Today will be different: An oral history of The Vampire Diaries pilot
In September of 2008, HBO launched True Blood, an edgy new show that welcomed viewers to the fictional town of Bon Temps, La., a supernatural hotbed in which local waitress Sookie Stackhouse couldn't help but fall in love with a vampire… or two. In November of that same year, the first Twilight film hit theaters. Based on the massively successful book series, the movie followed the very human and very clumsy Bella Swan as she discovered that the sexy guy at school had more than just great hair. (Hint: He sparkled in the sunlight.)
So when the CW approached Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, Scream) and Julie Plec (Kyle XY) about making a vampire show around that same time, they were hesitant to take part in the very established — and possibly dying? — trend. Little did they know, the trend seemed to be as immortal as its subjects.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Author L.J. Smith launched The Vampire Diaries book series in the early 1990s, long before the days of Bill Compton and Edward Cullen. But when Plec and Williamson sat down to adapt it nearly 20 years later, they had to find a fresh perspective on the town of Fell’s Church and the brotherly love triangle at the center of it all. (Step One? Change the town’s name to Mystic Falls.)
JULIE PLEC (Co-creator): Kevin [Williamson] and I were having lunch with the CW's Jen Breslow, who was Kevin's producing partner for several years before she ended up leaving to go into the network world.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON (Co-creator): I was dealing with grief because my partner had died recently and I was in total shutdown mode of loss and despair and Julie and Jen had taken me to lunch to try to cheer me up, quite frankly. When someone dies, you're in a horrible, dark place and you just want to cry all the time. I was in the worst place I'd ever been in my life and they were my friends who were just cheering me up. And then Jen was like, "You just need to work."
PLEC: I was telling them about a pitch that I had about a supernatural boarding school and how much I loved that world, and we were talking about whether there were any vampires in it. I said, “I don’t think so because as much as I love vampires, between Twilight and True Blood, I feel like vampires are over.” Jen said, “I hope not because we have a book we’ve been trying to put together for a vampire show and we can’t find writers. It’s a series called The Vampire Diaries.” Kevin said, “Oh yeah I know that book, somebody sent it to me years ago wanting to know if I could adapt it into a movie.”
WILLIAMSON: I never read it, but a few years earlier, the book was submitted to my development executive and I just went, “Oh teen vampires, no thank you.” And then everyone passed on it and that was the end of it… until that lunch.
PLEC: Jen said, “Do you guys want to make it into a TV show” and Kevin said, “No.” [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: It was a big, “Hell no!” [Laughs] There had been all this Twilight success and here comes the show that really puts the nail in the coffin of the vampire trend. I just didn’t want to be the end of a trend. Who knew that it had a long way to go before it died out?
PLEC: I said “I will” because I had never actually created my own TV show so I would’ve done anything. And Kevin goes, “Oh alright let’s do it together.”
WILLIAMSON: Then Julie read the whole book overnight and she called me up and said, “Stop reading right now.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because if you turn the page I’m scared you’re going to say no.”
PLEC: I said, “I’m not sure you’re going to like this, but I think that there’s something in here in the way that Buffy built an entire journey around a town. I think there’s something about this town and all the characters within the town that could make it something special.” He wrote me back in an email and said, “You’re right, I am not enjoying it as much as I thought I would but I agree with you about the town.” The problem with the book was it was so similar in set-up to Twilight. The books were written well before Twilight was, so we had that as a defense but it just wasn’t something that he was all that excited about diving into because it felt too familiar. So we had to get over the hump of feeling like it was a retread of another person’s success.
WILLIAMSON: I thought about: What is this really about? It’s about this young girl who is dealing with death. I went, “Okay check that box.” It’s about how this dead man comes along and brings her back to life. I went, “Okay, wouldn’t that be lovely? That’s certainly what I need right now.” And so I used that metaphor and played against that allegory and Julie and I sat down at a kitchen table and we wrote it and we just cried over it. We tried to find that part of it that was really about Elena trying to learn how to live again. And it worked. It really worked. And in a weird way, the whole show was my Stefan.
AN EPIC PITCH
With a script ready to go, Williamson and Plec starting meeting with potential directors. And although most seemed to want to talk about the horror aspect of the show, it was first-time pilot director Marcos Siega’s focus on romance that landed him the gig.
MARCOS SIEGA (Director): I was directing an episode of Cold Case and I got a call from my agent and she said, "There's a great pilot script and we don't want to get you too excited because they already have a director that they're talking to but we heard there's an issue." They sent me the script, I read it during my lunch hour and I said, "I love this. I will meet them anywhere, anytime." I had never done a pilot but when I got into television, I wanted to be the guy who would be making pilots. She called me back and said, "They can meet you early in the morning before your call time for breakfast at Jerry's Deli on Wilshire."
WILLIAMSON: We met with all these directors who were talking about, “Here’s what the vampires should look like,” and Marcos Siega comes in there and plops down in the booth over some matzo ball soup and says “I read this and I see The Notebook. Let’s talk romance.”
SIEGA: What I responded to in the script was the love story. The horror aspect of it, the scares didn’t even sort of present themselves to me. If you read the pilot script, the teaser was the couple in a car driving through the fog and then there’s a vampire attack, so it starts out with that horror beat. And I think because it was Kevin Williamson, I can see where anybody who was prepping for that thought, “Oh this is going to be scary and they leaned into that.” I fortunately just wasn’t given enough time to think. [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: He just started talking about the love story and Julie and I looked at each other and went, “Okay here’s our guy. He’s saying all the magic words.”
SIEGA: So when I went in there and I spoke about the emotional core of the story and the set up of a love triangle. I think I just hit a chord with both Kevin and Julie. And within another two weeks I had the job.
GIRL MEETS BOY(S)
The romance at the center of the story was between Elena Gilbert, the (soon-to-be-former) high school cheerleader who’d recently lost her parents, and Stefan Salvatore, the troubled vampire driven by a desire to be good. She was dead inside, and he was just dead. But together, they’d bring each other back to life.
NINA DOBREV (Elena Gilbert): It was pilot season so I was auditioning for like 95,000 different shows hoping to get something and the week of The Vampire Diaries, I was also auditioning for Boardwalk Empire and a movie called Percy Jackson. I remember it was a big whirlwind and we had to decide which one to go do.
SIEGA: We went through a pretty extensive search. We were looking at a lot of people, and we weren’t really feeling it and then we saw this tape of Nina.
DOBREV: I sent in an audition tape and then I came in-person a second time. I don’t remember the exact turn of events but I remember I was sick and I had to do it again.
PLEC: She came in and read and she was sick and we sort of said, “Oh great thanks, nice to meet you, see you again soon,” and she didn’t feel good about the impression that she left. So she went back and put herself on tape and had her reps re-submit the tape and asked us to take a second look. We did and it was just undeniable at that point that she was the one. So she basically booked the role off of her self-tape after, in her mind, blowing her first audition.
DOBREV: I did get the show but they didn’t tell me because they wanted to test different guys. They wanted to keep me in the dark because they wanted to keep me on my toes and they made me keep auditioning over and over again with multiple guys. I think it was 15 guys I had to read with under the pretense that I still hadn’t gotten the role.
PAUL WESLEY (Stefan Salvatore): I was a young actor living in Los Angeles and I'd done six or seven pilots for various networks, but none of them took off. They sent me the script for The Vampire Diaries, and I knew immediately that the show was going to be a hit because it was Kevin Williamson. It was one of those auditions that everyone was vying for, all the young actors were vying for Damon and Stefan because they were such breakout roles. And they wouldn't see me for Stefan because they thought I was too old. [Laughs] So I went in and read for Damon and had a callback and did okay. Then I didn't hear anything and went on with my life. I actually think I tested for another show. Then I got a call that they were having a bit of a hard time and had done all these tests and they thought they found the guys and they didn't.
PLEC: Stefan was the hardest to find. It’s the kind of role that you can’t just cast the smoldering pretty boy because there’s such depth and layers of loss and loneliness living in that character. So you really need a true actor. But you also can’t just hang your hat on a great theater-trained actor who doesn’t also make people’s hearts go pitter patter.
WILLIAMSON: The book destroyed us because if you look at the description in the book, that person doesn’t exist.
PLEC: [Stefan’s] a good man, a good soul, but with a layer of danger because he’s a vampire who struggles with blood lust and struggles with his addiction to this woman and with his fury with his brother.
WESLEY: Once they’d cast Ian Somerhalder, they said, “Because you’re younger than Ian, they’re willing to see you now for Stefan.” There’s a casting director by the name of Lesli Gelles-Raymond and Lesli was the one who kept pushing for me. She kept shoving me down their throats.
PLEC: We pushed production at least once, and we were in danger of being less than a week away from shooting and having no male lead and ultimately — and quite famously — we were sort of pressured into casting Paul Wesley against our desires, which of course means everybody knew way better than us and that we almost missed out on the most perfect piece of casting.
WESLEY: Lesli was like, “Just see him one more time!” And they were like, “Okay we’ll see Paul Wesley again ugh, whatever. We’re over this kid.” [Laughs] So Lesli put me in the room again, this time for the role of Stefan.
PLEC: There just aren’t that many actors who can live in both worlds, the heartthrob world and the serious actor world, and Paul had never been a heartthrob and neither Kevin nor I saw him as a heartthrob, which I think was sort of the problem. There was so much going on in Stefan that a lot of the actors we were reading just couldn’t act him. There was no denial that Paul could act the part we just didn’t see him lighting up the screen but we were just dead wrong.
With Dobrev already cast — even if she didn’t know it yet — and not much time before they needed to start filming, they began the oh-so-important process of chemistry reads. Because, if nothing else, Stefan and Elena’s relationship had to be … passionate.
SIEGA: I had Nina come to my house with a couple of the guys that we were considering and one of them, unbeknownst to me at the time, was her real-life boyfriend. Obviously when they did their chemistry read, they had a lot of chemistry but he just wasn’t right. I could see she was giving it her all and he was too but it just wasn’t connecting.
WESLEY: I showed up to the test and I’m not exaggerating, there were literally 15 guys there from everywhere from Australia to England to New York City. Everyone had flown out. They basically knew they needed to cast this role within a matter of three days and so they not leaving any stone unturned.
DOBREV: I read with a lot of guys and I had different experiences — good, bad, indifferent. It’s not that one person was perfect for it; everyone was just so different. But I remember that Paul was the only one who didn’t speak to me unless we were speaking on camera. Everyone else was trying to schmooze with me and flirt with me because it’s a chemistry read, and that was my first-ever chemistry read so I thought that’s what it was supposed to be as well. I was trying to get a vibe: who did I have the most sexual tension with? And because Paul didn’t speak to me, we had the least sexual tension.
WESLEY: I didn’t even look at her. I saw her looking at me trying to say hello and I refused to even make eye contact with her. And it sounds a little pretentious and actor-y but the scene we were doing for the chemistry read was the first time we ever met, it was our first conversation, and I wanted her to meet me for the first time in the room during the audition so that it was real.
DOBREV: When he left the room, everyone had auditioned and they asked me, “Who did you connect with the most?” And I said, “I don’t know who I connected with the most but I definitely probably connected the least with that Paul Wesley guy.” [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: We didn’t want Paul until we met Nina. Paul came in like 100 times and every time he came in we’d be like, “Alright, here’s Paul Wesley again.” I liked him; I just didn’t love him. And only once we found Nina and put them together did I go, “Oh he’s really good, who is that? It’s the guy we passed on 15 times.” [Laughs]
WESLEY: Apparently my silly little plan worked.
DOBREV: Then Paul got cast and we ultimately had the best chemistry. It’s the kind of thing where you can see it on screen and you get an energy from the room that I maybe didn’t have a barometer on, but he was absolutely the right choice and the best person for the role. I couldn’t imagine anyone else being Stefan and I’m so grateful that they chose him because now he’s one of my closest friends and we have a friendship that will last forever — vampire pun intended. [Laughs]
THE BAD BROTHER
Stefan and Elena would make up two components of what would become the series’ central love triangle, with the third component being Stefan’s devilish older brother, Damon Salvatore. Damon knew how to hold a grudge, deliver an enigmatic one-liner, and wear a John Varvatos T-shirt better than anyone else in Mystic Falls (or on TV).
IAN SOMERHALDER (Damon Salvatore): I had come off of Lost and I saw the whole network dog-and-pony show and I said, "I want to be edgier, have fun and do really cool weird s—." And I tried and I fell on my face a few times. I fell off the map for sure. It was a very rebuilding, humbling time, but the one thing I said I wasn't going to do again was some network show. So they sent me this pilot and I was like, "This is Twilight on TV, I have no interest in doing this." I didn't read it. Cut to: I'm in Vegas with my family, I read it and I'm like, "Holy s—, this is an amazing piece of material, what the hell am I thinking?" I called and they said, "They'll see you tomorrow morning at 11 a.m." I'm sitting there thinking, "Oh my god I'm in Vegas." So I taped the [script] sides together from the business center at the hotel, put them on the dashboard of my car and starting at like 5 in the morning, drove through the desert with the light on in my car because there was no light yet and as the sun came up over the Mojave, that's where I started figuring out Damon.
WILLIAMSON: He came in and you could see Damon but his audition didn’t say Damon. I think he was nervous and his headspace was somewhere else and he just didn’t really do a good job, but I had watched the first season of Lost and I knew him from Pulse, a movie I had done some work on back in the day so I kind of knew his ability a little bit.
SOMERHALDER: When you want something that badly, the stakes are very high. I did really well in my studio test, which was fun. And then I bombed my first network test. The first take I did was awful. [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: He just wasn’t giving it. The network wanted somebody else. It was split. Some people wanted him and some people didn’t. The president of the network, Dawn Ostroff, looked at me and said, “Go talk to him. I understand why you like him but he’s not doing it.” So I took him out in the hallway and I was like, “Dude you’re blowing it.”
SOMERHALDER: The door closes and he goes, “Well, that sucked.” I said, “I know! I don’t know what’s going on!” He’s like, “Just do what you did in the studio test, have fun, be in control, you’re Damon, this is your role. You gotta do this.”
WILLIAMSON: He was just nervous. They were all leaning toward this other actor, who will remain nameless, who I just refused to consider. I just would not go down that road. I said, “Will you please take a breath, think this through and just go in there and own it? This is your part, it really is.”
SOMERHALDER: This guy they were testing had been out drinking all night, he was super cocky and trying to psych me out. I looked at him and was like, “There’s no way you’re getting this brother, it’s just not happening.”
WILLIAMSON: And Ian came back in and he blew it. They said, “I’m sorry, we need to see a little bit more before we can say yes to him,” and it was the only time in my career where I said, “If he doesn’t get the part I’m going to have to leave the show.” That’s how much I didn’t want the other person to get the part. I was like, “I know the other guy gave a better audition, but this role is Ian, and I think I can write for him in a way in which I cannot write for this other guy. Please trust me on this. Because if you can’t see it, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to continue on with the show.” Julie stood with me and Peter Roth, the president at Warner Bros. Television, said, “Let’s go with Kevin.”
SOMERHALDER: I got a call from my management saying, “So you wanna be a vampire?” And the rest is history.
With a completed cast, everyone headed up to Vancouver to begin production on what was one of the most highly anticipated pilots of the year. And for many involved, there was one scene in particular that foreshadowed the show’s success — and one that didn’t.
SIEGA: The very first thing we shot was the scene of Elena in the car with Bonnie when the crow hits the windshield. That was literally day one, scene one. And I wasn’t happy. The crow had to be a digital element but we needed something to hit the windshield and we had done a bunch of tests and everything we tried looked bad to me. I remember going home that night and thinking, “I’m f—ed, I don’t know if this is going to work.” But we hadn’t shot anything that was really at the core of what the show was, which was Paul and Nina.
WESLEY: During the pilot I felt the energy of: Everyone knows this show has the potential to be a big hit. I knew that the studio and the network had a lot riding on this thing and you felt the pressure while shooting.
DOBREV: I just remember there being so much excitement. Even if we weren’t shooting we’d be behind the monitors watching. Everyone was there. There was a sense of camaraderie that’s so hard to duplicate. The CW gave us these little cameras so we could shoot behind-the-scenes things and we have hours of footage of us doing crazy things and having the best time of our lives. Julie and Kevin and everyone took us out on Saturday night, they got a party bus, and I just have these memories of all of us after the bar closed sitting on the sidewalk singing “Wonderwall.”
SIEGA: It wasn’t until a couple of days later when we shot in the cemetery and it’s the scene where she’s running away from the crow in the fog and she runs into Paul that I walked away saying, “This is gonna work.”
WILLIAMSON: I love the moment where Stefan and Elena first meet and he picks the leaf out of her hair. I think they have beautiful chemistry when she says, “We have history together.” I saw it in the monitor and I went, “If this show works it’s going to be because they have chemistry.”
WESLEY: Marcos had the cinematographer use this white bounce board to create this light under both of our eyes. It was almost like this really weird little magic, a practical magic. It was nothing more than a white board that bounced the light into our eyes but it was very subtle and on camera it almost gave off this eery, other-worldly sense that something had happened, some connection had occurred.
SIEGA: In terms of film conventions, I just kept emphasizing beauty. You’re creating a world, you want the audience to feel something and not just in a self-indulgent way. I felt like this was a big, epic romance and it should look like a big, epic romance. That’s how we shot it.
PLEC: Sitting there at the monitors when he picks the leaf out of her hair, it just was instant magic. It became very obvious that the right decision had been made [in casting Paul]. When he stepped into the role of Stefan, he just sort of miraculously and immediately made all our hearts go pitter patter.
WESLEY: I don’t know what it was about that scene that made everyone go, “Oh yeah that’s it” but to me, I sort of knew that the chemistry would be there and that the show would work for whatever reason.
PLEC: When [Arrowverse creator] Greg Berlanti saw The Vampire Diaries for the first time he said to me, “I firmly believe that every actor has the role that they are meant to play that opens the lock to the power of their career and this is that role for Paul Wesley.”
Considering Wesley’s last-minute casting, there was no time for brotherly bonding or hero hair jokes before Somerhalder and Wesley had to step into their roles as the villain and hero of the story, respectively.
PLEC: They ended up having terrific chemistry because Ian very quickly took Paul under his wing, brother to brother. It’s easy to fall in bro-love with Ian Somerhalder. So they were able to spark to each other quickly.
SOMERHALDER: Paul and I met in the valley. It was a fitting for our fangs. It was very cool, we met, we gave each other a hug. It was like, “Wow so we’re brothers. Here we go.”
WESLEY: They took a gamble. Casting a show is a risk. You never know if it’s going to work.
Wesley and Somerhalder’s chemistry was put to the test almost immediately when the pilot only gave the actors one scene together to launch the more-than-a-century-old, highly complicated dynamic that would carry the show for years to come.
SOMERHALDER: We rehearsed that scene two times and then we shot maybe three or four shots of me and then Paul’s side. I think I said “hello, brother” seven or eight times. But that was my audition scene and I worked on that scene hundreds of times to get it where that character had all those layers and flavors.
WILLIAMSON: The brothers hated each other but you knew there was a deep-seeded history that was bounded in love. It was all there. They really did a good job with that.
WESLEY: Ian and I both agree that the best love story is between Stefan and Damon. Ultimately, their brotherly love-and-hate relationship is probably the most interesting thing. They had killed each other, they love each other, they hate each other, they fight over the same girl. That was one of the most complex relationships in terms of depth and layers.
That relationship got off the ground quickly … literally. Stefan and Damon’s first conversation becomes their first confrontation in an instant when Damon pushes his little brother to his limits and Stefan tackles Damon out of a second-story window. They’re fine, of course. They’re immortal. But one thing that didn’t survive the fall? Wire stunts. Once picked up, the series moved from Vancouver to Atlanta and did away with any sort of wire work.
SIEGA: If I’m sitting in a room and that scene pops up, I turn away. [Laughs] My least favorite shot in the entire series is when Paul jumps off the roof at the very beginning. I just think it looks cartoony.
WESLEY: That was a bit cheesy, wasn’t it? Even though the pilot works, it does feel like a little hysterically dated in a way, whereas the show feels more timeless.
SOMERHALDER: In one of the takes, my body swung a little bit to the left and I almost clipped the side of the wall. It was no fault of the stunt coordinator or anyone, it was just one of those things and it could’ve been a really bad accident because I was moving pretty fast.
PLEC: [Losing wire work after the pilot] was born out of logic for me. Kevin liked to keep things as grounded as possible, as did I. So we liked to have a scientific understanding of how certain things could work. Vamp speed was something that we couldn’t understand and yet it’s just such a known trope across all vampire shows that it felt like well, this is one of the ones that we can allow. Georgia did not have a functioning wire unit at the time, at least not an affordable one, which meant any time we wanted to do a wire gag, we would be flying in stunt coordinators and equipment, which became expensive so we killed flight early on. And every time we worked with the crow it was a nightmare so we wrote the death of the crow into the story. Because it also seemed like, “How in the hell is he psychically manipulating a crow?”
WILLIAMSON: Damon traveled in the form of a bird in the pilot, because he was the crow in the book. We went, “Nah, we can’t have him turn into animals so we’re just going to skip that part of the book.” We dropped that real quick. [Laughs] We killed that bird by episode three.
PLEC: The fog in the pilot was a bridge too far for us. We basically used the pilot and did everything we had to do from the books and from vampire tropes to sell a vampire show, but when we got to series we realized that it’s just too much. When your heroes are capable of too much, then they should be able to do even more and it becomes more and more difficult to put real obstacles in their way while keeping the stakes grounded.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Central to the grounding of the show was the love story, which really began at the end of the pilot. After a chaotic back-to-school party ends with Vicki’s attack, Stefan shows up at Elena’s house to make sure she’s okay. Set to The Fray’s “Never Say Never,” Elena invites Stefan inside.
WILLIAMSON: Everything was geared toward that moment.
PLEC: When we saw the pilot for the first time and when that Fray song started and as the lyrics hit “I will be your guardian” and you see Stefan outside through the window, I thought that was the greatest editorial choice of all-time! [Laughs] The CW at the time was a big believer that your pilot should be loaded with very recognizable pop songs because when you took your pilot into the research screening room, the audience would just be happier if they recognized the songs. That’s why the pilot has so many songs like One Republic and all the pop songs of the day. The Fray was the one band and one song that just felt like it fit the voice of the show so perfectly.
WILLIAMSON: I think we even wrote it where she opened up the door to him and she welcomed him into her home and into her life. Everything was going to grow from that and there you have a series. Then we put the Fray against it and it worked.
PLEC: When we shot Nina’s side of the scene where she had to fling the door open, she asked, “What do you want me to be playing here?” Of course I used my go-to explanation for what defines “epic” in relationships in movies and I talked about The Notebook. So when Marcos yelled action, she runs to the door, she flings it open, she looks at him, and it’s the perfect take. I said, “How did you know how to do that?” And she goes, “Well you said you wanted The Notebook!”
DOBREV: I’m a chick. [Laughs] I’ve seen The Notebook and every other rom-com/romantic movie under the sun so I know the epic love scene tension that she wanted and we did our best to duplicate it and make it our own.
As the pilot started to screen for test audiences, something wasn’t quite right. The show was reading as more of an average teenage story than a supernatural one.
PLEC: I remember us feeling so excited when we saw the pilot for the first time and really feeling like we had something special. Then I remember us screening the pilot for the first time at the research screening and it not being perceived as that special. [Laughs] And Susan Rovner at Warner Bros. basically made Kevin and me write that opening voiceover, which did not exist in the script or anywhere.
WILLIAMSON: What happened was: If you look at the first act of the show, it very much was your typical CW show: Young girl writing in her diary, she gets up, you meet the troubled brother, you realize the parents are dead, and the vampire did not show up until I think it was minute 8 or 11. When we tested the show for the first time, you know the moment when Stefan compels the woman behind the front desk? The testing score was dead until that moment, the first moment of something supernatural. Because until then, if you were watching this show blindly, you didn’t know it was a supernatural show. So Susan Rovner was like, “You’ve got to let the audience know what they’re watching in the first 10 seconds. It will improve the test score.”
SIEGA: The note came in and it was like, “I wonder if there’s a way where we can set this up with a narration?” In my mind I was thinking it would be Elena because she’s writing in her diary and I think it was Kevin that had the idea to have it be Stefan.
WILLIAMSON: We added that teaser at the very beginning, and that was all footage leftover from Vicki’s attack. [Laughs] That was all just leftover footage and we put it together and we wrote that voiceover. Then we retested it and the minute he said, “I am a vampire and this is my story,” the scale jumped up to the top. That was 30 seconds in and we’re like, “Okay we’re picked up.” It was a testing trick to get picked up and we decided to keep it.
WESLEY: I remember going in for ADR and doing the voiceover and I was like, “So what do you guys think, do you think the show’s going to do well?” And Marcos Siega was like, “Just get ready.”
DOBREV: I was living with [costar] Candice [King] between the pilot and when the show went to series because I lived in Canada so I was kind of homeless in the states. We would hear little rumblings, but we didn’t know if it was being picked up Then Julie Plec invited us over and screened it for us and we were all absolutely thrilled and couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. Because it was the perfect mixture of teen angst and drama and suspense and it had that sci-fi element but it was still so grounded in reality that it just felt relatable despite the fact that it was set in a fictional sci-fi world.
The Vampire Diaries premiered on Sept. 10, 2009 and delivered the largest audience of any premiere since The CW’s 2006 debut. There was no denying that the show had struck a vein.
PLEC: The day after it aired and the ratings were huge and it had exceeded all expectations, everybody was celebrating.
WILLIAMSON: I wasn’t quite sure what the ratings meant because it was the CW so the ratings were judged differently, but I do remember that Dawn Ostroff called, Peter Roth called, and they were ecstatic. Then by the second and third week as it continued to hold and then people started blogging about the show and then when we unexpectedly killed Vicki, that’s when people really woke up and started to engage. You could feel it.
WESLEY: The Vampire Diaries came out pre-social media. It got really big ratings but I didn’t realize how culturally significant it was until we did a worldwide tour for promotion. We did like the Hot Topic mall tour, and that’s when I realized first person how the story had affected people.
SOMERHALDER: Once the show got picked up, Paul and I flew to Atlanta to get apartments next to each other so that we could rehearse every second we needed to, which was a really funny story because we pulled up to the W [hotel] in Atlanta and we were wearing the exact same Diesel jeans, the exact same white crew neck T-shirt, we had the exact black boots on, and we had the exact pair of black Ray-Ban sunglasses. We looked like the f—ing Blues Brothers. [Laughs]
WESLEY: We literally were wearing the exact same outfit by complete coincidence. We looked liked twins. [Laughs]
SOMERHALDER: I didn’t know what the show was going to be even after shooting the pilot. It wasn’t until I was sitting in Paul’s apartment in Atlanta and we watched 106, which is my favorite episode of the whole series when Damon and Vicki are dancing around the Salvatore mansion, that we went, “Holy s—, we have something really special here.”
DOBREV: I remember when I was trying to make the decision — should I do this should I not do this — I called my mom, who’s not in any way connected to the industry, and I asked her: “Should I do this show?” I described it to her and then she was like, “What’s it called?” I said, “The Vampire Diaries.” I was a little nervous about signing a 6-year contract at that point. And she was like, “Vampires? What are they going to write about for six years? Do it!” So, thanks mom! [Laughs] But honestly, thanks mom because it was a great experience and a wonderful show and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
WILLIAMSON: Turns out, the vampire phase was not over!