Gossip Girl is back with a whole new cast. Star Thomas Doherty tells Georgia Humphreys how the show has been updated for 2021 audiences.

Thomas Doherty had an awkward conversation recently with a viewer of his new show, Gossip Girl.

The reboot of the US teen drama – which originally ran from 2007 to 2012 – is already airing across the pond on HBO Max and will soon be available to watch here on BBC and iPlayer.

And Scottish star Doherty, 26, is well aware that the series will be compared to the original by fans.

“I was out last night, and someone was like, ‘Oh my god, are you in the new Gossip Girl? I didn’t like it, I prefer the old one’,” recalls the actor, who’s also starred in the Descendants film franchise. “Obviously, you’re going to get people that don’t like it.”

Discussing the pressure he felt taking on the role of Max, he says: “I got the job, and then I was like, ‘Everyone’s going to hate me’ because there’s nothing quite as strong as nostalgia, so I was worried that everyone would view the new one through the veil of nostalgia. And at the time, Gossip Girl was so culturally and socially impactful in so many people’s lives.”

He has a point. Following a group of New York private school teenagers whose scandals, struggles and secrets were documented by a ruthless blogger called, you’ve guessed it, Gossip Girl, the programme was a huge success.

It kick-started the careers of the likes of Blake Lively, Leighton Meester and Penn Badgley, inspired fashion choices among fans – think Blair Waldorf-style headbands – and pushed boundaries (at the time, anyway) with its twisty, soapy, and sometimes downright ridiculous storylines.

If you want to remind yourself of the drama, or indeed have never seen it, every episode will be available on BBC iPlayer from August 18 – and then, a week later, the new show launches.

Showrunner Joshua Safran has based Gossip Girl 2021 on the original show, which he worked on, and also the bestselling novel series of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar.

The world of the Upper East Side is a very different one now – not least because of the impact of social media. Set nine years on from when Gossip Girl’s website went dark, we meet a whole new generation of privileged pupils at Constance Billard and St Jude’s who are living under surveillance.

But what’s changed with the show being reimagined in a 2021 context is how diverse and progressive it is.

“It was a huge incentive for me to be part of a project that was a lot more forward-thinking and a lot more inclusive, and you want to do projects that are an honest reflection of the world and reality,” notes Doherty.

“It’s really beautiful to be able to be part of a project that is a lot more diverse ethnically, in sexual orientation and sexual identity. There’s always room to grow and progress and to expand, but it’s definitely heading in the right direction and I hope we can keep doing it.”

Poignantly, Max – who many are comparing to Chuck Bass from the original, a character played by British actor Ed Westwick – is pansexual. And Doherty describes playing such a character as “liberating”.

“It definitely did blow open my eyes and my preconceived notions of what sexuality was, and what sexual identity was, and what sexual preference was. I feel like it does get spoon-fed to you, when you were younger – what you are, what you should be, what you are going to be, what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s a spectrum, sexual preference – and for Max it is a big spectrum, and that was very fun to play and explore.”

Looking back, the first Gossip Girl now feels dated in how heteronormative it is. Does he think it would have been impossible to revive the show without adding more inclusiveness?

“I don’t think that it would be an honest depiction of the world that we live in now, and so it’d be hard for people to relate and see themselves in the characters and fall in love with the characters, because that’s not really

the world that we live in anymore.

“So, I think it would be hard to bring it back, and I don’t think it would be fair to bring it back, without it being honest and representative. It’s not a pat on the shoulder to Gossip Girl, or to any shows that are doing this; it needed to happen.”

As for the similarities to smouldering stud Chuck, Doherty was very conscious of the parallels – but also didn’t go out of his way to avoid them and be entirely different. “If we’re making comparisons between Chuck, Max is a lot more evolved, he’s a lot more exposed to a greater diversity of life. He’s got two dads; he’s got social media now. There’s so many different aspects in his life that are very different, and that’s what moulds someone and so I guess it’s just trying to be true to that.”

Asked about what made him want to play Max, there were many traits that drew him in, including the fact he’s “very funny. He’s a very nuanced, complex character”. Doherty said: “It’s a man who has a veil, a protective shield. We all have

one of them in some way or another.

“The moments when that veil wasn’t there, when that mask wasn’t there, and you got to see another side of him, and then the mask would go back on again... Just playing with that dynamic, I was really intrigued.

“And the dynamic between all these very heightened characters was something that I was really interested in.”

l Stream every episode of pop culture classic Gossip Girl so far on BBC iPlayer from Wednesday, August 18.

All six episodes that make up part one of the new series will arrive as a box set on iPlayer from Wednesday August 25, and the first episode will also be broadcast on BBC One that day.