IN CONVERSATION WITH SAVANNAH SMITH
Interview by Jana Letonja
Savannah Lee Smith is an actress and singer who had her breakout role on the HBO Max’s ‘Gossip Girl’. Savannah plays Monet de Haan on the hit show, which premiered its second season on 1 December. Next up, she will star in Monarch Media’s musical feature ‘Something Here’.
Savannah, how would you describe your casting process for ‘Gossip Girl’ and your reaction when you got cast on a reboot of such an iconic and successful series?
The audition process was quite long. I did one initial audition, which was a self-tape. At the time I was at NYU, so I was in my dorm room and my roommate helped me put up some lights and we put a sheet over the window to try to make it look a little bit more professional. I recorded that tape and sent it in. And then I got a callback, which was another self-tape, and then another one. And then I got brought into the office for an in-person audition. After that one, I went to LA to do a screen test, which was basically like a live audition in front of 10 of the executive producers and writers and showrunners. That was intimidating, but it worked out in my favor.
During quarantine, I was in a house in the woods with my mom, escaping the city. And I didn’t have much service, so I saw that my agent texted me and she just said “Pick up the phone. I have crazy news”. I called her back and all she said was you got it. I literally threw my phone across the floor, I fully broke that phone. I just started screaming and crying and laughing and my mom downstairs was like “Who died? What’s going on”? And I just said I got it. She started crying and then we called everyone we knew. So it was a pretty life-changing moment for me.
So were you a fan of the original series before being cast on the reboot?
I wasn’t a fan, but I watched the whole thing. When it originally came out, I think I was a little bit younger than its demographic. But as the years went on, I’d see some clips on YouTube and Instagram, so I knew of ‘Gossip Girl’ of course. I mean, you can’t really escape it. When I got cast on the show, I was like “All right, now I need to do my homework, kind of see what world I’m coming into”. And then of course I was hooked and I binged the entire thing very quickly.
In ‘Gossip Girl’ you star as Monet, the intimidating and powerful social media-savvy student. In what ways would you say you relate to Monet?
I don’t relate to Monet in many ways. I would say that I’m a bit calmer and less impulsive than she is. And obviously less mean, I hope. But if I would have to choose one similarity between us, I would definitely say her drive, her work ethic, sometimes to a fault. When I set my mind on something, I work very hard to get it. And I think Monet does the same thing. She chooses the route of sabotage and I work really hard for the things that I want. Other than that, I would like to say that we have similar fashion tastes, but I’m getting there. I can’t say that yet, but she’s definitely better than me in that department.
Through both seasons, how do you think Monet has grown and developed?
I think that she’s grown a lot. In season one, they were kind of just laying the groundwork for all of our characters. It was very introductory. It was just like these are the foundations of these people. And for Monet, she was a minion. She was kind of working behind the scenes for Julien and very dedicated to what she was doing, but we didn’t really see much of her personal life. And the same with Luna. I saw that after season one ended, a lot of people were asking to see basically if Monet is a real human or if she’s just a robot.
And then in season two, I think they very nicely to portray the ways that Monet has some humanity. We started to see the layers kind of peel off, her personality and her character and what she cares about. I think episode three was a really big moment for Monet, where you can see the girl she was interested in kind of tested where her moral standing and her personal ethics are and where she needs to draw the line. And then obviously in episode one with her mom, you can kind of see why Monet has such a hard exterior and where it comes from. So I think as the season goes on, you definitely get to see more of those moments where Monet just becomes more complex. No one is one dimensional, in Monet’s case an angry and bitter person. She does have moments of vulnerability. And in season two that’s definitely the first time that we’re seeing it. So it just continues and I’m happy for people to see.
If you were part of the cast from the original series, which character could you see yourself portraying?
For obvious reasons, I could definitely see myself portraying Blair. I think when comparing the original to the new one, Blair and Monet obviously have clear similarities. Other than that, I would love to play Serena if I got the chance as well, cause I just loved to see like how she kept the same energy throughout the show, with all of the relationships and friendships she had. I think that’s why people loved her character so much. But she was just always her, she wasn’t easily influenced. I think that would be a fun one to play. Also, the friends-to-rivalry thing with Blair would be fun.
You grew up with art, with your dad being a screenwriter and mom being a singer. How has growing up with art impacted your career path?
I came from a very artistic family and now obviously it’s a blessing. I feel like I was always kind of destined to be in art. I’ve always been a creative, expressive person as a child. But as I grew older, in my teen years, I watched my parents struggle with their art. I watched them struggle with how to make a living being in the industry, which is really hard to do. And we struggled a lot, me and my mom. And I wanted to create a life for myself and ultimately for my family, where those worries weren’t there. So I told myself that I wanted to do anything but art.
I was like “I’m gonna be a doctor”. I don’t know why I picked a neurosurgeon, but one day I just wanted be a neurosurgeon. And then I was like “No, I’d be better as a lawyer”. And then that went away. And then I thought that maybe I can still do something artistic. Maybe like interior design, but something that’s a little more stable. I really fought tooth and nail with myself to stay away from what I ultimately knew was my passion, which is art.
In high school, I started as a singer. That was my introduction to the arts. But I didn’t wanna do choir, because I passed out in my choir class and I went to a Catholic school, so we weren’t singing the songs that I would normally sing. I was like, if I wanna sing, maybe I’ll do the musical, but I’m not gonna act because that doesn’t make any sense. And I’m painfully shy. I was painfully shy as a teenager and then I got a speaking role and my first show and it was like a light bulb went off. All of my stage fright went away, all of my shyness. I really came into my own confidence through acting. Being on stage, saying words that weren’t my own, was when I felt most confident.
You studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where you majored in music before transferring to drama and acting. What was the driving force behind you switching from music to acting?
I originally went for music. Like I said, that’s where I started. It was where I was most comfortable. And even though I had done a lot of acting in high school, the pressure of am I going to get into this college was very huge for me. I just still wasn’t confident that I had enough acting talent or skill to be able to be accepted into the schools that I wanted to be accepted to, applying for theater. So I knew that this is what I wanna do, but I am safer in getting into these colleges if I go for music. Ultimately, I was right. I guess I’ll never know if I originally applied for acting, but it worked out in my favor.
I wanted to go to NYU since I was nine. I auditioned for the music program and I got in. The driving force for the change for me was that my peers in the music program weren’t really interested in collaborating and they weren’t really willing to say “I’m not where I wanna be yet”. It was more like “I’m where I wanna be. I know I’m a star. I know that I have it. I know that I’m gonna make it, so let’s just network”. It was more of a networking thing where I came into it and knew I wanted to grow. I’m not Rihanna yet, I’m not there yet, so I wanna collaborate and work and grow and ask myself how can I improve. I just didn’t feel like anyone else around me had that attitude. And then I had friends in the theater program who were telling me about the auditions that they were doing and the plays they were reading and even writing. And I just missed it. So I took a chance and scheduled an audition last minute to transfer into the theater program. And the night before my audition, I learned a monologue very quickly. I went in and I just did it. And then I got in.
But now that you look back, do you still want to do music in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. Hands down. I still have a great love for music and that’s still an artistic expression that I definitely would love to or need to cross off the bucket list in terms of my career. I’ve just been pouring everything into acting, which I’ve loved. But as the years go on and I have more conversations with people, I’m starting to realize to just do it, just make a song. Eventually I will.
How has your life changed since being cast on ‘Gossip Girl’?
Tremendously. A complete 180. I could have never anticipated this shift. I had already been living in New York for two years and coming from LA, New York is already so overwhelming and such a difference. And I’m one of the lucky ones who just fell in love with it. I was down for the fast paced energy and how intense it was. It really feeds me and gives me life. But still, it was a lot. The move was a lot. And then after getting ‘Gossip Girl’, which is a love letter to New York City, it changed everything. It just blew up, it seems like overnight.
I was in a dorm room, the size of the bedroom I’m in right now, with three roommates and walking to class through the snow and just hoping that I know what I’m doing. And then the next day, I was looking at apartments and found a beautiful apartment and I’m buying a sofa and I paying my own bills. It opened me up to a whole other world. Suddenly I’m talking to people that I would see on TV and they’re interviewing me.
So I would say it changed definitely for the better. I’m able to help my family when they need my help and get my mom better Christmas gifts than I used to. It’s been amazing. Being in the limelight has definitely been a struggle, or at least at first. It takes some getting used to, but I feel truly blessed.
New York is your second home. What do you love the most about living in New York?
I love how unapologetic New York is about itself. I love that it’s genuine. Coming from LA, I grew a great disdain for disingenuousness and I grew a disdain for dishonesty. I went to a private school and my dad was in the industry, so kind of with the people I was around, I constantly felt like I was always the only one in the room who was like “This is BS, right”? No one else is saying it, but we all know it. I don’t understand why no one’s saying it. I feel like there’s an unspoken rule about LA that we all know that it’s kind of BS, but no one says it because everyone’s trying to mark their place.
I just don’t mesh well with that kind of perspective and energy. And then as soon as I came to New York, I remember the first time I went to the grocery store in New York City. It was surprising to me that I was going to the grocery store by myself in New York. I remember walking in and I don’t know what was happening, I think there was a drag queen festival or something. And in line at the grocery store, these10 drag queens, in nine-inch heels were just laughing and taking pictures. It was so much energy just in the grocery store and no one cared. And in that moment I knew I’m supposed to be here. There’s a certain level of anonymity living in New York, which I think is amazing. I feel like I’m allowed to be myself here. I feel like anything really goes, but also people look up for each other and stick up for each other. I feel like New York is tiny, even though it’s not, and there are 10.000 million people here. It feels like there’s an unspoken family about New York that I just didn’t feel in LA. I would say that’s definitely what I love most about New York.
What are some of your other passions in life? What makes you happy?
Well, I’m a writer and that’s something that I’ve only recently started talking about. When I went to school at NYU, I went to a studio called Playwrights, which is acting focused. But you also take a directing class and a playwriting class. And I took an elective where I had to write a full-length play in three months. And after doing that, I really found confidence and passion in writing, in general storytelling. I really love words and if you talk to some of my castmates, they could probably verify it.
I have a thing with vocabulary. As soon as someone says a word I’ve never heard before, I ask them to repeat it. And I kind of store it in my mental library. I’ve always loved language and words and being able to express things in a relatable way, but still make them lyrical and beautiful. I think there’s a lot of power in language. And that’s one of the things in addition to music that I really wanna start working on, my writing. I also think it’s just like a pure, genuine expression of what’s going on in your head. And then it’s tremendously more, fulfilling when something that’s in your head goes to paper and then goes to someone else’s ears and they can feel what you felt in the original moment that you wrote it. I feel like that’s beautiful and I would love to be able to share some of that at some point.
Next, we’ll be able to see you in the musical feature ‘Something Here’, which follows Samantha, a witty, studious and street-smart high school senior from New York who has to adjust to a new reality after her family relocates to a rural southern community in Tennessee. What can you tell us about this film at this point?
‘Something Here’ has a very special place in my heart. Not only because it’s the first film in my personal history, but I have the first script I’ve ever gotten plastered to my wall. It’s my passion project. ‘Something Here’ is just a beautiful story. I feel like in media and film, everyone is trying really hard right now. Everyone’s trying to say the right thing and do the right thing and just go above and beyond. And I feel like we’ve kind of forgotten that sometimes a simple story is where everyone from different walks of life can come together and relate to.
‘Something Here is a movie that just feels good and the way that it’s shot is just absolutely beautiful. When I was on set, I would call it a pretty movie. It’s about a girl from New York, from Brooklyn. We used to laugh a lot on set about the similarities between Sam and I. She lives in Brooklyn and she aspires to go to NYU. And then she has to move to Tennessee and she meets a guy. And that’s very strange because a few years ago I was dating someone living in Brooklyn who was from Tennessee. So, life imitates art situations.
Another thing that I can share about the movie that’s really special to me is Alan Powell and T.K. McKamy, the director and writer and executive producer. They are both southern white men who really took the chance to try and depict a black girl from Brooklyn in a love story that’s authentic. And in doing so, they brought me in and they sat me down. They were like “Okay, look at the script. Anything you wanna change, anything you wanna add, we wanna learn from you. We understand the context of this room, where it is two white men writing a black girl story. And to be honest, I’ve had a lot of auditions and even been close to being parts of projects that are kind of in the same context. And I’ve never gotten that question before. I’ve never been invited to collaborate like that before. And things did change, things were added, things were taken away and it was just purely collaborative. It did feel like a really good shift in this industry, even though if it’s through the lens of a small little movie that was my first movie. And to have that be my first experience really set the bar high.
Also, my costar Owen Joyner is the funniest person on the planet. He is the funniest guy I’ve ever met. I truly think that filming this film was probably the best three months of my adult life. I made a new family. I’m really excited for people to see it.
Talent SAVANNAH SMITH @ssavannahsmithh
Photographer RYAN SARADJOLA @ryansaradjola
Stylist RAZ MARTINEZ @itsmerazzie
Styling assistant DAVID ATERE @david_atere_
Market and styling assistant GRACE CONNAUGHTON @grace.connn
Hair ADAM MACLAY @adammaclay
Make-up BRITTY WHITFIELD @brittywhitfield
Editor TIMI LETONJA @timiletonja
Cover design ARTHUR ROELOFFZEN @arthurroeloffzen