Leighton Meester on Time Travel, Making History, and Getting the Hang of Improv

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It’s been a little over four years since Leighton Meester got a happy ending as Upper East Side queen Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, but now Meester is taking on a TV role that’s less preppy and more kooky. She stars in Fox’s new eclectic time-travel comedy Making History, where she portrays Paul Revere’s feminist daughter, Deborah, who leaves colonial Massachusetts behind to travel through time with her modern-day boyfriend, Dan (Adam Pally). Vulture recently rang up Meester to discuss the show, returning to TV after Gossip Girl, and why she thinks Deb is a “superhuman.”

I’ve never had such a big craving for ham then after I watched the Making History pilot.
Well, it was real ham. And although I’m a fan of ham, I can’t say that it’s pleasant to hold it for long periods of time in your bare hands.

Extremely understandable.
[Laughs.] I was like, no, I’m not going to eat this. But at first, I was like, Hmm, maybe I can eat this when we’re done. Then came the breaking point. Get the ham out of my sight!

This is your first TV role since 2012. What was it about Making History that encouraged you to return to the small screen?
Everything. It’s exactly what I want to be doing. It’s got such a great team; I’m such a big fan of everybody who’s involved. I’ve always been a really been fan of Family Guy and Last Man on Earth, and this is right up my alley. It really appealed to my sense of humor. I was excited to work with [executive producer] Jared Hess, because his unique eye fits the style of the show we’re trying to make. On top of which, it’s wish fulfillment for me. It’s time-travel and we don’t take it too seriously at all, obviously — we’re in a duffel-bag time machine. We travel throughout the ages: We ride horses, we shoot muskets and cannons, and go hunting; and at the same time we get to go to 1920s Chicago and party in speakeasies and hang out with Al Capone. We go to the 1990s and all wear bad fashions, too. It’s an adventure, it’s action-y, it’s a buddy comedy, it’s a sweet romance.

And then on top of that, I was excited to have the chance to play a character who’s so well-rounded. I really didn’t want to play a girlfriend or a wife. I wanted to have something that I could have fun with and be a real person, as all women are. [Laughs.] It’s so rare to find that on television. Nowadays I think there are so many more opportunities, but still, especially in comedy it’s so fun to play somebody like Deb. It’s really refreshing and she’s also kind of superhuman in that she can shoot guns at the bad guys while riding a horse and hunt and cook squirrels while wearing a corset. We also bring attention in an accessible way through humor to the treatment of women throughout the ages, which I think is really wonderful.

I was going to say, you have very impressive gun skills.
And there’s more! In the second episode — this isn’t too much of a spoiler — the characters start to make humorous, cheeky commentary on gun laws and gun rights. Like how a musket is a mass-killing machine because it shoots a bullet a minute, or how if you’re a little off in the head, you may need to have a waiting period. It’s good to use humor to touch on these topics that are so relevant.

The show is definitely a departure from the roles you’ve previously tackled, and it’s great to see your comedic chops front and center for the first time. Was it always your intention for your next TV project to be a comedy?
I think that’s the nature in television as I see it for myself. I met with Fox and we all together decided that it was a great place for me to work, which it is. I didn’t want to do a show that had 20-plus episodes every year, and I didn’t want to do an hour-long show. I felt it would either be a procedural drama or a melodrama, and I really didn’t want to do that. That’s not how I wanted to spend my time working. I really wanted to have fun on set and be challenged, and this came along at the perfect time. I still can’t believe it.

I appreciate how the show’s comedic balance is so nuanced. There are a lot of timely jokes about feminism and politics layered in between pure silliness, like the fact that the time-travel device is a musty gym bag.
I love that, too, and it really aligns with my comedic sensibilities. Seeing the way my amazing co-stars work — Adam Pally, Yassir Lester, John Gemberling, and Neil Casey — their unique sensibilities and sense of humor appeals to me and I love all of the projects that they’ve done. They just make me laugh, so I’m happy to be in something with people that make me laugh on- and off-screen. And I got a chance to learn so much. They really pushed and encouraged me to explore comedy in my own way.

What’s it like working with Adam? He just seems like a really swell guy.
Yeah, he’s not cool.

I knew it!
I’m kidding. [Laughs.] He’s funny when he isn’t trying to be funny, and he’s pretty damn funny when he’s actually trying to be funny. He’s so great as Dan because he has a heart, and I think the character needs that. My feeling is that he’s the Homer Simpson of the operation — he’s kind of a schmo, he does have a tendency to be a little bit gross and so on. I guess the word would be oafish. But at the same time he’s so sweet that it makes it really easy to work with him and to play his friend and his girlfriend. He can see what Deb sees in him and why they’re together. He’s just really cool. He’s always doing bits and it’s very fun and exciting to work with him.

With so many comedians involved, did you have any room to try out some improv during your scenes?
Definitely! The scripts were great and they kept getting better, but we had a lot of opportunity. I felt much more comfortable because of the encouragement that I got from everybody around me to try different things and try out jokes that I think are funny, or even try out things closer to what my character would say or do. As you live in a character for a long time, you learn how they tick and how they would say something. They were completely open to whatever we wanted to do and try. The writer of each episode was always on set, so we would go through the scenes with whoever had written it and restructure lines, or do whatever we needed to do to make it better and funnier.

How much input did you have when developing Deborah as a character? You have a unique challenge of playing a completely fictionalized historical figure, but one who we know virtually nothing about.
Yeah, exactly. This era in particular [the 18th century] wasn’t documented as much for women. Women lived their lives, and they did everything in corsets! I don’t know how they did it because you have to be dressed by somebody, you can’t do it yourself. It’s interesting. You know what I think with Deb — have you ever had a kid call you out on something and it’s really embarrassing and awful because it’s true, because they look into your soul?

That sounds like my high school years.
Sorry to bottle up those memories. [Laughs.] It’s like Deb pinpoints whatever you’ve got going on and because she isn’t held down by these modern standards, she has these ideals that are pure. She says how she feels and it exposes whatever is wrong with the situation or the person, in her childlike and her all-knowing way. That’s what I really based it on — any kid I’ve ever known who calls me out for being weird and awkward, or even bigger things, like being judgmental or prejudiced. The reason why she likes Dan, and why she doesn’t fit in with her time, is that type of man or person appeals to her. Dan’s naturally open-minded and was raised with the idea that women are equals. She senses that and has that feeling, too. It’s fascinating when you get into it. Her father is very condescending and just wants her to be married off and do the cooking and the cleaning. That’s not satisfactory to her, as I’m sure it wasn’t to so many other people, but they didn’t have anywhere else to escape. But lucky for Deb, she does.

After Gossip Girl, did you find it challenging to secure different roles? I imagine typecasting could possibly be an issue.
Yes and no. From my perspective, I’ve been working when the work comes for things that I’ve been excited by, and that’s naturally been a progression of roles that seem to fit how I feel at the moment. I really like to be challenged and to do something different each time, and I think for fighting boredom’s sake and for career’s sake it’s really beneficial to play different parts. The good thing is that as I’m getting older, the fans are, too. This particular generation is very vocal about how they see television or media. They tweet about it, or — oh no, I sound really old and unknowing. They’re on Twitter! [Laughs.] So, the answer is no, I’ve not found it exceptionally challenging simply because I’ve been lucky enough to continue working and I follow what my heart tells me. I’ve been satisfied so far at being able to play different characters and to grow. That’s all I really want to do.

Since this is a time-travel show, I have an obligation to ask you one time-related question. If you could travel to any point in history, what would it be and why?
I would go to ancient Rome in the Roman Republic. I’ve seen a lot of movies about that time period and read about it. It’s so fascinating because it’s so far in the past, and I would also like to see how people were day to day. Something tells me people were similar; it just wasn’t as convenient living.

Leighton Meester Talks Making History and Time Travel