The Boys of ‘Gossip Girl’ Are a Brat Pack for the Instagram Age
A few months before becoming the toast of New York, Thomas Doherty, Evan Mock, and Eli Brown, the male leads of HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot, are drinking at buzzy downtown French bistro Lucien. Over spicy margaritas, the boys start comparing their characters with those from the original series. Doherty’s Max Wolfe, an arched-eyebrowed instigator of chaos, is the Chuck Bass figure—and Doherty acts circles around Ed Westwick. Doherty presents a theory to Brown: “You’re—what’s his name, Dan?” Brown replies, “That’s what they’ve been saying! By they, I mean my fans.” The fans got that one right: As the Brooklyn-dwelling Otto “Obie” Bergmann IV, Brown brings a Dan Humphrey–like sense of nominal moral clarity to the show’s twisted social matrix. They turn to Mock. His character, the mellow Akeno “Aki” Menzies, was based partly on Mock himself. But as a Hawaiian skater and surfer without much acting experience, he doesn’t seem to fit the show’s blue-blooded framework. Or does he?
“I’m Blair Wardolf, or whatever her name is,” Mock says.
Doherty and Brown erupt in laughter. Part of the reason Gossip Girl was targeted for a reboot at all is that any millennial worth their salt knows that Leighton Meester’s character was named Blair Waldorf. While one of the refreshing things about the new Gossip Girl is that prior viewing experience varies among the Gen Z cast, this is too much to bear. “Wardolf! Blair Wardolf!” Doherty and Brown shriek. When Mock tosses out one more try—“Claire Wardoff?”—Doherty, on the verge of tears, lays his head on the table.
“These two make me laugh,” Doherty says, once he’s composed himself. “There’s some telepathy shit going on. We all know exactly what the other person is thinking,” Brown confirms. Their collision was essentially random, a paint-by-numbers casting of impish jokester, rich do-gooder, and chill skater. But against all odds, they became practically inseparable. According to Mock, “The girls get mad at us because there’re so many inside jokes.”
Call them the Gossip Boys, a Brat Pack for the Instagram age. Doherty, 26, is a Scottish former Disney star whose role alongside Zoë Kravitz in High Fidelity generated headlines such as “Why Is Thomas Doherty on High Fidelity So Hot?” Mock, 24, is a pink-haired model and ambassador of multihyphenate cool who frequently graces Calvin Klein billboards. Brown, 21, was only eight when the original Gossip Girl series premiered on the CW, but he’s the breakout star of the new show.
“They’re like college roommates,” says Whitney Peak, one of the show’s female leads. Filming a TV show last year, in an unopened New York City, was tricky—and before they could safely venture out, they had only one another. “When we moved here there was nothing going on, at all,” Brown says. “The city was shut down, it was freezing outside—”
“We didn’t know anyone,” Doherty says, finishing the thought. “There was a certain sense of codependency that flamed the friendships,” Brown continues. Doherty and Brown solidified their bond a few months into filming when, after a night of drinking, Brown used a needle and ink to give Doherty a homemade tattoo—a heart on his right arm. (“I later found out it wasn’t actually tattoo ink,” Doherty says.) “It was like fucking Parent Trap,” says Doherty. “They hated me in the makeup trailer,” Brown admits.
In November, the cast was spotted together for the first time while filming on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a meaningful moment for the new gang—and a bonanza for paparazzi starved for celebrity content by the pandemic. “It was really cool,” Brown says of the swarm of photographers and fans gathered around the museum, “but when everybody wrapped and I went home, my phone started blowing up. I was being tagged all over the place on Instagram, it was being covered by everybody, and I was like, ‘Here we go. This is the beginning of the end.’ ”
Soon enough, it would be hard for someone to go two blocks in New York without seeing the actors on posters, and the premiere in July would vault all three to a shinier tier of fame. (The second half of the season airs this fall.) Initial reviews were mixed: Critics hailed the updates (more diversity, timely references, appearances from the likes of Jeremy O. Harris) but generally panned the rivalry filled plot as stilted and confusing. Not that it mattered. If watching the original GG was like getting sucked into an enthrallingly trashy tabloid, streaming the reboot is like scrolling through Instagram: As soon as you start losing interest, a juicy detail—a niche downtown cameo, a resplendent Bode outfit—pulls you back in. The first episode set a viewership record on HBO Max and seemed to set a horny-tweet record as well.
At Lucien, the guys say they aren’t sweating what’s to come. They may not have watched the original franchise, but I wondered if they thought much about how things had gone for the original cast. Over the course of six seasons, the identities of the original three male leads seemed to merge in the public imagination with those of their characters, and for years after the actors struggled with Gossip Girl’s long shadow. Do the boys worry, I ask, about being strapped to the cultural rocketship of a franchise?
The short answer is: They don’t. They happen to be as unflappable, and as thrumming with coolness, as the Upper East Side teens they portray. “Now there are other avenues—people are into a lot of things. I don’t think we’ll be pigeonholed as much as they were back then,” says Mock, who’s excited for the first season to wrap so he can get back to filming skate parts. In the original series, the general public saw Penn Badgley only once a week, on the CW; today the boys—especially Mock—seem to be everywhere. “Social media’s an amazing platform,” says Doherty, for the way it lets the actors themselves, rather than network marketing teams, shape the way they’re seen by audiences.
And it turns out the Gossip Boys’ fellowship is good for more than laughs. As we polish off another round of beers, I ask Mock about his first real acting role. He leans back and gestures at his friends. “I’m really thankful for these two,” he says, “because they’re very encouraging.” Just as Mock helped Doherty and Brown with the Manhattan social scene, they spotted him as he jumped headfirst into their industry. “Someone coming from the outside to this whole entertainment world is fucking scary, and I had sweaty palms for months knowing that I had this job that I’ve never done before.…”
“You’re fucking killing it though, bro,” says Brown.
“You really are, honestly,” adds Doherty.
“To have that support off the bat is really nice,” Mock says. “So thank you. And I’m signing off.” The Gossip Boys clink glasses one more time and head off into the night.
Samuel Hine is GQ’s senior associate editor.
A version of this story originally appeared in the GQStyle Fall/Winter 2021 issue with the title “Gossip Boys.”
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Photographs by Richie Talboy
Styled by Jon Tietz
Hair by Evanie Frausto at Streeters using Bumble and Bumble
Skin by Akiko Owada at the Wall Group using Chanel
Tailoring by Victoria Yee Howe