Major spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
Gossip Girl is finally back.
Picking up at least eight years after the original series, which birthed Upper East Side legends like Serena Van Der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf, HBO Max’s iteration of the teen drama takes us back to the exclusive and ruthless stomping grounds of Manhattan’s most elite (and most powerful) youths. Now, as viewers flock to stream the pilot, the question is: Was the wait worth it? “I’m feeling every human emotion that has ever been understood,” Eli Brown, who stars as Obie Bergmann IV, nervously tells BAZAAR.com in the anticipation of the first episode.
In this new world, where Nate Archibald is a household name and Dan Humphrey is a famous novelist (offscreen, unfortunately), the kids are more online than ever. Our reigning queen, Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), is an influencer; her besties are PR maven Monet de Haan (Savannah Lee Smith), stylist Luna La (Zion Moreno), and book-loving Audrey Hope (Emily Alyn Lind); her boyfriend is NYC developer heir Obie; and their circle includes skater Aki Menzies (Evan Mock) and hedonist Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty). The new kid on the block is Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), fresh meat from Buffalo, who attends the fancy Constance Billard school on scholarship. And she just happens to be Julien’s half sister.
The first episode reveals that Julien and Zoya share a mother, who is now deceased. Their fathers hate each other, so the siblings secretly schemed for Zoya to apply to Constance. On the first day of school, Julien is excited to invite her little sis into the friend group, though the rest of the crew turn up their noses at the idea. But just as Serena and Blair are the focal point of the original Gossip Girl blog, Zoya and Julien become prime targets for the new uprising of “GG” on Instagram. Can their sisterly bond survive the pressures of online drama?
Here, Peak, Alexander, and Brown discuss the sisters’ relationship, power in the age of social media, and whether the new “woke” characters can still bring epic drama. And if you think Julien and Zoya’s relationship is a big twist, just wait until you find out who Gossip Girl is.
In this new take on the series, we again have a lead duo of women, but this time they’re sisters. Jordan and Whitney, what was your reaction to finding out that your characters are half siblings and how did you work on building that relationship together?
Jordan Alexander: Did you know right away?
Whitney Peak: I didn’t when I did the audition, and then I came to do the tests and stuff in New York, and we were in LA and Josh [Safran] told me about the entire dynamic. But when you [Jordan] were cast, I think I called you right away. The second I got to New York, I was like, “When are you getting here!” I feel like it was pretty easy because, I mean, she’s just incredible to work with and so easy to get along with. We get along as people and human beings, so it’s really nice to get to play with that sibling relationship.
JA: Absolutely. Whitney was so sweet, because I got added to the cast much later and she made sure that I was in all the group chats. I had an Android, and she made everyone join WhatsApp for me. [Laughs].
That’s true love.
JA: I know. And then I got bullied into getting an iPhone. By Evan mostly.
Did you two look at Blair and Serena’s relationship as a guide or basic reference at all, or did you just want to start completely anew?
WP: Even though there are undertones of both women in each of the characters, being siblings with somebody as opposed to being best friends with somebody is a little bit different. And no matter how much you like each other, or how long you haven’t known each other, the second you get together, there’s this air of, you’re my person, I’m yours, and we’re going to do this no matter what.
And it’s interesting to see that there is, at first, some love and support, whereas last time, there was a lot of immediate cattiness. How would you describe Julien and Zoya’s dynamic?
JA: I feel like their dynamic is just hopeful. They’ve both been searching for something like Whitney said, that “you’re my person” moment. And I feel like they’ve both been having this missing piece. So when they do come together, there’s a lot of hope and optimism, perhaps naïveté, about what this relationship could be.
Eli, Obie has a really complicated relationship with his wealth. His parents are developers, but he is also passionate about social justice and aware of inequality. How do you think he’s grappling with that in this new Gossip Girl world?
EB: I think that his dynamic is very interesting because like you said, he is very in tune with inequality whether it be racial or financial. But primarily with the financial inequality, he’s so wealthy and is trying to give back, but he continues putting his money in the wrong places. It’s just an interesting case study, because people do this. People go to these huge charity events and spend thousands of dollars to sit down there, and it just seems a little backwards in my opinion, you know? It’s like, take that money and just do something.
WP: Cut out the middleman.
EB: Yeah, exactly.
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With the prevalence of social media right now and on the show, we’re seeing that power isn’t just about wealth, it’s also about influence. We especially see that with Julien’s devoted following. Is that something that you guys talked about or thought about, what power really means this time around in this Internet-heavy environment?
WP: The difference now is that it’s not really about what you have, it’s about what it looks like you have. I think it’s very easy to create a persona, especially with media, but what we also kind of experiment and tap into with the show is that even though Julien is wealthy and influential and all of this stuff, when Zoya comes in and she’s just so incredibly herself, it kind of threatens Julien’s hierarchy. I feel like it will eventually break down her walls a little bit and make her realize that you don’t have to hide behind anything; you can have the same impact on people with just being yourself and sticking true to your values.
Again, spoiler alert!
I also wanted to know what your reaction was to who Gossip Girl really is, and how we find out in the first episode, rather than waiting till the end.
JA: I loved it. I think that’s so interesting. And just to see the motivation behind doing something like that and how much it does kind of make sense. We critique each other to try and control each other. If you can make someone believe that they’ve done something bad or you’re going to expose them, it’s a controlling tactic. I thought that utilizing that was really interesting.
EB: I also think it’s cool. And I think it’ll work well because—I’m pretty sure that there’s a term for this—the audience understands something that a lot of the characters don’t. As a viewer, I think that that’s a treasure. That’s a fun experience.
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In recent weeks, when people learned that characters will be more aware of their privilege and their wealth in this new Gossip Girl, there was some pushback because of the allure of the original show being campy and ridiculous. How would you respond to those reactions?
WP: Jordan, did you show me that video the other day, of people reacting in anticipation of us being “woke” in the show?
JA: Yeah, I did see that. [laughs]
WP: I feel like there’s a very good balance of, yes, they’re aware of their privilege but also very much oblivious to how it makes them act. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you can be aware of it as much as you want, but you have to apply it. And sometimes you just forget stuff ’cause this is the life that you’ve lived and this is the life that you’ve known your entire life. So it’s kind of hard to get out of. I think that [the show] still has that ditzy sort of, “Yeah, we’re rich and privileged and whatever, and sure we’re aware of it, but we’re still rich and privileged and living this life that nobody else lives in.”
JA: I mean, that’s how privilege works, right? You’re just unaware of the impact that your actions have. And it takes so much work to educate yourself on that. I think that the little bit that the characters are is not quite enough to stop all of the wonderful catty drama that people are coming for. So don’t worry, there’s a lot of it.
WP: I don’t think being aware of it takes away from any of the trauma. [Laughs] It elevates it a little bit.
JC: Cause it’s like, “Wait, you know what you’re doing?”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.