Whitney Peak, the breakout star of the new Gossip Girl, is blowing up. As the lead in one of the buzziest television shows in recent years, the 19-year-old is having a moment. Born in Uganda and raised in Canada, Peak got her start as a teenage actress with small but memorable roles in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, opposite Jessica Chastain. When her agent told her that HBO Max was rebooting Gossip Girl, which aired from 2007 to 2012, the then 16-year-old sent in her audition tape. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
The producers were so taken by Peak that they booked her instantly—a rarity in an industry where thousands of hopefuls compete for the same role (especially one as high profile as this), often going through multiple tests. Peak leads a new diverse cast—the old show got plenty of retrospective flak for its blinding whiteness—as fan favourite Zoya Lott, the only main character who does not come from money and therefore, a proxy for the “regular people” watching the show; we experience the rarefied realm of the show’s uber‐wealthy Manhattan teens through her eyes and ears.
The first season was a hit and production is now under way for the second. It is in her newly adopted home city of New York that we’ve captured Peak for this portfolio, where her versatility shines through in pictures—emanating earthy glamour in the studio one moment; the next, exuding an effortless blend of uptown chic and downtown cool as she traipses through the busy streets. An old soul with a cherubic teenage face, Peak speaks to us about her ascendant journey.
Related article: Gossip Girl’s Whitney Peak Fronts Our June 2022 Youth Issue
What did you love most about working on Gossip Girl and what were some of the biggest surprises?
I was surprised at how exhausting it got. The show is a dream come true—and then you start doing it and you get tired, then you beat yourself up for feeling that way because you’re so lucky to be in this position. It can become this whole cycle of not allowing yourself to rest because you feel like you should be grateful and keep going—so many people would love to be in this position. When you’re on set, you’re interacting with so many people, and you’re giving and consuming so much energy. If you don’t take a break, you’re going to burn out really easily—that was one of the first things I learned. What was really fun was getting to film at all the locations we did. In every episode, there was an event somewhere amazing, whether it’s Webster Hall or The Plaza Hotel or even just Central Park. We booked out the entire space so it would just be us—it really was just the best tour of New York City that anybody could ever get.
How do you pick your projects these days?
If I read a script that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, or it just sounds exciting to work on, or it makes me giddy to think about it, I think that’s a sign of a good project. That’s when I reach for it and shoot my shot. I think anything different from what I’ve been doing or what I’ve done in the past really excites me. If the character is very far from my reality, that definitely intrigues me and I want to learn more and try to tap into that.
What is it about characters like those that draw you in?
I just want to view the world from a different person’s viewpoint, even if only for a moment. I think you learn a lot when you’re able to step out of yourself and look at the world through another’s eyes. I want to play, and I want to be challenged and really get the chance to be fully enveloped in a character or a universe or a world.
Is that your favourite part about acting?
I think so. I think that every opportunity in life is a chance to learn. Even if it’s just an audition and I read a script that really mesmerises me, even just from that, I learn about the world just by looking at life differently than I normally do. I do think that’s my favourite part—just stepping out of yourself and bringing a little of yourself into the next character; into the next vessel you’re playing. There’s something refreshing and exhilarating about it, but there’s also something so emotional because depending on the character, it sparks an empathy or an excitement or a trauma in you that makes you either appreciate or acknowledge different perspectives and experiences of life better.
What excites you about the industry today and on the flip side, what frustrates you?
It’s actually the same answer for both. What excites me is the direction we’re taking with inclusivity and diversity in film and television, but what frustrates me is also that it’s a step we still have to take. It’s not something that’s already written in stone; it’s not the norm yet. It’s something we’re working towards, which is a little frustrating because it should just be fair chances for everybody. Race, ethnicity, religion, shape, size, sex—all these shouldn’t matter. As much progress as we’re making, it’s still a little bit of a pain to know that it should have always just been this way. It should be a big duh.
And being on a hit show like Gossip Girl, you’re a visible face of that progress. How does that feel?
I don’t think of it that way. In my head, it’s not really that—I don’t think I’m a beacon of progress or something that is life‐changing. But I guess it’s really refreshing to think about how kids around the world, kids that look like me or any of the cast—or maybe not even look like us, but relate and connect to us—are going to watch the show and not feel so alone, and feel like they do have a place in the world, and know that they have any opportunity in the world if they just take it.
Is it daunting to be looked at as a role model?
Oh, god (laughs). I don’t know. I really don’t … I can’t think of myself as a role model. I think that it’s a little bit damaging to think of yourself as [one]—the second you put yourself on that pedestal, you’re already kind of killing the humility and the morality of it. But if there is anybody out there who is looking at me like that, I think that’s very motivating and inspiring and incredibly humbling because I definitely don’t perceive myself that way. I’m just a regular old person just living my life.