What’s scarier: a horror movie about piranhas on a murderous rampage or dealing with real-life Hollywood sharks? For most actors, they would say the latter. For every successful actor that we see on screen, there are hundreds more who can’t find work and often fall prey to people in and out of Hollywood who are ready to take advantage of them. Fortunately for Jessica Szohr (who co-stars as Kelly Driscoll in the horror movie “Piranha 3D”), her life hasn’t become the type of real-life horror story that happens to many people who become famous at a young age — even though Szohr has had her share of being targeted by tabloid media.
That’s because Szohr is one of the stars of “Gossip Girl.” Ever since debuting in 2007, “Gossip Girl” (a drama series about the lives of privileged young people in New York City) has been generating a lot of buzz for its sexy storylines and romantic entanglements on and off the set. In the series, Jessica Szohr plays Vanessa Abrams, one of the middle-class characters, who initially finds it difficult to fit in with her rich classmates. Vanessa has had an on-again/off-again relationship with aspiring writer Dan Humphrey (played by Penn Badgley), but they both have the common experience of often feeling like outsiders among the wealthy.
In real life, Badgley is dating “Gossip Girl” co-star Blake Lively (who plays wild child Serena van der Woodsen), and Szohr reportedly has had an on-again/off-again relationship with “Gossip Girl” co-star Ed Westwick (who plays filthy rich bad boy Chuck Bass) — although neither Szohr nor Westwick will publicly talk to the media about the status of their personal relationship. Given the attractiveness of the “Gossip Girl” cast and the show’s scandal-loving plots, the tabloids have had a field day reporting alleged hookups and/or dating between other “Gossip Girl” co-stars, such as Leighton Meester and Sebastian Stan, Chace Crawford and Taylor Momsen, and even speculating that former real-life roommates Westwick and Crawford were more than friends. But Szohr (who recently was honored at Hollywood Life’s 2010 Breakthrough of the Year Awards) is trying to rise above all tabloid rumors as she gears up for Season 4 of “Gossip Girl” (premiering in September 2010) while working on her budding career in films. I spoke with Szohr by phone for this exclusive interview the week before “Piranha 3D” arrived in U.S. theaters. We talked about the movie, “Gossip Girl” and how she’s handling the good and bad sides of fame.
Jessica Szohr in “Piranha 3D”
“Piranha 3D” is being described as one of the bloodiest horror movies to come out in a long time. What did you have to go through while you were filming the movie? Was there anything that surprised you?
I think they edited a final version. I haven’t seen the final cut of it yet. I’ve only seen a few scenes, so I haven’t seen the final project with all the piranha scenes edited and the production in 3-D. I wish I could’ve seen it so I could comment more on that. I know they had a final cut that they had worked on editing out certain amounts. I know from what I’ve seen, just from working on it for two-and-a-half months, it’s going to be a funny, scary, entertaining popcorn movie.
What was interesting from an actor’s point of view to do a 3-D movie, I didn’t know what else we would have to do as actors. And for me, as far as staying in character and playing our roles, there wasn’t really anything different. I know with the camera work and things like that they had do that, which I thought was interesting. It was a little bit different. But I thought it [the filming process] was pretty much the same, whether it was a TV performance or a regular TV film. We didn’t have to change the performance. So that was kind of interesting,
The other thing that was interesting is that we didn’t use fake fish or real fish or anything like that the whole time. Most of the time when we were swimming away from them or attacking, they just had the stunt team shooting water darts at me. So yeah, that was kind of interesting. There was no fake piranha. We didn’t see anything at all for the two-and-a-half months.
You mentioned that there’s some comedy in “Piranha 3D.” Can you elaborate?
Jerry [O’Connell, who plays Derrick Jones in “Piranha 3D”] is a really big comic relief. I’ll be honest with you. There were scenes that when we were filming, I had to stop. That’s how much he was cracking me up. I don’t know how they edited it. There were different takes where some of the comedy was over-the-top and some where it was more subtle. So I don’t know which takes were used, but I definitely think it’ll be like you’re laughing one minute and screaming the next, or holding your head down because you ma not be able to watch some of the stuff.
They picked a really good cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames, Elisabeth Shue, Jerry O’Connell. They’re all really great people to work with in bringing these characters to life. I think it’ll be interesting. We had so much fun filming. I hope that when people go see [“Piranha 3D”], they have just as much watching it and entertained as we had making it.
Jessica Szohr in “Piranha 3D”
How do you feel about horror films in general? Is there a particular type of horror film that you like the most?
Ghost stories always creep me out and weird me out. Those are always interesting to watch. I was a big “Jaws” fan, so that was super-neat to have Richard Dreyfuss in the film with us. How I feel about horror films is that I think they’re fun when you’re with a group of friends, you’re scared, you’re at the edge of your seat, you don’t know what comes next. So I always have a good time watching it, but I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to anything scary or bloody or anything like that. So it’ll be interesting to see [“Piranha 3D”], because there’s going to be things jumping out of the screen with 3D and all that.
The weather was brutally hot when you were filming “Piranha 3D.” What advice would you have for people who have to film a movie outdoors in those conditions, besides drinking a lot of water?
Yeah, there were days when it was 120 degrees. Fortunately for us, when were working on it, in between takes, we would jump in this lake. I just hydrated myself by drinking a lot of water. It was hard on some days because it was so hot, you felt like steam was coming out of your system. The sun was soaking in your skin. And the film takes place in a couple of days.
When I got there, they said, “We’re going to need put the highest [SPF] sunscreen that you can possible can.” I didn’t even know they made sunscreen with [SPF] 130. Otherwise, they’re going to have me in different colors throughout the whole thing. Yeah, it was rough, but thank God for that lake. Between the cast and the crew, everyone would just jump in and then within five minutes of [getting out of the lake] you were dry again, because of how hot it was.
Jessica Szohr at the Breakthrough of the Year Awards in Los Angeles, August 2010
You’ve said in interviews that you might have given up on acting if it weren’t for your family. Can you talk about that time in your life and why you decided to not give up on acting? And what’s the story behind how you got your role on “Gossip Girl”?
I grew up in the Midwest, and based on my commercials and modeling and a few independent films I’d done, and I liked acting and it was a lot of fun. But it wasn’t an actor’s career or film that I’d seen growing up … that made me go, “Oh my God! I’m going to leave my family and not go to school and go to L.A. and become an actor.” It just seemed unrealistic …
So basically, I graduated high school a semester early. And I decided to graduate early to go out [to L.A.] to give it a shot and see if I liked it. I got there and booked a couple of jobs, and I didn’t even know what a mark was. I enjoyed getting into characters, but I was just like, “I don’t know anything else” … So I decided, “I’m not going back to school right now.” I was learning and around good actors. So that’s why I stayed. I worked on a J.J. Abrams show called “What About Brian.” … And then I was recurring on “CSI,” and it was a completely different character from what I did on “What About Brian.”
And then it was a Memorial Day weekend, and a friend of mine said, “Hey, we’re going to this barbecue. Do you want to come?” I was on my couch with my dog, just watching TV, and I said, “No,” but then I said, “All right.” So I get there and people are swimming and hanging out by the pool. No one’s talking about what they do [for a living] … And that was pretty much it.
Two days later, my manager called and asked if I went to a barbecue. I said, “Yes. Why?” She said, “Apparently, you met the executive producer of ‘Gossip Girl.’ It’s this new show that’s coming out. They did the pilot already, but there’s an audition on Friday for an upcoming episode.” So I went in and auditioned, and I went back, because they really liked the tape. Everyone else had already been cast … [At the audition], I had worn my hair the same I had at the barbecue. So my manager called back, because they had said, “Send over pictures of her with her hair short, curly, straight.” I said, “OK.” They saw the pictures, and two days later, I got on a flight, and did my first “Gossip Girl” episode.
But basically, before that had happened, I was auditioning a lot and there were no guarantees. As a girl, when you’re get older, there are all these new girls coming in. I was auditioning and getting feedback and trying really hard and giving it my all, but I missed my family and tried to make friends. And I called my family and said, “I think I’m going to stay another week or so and then I’m going to come back home.” And they said, “No, what you’re going through right now is normal.” They encouraged me to stay. And sure enough, about a week later, I got “Gossip Girl.”
Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford and Jessica Szohr in “Gossip Girl”
There have been so many different hookups between the main characters on “Gossip Girl.” Which hookup would you like to see happen that hasn’t happened yet? And which hookup do you think was the biggest mistake on the show?
I think it would be an interesting dynamic to see Dan and Blair [hook up], just because of their relationship. He can’t really stand her and she can’t really stand him, but once in a while, they come together to scheme about someone or something. I think that would be kind of funny.
I feel like the Vanessa and Chuck stuff kind of came out of nowhere. They’re two characters that don’t really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, so I thought it was really weird that they were going to have a one-night stand, just because they come from two different worlds and don’t really care for each other all that much. I think it would be fun to see Dan and Blair. I don’t know. Maybe there will be a Chuck and Serena thing. It’s just so funny, because of all the parents being divorced and remarried.
And at the end of Season 3 of “Gossip Girl,” Georgina tells Dan that she’s pregnant with his child. There might have to be a paternity test. There might be a miscarriage. And who knows? Maybe Georgina could even be faking the pregnancy …
I know. It’s interesting what will come out of that storyline, too. I don’t think I can say much.
“Gossip Girl” co-stars Chace Crawford, Jessica Szohr and Ed Westwick at the “Big Game Big Give” fundraiser for the Giving Back Fund, held in Miami, February 2010
There have been many stories in the media about how the some of the “Gossip Girl” cast members have been dating each other in real life. What advice would you have for actors who date their co-workers?
Yeah, we’re on a show where that’s happening with a lot of the actors. The thing is at the end of the day, we’re fortunate enough — all of us on the show — to be in New York City, working with this cast, working with this crew and these writers and an amazing wardrobe team. And at the end of the day, we’re just normal human beings going to work. That [dating a colleague] happens, whether you’re an actor or work in an office or if you go to school together.
To me, you’ve got to live your life. The fact of the matter is that when there are feelings involved and you like someone, it doesn’t matter if you’re an actor, a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a receptionist — you can’t really help it when you have feelings for someone. So you’ve just got to live your life the way you want. You shouldn’t cross the line in some situations, but sometimes feelings take over and things just happen. You’ve kind of have to go with your feelings sometimes, and live your life. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings.
How do you feel about living in New York City compared to living in Los Angeles?
I lived in L.A. for a couple of years. I loved the weather. In New York, there are so many different people with so many different jobs, and in L.A., it’s very [entertainment] industry-driven … Here [in New York City] there’s so much culture here, with all the museums and music. In L.A., they have all that with the art galleries and concerts, but you have to look for it there. Whereas [in New York City], you could be walking down the street, and there are galleries and museums all over.
[New York and L.A.] are so different. You need a car in LA., and you don’t need one in New York. I just got back from Chicago, and I love Chicago. It’s kind of cleaner [than New York and L.A.] and the energy is not as intense, but it’s still got that big-city feel.
Penn Badgley and Jessica Szohr in “Gossip Girl”
So you were in Chicago for this year’s Lollapalooza Festival. What were some of the highlights for you?
There were so many bands I wanted to see but I wasn’t able to. I saw the Strokes, and they put on an amazing performance. I saw the Black Keys one night. I saw Phoenix. It was just fun. I love seeing live music. The weather was really great, and it was cool being in a different place for a weekend and being able to jam out.
Speaking of music, a lot of people in the “Gossip Girl” cast sing and/or play music. Is that something that you’re interesting in doing or do you want to stick to acting?
You know, I’m very into music. Music is a big part of my life, but not in the sense of performing it or anything like that. I can’t really sing to save my life. It’s not really something that I have a passion to pursue.
How much input do you have into the kind of fashion that Vanessa wears on “Gossip Girl”? Do you get to keep any of the clothes?
They definitely take into consideration what will work for Vanessa or not, but our wardrobe team is there to create a style for each character and has done such a good job with all of it. Blair is very structured, Vanessa is more bohemian. Chuck is very structured as well, whereas Dan is a little bit more bohemian for the guys. Nate is kind of preppy. Serena is all kind of dazzling. They [the “Gossip Girl” wardrobe people] do such a good job, that I really trust them a lot. If I don’t think something is right or if I don’t feel too comfortable in it, I’ll give my two cents. But for the most part, I think they’ve got it down.
Penn Badgley and Jessica Szohr in “Gossip Girl”
The irony isn’t lost on a lot of people that the actors on “Gossip Girl” have been the subject of a lot of gossip themselves. What are the rumors about you that you want to clear up right now?
With that kind of stuff, people are going to think what they want, believe what they want, hear what they want. You’re going to have fans that support you and like you. You’re going to have people who don’t like everything they hear or see or like, whether it’s in a performance or if you’re out there on the red carpet. My real friends and the people I know in real life who know me behind closed doors and the person that I am — it’s not that I don’t care what people think, but in this industry and in this world, there are always going to be rumors. I live my life, and sometimes things just go one ear and out the other.
With this show and with how big this show has gotten and how popular it is, there are always going to be things that are going to be said. I can’t really live my life around, “Oh my God, I need people to know that this is true or not.” What goes on behind my closed doors is certainly no one’s business to begin with. I’m not worried about my fans’ relationships or [co-workers’] relationships. I just try to enjoy my work and live my life, because at the end of the day, I’m a person who has feelings and goes through relationships. I’m a normal human being.
Besides the money and fame, what are the best perks about being an actress who’s reached your level of success?
There are always interesting artists that you can work with, and the traveling is really great. I just finished a movie in New Orleans called “Love, Wedding, Marriage.” So that’s a perk: being able to travel. I didn’t see as much of the world as I have [before I was an actress]. And just being able to meet great artists, like filmmakers, writers and directors.
Is there anything else you want to accomplish as an actress?
People always say, “Oh, do you want to go into films now?” It’s really fun to be on the [“Gossip Girl”] show … but it’s also really fun going into films in between. [On a film], you get into the character, shoot it for a couple of months, and then you wash your hands of it. As long as it’s a good story, I want to play a mother someday or a crazy drug addict — all different kinds of roles that I think would be cool to get into.
For more info: “Gossip Girl” website
“Piranha 3D” website
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Photo credits: Photos #1, 6: Getty Images. Photos #2, 3: Dimension Films. Photo #4: AP. Photos #5, 7, 8: The CW.