Leighton Meester on Growing Out of ‘Gossip Girl’ and Becoming a Mom: ‘Times Have Changed’
The talented actress sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss her new role on ‘Single Parents,’ how becoming a parent has changed her, and much more.
TOPANGA, California—Upon arriving at the rustic, wood-accented restaurant nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, a bohemian establishment boasting a menu of “locally sourced organic ingredients” and a hearty diet of Elliott Smith, the first thought that crossed my mind was: Blair Cornelia Waldorf wouldn’t be caught dead here.
You see I’m here to meet Leighton Meester, who for five years embodied one of the all-time great television characters on Gossip Girl. A mélange of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Kathryn Merteuil and Reese Witherspoon’s Annette Hargrove, her Queen B reigned over Manhattan’s Upper East Side—a paragon of glamour and bitchiness. Serena van der Woodsen and the rest of the gals at Constance never stood a chance. That Meester’s mantel isn’t lined with Emmys is a crying shame, though perhaps voters will be more partial to her new scene-stealing sitcom role.
Meester’s Angie D’Amato is the heart and soul of Single Parents, a surprisingly funny ABC sitcom from New Girl’s Liz Meriwether and J.J. Philbin. A single mother with a needy young boy, Angie is overwhelmed and, due to her past with men, emotionally guarded. She’s also a bit of an oddball, her two biggest vices being corn chips and death metal (she worships at the altar of Slayer). Fortunately, Angie finds camaraderie in a group of other single parents with young children—Will Cooper (Taran Killam), Douglas Fogerty (Brad Garrett), Poppy Banks (Kimrie Lewis), and Miggy Park (Jake Choi)—who help her navigate the chaos.
It’s been seven years, one marriage (to Adam Brody, of The O.C. fame), one child, and one stint on Broadway since Gossip Girl, and Meester seems, well, content. “It just seems right,” the 33-year-old actress says of Single Parents.
As our brunch interview comes to a close, she motions to a man in a red baseball cap perched at the bar, his head buried in his phone. “Are you watching Bernie Sanders videos over there?” she says, playfully. It’s Brody, her husband of five years. They live nearby, in Cali bohemia, with their daughter Arlo. He smiles, and the two embrace.
Before that, we discussed everything from her unique childhood to parenthood and Single Parents.
How did you and Liz Meriweather connect? Because I remember when your husband guested on New Girl as Zooey Deschanel’s jealous ex.
Right! He’s still in love with her. [Laughs] I had met her before as well—I forget the scenario, whether it was social or work-related, but probably both—throughout the years. And I’m a huge fan of hers. Jason [Winer], who’s directed a lot of Single Parents and is the executive producer, I really like his whole vibe and whole tone—this New Girl-meets-Modern Family vibe. I was like, oh, this is something I can sink my teeth into, and everyone was very supportive of this collaborative experience. We are a squad, and hopefully it translates, but it’s actually like we’re having fun and we’re friends but they’re filming it.
You and Taran Killam, especially, have great chemistry on the show. How early on was that apparent to you?
Early on. At first, the people behind the show were the pitch—J.J. [Philbin] and Liz [Meriweather] and Jason [Winer]—and Taran was already onboard, and I’m a huge fan of his professionally. And the first day I met him, we just ended up talking for over an hour and realizing that we had a lot in common life-wise. He is a very inspiring, supportive, encouraging person who I can go to with almost anything, and who’s pushed me to stand by jokes that I believe in. But somewhere along the line, we were hanging out outside of work, going to karaoke, going to dinners, and our families were hanging out together.
What are your go-to karaoke songs?
He does Green Day with that voice very well. And he’s done that Shaggy song “It Wasn’t Me” very well—both parts. For me, anything Kate Bush. I do this full-blown, wannabe impersonation. And En Vogue, which is way more than a duet.
Love En Vogue. Are we talking an anthem like “Free Your Mind” or more on the ballad side, like “Don’t Let Go?”
Definitely “Don’t Let Go”—like, fall to the floor and sing on your knees type of thing.
I remember listening to that on the Set It Off soundtrack. You ever see that flick? With Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett, and Kimberly Elise as the four friends who rob a bank?
I don’t think so! OK, I gotta look for that!
Oh, it kicks ass. They buy their guns from Dr. Dre. Highly recommend. I think the last time I sang karaoke me and a friend did “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys.
How does that one go?
[Sings terribly] Listen baby I’m sorry, just wanna tell ya don’t worry, I will be late don’t stay up and wait for me…
Oh! For some reason, I missed the whole TRL era. Like, I saw it all, but I think I was just always like, I can’t. I don’t know why!
Looking back, TRL had such an odd mix of talent—you had the boy bands but then groups like Korn and Kid Rock.
Yeah, Korn was mainstream! My character is really into Korn on the show—and Slayer, which was a big mistake. Early on I was like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if my character was really into Slayer?” And then I had to do a full performance of it—I’m singing it, my daughter’s singing it, I have to explain to her what “reign in blood” means.
[Laughs] Right. Angie has this big 30th birthday bash on the show where they recreate Ozzfest and she belts out a Slayer song. Did you do anything big for your 30th?
No! I had recently become a mom, so I think I didn’t do much. I think I had dinner. There’s no fun, ceremonial birthdays anymore! The last big birthday I had, as far as a big party, was when I was turning 25 all my best friends threw me a surprise party, and that was very touching.
That must have run right up against the end of Gossip Girl, right?
Yeah. It was probably during, but for some reason I was out here. Very slowly, I became an Angeleno. I was out here for all of my breaks and hiatuses, and since I’d lived here prior I had a lot of friends out here, so it was really where my center was for the last two years of the show.
How have you found being an Angeleno? Some people enjoy the chaos of New York since it can add fuel to the fire, but out here feels like a healthy downshift.
It is. I am so glad that I had my early- to- mid-twenties in New York. It was like going off to college—but instead I was making a show. I lived in the city and it was the perfect place to live alone, get to know myself. The other part of that is, here I’ll go out and not really come face to face with people, but there you go out your door and have to always interact with people. You’re a bit more mobile there; like, I can walk to the store or take the train to this and that place. It’s a different life. And in many ways, as a single person—and a single person—it’s easier and more convenient to do that. But when you have a family, it’s the exact opposite. You go grocery shopping and everyone is in their coats, and you have to take off your coats, your shoes, your hats, your soaking-wet snow boots; then, you have to pick out all your groceries and load up a car—or don’t. You’re pushing a stroller where there’s sloshy, black snow splashing you, and then have to try to get it up and down from the subway. It’s a whole other thing.
And the bars out here close at 2 a.m.
The bars close at 2—which is why it’s so great to be in your early twenties in New York, where they never close. In the very early days I went out, and I’m pretty sure I had a fake ID when I first was there, because I was 20. It was from Nevada and of someone who looked nothing like me whatsoever. The funny thing was, I didn’t really even drink that much or anything around that time, I just thought, let’s go out at bars, this is cool, play some pool. But then I’d go to work at 5 o’clock in the morning when people are being let out of the bars and clubs and still peeing on the street while I’m on my way to work, so that quickly changed and I didn’t really have that going on. But it was just a great place to live in my little apartment. I think of these little, special pockets of time during that period—and certainly moving out here, I met my husband right away, and life changed.
It’s funny—for a lot of people my age who watched both The O.C. and Gossip Girl, you two occupied about a decade of TV viewing during our late-teens and twenties. Did you watch The O.C.?
I didn’t! But I know it was very special and important to a lot of people. And yeah, it is funny. I’d met Adam throughout the years, but then I moved out here and it was like life was different.
Was it through Josh Schwartz?
Through Josh, through acquaintances. And then we ended up doing a movie together, The Oranges. People sort of have a fantasy about that overlap of characters in real life. They have a whole … special place in their heart for it.
You two do have that shared experience as well—both knowing what it’s like to be in that pop-culture maelstrom of being on a hit teen show.
Absolutely. And I think there’s something about working at a young age that feels like you can understand each other. But also being on something that gets attention at a young age, it’s great, but also is something that requires some examining … There is this requirement in me to go back and look at that and examine it a bit more. I still had to go through all the learning, and relationships, and moving, and just all the experiences that people go through growing and making mistakes—while I was working and had a consistent job, which was great, but also, to some degree, having that be examined. Like, relationships with people that you date in college, I suppose, when you’re not in this line of work, nobody knows or hears about that, you know? But the same goes with the music that I was making at that time. It’s much different than what I am doing now. I was learning about myself and trying to figure it all out.
Do you feel like you were pushed into a pop direction at that age?
I feel I was. I think that was also a 20-year-old’s taste, and it was also, this is what we’re going to capitalize on. While I did have a very amicable break with Universal-Republic, it was mutually like, this isn’t what either party is looking for. It just wasn’t me; it wasn’t what I wanted. And I even felt it at the time. But now, I’m grateful that I can step away from that and do something like Single Parents, do a play, or do the music I’m making now.
It seems like such a good fit, you on Single Parents. Having played an iconic character like Blair Waldorf, do you feel audiences needed some time to adapt to you as a grown-up?
I think the nice thing about specifically this audience is that they’re growing up as well. A lot of people are like, “I watched you when I was a kid.” And there are some people who are willing to step away and say, I’m going to follow you to the play you’re in, or the music you’re doing, or the new show you’re on, and can look away and see whatever it is that you’re into now, how your taste has grown, and where your inspiration has taken you. And I think the opposite is true, too. That show meant so much to so many people in that specific time and space, and they can’t and don’t want to look beyond it. But yeah, it hasn’t really gotten in the way of me being able to have other opportunities and other jobs that don’t entail me being a rich, fancy lady! I have been told, interestingly—and I take it as a compliment in many ways—by a producer or casting director before they’ve met me that I’m too “glamorous”—specifically that word. And don’t get me wrong, I take that as a compliment, but it’s one character that I’ve played. It isn’t me. I mean, I’m from South Florida.
But you were born in Texas, right?
I was born there but immediately moved, within a month or two. I just happened to be born there. I guess my birthing parent happened to be there. And then I lived in Cincinnati, but I don’t remember that, living with my grandma. And then I moved to Florida, and that’s where my family still lives.
What do you mean by “birthing parent?”
And you were born under unique circumstances [Meester’s parents were serving a federal prison sentence at the time for smuggling marijuana]. Have you thought about that, now that you’re a mother yourself?
I think it’s always something that I think, whether you become a mother or father, you do revisit unconsciously or consciously—your past, your origins, your upbringing—and try to look at what was done right and wrong. For me, that’s what’s been interesting being a mother myself, and helpful. And also, playing a mother has been so enlightening and wonderfully rounding. I love Angie in the hilarity of the way the character is written, but I also love how she is, because of her environment, sort of walled-off to the possibility of hurt, and help, and relationships, and vulnerability, and saying “I love you.” Whenever I watch a show or a movie that I really love, all the characters are so distinctly themselves and I can find myself in each one of them, and I can certainly find facets of Angie in me—not just the comedy stuff, but the more drama-leaning stuff from my life has managed to seep in.
Has your opinion evolved when it comes to what your parents did to land themselves in prison? Because the attitude nationally toward marijuana has really changed quite a bit in recent years. And from an outsider’s perspective, smuggling marijuana from Jamaica back then sounds pretty fascinating.
That might be the movie version. In this time in my life, now, personally how I’ve always felt, is that the way we have it now in California—at least with recreational marijuana—that’s right. That’s where we should head. I personally think, much like cigarette ads, they shouldn’t be advertising it that way—in billboards and magazines—and certainly I think there will be laws that change that eventually.
And edibles, woof. The most banged-up I’ve ever gotten is on edibles. You just have no idea where those things are gonna take you.
I’ve had some full-blown am I alive? moments—which are scary. But yeah, as far as recreational marijuana, and the long-term prison sentences for a minor offense of almost any drug, to be honest, is not right. But that was a different time, and certainly a different offense. Nobody was just smoking weed and went to prison.
When the college admission scandal news broke, The Cut did this funny post about how Gossip Girl “predicted” the scandal. It struck me as a bit of a stretch, and seemed to draw the connection just because there was some SAT cheating on the show.
Oh, there was?!
Yeah! Serena gets roofied by Georgina Sparks and can’t make the SATs, so Chuck sends in a person to take it for her—who also took it for him. But then, there’s Blair who’s playing mind games with Nelly Yuki in order to have her screw up on the SATs and not make it into Yale.
Ohhh, that’s right. This is a stretch! But I do remember that—and no, I did not see that article. [Laughs]
I re-watched Gossip Girl recently, and a few things struck me as odd. For one, the Nate Archibald character literally transforms into Jared Kushner—running The Spectator, a spin on The Observer. And then, there’s this character, Willa Weinstein, who’s supposed to be Harvey Weinstein’s daughter on the show. She’s a weird nude performance artist who tries to seduce Dan Humphrey at Tisch.
Oh, that’s funny. And we also had Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump on the show.
Right. That infamous scene at the Boom Boom Room.
I wish I had remembered that experience. I was with a bunch of the other people on the show and remember meeting them, but they gave us a green room and me and all the other girls just hung out—so we didn’t talk to them, really. I got no other juice for ya!
In preparing for this interview, I saw a ton of headlines about how your appearance with Adam at the Shazam! premiere was your first red-carpet appearance as a couple in two years. Having spent so much of your twenties in the public eye, is it nice to step back a bit?
I don’t enjoy the parties and events so much. We support each other and do what needs to be done, so I was happy to join him there at Shazam! Actual work is always on my mind too. Being with my daughter is the priority, so I want to make sure the work I’m doing is meaningful and important to me in a way that I can justify not being with her for however many hours it takes to work every day—and the same goes for going to events and stuff. But I would argue that I wasn’t necessarily ever going out and doing that anyway! But I guess time’s have changed—though only in the way that life changes.