TORONTO (Reuters) - He was best known for his breakout role as Boone Carlyle in "Lost", but these days, Ian Somerhalder is winning accolades for his turn as vampire Damon Salvatore in the TV show "The Vampire Diaries."
Somerhalder, 31, has been busy in Atlanta, Georgia, filming season 2 of the series after spending a difficult summer being pulled in two different directions: promoting the CW network show ahead of its return on Thursday, and helping raise environmental awareness in his home state of Louisiana following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
He is passionate about the environment and animal welfare but says he doesn't want to be another celebrity with a pet cause, pushing an agenda.
"I think it's a fine line. I don't ever want anything to come in the way of me truthfully telling a story," Somerhalder told Reuters in an interview.
"I appreciate the response and the support of fans, of people who actually don't mind watching me on screen ... I just don't ever want to jeopardize that."
His character on "The Vampire Diaries" -- alternately described by fans as a "sociopath" and "misunderstood" -- is slowly rediscovering his humanity through a renewed, but still dysfunctional, relationship with his younger vampire brother (played by Paul Wesley) and a complicated and deepening friendship with his brother's human girlfriend (played by Nina Dobrev).
Critics laud Somerhalder for his portrayal of a vampire who comes to the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, to wreak havoc, only to find himself protecting it instead. The highly-anticipated second season promises plenty of plot twists, drama and an unfolding love triangle.
The show -- noted for its fast-paced storytelling and weekly cliffhangers -- has received critical praise despite initial skepticism. It is CW's top-rated show, scoring the youth-oriented network its largest audience ever when it premiered a year ago.
Fans voted it favorite new drama in this year's People's Choice Awards.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Somerhalder credits those fans for inspiring him.
"It's really a phenomenal thing that's happening and I'm unbelievably grateful to fans of the show for really stepping up to the plate and saying, we're tired of this, we want to help. It's humbling. It really is," he said.
Somerhalder said he feels guilty for not devoting as much time as he'd like to helping with the aftermath of the environmental catastrophe along the U.S. Gulf Coast where he grew up.
He paid tribute to the people of Louisiana and groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council that are working in the region.
"They're down there with their knees in the dirt or the marsh, just working away. And they're fighting tooth and nail for everything that organization stands for," he said.
During the height of the oil spill, Somerhalder traveled to an area on Grand Isle considered ground zero and was saddened by what he saw.
"To me and to the people that go down there, (it's) one of the most beautiful places in the world. And I actually had to watch it destroyed. And it will be destroyed -- forever. My great-grandchildren will not be able to enjoy the Gulf Coast of Louisiana the way I have."
Somerhalder is involved with a start-up called Go Green Mobile Power, which makes mobile solar, wind and bio-diesel generators and hopes to provide off-grid power for everything from the film industry to disaster relief overseas.
He is also involved with the group New Leash On Life, which takes in stray dogs and trains them to be service dogs.
If he could leave a legacy, he said, those would be it.
"Those are things that I know will be huge parts of the rest of my life," said Somerhalder.
Does this mean Somerhalder has another calling?
"I don't know how to do anything else other than be an actor. If I wasn't in this, I would be in alternative energy and conservation," he said.
"Acting is such a huge part of my life. It really allows me to have a creative outlet and to actually be able to have an outlet to discuss openly the things that truly I think are relevant in the world, that make a difference."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)