At 25-years-old, Toronto-born Karena Evans has garnered recognition for being in the director’s chair of a few of the videos accompanying Drake’s Billboard-topping singles, including “In My Feelings,” “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What.” Now, in Evans’ latest role as the director of the Gossip Girl reboot, she’s venturing down a new avenue.
Originally on The CW Network and starring Blake Lively, Chase Crawford, Leighton Meester, and Penn Badgley, the original Gossip Girl centered the lives of wealthy teens living in Manhattan. The 2021 revival focuses on social media and again, the lifestyle of privileged high schoolers in the 2020s. It stars the following fresh faces: Jordan Alexander, Whitney Peak and Savannah Lee Smith.
When asked if we can expect nostalgia, thicker plots, and major curveballs, Evans replied, “I think all of that and more.”
Ahead of the Gossip Girl premiere, Girls United caught up with the one and only Karena Evans about the revival of the show, how the reboot compares to the original, and the importance of diversity within the cast.
On how the opportunity to direct Gossip Girl came about:
The return of the series centers around a new generation of private school teens in New York who essentially fall under the social surveillance of Gossip Girl. It’s a continuation within the same world, but we explore how much social media and New York itself have changed since the original show. I read the script in 2020 during the pandemic, and I had multiple conversations with Josh Safran, the showrunner, about his vision for this new world.
I went through rounds of pitching to the network, HBO, HBO Max, Warner Bros. Studios, and to the production company, Alloy. I pitched them my vision for the world and to direct the pilot. All the while, Josh was rooting for me to close the deal because he felt that my voice and perspective as a young Black woman was important to the evolution of the show and the authentic representation of the diverse characters that star in the show. I’m grateful to him for seeing me and empowering me in that process.
On the diversity in the reboot versus the original Gossip Girl cast:
I didn’t see characters who looked like me on the original show and I think therein lies the difference between the original and the new Gossip Girl. At its core, it is the Gossip Girl you love. It maintains the essence, but it is fresher, it is inclusive and diverse, and it’s queer. In that, it’s more exciting and authentic as it represents different perspectives and the world that we’re actually in. That in itself is iconic. It still has the iconic style, the drama, the ground locations, and the juicy conflict. However, now I feel like I can see myself on the screen and other Black girls can see themselves, too. That’s why I wanted to be a part of bringing this to life.
On representation behind-the-scenes as well as on-screen:
It’s crucial. Representation has the power to change lives and it changed my life. I can vividly remember the time that I first watched Love & Basketball on DVD at home when I was younger. It is such a vivid memory for me because after the movie finished, the credits rolled through my screen and I saw a woman’s name who directed it. I clicked on the bonus features in the DVD menu, and that brought me to a behind-the-scenes interview with the director. I was shocked that it was a Black woman, and that was such a pivotal moment for me because I saw myself and I felt seen. I felt that there was a place for my voice to be heard, and that my voice could be heard and that it mattered.
It was possible for me to reach my dreams, my dreams were valuable and I was valuable. To this day, I think about that feeling that Gina [Prince-Bythewood, the director of Love & Basketball] was able to inspire within me. Within the shows and the projects that I get to be a part of, I work to incite that same feeling with my audience. Representation has the power to change lives, both in front and behind the scenes. In fact, I think it is crucial for the evolution of humanity. Storytelling can inform so much of how we feel about ourselves as individuals and of value.
On key moments in her career that led her to where she is today:
I’m drawn to stories that represent underrepresented communities, characters, people, and places. I’ve always been particularly interested in subverting misconceptions, tropes and misrepresentations for the purpose of getting to the truth and bringing that truth to audiences. That has always been my goal. When I started in music videos, I wanted to in some way bring that to the story that I was telling. It remains my ethos as I navigate television and film development. With every project where I was able to do that, it brought me more insight into how to more strongly communicate stories and more clearly subvert misconceptions going forward.
On what to expect from the Gossip Girl reboot:
We worked to maintain the essence of the original Gossip Girl, but it’s evolved in such a way that it represents the world in which we actually live. That manifests in the new plot lines. It’s diverse and it’s inclusive. That challenge meant creating an exciting world for this ruling class of the Upper East Siders. As an audience member, that needed to be one that you want to take a step into, but it also meant creating a space to interrogate that world and to represent the outsiders of that world.
On top of that, with the advancement of technology and social media, that means a rapid intake and distribution of information, which means even more influence and power. In this version, there is definitely nostalgia in store, and Gossip Girl is like an anonymous big sister that keeps tabs on you and Instagram as her power.
Take a sneak peek at the trailer below to get pumped before its premiere on July 8th on HBO Max.
Photo Credit: Alexis Victoria/Karena Evans/HBO Max