While some young actresses toil for years in search of their big break, through endless auditions, humbling bit parts, and commercial spots, newcomer Savannah Lee Smith has had the immense fortune of landing her first major role before even finishing her acting training.
The 20-year-old West Hollywood native is filling some big shoes in her first-ever professional acting role on the hotly anticipated HBO Max reboot of “Gossip Girl.” Still enrolled in undergrad (she’s a junior at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts), Smith transferred from a major in music to a major in acting after missing her high school drama days. A testament to her talent, Smith quickly secured an agent and only went on auditions for about a year before landing a leading role on the reboot of the cult-favorite teen drama. Despite this near-instant success, Smith admits she feels some nerves in the midst of her excitement for the show’s premiere to the public.
“You definitely do feel a little bit of pressure,” Smith said. “It is such a legendary show. Especially being in New York — I’ve lived here for three years — I definitely feel the pressure. Maybe a little bit more than everyone else who came from around the world.”
And it’s no wonder. The original “Gossip Girl” was one of the last hot teen dramas of the 2000’s before reality TV smothered the scripted series. The show was an instant hit, consistently garnering weekly viewers upwards of 3 million, cultivating a near-rabid fanbase, drawing crowds of teens to the New York Palace Hotel for souvenir selfies, and making household names of its then-unknown cast of stars. Casual viewers are rarely sure of what they want to see before they actually see it, and diehard fans tend to let their attachment to the source material and the tight grip of nostalgia color their receptiveness to reboots and sequels. So unsurprisingly, the online response to the show’s initial announcement was tepid at best.
“I remember when The Met steps photo came out and took the internet by storm, a lot of people were saying ‘I’m not going to watch it if Blair and Serena aren’t back!’ or ‘If it’s not the old characters, I don’t want it.’” Smith said. But ever since HBO gave us a glimpse of what this reboot has to offer in early June, she hasn’t been too worried about fickle fan response.
“Once the trailer came out, it was ‘wait, this looks good.’” she laughed.
Naturally, with this iteration of the series taking place in real-time nine years after the events of the first “Gossip Girl,” there are inevitable changes at play. In keeping with the times, salacious blog posts have been interchanged with shady IG Live sessions and subliminal Tweets, and the now-very-grown original castmembers have been replaced with a fresh crop of prep academy students. No doubt, some fans were likely taken aback a bit by another notable change: the multiple faces of color that are now peppering the hallways of the Constance Billard School for Girls and St. Jude’s School for Boys.
Thankfully, this 2021 version of the tale takes a turn away from the trope of the lily-white upper crust social circle that was popular in teen media during the aughts, to instead opt for modern realism and inclusivity. Smith’s character, mean girl Monet de Haan, is one of several new non-white wealthy socialites on the Upper East Side in Gossip Girl’s universe. For Smith, giving voice to a Black girl in a setting and a lifestyle we aren’t typically associated with is a gratifying experience.
“For me, it’s all about proximity. It’s just as important for a little Black girl to see a Black woman in a position of power as it is for a little white girl to see. Being part of that representation is really fulfilling for me and fulfills my own inner child. I would have loved to see a 20-year-old Black girl playing a billionaire, someone who has old money and just an immense amount of power.”
But she remains somewhat wary of the clichés casual viewers may try to box her character into. Monet is a show villain after all. The often premature wrath of Woke Twitter could easily strike, tossing her into a pile of vitriol and hashtags reserved for portrayals of the broken and aggressive “angry Black woman.”
“She’s evil! She’s cutthroat. She’s the maker of all drama, and she makes people cry,” Smith said of her show character. “I definitely thought about the angry Black girl trope, but it’s just not there. Monet is a very complex character. In the first few episodes, you’ll see her on the surface level, but you can tell that there’s a reason she acts the way she does.” Smith stresses that you’ll see many layers of Monet unfold to understanding, particularly as this first season draws to a close.
With the new “Gossip Girl” hitting streams on HBO Max today, Smith is looking toward the next part of her future with one season of the series already behind her. While most actresses in her position would be sifting through scripts with their agent in hopes of parlaying their newfound fame into more gigs, she’s instead gearing up to return to in-person classes in the fall to complete her acting degree.
“I definitely want to get my degree. I might minor in something different or take up my passion for writing,” she said, noting NYU’s Stonestreet program focused on production and directing, another interest on her list.
With her dedication to education and focus on multiple creative passions, we wouldn’t be surprised if success strikes Savanna Lee Smith behind the lens just as quickly and vigorously as it has in front of it.