The guest on the late-night talk show crosses her long, bare legs. No one is looking at her. Her segment is done, and she has moved to the second couch, the one that’s hardly ever used. She’s alone. The host, he’s over with the guest who came on after her, the scrawny, aging heavy-metal drummer, and they’re rocking out with the house band, and all the cameras — there are so many cameras at these shows, way more than you’d think — have rolled over to the other side of the stage, and the audience, college kids and tourist couples hopped up on blinking APPLAUSE signs and instructions to be enthusiastic, is watching the host and the aging drummer as they goof around with a guitar. The up-and-coming actress, who has apparently decided to hang out after her interview and watch the rest of the show, sits on that other couch, clapping her hands — stiff palms and splinted fingers, like seal flippers — even though not one person, except for her publicist and her publicist’s subpublicists watching in the wings, is paying her any mind.
But you can’t take your eyes off her. She is the only person here worth watching. Tall, wearing a short black dress, Bardot hair, a smile that you believe. She was the first guest tonight, the first name bellowed by the announcer during the clamorous opening credits. The headliner. She is relatively new at this, the late-night talk-show circuit. Up till now she’s been known mostly for a television show, but now she’s promoting a new movie in which she gets to act in a serious role with big stars, and she’s got another one coming up in a few months, an even more serious role in an even bigger film, further in style and substance from her fizzy TV soap. She’s hosting Saturday Night Live in a couple of weeks. Things are about to get crazy.
Right now she looks around, then stops applauding to take a sip of whatever’s in the mug they give to guests on late-night talk shows. (Probably water; the up-and-coming actress does not drink.) She puts her mug down and smiles some more, and she claps the awkward clap again and crosses and uncrosses her bare legs. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking — she glows up there, but she’s way overdressed for the party. She is smiling for the two reasons we all do: First, she’s nervous, and second … actual happiness. Blake Lively, the most promising and interesting and talented young actress of the year, is very happy to be here.
The night before. Blake Lively is baking an apple pie. We first met a few months ago, when she had just started filming a movie called The Town, the first movie Ben Affleck has directed since the excellent Gone Baby Gone in 2007. She talked a lot then about how she loves to cook and how good she is at it, and so for this interview, having just finished the movie, she is baking me a pie.
The first subject of conversation is not the big Affleck movie or Gossip Girl, the hit TV show on which she stars, or the pie, but an arty movie called The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. She plays a party kid who ends up marrying Alan Arkin (it doesn’t seem that weird in the movie), and she’s up there on the screen with Julianne Moore playing a cool lesbian and Monica Bellucci waving a gun and Maria Bello as her drugged-up mom and Arkin wearing a toupee — a big-time operation with big stars — and you watch her. She doesn’t just hold her own; she’s this lovely presence, innocent and doe-eyed but also with a look like she knows something about the world you don’t.
She’s poking the apples on the stove with a wooden spoon and complaining that the movie theater where they had the New York Pippa premiere, on Nineteenth and Broadway, was small and kind of lame. She seems confident talking about the routine of these things, and awestruck at the same time.
“Normally, when it’s bigger, they just have to fill the audience with random people, and there’s some press people, a lot of people from the gossip magazines, and you’re like, Well, I don’t care what they say anyway,” she says. “But this was so small, and you’d think that would be less intimidating — but it was a hundred people who you really valued their opinion. When somebody said, ‘Oh, Penélope just got here,’ I laughed. They said, ‘Can you take a picture with Penélope and Marion Cotillard?’ And I just about died. There’s no way to articulate what it was like to have these iconic women who — I mean, Penélope Cruz I just think is like it.”
Lively, twenty-two, already knows a certain kind of stardom. Us Weekly runs pictures of her wearing low-cut dresses and swimming in a bikini with her boyfriend, and paparazzi cloak the Gossip Girl set day and night. The show is a soap opera about privileged private-school kids in Manhattan; Lively plays a society girl named, fabulously, Serena van der Woodsen. The story lines are absurd, with lots of backstabbing and love triangles and caricatured snobbery. After three seasons, the part isn’t a stretch anymore. “I can snap into Serena very easily. The way I dress as Serena is pretty much the way I dress as me. I’m living in New York City, shooting in New York City,” she says. “I’m in a comfort zone.” The Town jerked her out of that, and not only because she plays a poor woman living a dumpish life. To accommodate the shooting schedule last fall, she took the Amtrak from Penn Station up to Boston on the weekends. The movie’s scenes were arduous and painstakingly shot, and Lively was often coming off a week of fifteen-hour days on Gossip Girl, where the mood is lighter and the faces familiar. The show’s ensemble cast has a fierce cult following, but in her career Lively is pulling ahead of her costars. I ask if her impending superstardom is at all awkward around the set. She says it hasn’t really come up. “We all have so much going on that no one’s really aware of what the other people are doing. When we’re together, we just talk about normal stuff, like how each others’ dogs and families are. Everybody was excited about The Town, but they’re not like, ‘Tell me, how was Ben Affleck?’ ”
Still, from that group, Lively’s up first.
“Something’s wrong with the pie,” she says. The filling, the apple part, is cooking on the stove, but it’s not tasting like when Lively made it for a bunch of friends in the Hamptons. She’s so into it, really trying to make this pie great. She tinkers endlessly — a pinch of the special salt she buys online, some more cinnamon, a fingerful of flour. (She has long fingers.) She talks while she tinkers. Sometimes it looks like she’s talking to the apples, but usually she stops cooking when she’s making a point, then returns to seasoning her fruit.
She’s talking about career choices, which you’d think would seem monumental to her at this point.
“I surround myself with people I trust, but ultimately it’s my gut. That’s what I trust. Because I could be swayed any which way — I’m not saying I’m a person who can be swayed easily, but one can be swayed any which way. People will talk to me and something that I’m against at first will then seem like a good idea, but I always end up saying no to that thing, because — ”
She jams a few fingers into the hot apples and licks them.
“Why is this tasting so weird?”
She stirs, frowning, then looks up.
“It’s like when you do SAT questions. Go with your first choice. It’s been proven that your first choice is often the right one. It’s like 56 percent of kids — your first instinct, if you don’t know the answer to something, that’s the right one.”
She grimaces. I tell her she makes the huge decisions sound easy. She waves the wooden spoon glazed with pie juice.
“Why can’t it be easy? What’s the big deal? Ultimately it’s just a movie. I think people forget sometimes, it’s just a movie. It’s not like I’m a doctor.”
More stirring. Another spoonful of caramel.
“I don’t know what’s so different about this. It was, like, crazy when I made it before. That’s why I should always write down what I put in things. It was, like, make you want to kill yourself it was so good. It was thicker. I mean it’s good, but I want perfection.”
It is just a movie, but The Town is about as far from Gossip Girl as a movie could be. It concerns bank robbers in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a tough place across the Charles River from Boston. Lively’s character is a single mom who’s also a drug mule. She gets the crap beaten out of her in one scene, which to my knowledge has never happened on Gossip Girl.
“It was crazy,” she says. “It was super-duper crazy. Hang on — will you cut those apples for me? I need some more.”
She never stops moving in this kitchen, pinballing from the stove to the sink to the cupboard to the fridge on pointy high heels. Her legs, which are becoming famous along with her, scissor in skintight jeans; a gray V-neck sweater, with the V bottoming out closer to her navel than her neck, hangs loosely on her shoulders. She looks in control.
Jon Hamm, the Mad Men star, plays an FBI agent in The Town. When I later ask him about Blake Lively, among the first words out of his mouth are “She’s a very self-confident person. And I think a big part of that comes from being on a TV show and getting that experience of acting every day. It’s a long slog. You realize, ‘Okay, I’m either going to be professional and diligent about this, or I’m just going to use this as a stepping stone to something else,’ and I think she’s chosen wisely in that respect. I’m certainly not the ultimate marker of what is a good actor and what is a bad actor, but I know what I’m up against and what I’m acting with, and she was fantastic. She’s in it to win it.”
Lively looks at my apples, which I am peeling and chopping with a knife that could cut a bicycle in half. I’ve sliced my thumb a little bit, but I don’t think she sees the little slit of blood. But then she stares at my hands. I ask her what’s wrong.
“I’m just making sure you’re doing it right.”
She picks at my pile of sliced apples.
“By the way, I’m not having any of this nonsense,” she says, pointing to a few flecks of peel that I missed. “No peel.” Then she starts chopping, too, the two of us, with the sharpest knives you can imagine, side by side, chopping apples.
“I have a sex scene in this film, and that’s never comfortable,” she says as the knife blade bangs the plate she’s using as a cutting board. “You think, Oh, that’s going to be so awkward. But this scene isn’t supposed to be a steamy one — it’s sort of tragic, because this girl is so desperately trying to keep this man interested. It’s more intimate than most sex scenes. I’m pretty much crying in it.”
My thumb is bleeding more now, and I’m trying to stanch the flow with a paper towel without her noticing.
“You’re worried about all the awkward things, but then I talked to Jeremy Renner about it — he plays my brother — and he just said it’s all in the eyes. The rest of it will come.”
Lively stops chopping and looks up in thought, and it seems appropriate for me to stop, too.
“Every scene that I had was a heavy scene,” she says. “I mean the scenes were — I hate to sound dramatic, but they were cataclysmic. I’m screaming, I’m crying, I’m fighting, I’m on drugs, I’m in the hospital. They were all very, very rough. Rough to perform, rough to watch or to experience. But they were rewarding, because you feel like, wow, I can do that. I did that.”
On one of the last nights of filming in Charlestown, some of the cast and crew were at a pub. There were extras there, too — locals whom Affleck had asked to basically play themselves. Lively was in costume, and a local guy hit on her. She was with a few women she had spent a lot of time with preparing for the role — the kind of women she was portraying. “And this older man, in his fifties, came up and started hitting on me,” she says. “He goes, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen you around here before.’ And they said, ‘She’s the girl in the movie!’ And he’s like, ‘Really? I thought you were a townie.’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess that’s a good thing.’ When he walked away, they told me he just got out of prison a couple of months ago after eighteen years. There are plenty of people who would love to be extras in a Ben Affleck movie, but he had the real deal in there. I found out every single man in that bar was a bank robber that had been in prison.”
Lively grew up in Los Angeles in a show-business family. Her father, Ernie, is an actor, her mother, Elaine, is a talent manager, and her four siblings are all actors. She used that. She says she never planned to be an actress, but she paid attention growing up. She knew that to make that guy in the bar — and Affleck and, she hopes, the viewing public — believe that she was a local required more than makeup and fake finger-nails. (Although she has some awesomely whacked-out fingernails in the movie.) It meant hanging out with the women in Charlestown to make herself better in the part while also understanding that she could hang out with them for ten years and she still might suck.
“As you’re fighting for the job, you have to tell yourself, I’m the only one that can do this. And then I get it, I’m like, Oh, shoooot, I have no idea what I’m doing. Who was I kidding?” she says. “I just watched Dog Day Afternoon and I thought, I want to quit acting. But it’s also something that I love. I don’t know. I think that you’re just gonna do it your own way. Acting — you’re just portraying a human, and there’s billions of humans in the world. Who’s to say that it’s wrong or inaccurate?”
Affleck had never seen Gossip Girl when he hired her. Even before Lively read for the part, she traveled to Charlestown on her own to get a sense of her character and the Boston accent. “The whole movie kind of hinges in a lot of ways on her performance, and I knew it was going to be the hardest part to cast,” Affleck says. “This girl came in, and no one had said to me beforehand, ‘Hey, look for this person.’ And obviously she was really attractive, and so I thought, Oh, here comes some blond girl. She came in, did one reading, and just crushed it. Like, Boston accent — really good. I was sort of stunned. I said, ‘Jeez, you know, that was really fucking good. Who are you?’ She didn’t mention that she was on a television show.”
The only obstacles, Affleck says, were that Lively was too pretty and too young, and that she had this monster hit show she had to shoot five days a week. So they fiddled with the character’s age and scheduled all her scenes to shoot on weekends. “I just said, ‘Look, there’s no alternative. I don’t have a second choice,’ ” Affleck says. He’s still in the middle of editing the movie, which won’t be out until September, but he says he wants to make a point right now. “I want to be on the record because I think she’s really going to blow up, and I want to look like the smart guy,” he says. “I didn’t quite discover her, but at least I want to say I bought the stock when it wasn’t $500 a share.”
“This pie looks retarded,” Lively says. She ended up starting over on the filling. Now the crust is tearing. We’ve been here for almost three hours, and the pie is not yet in the oven. “Here I was talking about my cooking, and I’m turning out the ugliest pie ever.”
Then she has an idea: She could freeze it, bake it tomorrow afternoon, and take it to Late Night and serve it to Jimmy Fallon on the air! A weird, perfect little piece of celebrity-publicity synergy. The night concludes with her still crimping the edges of the crust, squinting, at least trying for perfection.
So now here she is crossing and recrossing her long, bare legs in the second couch on Jimmy Fallon’s set. And no one’s watching but me (and her publicists). Last night, while we were baking, she said something interesting about the state of her life: “I know everybody compares it to a roller coaster, but this is like the part of the roller coaster where maybe you’ve already taken a big dip, but then” — her hand made like a roller-coaster car going up, up, up, slowly to the highest peak — “there’s going to be another unexpected one. A big loop. It feels like something else is going on.”
She doesn’t know what’s coming, but she knows it’s coming. She is jaded and awestruck at the same time.
Now, on Fallon’s show, the cameras have rolled elsewhere. As it happens, she did end up bringing him the pie, which he ate backstage. During the interview, Lively told him she’d baked it specifically for him.
And it hits me that our conversation last night just might be the last interview in history with Blake Lively. The real Blake Lively, the one who’s twenty-two and just loves all of this and is afraid of everything and nothing. Because Penélope Cruz isn’t baking pie for any writers at ten o’clock on a Sunday night. And she’s certainly not sitting off to the side of the stage, clapping as everyone watches Jimmy Fallon clown around with Tommy Lee. Penélope Cruz doesn’t have to.
And Lively is so good that one day soon, neither will she.