The scene is downtown LA. It’s 5.30pm and off-the-hook office workers mingle with off-the-beaten-track tourists, looking without seeing at the looming office buildings, Starbucks signs and conference center-fodder hotels. It’s a shame, because they’re missing something rather incredible. At the crosswalk, right by the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign, next to a particularly grubby hoarding, is a small, triangular pop-up tent. Hovering around it are two women whose arms are heavy with black fabric; one wears a mechanic’s belt around her waist, the other has a pair of wince-inducing patent shoes in the back pocket of her jeans, anchored by their stiletto heels. Interest piqued, you might loiter, wondering what the deal is, and you would be rewarded by the sight of actress Leighton Meester, 32, emerging from the little black Tardis, freshly changed into a leather trench coat, not in the slightest bit concerned by the indignity of being forced to switch outfits on one of the city’s busiest junctions. “You would not get away with this with anyone else,” says her agent dryly, and having been on close to 100 cover shoots in my career, I do not doubt her.
“I never really wanted to STOP [acting as a child]. That being said, if I’d WANTED to, could I have? I don’t know. Maybe because of THAT, I didn’t”
It’s the following day and Meester has chosen The Beverly Hills Hotel to meet for our chat. Interview venues can give an indication of what to expect from your subject: juice stand near hiking trails? Down to earth; isn’t going to let anything get in the way of her exercise schedule. Chateau Marmont? Will definitely tell you they like their privacy while scanning the room for contacts. That out-of-the-way vegan café? They’re going to be late, but you’ll forgive them instantly because the excuse is so ridiculous and the coffee was great anyway. The Beverly Hills Hotel suggests someone a little old school. Upper echelons of the A-list, usually, and probably had a meeting here with a director before you arrived. It seems an odd choice for Meester, who was so endearing yesterday with her side-eye smirks. “Adam, my husband, was a valet here,” she says, her head swiveling as though to get the measure of the place. “Yeah, before he really started working, when he came to [LA with] that ‘oh, I’ll try it out’ kind of mentality…”
Adam, as you’ll likely know because the internet is still obsessed with their union, is Adam Brody, who she married in 2014 and with whom she has a three-year-old daughter, Arlo. The idea of him collecting keys at the end of the pink carpet before signing on to play Seth Cohen in The OC is exactly the kind of dream that Hollywood was built on.
It’s hard to believe, though, that Meester would ever be lured by that kind of fairytale. She’s funny, yes, sarcastic and self-deprecating, but not a dreamer. Definitely creative – as a kid in Florida, she used to play with the salt and pepper pots at the local restaurant, making them get married (“The ketchup was the priest and I’d take the sugar packets and throw them like rice…”) – but conscientious, the type of person who has a long-term plan.
It’s not hard to imagine her starting her career aged 10; she may still look 22 even, or especially, without a hint of makeup on her face, but hearing her talk there’s no doubt she was the kind of young woman who had an old head on her shoulders. She moved to New York soon after, a city she loved not for its bright lights, but because “I went to school with people who at a really young age felt like they knew what they wanted to do and they were pursuing it.” At 14 she transferred to Los Angeles and continued picking up small jobs – “A pilot most years, some modeling, commercials, stuff like that” – then, when she was 16, she got her diploma early. “And then I started working more, because if you’re a kid and you can work as an adult, it’s good for your résumé.”
It could be because recounting her story again doesn’t interest her, but Meester doesn’t sound particularly enthused; you don’t get the sense that she was desperate for her shot at the big time. In past interviews, the actress has said her childhood was a complicated one; happy times mixed with “crazy” ones. She was born while her mother Constance was in federal prison for drug trafficking offenses, and her father Doug also spent time in jail. The family then lived together in Florida, before her parents divorced and the women moved to New York. Whatever her feelings about pursuing an acting career so young, it’s clear the money came in handy. In 2012, Meester told Marie Claire that her childhood worries were very different from her peers. “‘Jimmy doesn’t like me!’ Who cares? I was worried we didn’t have gas money or food. Those were my concerns,” she revealed.
Was acting a passion, then, or a necessity? Did she ever want to walk away from it? She hesitates. “I never really wanted to stop. That being said, if I’d wanted to, could I have? I don’t know. I couldn’t really answer that question. I don’t know, and maybe because of that, I didn’t.”
“Because of the SUCCESS of Gossip Girl…I had to figure out QUICKLY what’s real and what’s not, who I can TRUST and who I can’t”
Forget stopping – throughout her teens and early twenties, Meester barely even paused. The life of a child star can be a challenging one, and for every actor who navigates it (apparently) unscathed, there are those who find it harsh and destabilizing. “It is such an emotionally taxing job because people who are hiring you or not hiring you are judging you based on things that are, in most cases, out of your control,” says the actress carefully. “And hearing as an 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 year old that a great attribute is that you are ‘really professional’ is not a really kid-like compliment. It messes with your mind if you don’t take it the right way. So it’s been important for me as an adult to pursue other things that I feel build up my identity in a separate way, and maybe more so than other people who started [working] later.”
Meester’s particular journey was fundamentally changed by the show that introduced her to so many: Gossip Girl. It’s a subject I’ve been tiptoeing around, because when it came up during the filmed segment on our shoot yesterday, it seemed as though the mention of it made the actress uncomfortable.
She auditioned for the TV adaptation of Cecily von Ziegesar’s cult young adult novels at the age of 19, glibly signing the six-year lock-in contract as part of the process. “It’s the best-case scenario that a show could ever go for six years,” she says. “It doesn’t happen often.” She won the part of Blair Waldorf and moved back to New York for filming. The show was successful so quickly that she and her cast mates – Blake Lively, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford and Ed Westwick – found themselves in as much of an elite as their privileged characters; fêted by the designers whose clothes their characters wore so thoughtlessly, their personal lives documented just as meticulously. “I was young when I started Gossip Girl. A lot more people were suddenly around and I was being looked at,” she offers. “If you don’t have the right perspective, you could definitely be confused by people being that nice to you or judging you for behavior that’s typical of a 20, 21 year old… making mistakes but having to make them very publicly. I’m not haunted by that time, but it’s been interesting and helpful for me to look at it and examine it as an adult and go, ‘I don’t know if it was the healthiest environment.’”
The schedules were certainly grueling for cast and crew. The studio was based in Long Island City and filming was 16 hours a day, five days a week, for six years – “I would get there at 5am and leave at 8pm; a lot of days I didn’t see the sun” – but it was the timing of it, says Meester, which was tough. “Everyone has their own journey, especially in their early twenties when they’re just figuring out who they are. Because of the success of that show, I was put in a place where that journey was sped up. I had to figure it out quickly and with not a completely developed mind to discern between what’s real and what’s not, who I can trust and who I can’t. I got really lucky and was able to very early on find and stay friends with people who are true.”
“A lot of the questions that come from Gossip Girl are: ‘Do you MISS it?’ ‘Did you love what you wore?’ It’s like saying, ‘High school was an AMAZING time for you, do you wish you could go BACK?’”
So is she uncomfortable talking about it? Would she rather we all just let Blair be? “It was a very special time…that was filled with challenges that have nothing to do with [Gossip Girl] and also sometimes things that did have something to do with it,” she says thoughtfully. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s sort of a time capsule. A lot of the questions that come from it are: ‘Do you miss it?’ ‘Did you love what you wore?’ And I understand that, but – and I say this with nothing but love – it is like saying, ‘High school was an amazing time for you, do you wish you could go back?’ And the truth is, it was so special and such a unique, amazing experience, but no, I wouldn’t wanna go back to it, I was a kid!”
The show she’s really here to talk about, Single Parents, is a world away from Gossip Girl territory. Meester plays Angie, a mother who bonds with a disparate group of moms and dads with the aim of surviving school life and solo parenting with their sanity intact. It’s light but fun, with a glow-inducing ‘you’re not alone and no, you aren’t losing your mind’ message. There are female showrunners and will be female directors, she says, noting the difference it makes working on a show that feels equal. She doesn’t feel that playing a parent now puts her in a particular category – “I am a mother” she points out – but she is keen to keep mixing it up. “I do notice now a lot of roles that don’t really come my way, like the sexy ingénue. We need women who are more fully fleshed out on television and in film at every age, including young women who aren’t just there to be the love interest and the date.”
The thing that strikes you most about Meester is not actually her quiet intelligence or goofy sarcasm, but the aura of balance about her. As though she’s in alignment, somehow. “I wouldn’t change anything [in the past] because I’m happy where I am now,” she says. “And I think that that’s one of the many wonderful parts of not only having a child and meeting your soulmate, but also I feel really lucky career-wise – really in a place that I want to be.” She deserves it.
Single Parents airs September 26 (ABC)
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