“This Is Going to Be a Lot”: Whitney Peak on the Pressure of Rebooting Gossip Girl
Whitney Peak’s first audition came after she saw a commercial on Disney Channel advertising a chance to be on the network. It turned out to be a scam, but the joke’s on them. Since then, the 17-year-old, Uganda-born actor, who moved to Canada with her family when she was 9, has acted on the hit Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and in the Aaron Sorkin crime drama Molly’s Game, opposite Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. But it’s her next role that has people talking. Later this year, she stars in the secretive HBO Max reboot of Gossip Girl.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: How did you get into acting?
WHITNEY PEAK: It’s actually a weird story. So, originally I heard a commercial on Disney Channel when I was 13 or 14. It was like, “Do you want to be on Disney Channel?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course.” So I got in touch with my mom and we went to that audition and it all turned out to be a scam. But then from there I started doing background acting and then I got cast off the background set to play the younger version of a lead in a TV series called Minority Report, and the guy who played my Dad, Colin Lawrence, referred me to his agent. I photoshopped a headshot to make the background clear. It was a whole thing. And then from there, I got my agent and now here we are.
UKIOMOGBE: When did you know that acting was going to be your career path? Was there one moment or was it like a culmination of moments?
PEAK: I don’t think I ever really thought of it like that. It’s always been something that’s been fun for me and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pursue it, but I don’t think there has been a moment where I’ve said, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” I mean, actually, probably when I booked Gossip Girl, that was a big eye-opener for me and I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is actually something that I could potentially do for the rest of my life,” which is a dream and it’s amazing and I’d totally love to do that if I was given a chance to.
UKIOMOGBE: Did you do any school plays in school? Were you a theater kid?
PEAK: I really wasn’t. That’s the thing, I’ve never really been good at public speaking, especially in school. Whenever I had to do a project or something or had to give a speech, I would literally shake in front of the entire class because I was just so nervous. The same sort of thing happens in auditions, but for some reason, it’s just a little bit less intimidating because you don’t know the people that you’re auditioning for.
UKIOMOGBE: You were born in Uganda. What was it like growing up there?
PEAK: You know what? I actually don’t remember much of it. I moved to Canada when I was 9 or 10 in 2012. I went to boarding school in Uganda, so the school system there was definitely a lot harsher and more disciplined, but it was incredible. I had a good time. But there was a lot more opportunity [in Canada], a lot of freedom. In Uganda, the culture that you’re born into is kind of what you follow throughout the rest of your life, but when I came here, it felt more like I had the option to be my own person and choose where I wanted my life to go.
UKIOMOGBE: Were you a fan of the original Gossip Girl?
PEAK: Oh my gosh, was I? Yes. I probably started watching it two years ago and I’ve now seen it three times. I was definitely a fan of it before I even auditioned for the show, but when I auditioned, I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to get this. I’m 16. I don’t really have that much experience. There’s no way this is going to happen.” So it’s funny how that worked out.
UKIOMOGBE: What was the audition process like?
PEAK: Before I even got the tape, my manager called me. I was in school and I had to dip out of class because whenever my manager calls, it’s either something really good or it’s something really bad. So I went out into the hallway and I called him back and he said that they’re doing a reboot for Gossip Girl and he’s going to try to get me an audition. I thought it might be difficult, but I was like, “I’d definitely love to give it a shot.” So a few weeks later I got the tape and I did the audition and then immediately after, I went to Uganda for my sister’s wedding for about a month or two and I came back in January and then my manager called me and was like, “Gossip Girl wants to book you.” And I was like, “What?” I was super excited and I was like, “Okay, but when do I test?” Because usually you get a callback and then you test and there’s a lot of steps to the process before you fully book the thing. But then my manager was like, “Oh, no, they booked it, you’re in. We’re just finalizing your contract.” I was shocked. I was definitely very excited and I was very honored to have that response. I still can’t even believe it, you know what I’m saying? It’s one of those things where it’s like, “What is happening?”
UKIOMOGBE: Fashion was such a huge part of the original show. Is that still prevalent in the new series?
PEAK: I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be. I think fashion’s such a big thing in the original. If you weren’t watching Gossip Girl for the acting or for the drama, then you were definitely watching for the fashion because it was so interesting. I can’t imagine how fashion would not be a part of the new Gossip Girl.
UKIOMOGBE: Are you daunted at all about appearing in a reboot of such a widely beloved show, or does that not faze you?
PEAK: Oh my goodness, how could it not faze me? There’s such a huge fan base of the original. When the news got out, my Instagram went crazy and everybody wanted to know who I was playing and when it was going to start filming. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a lot.” There’s definitely a lot of pressure, but I’m a fan of the original show, so I can understand how people got so attached to these characters and now that they’re trying to bring it back again. People are just conflicted. They’re like, “No, why would you already touch something that’s so beautiful?” I feel like there’s no need to be threatened. It’s definitely going to be interesting and I don’t think it’s going to take away at all from the original show in all its glory. It’s just going to be the same sort of world, eight years later.
UKIOMOGBE: Is there anything that you’ve learned from working on this show, either about yourself or about acting in general?
PEAK: It’s been sort of weird because usually when you book something, you start filming right away. I found out that I booked it in late January and we were supposed to start filming, but then it got pushed for seven months because of the pandemic. So it went from “I can’t wait” to “Oh my gosh. Is this going to happen?”
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