Tightly-harnessed rage is something we saw Leighton Meester deliver up countless times as Blair Waldorf. But the 30-year-old woman perched on the edge of a velveteen lounge chair in the empty Jane Hotel ballroom isn't exactly angry. She's more frustrated: "The excitement for a lot of people is: Man and woman meet, get married, then have a baby. But in the meantime, there’s so much more to women. We have these flawed heroes so often leading shows. But a flawed heroine? She’s portrayed in a different way: so much more of a bitch, and if she’s older, certainly a dried up one."
It’s a crisp afternoon in late February and Meester is here talking up her new Fox series, Making History, a time travel comedy that also stars The Mindy Project’s Adam Pally. The actress plays Deborah Revere, the gun-slinging, bear-skinning, ax-hurling, real-life daughter of Paul, who falls for a guy from 2017 and eventually agrees to climb into his giant duffel bag so they can return to the future together. Everything you imagine might go wrong does, which basically explains the thrust of the plot.
Clad in a cozy sweater and dark jeans, her hair piled half-up on her head, Meester tells me she modelled her Making History character on the kind of childlike wonderment that effectively skewers adults for their bullshit. “You know when a kid stares at you and you’re like, ‘Don’t look at me like that, don’t judge me'?” Meester asks. “Deborah is like that. Her innocence and naïveté make her cutting and childlike at the same time. It brings out the best in people around her.”
Make no mistake, though: This isn’t an in for talking to Meester about her own daughter (with actor Adam Brody), who turns two in August of this year. That’s a subject that the 30-year-old actress is keeping off the table for now. “I don’t talk about Arlo very much,” she explains, politely but firmly. “I am very proud of that area of my life. But I’m also really proud of the show, and of the work I do.”
“I think the perception is: You’re an ingenue, or you’re an icon, or you’re a mum. There’s no in between,” she adds. What she doesn’t say but fast becomes obvious: Meester clearly isn’t interested in being bucketed into any category at this point in her career, particularly after six seasons of playing a teen queen on Gossip Girl. Her new role might not be the meatiest female character ever written, but the actress still manages to do a lot with it, all the while taking mental note of how the landscape is shifting when it comes to how women are portrayed on the big and small screens.
“The idea is that as you become older, you start to see more substantial roles, with more gravity. But it’s still pretty skewed. There’s still a misrepresentation of actual demographics.” Meaning what, exactly? “Twentysomethings are everywhere on television. But they’re only a part of the population. Less often do you see strong, diverse, dynamic female leads who are considered ‘older’.” And by older, she means above the bar of 30.
The roles that do exist above that magic number, Meester adds, often wind up feeling like caricatures instead of real people. Her example, the “bitchy, uptight, overbearing” housewife, isn’t just a stale stereotype. It’s a limitation of imagination that holds women back onscreen — and also in real life.
Speaking of real life: Like most conversations these days, ultimately we wend our way toward politics and America’s new president — a man who sometimes cites the founding fathers portrayed on Making History, with rhetoric that seems more befitting to the 1770s than 2017. Meester rolls her eyes and leans back in her chair.
“Hearing a tape of the president saying that he sexually assaults women is pretty explicit and directly speaks to the kind of character that he is,” she tells me. Locker room talk? Not a viable excuse. “I think he was being himself.
“It’s so ingrained in people to not trust women in power, or women who want power. It’s so ingrained to think a woman can't do that kind of job, and to criticise her for her personality, her imperfections, her clothing, her hair, her makeup, her laugh… That’s such bullshit. It’s not acceptable. There’s no excuse.”
So what’s a gal to do, given the circumstances? “We need to continue to push, to grab back. When you caricature women for being strong, independent feminists, you trivialise their ideals.” Spoken like a modern woman who has recently taken a tour back in time and realised just how much ground we’ve gained over the centuries — plus how much territory there is still to cover.
And with that, Leighton Meester politely excuses herself from the ballroom, and heads out into the winter afternoon.