PASADENA, Calif. — Actor Paul Wesley was often in trouble when he was a teenager. In fact, he was booted out of two high schools in New Jersey, where he grew up. “I was a little bit of a troublemaker, not in a malicious way,” he says, easing his lean body into an overstuffed chair in a hotel room here.
“But I’m glad. I’m glad I didn’t conform to the system of the school. I’m a law-abiding citizen now. I haven’t brought it to the soundstage,” he grins.
The first altercation happened at a private Catholic boys’ school. “It was with a bunch of jock-y, racist kids. I thought, ‘This is an expensive school. My parents paid a lot of money.’ And I got into a fight EVERY day. It was just like this weird atmosphere.
“And they finally kicked me out, and I was really depressed about it. And then later it dawned upon me that, thank God, I didn’t fit in with those kids because I don’t want to be anything like those kids. So that’s when I realized it was OK to sort of do my own thing. That’s kind of like when I found a safe haven in acting. I think it may have been a catalyst.”
Wesley did earn his degree, but schooling was always secondary to his acting career which materialized when he was 16. “I got forced to do a school play when I was in the third grade because we all had to, it was by default. And I was miserable and embarrassed that I had to do it. They put me in a “Phantom” mask, and I was miserable at first. But then I kind of fell in love with it and ended up being, I guess, according to the teacher, pretty good at it,” he says.
That teacher cast him in every play at elementary school. “No matter how academic I was, no matter how much my father stressed studies, I always gravitated toward the arts because to me — you can read as many textbooks as you like — but to me life is about observing people and understanding things and nature. And art to me captures all that. It’s just invaluable and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Though he’s been an employable actor since his voice changed, intense attention focused on him when Wesley was cast as Stefan, the good vampire brother on the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.” Like everything else in his career it was tough landing the job, but Wesley wasn’t about to give up.
“I had to really fight for it because ... they were being pretty meticulous about the actor. They didn’t know if they wanted to go with someone 17 or someone in his 20s. ‘What do we need to do because we have to get that worldly thing where the person’s been alive for 160 years but yet maintain innocence.’ Understandably it was difficult.”
He kept reading for the role of Damon, the bad vampire brother. “And they decided no on that. When I initially read the script, it was Stefan, but they didn’t see me as Stefan. Then after casting Ian (Somerhalder) as Damon, I think they thought this could work.”
The casting people had seen hundreds of possible Stefans by the time Wesley forged his last try.
“I finally went in after reading a bunch of times and it was literally me and nine other guys — a couple from Australia, a couple from London and some from New York. And a week later I was on the set filming. But it was way worth it, I’ll tell you that much. It’s the greatest part I’ve ever played. It’s a little more fun to play the villain, but this is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done and the thing I’ve fallen in love with the most.”
Shooting in Atlanta doesn’t give Wesley much time with his family here and his relatives in Poland. He lived there part of his childhood and still speaks fluent Polish. “I used to spend four months out of every single year there until I was 16 years old,” he says.
Work leaves no time for romance, either. In fact, he says, “I don’t have a personal life. I’m not complaining, but I literally don’t have a personal life. Let me put it this way: When I wasn’t on this show and I had a lot of personal life, I was much more miserable. So let’s just leave it at that,” he throws back his head and laughs.
Snagging a juicy part at 27 seems inordinately lucky. But Wesley hasn’t always been so fortunate. “I went through a period of my life, I remember at one point I tested for 30 pilots in a row and didn’t get any ... Getting rejected that many times when you’re that close to something can be very wearing. So it’s not all floating, feeling, feathers and happiness. I don’t care if you’re an A-list movie star there’s going to be things you’re going to fight for and you don’t get. But that’s life. You don’t just sit there and dwell on it and feel bad for yourself, you’ve just got to keep going.”