With all due respect to the Paley Center for Media, this year's Vampire Diaries panel was a bit of a fiasco. The moderator didn't ask a single question that suggested she even watches the show with regularity (and didn't seem to have written out any questions beforehand), and she definitely got an F for, you know, moderating the conversation. I mean, Candice Accola was only asked one question. One! So, without insightful questions or even basic follow-ups, the panel ended up really just a venue for Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley to freestyle charm everybody and talk amongst themselves as the moderator politely sat in silence. Fortunately those two guys are straight-up hilarious, but with a few exceptions listed below, anyone hoping for actual moments of meaningful insight from this panel left mostly disappointed.
After a screening of this week's brand new episode, "1912," Executive Producer Julie Plec confirmed a few choice pieces of information: Elena will be making a big choice by season's end with regard to the Salvatore brothers, plus we haven't seen the last of Esther or her plot to murder her own children. We the audience were sworn to secrecy over the specific, mega-spoilery details of "1912", but I can tease a few things: In this episode we'll learn that Jeremy may be in danger, wherever he is. Sheriff Forbes throws somebody in jail over the string of murders. Rebekah has really good reflexes. Matt gets in some quality time with Elena. And Damon's 1912 wig is hilarious. (Obviously.)
For the remainder of the discussion—mixed in with all the vague season finale teases and coyly deflected questions—the guys and gals of The Vampire Diaries did treat us to a few choice moments of insight. (Thank God for the audience Q&A.;) What follows are my favorite (serious) moments of the panel, including: How Plec pieces together an episode from scratch; inspirational words from working actors to aspiring ones; and a surprisingly frank account of how Ian Somerhalder nearly didn't become Damon Salvatore.
EP Julie Plec on breaking an episode and writing the season:
It's horrible. [Laughter] We start every episode with a blank white board and no formula and no procedural elements and no franchise elements. And essentially every episode is its own new movie. And we do 22 over the span of 7 months and we immerse ourselves completely into trying to decide what is the next move emotionally for all these characters? We usually start there. We start with the best emotional move, then what's the next move in our mythology, and then how can we thematically link those things together so that they organically feed off of each other.
And then we come up with our fabulous Mystic Falls very special Event-with-a-capital-E! Which, now, I'll tell you it's kind of a joke, but also from a storytelling point of view is crucial to our show because more often than not it is the central element that brings all of our characters together and links all the stories together so that the episode feels like a movie with a beginning, middle and end. So while we share the joke, we share the laugh about, like, 'Oh this week is the Ball or whatever, and next week is the Great Chilli Cook-Off, it actually makes the show feel like you're tuning into a movie each week as opposed to just an endless, serialized mass of nothing.
Julie Plec on staying one step ahead of the fans:
The way these [actors] tune into their characters, they get a sense if the rhythyms or behaviors of the characters start to feel stale or not surprising. We writers pride ourselves on always being right there so that we're making changes and making decisions for the characters just as the actor themself is starting to feel constrained. Or, as the fanbase is starting to feel a little bit tired. You know, we're always five or six or seven episodes ahead, I can always track in the social media feedback, just when somebody's starting to complain really loudly about a storyline, I'm always like, 'Hehehe' because I know that we've already made the turn, and we're already going in the direction that the fans are clamoring for. They don't know that, but we like to feel in sync with everybody.
Paul Wesley: Do the fans ever influence the direction?
Plec: You know, I'll tell you, it's hard to shut out that and not take some of that into consideration because [fan feedback] is loud. And I mean that respectfully: It's beautifully loud. But you have to try to be true to character all the time and there's obviously been certain moments where we sit in the writers room and we say, 'Oh, we can't do that, because boy would that piss somebody off.' But then we'll talk about it and say, 'No, no, no, we're not making decisions based on satisfying everyone. Let's be true to the core of our theme, the core of our characters, and the journey that they're on.'
The cast and crew on making it in the entertainment industry:
Julie Plec: The opportunity to do this is such a dream come true, obviously. It can happen after a long, long, hard road, or it can happen in an instant. And everybody's experience is different. It's like the proverbial discovered-at-the-mall versus you're 45, you've been at it for 25 years and somebody finally says, 'Hey, I like what you do.' But you never take it for granted, because it doesn't really happen very often. Success doesn't really happen very often and multiple success doesn't really happen very often, so we just are very incredibly grateful to be part of that.
Ian Somerhalder: I would think that the TV pilot world in general, a lot of it is a fluke, I think. You know? Even if something's good... It doesn't test well, it doesn't go, it doesn't find an audience. I feel like it's such an arbitrary kind of thing. I feel like you just sit at a blackjack table and have to hit 21 or something. It's an old adage, but the idea that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Luck does not just fall in your lap. An opportunity can come at you and if you were not prepared to take advantage of that opportunity, it's essentially never going to happen. So by virtue of that, it's a very strange thing, because this aspect of whether it's either writing, directing, producing, acting, this entire business, life in general, is a lot about when you are prepared to accept the opportunity that's given you.
Paul Wesley: Conversely, can you be prepared and then never have any opportunity?
Somerhalder: You know, there are a lot of people that— That may happen.
Candice Accola: That is where positivity comes in. That plays a very big part. My dad always told me that 'No doesn't mean never. It means not yet.' And so with all the 'No's that came a lot of the time, it's good to just keep working and better yourself and know that more opportunities are more opportunities for 'Yes.'
Wesley: The single most important thing is to believe in yourself. Really believe.
Somerhalder: Even when no one else does. Because the amount of rejection that happens... Actually you want to hear about rejection? And Julie [Plec] was there for this and Kevin [Williamson] as well. It was really brutal. You know, the process of booking a television show is an extensively nerve-wracking, nail-biting, awful experience. Do not kid yourself. You can believe in yourself so much but when you realize you want something in life, the stakes are raised. It's very difficult to differentiate whether you are worthy of this or you aren't, you just have to do what you do as best as you can.
Namely, I knew this was my role. I wanted this role, I knew I could do it. You go through a series of testing, you meet the directors and producers and writers, and then go through a testing phase, and then you get an offer. Then you go and test for the studio—in this case Warner Brothers—and then you test for the network. If at the end of that network test they want you, then you get the job. If you do not pass the studio then you would never make it to the network.
I passed the studio, got to the network, and whether it was too much coffee, that B12 shot I gave myself, who knows. I choked in the network test. I bombed it. In the first take of the network test— First of all, you're in a theater where you say a word and it doesn't move. It's this, like, vacuum of a room. And I finished the first take of it and Kevin Williamson goes [gestures 'let's go outside']. So I walked outside, Kevin Williamson walks up and he goes, 'Yeah. That wasn't good, was it?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Just go back and do what you know you need to do.' And I did. I did what I thought I needed to do, I left feeling awful. Guess what? It wasn't good enough.
And I had to go back and re-test because all our big boss, [CBS President] Les Moonves, did not buy it, the fact that I was Damon. And I wanted to jump off of a building. And you know what? I went back there and I realized— And there was some other [actor] in the room, I don't know what he was doing. Something distracting, like singing while reading a book—I just said, 'You know what, screw this. This is mine. This is not his.' And I went in and did it and oddly enough, ended up getting the call. But it was after 10 days of virtual hell. And you don't always win. But every time you lose, you get better.
[All photos courtesy PaleyFest.org]