On a normal sunny summer day in New York City, you’d most likely find Savannah Lee Smith in class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts or catching a matinee on Broadway. But today she’s in a Brooklyn loft, dressed head-to-toe in Salvatore Ferragamo and opposite a photographer. Such is life when you’ve landed a role in the hotly anticipated Gossip Girl reboot, the new show which premiered July 8 on HBO Max.
“My world was theater,” Smith says, while taking a break from the shoot to nosh on tortellini and sink into a couch. “I thought my break would be in the theater because that’s my home. Then I started getting all these auditions for film and TV, and this is just where it took me.”
Smith, who is now 20 years old, grew up an only child in Los Angeles. By the time she was nine years old, she had already planned out where she wanted to go to college—NYU, an aspiration she doubled down on in high school. “I knew I didn’t want to be in L.A. because I was bored,” she says. “L.A. bores me.” When she finally made it to NYC in 2018 as a college freshman, she wasn’t disappointed. “It was overwhelming, but in the best way. It was so loud at night, and for some reason I was okay with that. The garbage trucks were my alarm clock, and I romanticized it to no end. I loved just waking up to morning trash in New York City,” she laughs.
After a brief stint studying music, Smith changed her major to drama. “I realized that I was paying for things my family could teach me,” she recalls. Smith’s mother, a singer and songwriter, began teaching her at just three years old, and she fondly remembers visits with her grandfather where “he’d plop me down at his keyboard.” Smith’s father is a writer and film producer, so she naturally gravitated towards the arts. Prior to Broadway going dark due to the pandemic, Smith could often be found in the audience at a play. “I would literally eat ramen every night, because the money that I made from my little job working in the [NYU] library, I spent all of it going to shows!”
After she caught the eye of talent agent, the auditions were quick to roll in, as were the disappointments. “I almost got this role for [another show] and I was so excited. Then it fell through at the last minute. One of the casting directors at [the studio] looked at me, and she was like, ‘If it’s not this one, it’s going to be the next one,’ and the next one was Gossip Girl.”
After auditioning for nearly every female role in the reboot, Smith was cast as Monet de Haan. A student at the storied Constance Billard on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—the same school attended by Gossip Girl’s original crew of privileged, scandal-enmeshed teens—Smith describes Monet as very wealthy, and very powerful. “When she walks into a room, everyone parts. And she doesn’t have to check to see if they do, because she knows they will.”
Though Smith caught a few Gossip Girl reruns during the show’s initial run, it wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she watched the series from start to finish, quickly identifying with the aspects of the storyline that mirrored her own life. “I went to an all-girls private Catholic school in L.A. [and] I stuck out like a sore thumb,” Smith says, noting that she was one of few Black students. “I totally get the cliquiness of Constance [and] understand the mean girl part, because my high school had some mean girls.”
Fortunately, there are no such problems with her co-stars. “We’re all genuinely becoming friends,” Smith says, adding that she’s grown especially close to Zión Moreno, who plays her character’s on-screen pal, Luna La. The two are in almost every scene together, sometimes filming into the early morning hours. “We were talking about this the other day, like, what if we didn’t like each other? You don’t want to be around people you don’t like at four in the morning,” she laughs.
Like the original cast before them, Smith, Moreno, and the other stars of the current show—Jordan Alexander, Eli Brown, Thomas Doherty, Evan Mock, Emily Alyn Lind, and Whitney Peak—go for bold with their fashion choices, in looks created by returning costume designer Eric Daman.
“I think I’ve really grown into my fashion sense from this experience,” Smith says. “I found that I like standing out…I want people to stare at me when I walk down the street. That sounds vain, and I am a Leo [laughs], but it’s not coming from that place. I spent so much of my time in high school wanting to fit in and look like everyone else. I wanted to look like all the blue-eyed blonde white girls. And now I’m like, I just want to stick out like a sore thumb like I did. Let’s do it on purpose. Fashion is like that for me. I find it expressive.”
During the day’s shoot she no doubt stands out, dressed in luxe nappa leather, strappy heeled sandals, and timeless shoulder bags out of Ferragamo’s signature Gancini accessories collections. With each look, Smith effortlessly personifies that enigmatic combination of art and beauty—themes rooted at the heart of the house’s inspired creations. “I’ve never worn Ferragamo, so this is a first for me,” Smith says, surveying a clothing rack and an assemblage of shoes underneath it. “To me, Ferragamo represents powerful beauty,” she adds. “It’s strong yet still presents soft and clean lines. If I saw someone walk into a room wearing the things I’m wearing today, I’d be intimated in the best way.”
That Smith is here as the star of a forthcoming TV series instead of on summer break as a college student is still a reality she’s wrapping her head around. “There’s this strip on Melrose that’s dedicated to billboards of new shows,” she says. “Every day when I drove to school—every day when I went anywhere—I’d pass it. I’d see the shows and all the stars. One of my friends from high school sent me a picture, and I’m on that specific street. Oh my god, I started crying.”
There may be more tears as the world watches season one. “I think I’m most looking forward to my family seeing me do what I love,” Smith says. I never thought it would happen this quickly, or happen at all. I have a lot of artists in my family who are all hustling and trying to make it. It’s just cool to have them be proud of me, and see me do what I love to do.”
All ready-to-wear and accessories by Salvatore Ferragamo; styling by Barbara Vales; hair by Ursula Stephen; makeup by Keita Moore; art direction by Mandi Hayes; location provided by Friends of Form.