On the Sept. 15 season 3 premiere of The Vampire Diaries, we’ll meet a Tennessee werewolf named Ray Sutton, played by 7th Heaven‘s David Gallagher (pictured with Joseph Morgan’s Klaus and Paul Wesley’s Stefan). “They’re actually hunting for me, so when I finally encounter them, I get swept into Klaus’ master plan that he has developed around Ray. It’s not the friendliest of encounters,” he tells EW. “I think the audience is really gonna eat it up. It really has to do with Klaus’ vision of the future.”

That casting of Gallagher is equally cool: He has a history with the show. He actually read for the pilot. “There was debate as to whether I was a Stefan or I was a Damon. I had read for both,” he says. “I think ultimately, it was sorta difficult to place me because lately in my career, I’ve been leaning toward things with a little bit darker sensibility [he’d guested as confirmed or suspected killers on Numb3rs, CSI: Miami, Saving Grace, and Without a Trace], and that clashed with the work people knew me for at the time.”

“He impressed us so much originally, and we said, ‘Gosh, he’s really a good actor, but that whole 7th Heaven thing… I wonder if he’ll ever be able to get past that,'” Vampire Diaries exec producer Julie Plec remembers. But then she saw him as scene-stealing stoner Donny in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. “I had no idea it was him until after the movie was over and my friend said, ‘What did you think of David Gallagher? Wasn’t he great?’ And I said, ‘Omigod, he was completely unrecognizable.’ I guess he found a way to get past the 7th Heaven thing,” she laughs. “I was just so impressed by the choices he’s making as an actor and how committed he is, that when he came into read for the Ray part, there was no hesitation wanting to get him into this world and play with us. And he did a great job. He’s a really smart, committed actor and he grew up on a TV show that defined him in a certain way. He’s actually absolutely nothing like that as an actor. That’s why it’s exciting to give him an opportunity to really show off his dark and edgy chops.”

Going to the dark side was a “semi-conscious decision,” the 26-year-old Gallagher says. “I definitely came out of my college years [he graduated from USC with a Critical Studies of Film degree] hungry for work again. I had taken some time off, and I was really dying to get back to work and I really wanted a change. I’d spent a decade on 7th Heaven playing Simon, which was a great opportunity for me. It was a wonderful show and a great role and it did a lot of great things for me. But ultimately, at the end of the day, I wanted to be challenged by something new. And as I got older, I became far more interested in the darker characters. A few years back, when I was still fighting the 7th Heaven image, I was trying to say, ‘Well, I can do serial killers. I can do dark material. I can do emotionally dark material.’ Now, I’m sorta coming into this era, especially after Super 8 and a lot of my other guest appearances, where people are saying, ‘Well, David Gallagher’s very dark.’ That makes me happy. It shows that people have enjoyed my recent work and taken it seriously, and it’s changing the way that they’re looking at me.”

His look has also helped with that. When he went in to read for the top-secret Super 8, he didn’t receive the material — a dummy script with lines for a character with a different name than Donny — until he got to the audition. “You showed up to the audition, they gave you the material, you spent a few minutes with the material, and then they read you, and then they took the material back even though it was fake,” he says. “I went in there scruffy and grungy, coincidentally — it’s my hair and beard in the film — and once I realized what I was doing there, I was like, ‘Oh, this works to my advantage.’ I knew that physically I had a really cool spin for it. At one point after the audition, they called and asked for pictures, which is always a very good sign. I found a picture of myself fishing,” he laughs, “and it’s a terrible picture of me from a few years back. Me and my girlfriend were like night fishing, and I got this random picture taken of me, and my hair was shaggy, and I look incredibly stoned. So that’s the picture I sent in to them, which reinforced the look that I had and I think they got a kick out of that. And after that, I got the part. So I jokingly attribute my Super 8 casting to my fishing picture.”

Gallagher knew what a break Donny would be for him. “When we were on set, I heard a lot that Donny was everyone’s favorite character in the script, and everyone loved Donny, and Donny was the funniest part. It didn’t go in the way of making me feel better, it actually made me quite a bit more nervous because I knew that I had a character that people were bound to remember, and I really wanted to do justice to it,” he says. “My goal became, how do I portray this ’70s stoner, the comic relief, and not be goofy or the ‘stupid stoner.’ I wanted Donny to be likable, not too overly animated or too hazy. I wanted Donny to be a real guy who just really wanted to get stoned, but instead had all of this stuff happen around him.”

When Gallagher went into audition for the role of Ray for Vampire Diaries producers, it was a similar situation, with only a vague idea that the character would be a Southern supernatural. He didn’t know whether he’d have fangs or fur. “Ultimately, I just went in and tried to bring a little bit of personality, a little bit of a smile. Bad guys have more fun. A bad guy always assumes he’s going to win, whereas the good guy has to struggle with, what if I lose?, and the audience wants to struggle with him. The charismatic bad guy, that’s the sensibility I brought into the audition, and it seemed to apply well to what Ray needed to be. Ultimately, Ray turned out to be more of a victim, which I found to be a pleasant surprise, and gave it an extra layer that I didn’t expect.”

Does his two-episode arc come to a bloody end then? “Certainly blood is involved. I think I can comfortably tell you that Ray’s run-in with Klaus involves blood,” he laughs. Plec’s tone would seem to concur: “Poor Ray. That does not end well for him. It has a lot to do with what I call Klaus and Stefan’s ‘great summer ripper road show,’ and where Stefan is in his relationship with Klaus. Ray comes into that story line and puts Stefan in a position where he has to show his loyalty to Klaus at the expense of this other person.”

Looking ahead, Gallagher says he’s open to any role. He’s still reading for a lot of killer types on cop shows and the day we chatted, he’d just auditioned for another stoner type. “I look to challenge myself with a character that’s not like myself or anything I’ve done before, but I certainly don’t reject roles based on how often I’ve done them. If I were to book another stoner-type role, then I would hope to bring something different to it. I wouldn’t want it to be just Donny with short hair,” he says. “I’d like to be that chameleon. That’s really ultimately what I want to hear from people eventually: ‘I really love when I see him in stuff, but I never know he’s gonna be here.’ I want to be that actor that surprises you when you see him in a project, and you go, ‘Yes! I love that guy. He’s in this? Awesome.’ It’s sort of a different goal than most, but I’m really happy with the way things have been progressing lately and coming together.”

We’re rooting for him. You?

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