Savannah Lee Smith on Playing the New HBIC on ‘Gossip Girl’

“I was a little bit intimidated by Monet because she is CUTTHROAT.”

When the O.G. Gossip Girl premiered in 2007, the cast became instant stars. Every signature of a hit was there—a buzzy Rolling Stone cover, paparazzi snaps from set, a controversy or two or three, and countless tabloid headlines speculating which actors were dating in real life. Even today, well after they've moved on with other projects, stars Blake Lively and Penn Badgley are asked about the characters they played over a decade ago.

So naturally, there's a lot of curiosity and excitement around the new Gossip Girl cast, whom you'll see in the continuation now streaming on HBO Max. Without spoiling too much, I can tell you that everyone is perfectly cast—the new characters feel true to the original show's tone, just with a fresher take on the drama at Constance Billard. 

From left: Savannah Lee Smith and Jordan Alexander on Gossip Girl

One standout in particular is Savannah Lee Smith. The 20-year-old stars as Monet, a social-media-savvy student who runs P.R. and crisis management for Queen Bee Julien (Jordan Alexander). Julien is the face of their successful influencer enterprise—but Monet is the true mastermind, and a cutthroat one at that. (Calling it now: We need an episode in which Monet schemes with, or against, Georgina Sparks.) 

Here we talked with Smith about how she approached the role, what her favorite scene was to film, and so much more. XOXO. 

Glamour: I have a ton of questions about Gossip Girl. But before we get into that, I would love to know more about you. Growing up, did you always want to be an actor?

Savannah Lee Smith: Yeah, I always grew up in the arts. I was surrounded by music, fashion, design, and all sorts of art. My father is a screenwriter, my mom was a professional singer in the ’90s, and my grandfather played with Stevie Wonder. I was just always around music, so I was also a musician and a singer. When I got to high school, I discovered theater and musicals. Originally, I started doing it because I wanted to sing, but I didn't want to be in choir. I thought...I don't know. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't want to be in choir because I was at a Catholic school, so I didn't really want to sing Catholic hymns every Wednesday night.

When I discovered theater, I fell in love with it. And then I realized I might love the acting part of it a little bit more than the music, in terms of what I wanted to study when I went to college. But I went to NYU, actually for music because I was still scared. I wasn't really confident in my acting chops yet. I transferred to drama in my first year, and now I'm here.

When you were a kid around the arts, what was your idea of what it means to be a successful actor?

What every kid thinks of when they think of a movie star. Like Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and all the greats. I've always loved film. I've always been a movie buff. My idea of success changed a little as I've gotten older and realized it doesn't always mean that you have to be an A-list celebrity. You can be a successful artist without being Meryl Streep. But when I was a kid, I was living in Los Angeles and I definitely romanticized Hollywood.

What was your relationship with Gossip Girl before you auditioned?

I like to describe it as: Gossip Girl and I were on the third date when I was in high school, like, we hadn't gotten far in our relationship. I had seen bits and pieces here and there, but I missed the wave a little bit. After I booked the show, everyone asked me, “Have you binged it yet? Have you watched all of it yet?” I didn't binge it all at once because I didn't want to be influenced. I wanted to sink my teeth in and get an idea of who Monet was, or is, before I watched the show. Now that I've started filming, I've started watching it, and of course I'm obsessed.

A season two feels inevitable. Has watching the O.G. series given you any inspiration for how you might approach your character going forward?

I don't think so. It definitely gave me a glimpse into the tone of the show and the Gossip Girl world, which is important when you're part of a continuation. You want to carry the same feeling. But these are completely new characters. It's hard to compare Monet to any other characters because she's a completely new idea. It's exciting for me to be able to create new relationships and a new character.

Can you tell me the story behind your audition and what that process was like?

Yeah, it was really long. It took about a month because I auditioned for maybe every female part. I auditioned for Audrey, Zoya, Julien, and Luna. Cassandra, the casting director, who's amazing, told me, “There's a spot for you in this show. We just have to find it,” which is why they kept pulling me back in.

Of course, that was great news for me to hear. I was happy to find my spot, and then Monet came along. When I originally got her sides, I played it a little bit differently than [cocreator] Josh Schwartz had intended. It worked out because he liked that a little bit more. Originally she was supposed to be a little more sarcastic, and I played her more straightforward. It was fun to hear that he recrafted her a little bit based on my audition.

That’s awesome. When you heard you got the part, did you do anything to celebrate?

I got it in the middle of quarantine, so I was just in my house with my mom. It was great timing, though, because my boyfriend was leaving to go back home that day. Thirty minutes before he was supposed to get on the train, I got the call, so I got to share that moment with him, which was nice. I called my family and we had a family Zoom and talked about it. My mom got me a cupcake.

How did you prepare for the role? Is there anything that you did to get in Monet’s mindset?

I was a little bit intimidated by Monet because she is cutthroat. She's pretty much evil. I was racking my brain, like, how am I going to convincingly play someone so different from myself? I like to consider myself as not an evil person, but I did want to make her convincing. I wanted to make it seem like she really is that person. I called on past experiences and people. I guess Monet is an amalgamation of my bullies, probably, which is cathartic in a way.

Was there any part of her that you did relate to or feel a similarity with?

She's very career-driven, which is why I think she behaves the way she does sometimes and takes things too far. There's something she's avoiding. I remember when I was younger, my parents struggled financially. We never had a lot of money, so I was very driven to be successful and make my dreams come true. I really wanted that for myself and for my family. I see that in Monet. I relate to her in that way.

Did you have a favorite scene to film?

It's in episode five, the Halloween episode. I won't say too much, but at the end of it, I have a very intense conversation with Julien (Jordan Alexander). That was really fun to film because I'm a theater nerd, and it's the most dramatic I've ever been in the show. It made me feel good to be able to show those chops again. A lot of Monet is that she's the bitch, along those lines, but this was a scene I could really sink my teeth into and be as extra as I wanted to be.

So much of Gossip Girl takes place at iconic New York locations. Having gone to NYU, were there any you were excited to film at? Any pinch-me moments?

I used to see shows my freshman year at Webster Hall all the time, and it'd be crowded and gross. Two years later, we're renting out the entire space for a few scenes for an HBO show. That's definitely a pinch-me moment. We filmed in a lot of beautiful places. The Plaza was really fun, and the Beekman Hotel is gorgeous. They rented out the entire top penthouse floor for Julien's apartment, and the view is crazy. You can see the entire city.

That’s so cool. You talked earlier about your favorite scene. But was there one that made you the most nervous, or intimidated, going in?

I was nervous on my first day. It's funny, and kind of embarrassing, but I can laugh at it now. We filmed out of order, so it was kind of confusing. The first scene I filmed was a scene that happens in the middle of episode one. It's the one where we're all looking at Zoya and Obie mess around and play in the art store. It was freezing cold. Oh my goodness. You could cut the air with a knife it was so cold. I remember being so cold and so nervous that when our director yelled, “Action,” I didn't say anything. I was supposed to start the scene and was so out of it. I was confused, like, “What am I doing? I'm doing this right now. This is crazy.” Jordan was right next to me, and she nudged me on the arm and whispered, “Everyone goes on ‘action.’” Which, obviously, duh. That's a little newbie moment.

If you were nervous, it doesn’t show. I also want to ask you about the show’s fashion. Do you have a favorite outfit?

There's this one dress—in episode eight, I think—a plaid, skintight minidress that had a corset built into it. The fashion is one of my most favorite parts, because it's like fulfilling your little-girl fantasy. We all dress up and hope that we can do that for work.

What about hair and makeup? Were there any products that you’d want to use off set too?

Yeah, from a brand called Mented, which is a Black-owned brand. The blushes are gorgeous. They're specifically made for red undertones for melanated people. I've gotten all of their stuff.

By the end of filming, was there anything that you took away from the process?

A lot of things. I realized that when you think everyone is thinking about you, or paying attention to you, or judging you, just remember that if you're thinking about yourself, worrying about yourself, then everyone else is worried about their own problems too. I struggle with anxiety a lot and get into my head a lot, and I can disassociate. I'm constantly thinking eyes are on me. It's funny, because I went into a profession where that's literally my job, all eyes on me all the time. It's been a struggle for me, but I've learned to relax and take it day by day. I realized that if you're worried about people paying attention to you and judging you, they're just thinking about themselves, just like you are. We can all just breathe.

That’s great advice. This show will obviously be giving everyone on the cast a bigger platform. Are there any causes you want to advocate for now that you have this opportunity?

There are two that are very close to my heart. Being from Los Angeles, every Thanksgiving I'm home, I would go down to Skid Row [to volunteer]. We lived very close to Skid Row at one point. We were very close to living out of our car. I feel very connected to the homeless epidemic, especially in L.A. It's getting worse, and I feel like we need to keep talking about it. Especially young people with a platform. I don't really hear or feel any young artists talking about it or putting their foot down and trying to change things. I want to go back to L.A. and see what I can do.

And then also Black Lives Matter. It's very close to my heart, and I would love to continue to use my voice to amplify Black voices.

Anna Moeslein is the deputy editor at Glamour.

This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast


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