Eli Brown, star of the forthcoming Gossip Girl reboot on HBO Max, answers my call from the bathroom. “I have somebody over and we’re working on music,” he tells me as his face and mop of curly brown hair materializes on the Zoom screen, adding that he and his off-screen collaborator are “just messing around” with guitars.
The 21-year-old actor tells me that when he took a few guitar lessons in middle school, he felt too self-conscious about learning to play music that he shoved his instrument in the back of his closet. “For a long time, I was comparing myself to really unbelievably talented musicians, and saying, ‘My music isn’t like that, so why would I even bother making music? If I can’t be the best, why be anything at all?’ and I’ve recently started adapting the philosophy of trying to be the best you can be.” So, about three years ago, he started to teach himself again, collecting the guitars that would eventually fill the space in his new apartment in Brooklyn.
Brown recently moved to the borough to make traveling to the Gossip Girl set easier. He arrived on the East Coast from his home state of Oregon, by way of Los Angeles, where he lived for a few years post-high school to get his acting career off the ground. “Right after high school, I was like, I’m out,” he says of his move to Hollywood. But his insistence on a career in the performing arts started when he was in the fifth grade. At the end of the year, he submitted an “elementary school graduation quote” that read, “Someday I want to be an actor, yeah baby!” which he dug up during his high school graduation party. “I don’t even remember writing that, but clearly it was back there. Ever since I can remember, that’s what I wanted to do.”
After a quick online perusal, Brown signed the lease to secure a home in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, of which he has recently discovered he is “not a huge fan” due to the fact that “it’s very gentrified and kind of looks like an upscale strip mall,” he jokes. “I feel like I’m missing out on that gritty, authentic New York experience.”
Brown says that when he looks for a role, he looks for “good writing” first and foremost. “I think writers and writing are so undervalued in Hollywood,” he says. “It is the first piece that exists of every project, but it's also the spine. You could have a really good script with horrible actors, a director that has no idea what they're doing and a D.P. who can’t shoot for shit, but it would still turn out to be a watchable movie because the script is good.”
He also says he looks for “strong characters” when a project comes his way, and when it came to Gossip Girl, he felt that the show had both. Just like his costars Jordan Alexander, who plays a rather “influential” character named Julien Calloway, and Thomas Doherty, who plays someone named Max Wolfe, Brown really cannot divulge much about the contents of this new version of the series. In fact, when he auditioned for the show, the studio was so secretive that they gave him lines to read from the original series, rather than give sides from the new script. “I didn’t even know what I was getting into,” he says, “But I did know that it’s a fun project.” (Brown also has a younger sister, who loved the original series and would have it playing in the background, he says, “so it’s definitely been around in my life for a long time.”)
“I really can’t say much,” he says. (After our interview it was confirmed that the series would premiere in July.) “What I can say is that we’re not playing the same characters and it takes place in the same world, a few years after the original ended. My character lives in Dumbo, but we hang out on the Upper East Side, and it’s kind of the same feel, but it’s more diverse this time around—it’s not just all white faces, which is nice.”
From what we can gather, the new Gossip Girl appears to be as much an investigation of influence in the age of social media as it is a look at privilege. “I am very privileged,” Brown says of himself. “I’m a white, straight male, and I work on a TV show that pays me money, and I want to help people, but I think it’s easy to feel a little hopeless when you realize bad shit goes on everywhere.”
Brown will play Otto “Obie” Bergmann IV, who, according to @gossipgirl on Instagram, embodies “privilege.” He says he likes his character “because he’s very flawed in a human way.” Obie, he says, is the type of guy who is “very, very, very, very, very wealthy” but seems to feel rather guilty about it. “He tries to give back and goes to support the workers striking at big corporations by bringing them doughnuts and coffee, but he doesn’t realize he went out to a fundraiser dinner the night before and spent $2500 just to show up,” he says. “It’s like, dude, if you took that money and gave it to a solid cause, you’d be doing so much more. He’s stuck in limbo—he thinks he’s helping, but he’s not, really.”
Throughout our conversation, which is punctuated by the occasional whisper to his out-of-bathroom friend playing around on the guitar, Brown reflects on where he is at this moment in his career. Ultimately, he lands on a space of gratitude. “I didn’t start out thinking, I’m going to be on the spinoff of Gossip Girl,” he says. “That wasn’t what was in my head, but working in film and television was the goal, and it’s a really fucking cutthroat industry that’s hard to get into. I’m really thankful and proud, and I think now the goal is to just keep it going.”
Eli Brown photographed by Chris Shonting and styled by Christina Holevas for W Magazine. Grooming by Dana Boyer using 111SKIN at The Wall Group. Photo Assistants: Matt McGinley, Mike Sikora.