GREATEST / Whitney Peak

The Gossip Girl actress on her burgeoning friendship with playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

INTERVIEWER: KEELY WEISS PHOTOGRAPHER: BON DUKE STYLIST: MIA FIDDIS HAIR: NAEEMAH LAFOND MAKEUP: TYRON MAUCHHAUSEN PHOTO ASSISTANTS: ALEX HUANG, SAVANNAH PURCELL DIGITECH: MICHEL OSCAR MINEGRO PRODUCER: PATRICK O’LEARY
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Whitney Peak knew from a young age that performing was in her cards. Born in Uganda before moving to Canada with her family when she was nine years old, Peak heard a radio commercial for a Disney Channel casting call, auditioned and landed an agent—or so she thought. “They had us sign up for this thing called BCF Casting, and you would give them what days you were available to do background acting on these shows that were filming in Vancouver,” Peak explains. “I was doing that for a little bit before we found out that the agency that I had paid for wasn’t legit.” Peak and her family had been scammed.

That sort of experience would be enough to dash many young people’s dreams of a career in show business. Not Peak’s. While the agent was a scam, it turned out that BCF Casting was the real thing, so Peak kept showing up for background work in movies and TV shows. “Even if I was just in the background for like two seconds, me and my mom would sit down and watch because it was just so awesome and surreal being on-screen.”

The persistence paid off. Background work on the short-lived TV series Minority Report led to a featured role, which led to an (actual) agency referral, which led to roles on Home Before Dark, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and, finally, HBO Max’s reboot of Gossip Girl. As scholarship student Zoya Lott, Peak and her costars serve as the audience’s window into the ultra-rarified world of the Upper East Side elite.

With the better part of a season under her belt, Peak’s Zoya has begun to settle into her role as Constance Billard’s rising queen bee. As Hollywood’s newest ingénue, though, Peak herself is just getting started.

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You’ve said before that booking Gossip Girl was the moment it really sank in for you that this was something you could do for the rest of your life. 

I feel like when you’re putting too much pressure on something it tends to combust, so you have to find pockets of different creative release. Even though acting is a creative outlet, it’s not something that you can do by yourself unless you’re reading scripts or analyzing movies. There are so many variables that have to be in play for you to actually do it properly and to be allowed the creative space to do so.

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This interview is kind of special for me, actually, because I went to the school where they filmed a lot of the original show, and I started my writing career by interviewing a few of the original cast members while I was in high school.

What! That’s crazy! So you would just see them on set and go ask them questions? Nobody kicked you off the set?

Me and my friends were hanging out in the neighborhood and saw they were filming; I walked in and nobody stopped me.

That’s incredible. This is a full-circle moment. [Laughs.]

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Definitely; Gossip Girl holds a special place in my heart. Looking back at the original, it’s iconic, but it’s also very flawed, whereas the new series is really bringing a modern, socially aware sensibility. It’s so much gayer than the original, for one thing, which I love.

Absolutely. Also, this is the time we’re living in, you know? We’re actually allowed to take up space and be who we are, so I’m just glad that we get to represent that on-screen but also not make sexual orientation the main characteristic about each person. What’s interesting about [pansexual playboy character] Max is that his main character trait isn’t his queerness. He just is that, and then we’re all just kind of like “Okay, cool.” Because that’s what real life is. You don’t announce your sexuality every time you walk into a room, it’s just who you are.

What’s cool is that even though Gossip Girl is deliciously soapy, these characters are all really well-educated people with these curated cultural reference points.

What I really like about playing Zoya and being on this set is that literature is such a prominent part in these students’ lives, because they’re at an elite school. I’ve learned so much from the show and Zoya; I steal a lot of her references. I think that she’s just like me when I was in high school, so that relationship is very much there, but she’s also listening to music and reading books I had not even thought about until this year. I definitely wasn’t reading Toni Morrison and listening to Nina Simone when I was 14 or 15.

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Had you read or seen Slave Play before filming the episode with [its playwright] Jeremy O. Harris?

So, in one of the episodes, I was reading Slave Play [as Zoya], and I hadn’t seen it before, so I started reading it on set and was hooked. I went and bought the play and then read it front to back and texted Jeremy like, “Holy. Shit. This is incredible.” That’s how me and Jeremy built our relationship. He’s been a good mentor for me. He puts me on to so many plays—like, he took me to McNally Jackson Books and bought me a bunch of plays and poetry.

In that episode, in the scene at the premiere afterparty where Jeremy guest stars as himself, he almost immediately takes Zoya under his wing. It sounds like you have the same relationship with Jeremy that Zoya does.

He’s like my big brother who teaches me everything that I need to know.

Have you seen Zola [co-written by Jeremy]?

I have seen Zola! I’ve seen Zola like four times, it’s amazing, I love it, and I quote it all the time, and I just need everybody to go watch Zola so that they can understand the references!

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Do you think Zoya would like Zola?

I think Zoya would love Zola, absolutely. She’d be crazy not to.

What do you think is in Zoya’s future? 

For Zoya, I don’t know. There’s not much room there because she’s so sure of who she is, but she’s still going to question herself, and want to be like other people and shapeshift until she finds her perfect fit. 

And your future as an actress?

I want to experiment and push myself to see how far I can go. I’m down for anything that’s as far from me as possible. So whatever that means to you, to whoever’s reading this, I just want to do that. I want to do some crazy shit.