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Growing up in Uganda, Whitney Peak didn’t watch much TV. That all changed when her family moved to Canada when she was 9 and she discovered the Disney Channel. “Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven — all of that was my shit,” she says. So when she was 13 and heard a radio ad offering kids a chance to get on the channel, Peak begged her mom to let her audition. She went and quickly signed with an agent — or so she thought. She was told her family would need to pay a monthly service fee for her representation. Months down the road, and many checks later, she realized it was all a scam. Still, the actress, who’s appeared in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Molly’s Game, somehow credits the experience with allowing her to ultimately land what’s sure to be a breakout role on HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot, which premieres July 8. “I’m honestly thankful for it because I probably wouldn’t have tapped into this industry if it hadn’t been for that,” says Peak.
How did you land the part of Zoya in the new Gossip Girl?
PEAK I was in 10th or 11th grade in my social studies class when my manager called me. I snuck out of class to take the call. He told me he was going to try to get me the script. When he did, I taped for it.
Zoya is the only character who doesn’t come from wealth the way her classmates do. Did you like portraying that perspective?
It’s fun because she’s in a stage of being introduced to this world where she’s still very authentic but also struggling with altering herself to fit in. So there are moments where she gets to kind of tap into that [more privileged] world. I’m always like, “What’s the most Blair [Waldorf, from the original Gossip Girl] way that I could say this?”
This iteration is more diverse and more self-aware than its predecessor. What do you like about what this version is doing differently?
It manages to reflect today’s society without bashing the old show. What I really like about it is we have two people of color as the leads. And like, I was pretty adamant about Zoya sleeping in a headscarf. She has curly hair and that’s just what I do, so I thought, “She’s not going to just wake up with perfectly put-together hair, that’s ridiculous.” I was really nervous about putting it out there, but it was received so well.
Were you a fan of the original?
I thought it was so entertaining. It was also kind of weird because when I started watching it, I went to a regular public school and didn’t really have to think about the fact that people live like that and have problems like that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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