It’s a long way from Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the Noughties to Basildon in Essex in 1983. But that’s the journey taken by Ed Westwick, who played Chuck Bass in the hit New York-based teen drama Gossip Girl and who now stars as Vincent Swan, a brash, Thatcher-era double-glazing salesman, in White Gold. The new BBC2 comedy from Damon Beesley, co-creator of The Inbetweeners, is gloriously retro and fast on its feet, and also stars half of the cast of the coming-of-age comedy, Joe Thomas and James Buckley.
“My mum’s family are from Essex, and Stevenage, where I grew up, isn’t a million miles from there, so I know that world,” admits the 29-year-old Hertfordshire heart-throb in an estuary accent that will be a shock to a generation of younger viewers who grew to love him as anti-hero Chuck.
Gossip Girl’s bad boy was a privileged rich kid who manipulated his way through Manhattan’s women in bespoke double-breasted suits and cravats. Vincent is a gaudily suited 80s slicker, high on hairspray, with ridiculous patter and an overinflated estimation of his selling superpowers.
Does playing charming but amoral characters come easily to Westwick? “I dunno… Maybe…” comes the pouting, shrugged reply as the actor rocks on a chair in his publicist’s office in central London.
It’s four years since Gossip Girl ended, but Westwick still carries some of his most famous character’s swagger. Now, though, it’s combined with some of his new character’s flash – he’s all gold jewellery and chest hair, with the broodiness of a Home Counties Heathcliff, the tattoos of a rocker and the abrasive language of a docker.
“But the characters in White Gold have more than that going on,” says Westwick. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re playing the bad boy again’. And I say, ‘Yeah, he’s bad in a way…’ But I see more levels to these characters, and hopefully I convey that.”
He pronounces himself pleased with how Chuck was able to progress over Gossip Girl’s hugely successful six-series run, and alludes to frustration among the other cast members – a fabulously good-looking and now-starry bunch who included Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Chace Crawford and Taylor Momsen. “I was the only character who got to do that – or maybe one of two – ’cause I know some of the other guys were a little frustrated with some of the storylines they got.”
An instant hit, the show made Westwick a star in the US as well as the UK in his early 20s, and a proper Manhattan celebrity, with the social life to match. Fans and media knew where he lived, which meant “a couple of dodgy mornings walking out, with the paparazzi [waiting].
“It blew up very quickly and New York latched onto it – we were a bit of a darling of the city. There’s even a Gossip Girl Day! I’ve no idea what happens on that day, but Mayor Bloomberg came down to the set and gave us the proclamation.
“We were encouraged to go and do TV shows and magazines. And when you’re young you don’t really understand what’s going on behind the scenes. I didn’t have a publicist until the last year of it, but some of the cast were vying to see who broke out first – whatever,” he shrugs. “It’s a funny thing because you don’t know if you’re making the right decision, and there are things I would have done differently.”
Would he have partied less? “No, I’m not saying that – I would have partied more!” grins the co-owner of a cocktail bar in Brooklyn called The Twenty.
Growing up in Stevenage, the son of an educational psychologist and university lecturer, Westwick had no connections with the acting world. But a GCSE in drama led him to take part in a two-week course at the National Youth Theatre. Within a matter of weeks that in turn led to him being cast alongside Jude Law in Anthony Minghella’s final film, 2006’s Breaking and Entering. Shortly after that he was in Los Angeles for pilot season, when the US TV networks choose new programmes to put into production – and which to discard. Within two months he had two offers: one for the American version of British-African safari park drama Wild at Heart, one for Gossip Girl. Understandably perhaps, he chose the latter.
If it all seems ridiculously easy, Westwick is impressively candid about his career post-Gossip Girl. Now living in east London after a couple of years in LA following the show’s end, he admits, “there hasn’t been the greatest amount of [script] material coming through”. He’s also mentions the failed auditions for “hundreds of jobs”, including this month’s Guy Ritchie film King Arthur, for which Charlie Hunnam, another Brit who made his name on US telly, beat him to the lead.
What, then, of a Gossip Girl comeback? “Nah, that’s not gonna happen,” he drawls. “I know there’s a bunch of them coming back – I hear they’re doing Will and Grace, they’ve done Gilmore Girls… But it’s such a strange thing to think about. It feels like we only just finished! And I haven’t done enough in between yet to feel like I could comfortably revisit it. And I did so much with that character – it’s played out, man. It’s done.”
Really? What if Netflix came along and chucked a gazillion dollars at it? “I’ll do it then,” Westwick shoots back with a grin, evoking both Chuck and Vincent. “Hundred per cent. Course you will!” concludes the Wolf of Basildon High Street – formerly of Fifth Avenue.
White Gold is on Wednesday 24 May at 10pm on BBC2