Actress Jessica Szohr’s most successful audition was six years ago at a barbecue in Los Angeles—in this scene, she played herself. “I was at home with my French bulldog on Memorial Day weekend, and my friend Adam Brody called and asked me to go to this barbecue, but I just wanted to stay in. I had no idea whose house it was at,” explains the 28-year-old actress. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss because the host of this little shindig was none other than producer and screenwriter Josh Schwartz, who was finishing up a highly successful run with his FOX smash The O.C. and hoping to once again catch lightning in a bottle with a new project for the CW, Gossip Girl.
Three days later, Szohr’s agent called with an audition at Warner Bros. for the role of Gossip Girl’s Vanessa Abrams, a Brooklyn-bred teen navigating the Upper East Side while rubbing elbows with New York’s elite. “I wore my hair straight to the audition, and they wanted me to look more urban. I told my manager, ‘Send pictures of my hair curly! I’ll cut it short! I want to be in New York!’” One pilot and three episodes later, Szohr signed on as a series regular. “It changed everything,” she recalls.
Now, the seasoned television actress is taking on the silver screen, trading her Big Apple digs for a taste of the Peach State down South. This month, Szohr stars in the Atlanta-shot comedy The Internship, which sees co-stars Owen Wilson’s and Vince Vaughn’s characters team up to compete for employment at Google after their careers are bulldozed by the Digital Age. Szohr plays Marielena, a dance instructor with a saucy side job that, ahem, involves shaking her groove thing.
“It was very interesting to call my grandparents and tell them I’m playing a stripper,” she says, laughing. “I was like, ‘She doesn’t get naked; it’s OK!’ I’m the oldest of five kids and grew up conservatively in Wisconsin, so you don’t see anything more than if I was wearing a bathing suit. I called my mom and was like, ‘Wow. I give strippers a lot more credit. It’s a hard workout!’”
Maybe it’s that Midwest upbringing that makes Szohr so down-to-earth, unfazed by running in circles with the likes of Taylor Swift and Gossip Girl co-stars Blake Lively and Leighton Meester, and it sure doesn’t hurt that being in front of a camera is old hat to Szohr, having started her career as a child model before quickly transitioning to the acting world, where she scored stints on shows like The WB’s What I Like About You, CBS’ CSI: Miami and ABC’s My Wife and Kids. Music video roles in Matt White’s “Best Days,” Daughtry’s “Over You” and, most recently, Swift’s “22” have only further padded Szohr’s résumé, and, yet, she’s still grounded—and totally one of the girls. “It was great to support Taylor,” Szohr says of the songbird. “We’ve all been through breakups and been there for each other. She’s one of the most incredible and sweetest people I’ve ever met.”
With newfound fame came further public interest in Szohr’s personal life–including her off-screen exploits with then beau Ed Westwick, known for his seductive role as Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass. “People get drawn to the characters and forget that we’re normal people doing our jobs,” she explains. “You’re not always going to have the entire world loving you. People were weird about my relationship with Ed because there were tons of young girls who were obsessed with his character, Chuck, and couldn’t separate who he was from his role on the show.”
Not to float rumors, but she wasn’t the only one on set hooking up with a fellow thesp. “All of us ended up dating each other for more than half of the show,” she confesses. “It drew a lot of attention because there were seven of us, and about six of us were dating each other. We would do 15-hour days, five days a week, and on the weekends we just wanted to be with our boyfriends. There would be times I’d go out for 20 minutes, and I didn’t think anyone noticed, but my publicist would call asking about it.”
Though Gossip Girl ended its run on the CW last fall, Szohr is staying positive about the challenges of living in the limelight. “At the end of the day, I know who I am as a person. You have to take things people say with a grain of salt. Words are hurtful, but I had to build thick skin and know that, as long as I’m focusing on my work and am good to the people I love, I can’t be too affected by someone who doesn’t know me. You have to live day by day.”
This right-here-right-now ethos came in handy while filming The Internship—a welcome break from the daily grind and microscope of paparazzi-packed cities, like Los Angeles and New York. Here in A-Town, Szohr was able to kick back with local friends and hang out with the cast of The Vampire Diaries in Little Five Points and Piedmont Park, where she recalls regularly writing in her journal, and playing softball and kickball. “I would always get so lost on Peachtree streets, so I’d have to call a cab,” she admits. “There are so many of them! It’s insane.” Other memorable nights included drinks and dancing at MJQ Concourse; catching The Lumineers at Masquerade Music Park; and dinners at 10 Degrees South, The Book House Pub and The Optimist, which she says was “some of the best food I’ve ever had.”
So what’s next for the steadily rising star? She recently wrapped the pilot for FOX’s fall cop drama, The List, where she plays Natalie Voss, a gun-toting, motorcycle-riding FBI agent working with the witness protection program. Other projects include Two Night Stand and 10 Cent Pistol, in talks to be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “It’s nice to take on roles that are very different from [Gossip Girl]. I just want to work with good writers, producers and actors, and get better at my craft. I like to challenge myself–I’m not 22 anymore.”
See why we can’t stop gossiping about this girl? XOXO, JEZEBEL.