The Gossip Girl reboot is here and it promises to rock worlds and shake expectations in a completely reimagined, 2021 take on the iconic fictional world of Manhattan's elite. Nearly ten years on from the original series, with Eli at the centre as male lead 'Obie Bergmann', the next generation of Upper East Siders will tackle everything that did not come before - the pressures and nuance of social media included.
Fresh off the back of a nap when we meet for our call, Eli has been shooting for almost 11 months straight. The 21-year-old confides he's been "working hard and playing hard", and, no doubt, the intensity of on-screen drama and chemistry of the cast will reflect this experience. Such a rigorous filming schedule coupled with major personal adjustments as moving to a new "ghost town" city in the middle of a pandemic are bound to light a fire that feeds your creative ambition. Particularly when your identity is rooted in the easy-going, open-door policy of the Northwest, taking the plunge of relocating solo requires a certain self-assurance and comfortability with your own company that Eli clearly possesses.
New York-based photographer Jill Greenberg captures Eli amongst the Big Apple that is slowly becoming his oyster. Playing with backdrops and finding the 'private' in one of the most public cities on earth, we discover the actor enjoying his grace period just as he intended. Stylist Thomas Carter Philips mixes Old Hollywood with New Manhattan to compliment the moment: a picture-perfect blend of charm to sophistication, just like the ratio of Eli to Obie.
Gossip Girl hits our screens this week. How are you feeling about the release?
I'm feeling very excited. I don't think I'm supposed to say this, but I saw a tinySsnippet of something the other day, and I had already been feeling really good about it. I think that the cast is immensely talented and our chemistry is great. But after seeing this little clip...it's going to be good. I can't wait to share it.
You’ve featured in series’ and franchises before: how does this project compare in terms of stamina?
The day-to-day of it is pretty similar. I would say, though, it does require a bit more stamina because we are going for so many months back to back. When I did Pretty Little Liars, we worked really hard for four months, and then it was over, we had finished the first season. This is going to be almost 10 or 11 months of shooting. We had a little break for the holidays back in December and part of January, and then for spring break. But we're in it for the long haul.
What can you share about your character Obie Bergmann IV and how he fits into this world.
Not very much. But Obi is German and his parents are very wealthy German developers. He lives here in New York alone. And despite being very wealthy and very privileged, he's constantly trying to give back.
What was the audition process like?
It was interesting because they were being very secretive about it. It was also so long ago - I got this part maybe 14-15 months ago - so I don't even really remember that well. But I do remember that they were using fake sides for it; they weren't giving out the actual script. I didn't even read the script until I had already accepted the job and moved over to New York and everything. They were keeping it very very low-key. I just kept going back until they hired me.
How does this universe differ from the original Upper East Side that audiences came to know and love?
Well, it exists in the same world, just a few years down the road. But I think that this version is more progressive. It's definitely more diverse. I'm curious to see how the social media aspect of it is similar or different because I feel like social media was hardly a thing when the original came out.
You grew up in Oregon - a far cry from this west coast bubble. How were you able to find an ‘entry point’ into this world and your character?
Being in New York is very unforgiving. It's very immersive. You're here, so I think that energy really helps a lot. It's definitely one of those situations where the wardrobe comes into play. As soon as I put on these very fancy dressing-up clothes, this helps. Normally I have just a t-shirt and jeans on all the time.
So you're a t-shirt and jeans guy. Who else is Eli?
I don't even know. You know, I'm 21 years old, still figuring it out. I'm very laid back. I'm like a hippie that bathes. I'm a clean hippie - a well-bathed hippie. Laidback. That's all I can say - it's interesting being over here and trying to keep up with the pace of it all.
Had you any ambition to move to New York prior to landing this role?
Absolutely. It was always one of those places I really wanted to go to, but it probably just wouldn't happen unless something else made me. Then I got this job, which was perfect. But it takes a minute to adjust. I also think it was weird moving here in the middle of COVID and I moved over at the very beginning of winter, which is brutal in New York. I think those two things stacked on top of each other; it was a pretty interesting experience. But it's growing on me. A lot.
What was the adjustment process you went through? Were there any go-to things to keep yourself sane and grounded during that experience?
Not necessarily. We were working really hard from the get-go, so that's where I spent most of my time. But it just felt very dreary: there are all these buildings everywhere, but it's kind of like a ghost town. It just felt very off. It was a weird time to be here, especially to move here.
Is that something they had factored into production? I don't know at what point this was during the pandemic or how this impacted filming. I'm assuming you have street scenes etcetera. Being a ghost town, how did that play out practically?
They make it work. They have a big pool of background artists that they use. Everybody is getting tested all the time, so it's fine. Then they block off the streets with the background artists, to make it look like it's really really busy. Honestly, it's really impressive.
So the Eli of today is a clean hippie; who is the Eli of 10 years' time?
Probably just the same old-same old with a few more wrinkles and scars.
Do you believe in the idea of a "big break"?
It's not as black and white as that, I think it's very gradual. There are instances where people seem to blow up overnight, but at least my experience has been pretty gradual. And I think having "made it" is very hard to define: there's always room to grow and improve or keep moving up. If I told myself three years ago, that, you know, I will be where I'm at right now, I would have been like, that's it, you made it. Now that I'm here, I'm like 'all right. Let's keep going. Let's keep going up!'. So I don't know. I think it's all very relative.
You've been attached to some pretty high-profile shows. Do you pay attention to the traction and outside noise whilst you’re working on these projects?
No, not really. People will comment on my stuff and offer their opinions, and sometimes that's hard to evade. But, I mean, I don't really set out trying to figure how people feel about it. I don't read reviews. I don't even really watch myself unless I have to.
Has that always been your approach?
Yeah. I think it's silly to pay attention, anyways. You can't expect everybody to like anything. It's pretty funny though, my dad reads everything. Absolutely everything. And he loves to tell me what people are thinking. So sometimes I have to be like, 'Dad, I don't care. Remember?!' Oh, he just texted me. His ears are burning!
Will he send you reviews, whether you want them or not?!
Yeah! I had this premiere that I went to, and as soon as I left he sent me a review. I was like, Dude, come on, give me a second at least! But I love him. It's rooted in encouragement and support.
For sure! Does the idea of living in the public sphere ever scare you?
Yeah. I think there's a grace period that I'm entering right now. It's cool in many ways to get recognition, but there's a period of time where you're just popping onto the radar and people know who you are a little bit, but you can still walk down the street, pick up groceries, and nobody's going to be like, "Can I get a picture?". I think that's where I am right now. So I'm just trying to really be conscious of that and enjoy it. I don't want to be one of those tabloid celebrities that everybody's falling around. It sounds horrifying.
I get the impression that social media has quite a big part to play in that because you can also manage expectations when it's your own platform. Right? If people feel like they know you, because you live so publicly online, they may feel more compelled to come up to you in person. Do you reckon you are able to easily separate public and private lives?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I'm very aware of what and when and why I want to share anything. And to be honest with you, it's not that much that I want to share. Not because I'm up to some shady shit, but I'm just living my life. I don't see a need to share it. I read this thing that I thought was hilarious. It was like, 'if you went over to somebody's house and they had framed selfies all over the walls, you would run, right?'. What is this new culture we have?! It's really bizarre.
Where in the world are you most at home?
Probably my hometown, honestly. But I can only be there for so long before I tend to get a little stir crazy, just because it's fairly small. Everybody's got their own thing going on there, and when I'm there I'm on vacation, basically, so I have nothing going on. But summertime in Oregon? Magical. Absolutely magical.
Do you ever see yourself settling down back there?
You know, I try to not think that far out in the future that much, but I think I would be ready to slow down. If I've learned anything, it's that life is full of surprises.
What is one lesson you’ve learned since the pandemic started?
That's tricky. I think it has given me time to slow down. For the first few months, I was just hanging out with my family. This is going to sound corny, but it reminded me of the value of family and family time. Those were the only people I saw for so long, and it was really nice to give myself the time and take some of the pressure off. Normally I'm like, 'oh, you need to be down in LA, you've got to be working, what's the next job'. I was able to take a deep breath and have dinner every night. We all sat around the table, simply being a family.
Have you got a big family?
Immediate family, no. But a lot of family vibes that extend - that's what I mean when I say Oregon feels the most like home. I've had the same people in my life for so long. My friends are family, and my mum will always bring them over. When I got over here to New York, all of my friends in my group chat sent me a picture, they were at my mum's house for dinner and I wasn't even there.
Ahh, that's very wholesome. Coming from that environment to LA or New York, everything is so transient. How was that adjustment?
Tough, honestly. And sometimes, you know, a little lonely. But I'm very good at being my own best friend, so that helps. And I also think that I'm able to compartmentalise, in that sense. I give myself time to get integrated. If you move somewhere and you're so eager to get into the scene, you might drive yourself a little crazy.
At the end of a working day, self-tape, or audition, are you able to easily leave work at the door?
Absolutely. It never even really comes in the door. This is my space. Through and through.
Has that always come naturally to you?
100%. I don't really play the game that much - not even as much as I should. I think it's actually something that I have to work on more than I have to work on leaving it at the door. I feel like the industry is such a scene and it takes itself very seriously. You do have to play in a certain sense, but I'm just not getting it, yet.
You’re set to appear as Dougie in the upcoming Guy Ritchie film, Wrath of Man. What can you share about this?
You're the only one who's asked me that question! It's a very, very, very small part. But I tried out for it forever ago. Just another one of those auditions. You walk into the room, you say your lines real quick, they say: "thank you so much, there's the door". And I didn't hear anything for months, I completely forgot about it. And then, maybe six months after my audition, I got a call saying: "Hey, you're gonna be in the new Guy Ritchie movie!". It's a big budget movie. So it was trippy experiencing that next level of production.
Speaking of big-budget productions, have you ever experienced imposter syndrome?
No, not really. The part was so minuscule. If I had a lead role in that movie, I might feel differently. But also, I believe in myself. I'm like: 'hell yeah, sign me up, get me out there!'.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young people today?
Social media. And they don't even know.
You seem like you have a pretty healthy relationship with it.
I go through phases. If I was really, really good about it - controlling or distancing myself from it - then I don't think I would have anything bad to say about it. But I think it's such a sneaky addiction that nobody even realises they've just wasted three hours of their day scrolling through nothing.
It's a weird one, because I think, going back to 'playing the game', there is definitely an element that demands a presence online in order to get more work and visibility. You can see how it spirals for people.
That's honestly another thing for me. Beyond not wanting to share what I ate for breakfast, I really want to be hired because the team believes in me and my ability, not because I have more followers than the guy. So I try to combat that, even though it is part of the game right now. It's tough.
What’s next in the chapter of Eli?
Keep grinding until we get this thing done. And then, hopefully, we'll have a few months off if we get picked up for season two. During those months, we'll go home, see the family, and hopefully try and squeeze in a little indie or something. I just want to keep working.