. He says he's dead tired, but he presents himself as eager, courteous and confident. The kid has been a professional charmer for a long time, bringing home a sizeable paycheck since the fifth grade.
"So, I'm driving home last night from the set up in the Hollywood Hills," he says, apropos of nothing, "flying down the hill into Sunset Plaza and I notice this BMW SUV following really close behind me. I think, Holy shit, I'm going like 50 down the hill, how is that big thing maneuvering? I stop at the light and look in the rearview mirror and it's this beautiful blonde. Gorgeous. But I'm tired and I'm really focused right now - I'm not worried about dating. So I [am about to] turn onto Sunset Boulevard, and she comes up to me right when I'm making a left and looks at me and she is stunning, so fucking beautiful I don't know what to do with myself. She says, 'Where do you go in LA?' And I'm going "Ah...eh...ah,' because I don't really know; I hate going out here. She says, "Can I talk to you for a second?' It's like out of a dream. I'm so tired I'm wondering if it's really happening. So I pull over and talk to her. She parks in my driveway and we walk down and have a drink [on Sunset]. She's 21, Russian, and just as sweet as fucking can be. She lives in Miami, but she's moving here. I woke up this morning in a daze going, Did that really happen? I'm gonna cook her dinner tonight. I'm so happy about that. I haven't had a date in eight months."
"Does that sort of thing happen to you often?"
"Well, even if it does, I don't pay attention to it. I'm usually so focused on what I'm doing. It's kinda sad."
In The Rules of Attraction, Ian Somerhalder's Paul Denton has serious designs on James Van Der Beek's Sean Bateman (younger brother of American Psycho's Patrick), a grotesquely unsavory version of Dawson Leery. Somerhalder is wonderful as the smarmy bisexual Paul, his performance so beautifully nuanced it seems a sin that his talent should have been wasted all these years in the static world of modeling. I ask him where his gay-but-not-queeny performance came from.
"I've been around the fashion business since I was 10 years old," he says. Of course. "Here's the thing: you never really truly, truly, truly know if Paul's completely gay or not. And the stuff with me and James, when it happens, it's a fantasy sequence, a dream. So you don't know if it's my fantasy or his."
"It's clearly yours."
"Yes, but it's still fuzzy. You can interpret it several different ways, which is how it was meant to be. But it's strange, the whole gay aspect is starting to really get pushed so fucking much, man."
"I'm required to ask you about the kiss."
"You don't have to," he says, laughing. "James and I had numerous conversations, laughing about it. WE knew we had a chance to do something very different and really fuck with people."
"Maybe it's just me, but it didn't seem such a big deal."
"I didn't care and neither did James. We just knew we could do something neat. People are gonna talk, and let them. It's just kinda funny."
"Tell me about Dawson. I heard that he was advised my his handlers not to take the part of Sean."
"James? I don't know. Probably. He was smart for doing it. He's a very good, very giving actor. It's going to change his image big-time. As for me, a well-known producer screened the movie at his house and he killed me for taking the role of Paul: 'Are you fucking gay? You're not gay! Why'd you do that? How could you do that?' [I did it] because it was challenging. But what freaks me out is that the last two times I've turned on my television, it has been the ET segments of me and James [kissing] and of me dancing in my underwear and I hear my name and James Van Der Beek's name and the word 'sex' all in the same sentence."
"Hey, I love that underwear scene," I tell him. "It's hilarious." In the scene, Somerhalder and brilliant newcomer Russell Sams, as an ex-boyfriend emphatically named Dick, go crazy on a hotel bed to the deafening strains of George Michael's "Faith."
"It wasn't scripted or choreographed," says Somerhalder of the bounceathon. "I'd been laying on the bed in my underwear having a dialogue with Faye Dunaway in a scene that [was ultimately] cut. I was walking back to my trailer in my Ritz-Carlton rode when Roger said 'I need you to strip on the bed.' I looked over at Russell and his eyes went big. This is one of the first things Russell has ever done and Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway were in the room. Roger wheeled in these huge speakers - they were really loud - and he told us to trash the room if we wanted. We did it in just one take."
"What's Faye like?"
"Incredible. She's obviously who she is, she's a legend. Faye's intimidating to a lot of people, but I was never intimidated by her. She walked up to me and shook my hand and gave me a hug. I play her son and she has a son around my age so she could [relate to me] rather well. When you think of her as your mother, you kinda go there and there are things you create so you have subtext and you get annoyed just as a son would be by a mother."
"But what was she like? She can be a nightmare. It has been said she charged people a whopping $3,000 a month to live in her house because she'd won an Academy Award and that she stands in her yard an yells at the neighbors. I love that."
"Faye yells at her neighbors? I could see that," says Somerhalder. "Yeah, she yells sometimes. After The Rules of Attraction, I did another movie with her, Changing Hearts. I spent the month of November in Nashville with her. I love the woman, I have a profound respect for her. It's all about the work; she's serious about what she's doing and very demanding. That's why she's so hard on people. If you step in her way, she'll squash you."
"I'd do every movie with Roger Avary if I could; he's just wonderful," says Somerhalder, almost wistfully. "If people like the movie, they like it. If they don't, they're going to not like it for very specific reasons. I'd rather have someone see the movie and not like it, but know why they don't like it. if you're gonna hate something, tell me why you hate it."
Ian Somerhalder's life so far has been as rosy as his cheeks. he was born in Louisiana, in the small town of Covington, just outside New Orleans. His mom was passing through Covington on her way to New Orleans to give birth when little Ian popped out early, apparently impatient to start his charmed life. Though he was raised in Louisiana, he has no discernable accent. "My mother sort of refused to allow me to have one," he says. "And then when I was in New York I'd hear people from the South, and I made a conscious effort not to sound like that. Plus, I lived between New York and Europe for most of my formative years."
His mother, Edna, who's half Choctaw, half Irish, grew up on a pig farm in Mississippi, he says. She raised the young Ian on Eastern medicine and organic foods. "She's very spiritual," says Somerhalder. "She made my baby food and had me on blue-green alga probably since I was in third grade. I never had sugar. I never got to have white bread or any white-flour products." He led a life of soy and homemade root beer (save for German chocolate cake once a year on his birthday). He remembers being in Catholic school and trading his grilled vegetable sandwich on marble rye for a classmate's peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread--and getting sick from it. (He has kept to a healthful diet. "I can't eat fast food," he says. "I haven't eaten McDonald's in 10 years. I eat fish every day.")
He says his father, Robert, a building contactor, is "a cool guy." Dad's half French and half something other than what was originally assumed. "Long story short," says Somerhalder. "I found out there was a discrepancy in the family name. My great-grandfather, a wealthy English landowner, got one of his mistresses pregnant and paid an immigrant worker of his to marry this woman and give the baby a name, which was Somerhalder. So, I'm actually English, not German; my last name would be Hull."
Edna and Robert were divorced when Ian was 13 but nobody seemed to mind. "I wanted them to divorce," Ian says. "They fought like brother and sister, now they're best friends. They hang out and are great to each other." Ian's brother, Bob, a former professional cyclist, and sister, Robin, a future broadcast journalist, are both 30, born 10 months apart. "They had the picture perfect upbringing," Ian says without resentment. "The two parents together, the house, the white picket fence, the land in the country. But if I'd had that, I wouldn't have moved away to Europe and lived in New York from age 16 to 20.
"I had a great [childhood]. We had horses and motorcycles and boats, but I always wanted more - a bigger horse or a faster bike or whatever," Somerhalder remembers. So when he was in fifth grade, Edna suggested the 10-year-old go out and earn a living by modeling. (She knew someone.) "So I said, "Sure, sign me up,' and I got a three-year contract with the Ford agency in New York." Just like that.
Long story short, as Somerhalder would say: The boy worked "every single day, two or three jobs a day," doing Ralph Lauren, Gap, catalogue, television commercials. "Instead of going to summer camp, I went to New York," he says. At 15, an agent hooked him up with photographers Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber. During his sophomore year, a town car picked him up at school twice a week "with all my books and shit" and took him to the airport, where he'd fly to New York for work. Though he was an A student in class, he completed high school through the mail. "I was gonna do college through correspondence, too, but it just didn't work out because I'd be on a plane to Paris in the morning, then get on a plane to Hamburg, then the next day I'd work in Milan for a couple of days, then go back to New York, and then to Miami."
But it turns out that all this time he really wanted to act! Who knew? "I realized I had to stop modeling and start studying to be an actor, which I'd wanted to be since I was about six." After studying with the popular William Esper in New York, Somerhalder came out to LA to shoot a Guess? campaign and found out that the producers of Young Americans were interested in him for their teen drama. "I begged the owner of Guess? to let me out of the contract and I booked Young Americans. I went back to New York and studied for another six months, came out here and shot the show and I've been out here ever since."
Young Americans ran for eight episodes on the WB's 2000 season before it was cancelled. "Only eight," says Somerhalder, who is still remembered by his fans as Hamilton Fleming. "It ran in 35 countries and they keep running it. It's in France right now, running and running and running."
You're writing a screenplay. What's it about?
The fashion industry as seen through men's eyes. My writing partner and I have this negative take on the whole fashion world and beauty and how disgustingly horrible it can be. It's called The Jack of Dimes.
What's your favorite thing about women?
It's conglomeratic. Not only is there something about the way they look, the way they feel, the way they smell, the way they sound, but it's the way they make you think. A woman can make you happy instantly, a woman can make you sad instantly, a woman can make you infuriated instantly; a woman can make you so secure one moment and insecure another. A woman can affect the male psyche.
Do you smoke?
Occasionally. Smoking's a really nasty thing.
Do you fully understand the Louisiana Purchase?
Explain it to me.
[Does]...And you can carry open containers of alcohol outside.
Do you drink?
Not really. I love red wine. I love sake.
What was your worst hangover?
I've had a couple. There's this little hole-in-the-wall place in the East Village that his this thing called the Tijuana Special. It's a shot of tequila and a Tecate in a can. It's four bucks. I'd just gotten off a plane from Italy. I'd done a job in London and gotten paid in pounds and had exchanged it for dollars and had all this cash on me. They almost didn't let me back in the country; it was too much to claim. It was in my boots and my socks and my underwear, in my cargo-pants pockets, in my luggage.
How much money?
About $35,000. It was a lot. And just one of those specials is a buzz waiting to happen. I drank from 10 o'clock at night until 5 in the morning. My buddies and I had the best time. But at 10 a.m. I was so sick it was like alcohol poisoning. I was taken home by a very sweet, beautiful individual who took care of me. I was so out of it that when I'd open one eye it felt like my temple was about to blow out laterally from my head. The hangover lasted two full days.
Have you ever been arrested?
I have. When I was really young, for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness underage, on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I was 17. Listen, every Senator's son, every judge's son, every high-school principal's son, every cop's son in Louisiana has gotten into trouble for alcohol consumption at some point in New Orleans.
Whom do you go to for advice?
My mother. My ex-girlfriend. And my attorney.
Who's your ex-girlfriend?
She's a fashion designer. She's wonderful, amazing, talented as all hell, beautiful, smart, perfect...I don't know why...It's my fault. She was gonna sell her place in New York and buy a place here and we were gonna live happily ever after. I put a big dent in that road. I just ended it.
Do you travel with a posse, like Leo?
God, no. First of all, I can't stand having that many people around me; I don't have the money to do that. And B, I don't need anyone to do anything for me. I hate it when people get me coffee.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I like floaty, dreamy, well-orchestrated rock music. A lot of indie bands that no one really knows about. Very obscure. I don't like to listen to music with words; I don't wanna be inundated with other people's thoughts.
From 1994 until two years ago, you were paying for a New York apartment. Now you live in the Hollywood Hills. Is that it?
I have a beach house in Malibu, so I'll go there, grab a surfboard or a sea kayak or whatever, and get the fuck outta here. The quality of life is so much higher anyplace you can ski in the morning and surf in the evening - there's something to be said for that.
Do you have any beauty secrets?
Sleep, exercise, a lot of water. Faye said, 'Darling the fountain of youth? Sunblock.' And her skin is four times better than mine.
People still recognize you from Young Americans and come up to you. Can you go grocery shopping?
Yeah. I'm going right now.