Paul Wesley on History of Evil, Strange New Worlds, and directing

by Bryan Cairns
Paul Wesley in History of Evil

The Vampire Diaries’ Paul Wesley is taking another stab at horror. After eight seasons of playing brooding bloodsucker Stefan Salvatore, the talented actor stepped away from the genre for the psychological TV anthology series, Tell Me a Story. Currently, Wesley can be seen crushing his interpretation of Captain Kirk on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

Despite a busy schedule, Wesley found time to star in History of Evil. Streaming on Shudder beginning February 23, the supernatural thriller takes place in 2045, in a dystopian future overrun by a fascist government. After resistance fighter Alegre breaks out of prison and reunites with her husband Ron (portrayed by Wesley) and daughter Daria, the three seek to escape their persecutors by hiding out in a rundown Gothic mansion.

But something sinister dwells withing the walls… something that begins to gnaw away at Ron and poison his mind against those he loves the most.     

Wesley spoke to me about how History of Evil fits into the next phase of his career, his character’s unravelling, the narrative’s relevance, finding Captain Kirk’s voice in Star Trek and his love of the DCEU.

The Vampire Diaries premiered 15 years ago this fall. How have your aspirations, career goals and view of Hollywood changed since then?

Paul Wesley: “My view on Hollywood has definitely changed. And the business has changed. When I was younger, there were less outlets. There were no streamers. There was really 10 channels, but for whatever reason, I was so busy. And now, it’s really interesting. There are all these streamers and yet, somehow, it feels a little less busy even though I am working constantly. I’m on Star Trek. I am doing stuff. It’s probably because when I was younger, I was ready to do anything.”

“I was ready to audition for whatever. I would do any guest star. I would take whatever I could get. Now that I have had some success, it’s like, ‘Well, no, he’s not going to read for that. He’s not going to do that. He’s not going to do this.’ It’s interesting because for me, I feel like I really have to choose correctly and choose wisely. ‘If I do this role, is it going to move me in the next level creatively? Or am I just going backwards?’ So, I’m aware of all these things that I was never aware of.”

“As far as my career aspirations, it goes hand-in-hand. I did the sort of ‘popular role,’ and now it’s not about that. It’s about challenging myself. What people think isn’t everything, but you always want people to have a decent opinion of you. I have done a ton of theatre and trained my whole life. But a lot of times, people look at me and go, ‘Oh, it’s the guy from The Vampire Diaries.’ I’d like to break out of that stigma. Star Trek certainly helps with that because it’s such an iconic character. That is incredible for me. But it’s about challenging myself… always.”

Speaking to that, in what ways did History of Evil check of some of those boxes? 

Wesley: “Any actor would love to play this sort of character. Ron’s arc is incredible. Where he is on page one is certainly not who he ends up in the final scenes of the film. It’s a little bit like a Jack Nicholson in The Shining, in many ways, and who doesn’t want to play that? It was an incredibly challenging role.”

“I got to play a father, who is essentially having a breakdown, a total lack of identity and a total lack of self, and to be vulnerable to being manipulated by these evil things that clouded his brain and tuned him into someone else. You take that home with you. I was shooting in New Orleans. I love New Orleans, but it’s also haunted and I felt that energy. It was a tough shoot, but it was rewarding.”

History of Evil on Shudder
History of Evil on Shudder

Whatever is dwelling within this house eats away at Ron. What did you enjoy about his descent into madness?

Wesley: “I wanted to humanize him. It wasn’t about making him the evil guy, who is doing evil things. I wanted him to be a good soul, who is lost. I wanted audiences to empathize with him. It’s really easy to just suddenly be like, “He’s the bad guy.” He’s a lost guy. I needed a way to relate to Ron. I needed to find a way to humanize him and also make it something that I felt, as opposed to just pretending. That is where the acting comes in. It can be tough because you start to lose sight of who the character is and who you are. That month was kind of strange for me.”

That bond between Ron and his daughter definitely humanized him, too.

Wesley: “Yes, I agree. She is the thing that snaps him out of it. She’s the thing that allowed him to have some redemption by the end of the story. “

History of Evil is more psychological than jump scares. What’s the secret to ratcheting up that tension and getting moviegoers on the edge of their seats?

Wesley: “That’s more of a director question. I think a lot of that is in the writing and the directing. As someone who directs television, and I have directed short films, I find post-production is so important… the music, the sound design, the editing. An entire scene can be changed by just one background noise, whether it’s just some insects in the background.”

“These things will create an atmosphere that is unsettling. They did a really nice job with some of the camera moves. The camera is just creeping slowly and there are strange background noises. You are like, ‘What the fuck is going to happen here?’ Things like that.”

One unsettling moment that stands out is when Ron finds the front door open, shuts it and, then, the door knob begins to turn. 

Wesley: “That one scene where that guy comes out of the darkness and he’s naked, with this creepy face. That was not nice to shoot.”

The narrative hits a nerve with some heavy themes and relevant topics. What kind of conversations are you hoping this provokes?

Wesley: “Obviously, there’s very much a conversation about masculinity. There’s very much a cautionary tale about how our country is very divided. This is obviously a Fictious near-future, where the south and the north, in many ways, it’s like a civil war. There’s persecution and political prisoners. This happens very much in the world. History repeats itself. I think this is a cautionary tale of what could happen if we all keep fighting one another. It’s obvious that there’s so much unrest in the United States.”

Switching gears, congrats on the recent Saturn Awards win recently. How rewarding was it to be recognized for your portrayal of Captain Kirk on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds?

Wesley: “So rewarding because it’s such an iconic role. That role has been engrained in the minds of many people since the 1960s. It’s only been played on television by the original actor, William Shatner. Obviously, we all know Chris Pine played him in the films, but it was a Kelvin timeline. He did an amazing job, but to have Kirk return on a weekly basis-ish, on television in people’s living rooms, is just a different experience.”

“I understand that people are protective of that character. I didn’t do a Shatner impression. I did my own thing. I did a young Kirk that is still figuring himself out. It’s decisive. I know that. Just getting this award is affirmation to continue taking risks with Kirk and to explore him and do my own version that hopefully people love. It meant so much to me. It really meant so much to me.”

Do you feel more comfortable walking in Kirk’s shoes in Season Three?

Wesley: “I definitely feel more comfortable. I’m also finding out who Kirk is. We have never explored Kirk during this timeline, really. Again, we did it with the Chris Pine movies, but not really. For me, I am sort of finding him. I am going to start bringing out traits and qualities and even mannerisms as I develop into the Kirk that we all know. Yeah, I am feeling more and more comfortable in this role and really embracing it.”

Can you tease anything about the new season or anything you are excited to delve into with Kirk?

Wesley: “If you watch the original series, it really is fantastical. Every episode is a new adventure. What I love about these writers is they have fun. This is a space adventure. Every episode is deeply imaginative. I don’t want to give anything away, but the episode I am shooting right now is such a riot. I haven’t had this much fun on set. I sometimes don’t want the scenes to end. We do three or four takes. I’m like, ‘Can we just keep going? This is fun.’ That’s a rarity.”

You have also worn the director’s hat on other productions. How much are you hoping to step behind the camera for Strange New Worlds?

“I would totally step behind the camera for Strange New Worlds on an episode I am not in. I directed myself on The Vampire Diaries many times. It is so challenging. It’s totally doable. It’s feasible. It’s just hard to act in a scene and then go back behind the monitor, check playback, make sure everything was done properly, not scrutinize your performance and go, ‘OK, we have to move on.’ It’s a challenge.”

“When I direct, I love directing actors who are excited to be there, who are talented. Strange New Worlds has the best cast. They are awesome, so I would love to direct an episode, but probably when I am not on screen.”

The first time we chatted was for your guest-starring role on Smallville. Would you like to jump back into the superhero sandbox again?

Wesley: “Gosh, well I never really played a superhero. I was Lex’s brother, so I have never really played a superhero. I would totally jump into the DC Universe. I am a bit of a DC guy. I love DC. I love Batman. I would totally embrace that. I am waiting for them to call me.”

Is there ca character or villain that speaks to you? Let’s tell James Gunn here.

Wesley: “I know. Come on, James. There are a few characters I remember seeing where I was like, ‘God, I would love to play that guy.’ Now, I can’t even remember. Anytime that DC makes a film, I am the first to see it just because I prefer a little bit of a darker take on things. I find DC honours those darker comic-book traditions. I like Marvel, but it’s a different viewing experience. Maybe you have suggestions?”

A Green Lantern TV series is in development. Perhaps Hal Jordan?

Wesley: “That’s a fun one. I am in.”

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