When the actress Blake Lively arrives to meet me, she's flushed and breathless, having been marshalled through a mob of screaming fans camped outside the hotel she is staying in. Lively is in town to promote her new film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, but they're not here because of that. They're here because Lively is one of the stars of the hit US teen drama Gossip Girl. If you're unfamiliar with it, think Sex and the City (satirical, inappropriate, fabulously fashionable) meets The O.C. (genetically blessed teens who run amok) meets Dynasty (OTT storylines). The show is a look at the debauched lives of moneyed teens at a private high school in Manhattan. Lively plays Serena van der Woodsen, one of the queen bees.
It's two years since the show first aired in the US and changed Lively's life irrevocably. "I grew up in Burbank and it felt like a small town but now I'm living in New York City, which I love, and I have a much better wardrobe," laughs the actress. "My life couldn't be more different than it was before."
To describe Lively as one of the hottest young actresses around right now is not to overstate it. The leggy blonde made the cover of American Vogue in February and she was ranked at 21 in this year's People magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People" list. Beyoncé was at 28, Brad Pitt 87.
Lively never wanted to be an actress. "It was the last thing I wanted to do," laughs the 21-year-old. "Because it was like the family business." (Her father and four older siblings are all actors, while her mother is a talent manager.) "It didn't seem like this grand, wonderful Hollywood thing. It was just what my family did. So I worked my whole life to go to Stanford. And then in my junior year of high school I auditioned for about two months because my brother thought I would like acting and he made his agent send me out." She trudged along to the appointments only because she adored her older brother Eric, who had a role in The L Word, and she "didn't want to make him mad".
"And I got my first movie, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). And once I did it I thought, 'Oh, I love acting.' So I finished high school and I thought I could go to college later."
So far, that hasn't happened. Lively has worked non-stop since she graduated. She took small roles in films such as Accepted, Simon Says (both 2006) and Elvis and Anabelle (2007) before she landed Gossip Girl. She's shooting season two, but she's contracted for at least six seasons. But she hasn't completely given up on college, although she has no idea what she would study.
"I wouldn't try to study anything to pursue a different profession," she says. "I would just want to become more educated in anything [but] it hasn't died down since the first season. It's just got busier and crazier. And we shoot nine months out of the year. We work about 15 hours a day, sometimes 18. You don't have much time to yourself so there's lots of things I can't do," she says.
She had a five-week break last year between season one and season two. For four of those she was hard at work shooting The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
All the major actors in Gossip Girl have made forays into feature films, but it's Lively who has so far worked with the highest-profile stars. In The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, written and directed by Rebecca Miller and based on her novel, her co-stars include Keanu Reeves, Robin Wright Penn, Monica Bellucci and Julianne Moore.
In the film, Lively plays the young Pippa Lee (Wright Penn plays the middle-aged version), a wild child and drug user who's on a fast track to self-destruction. She's saved by Herb (Alan Arkin), a man three decades her senior. They marry and Pippa becomes a model suburban mother of two. Uneventful decades pass, but when Herb, approaching 80, decides to move them to a retirement community, Pippa slowly starts to unravel.
Miller never doubted Lively's ability to hold her own against Moore and Arkin. "She gave an amazing audition. I think Blake has an incredible future ahead of her," says the director, who likens the actress's talent to that of a young Jessica Lange.
"It's a very, very difficult part and she was absolutely up to it," says Miller. "She was charming, emotional and sexual, all the things she needed to be."
Lively blushes a deep crimson. "When I got it, I felt like I fooled them," she says. It turns out that Lively is nowhere near as confident as Pippa or Serena. In fact she describes herself as "completely shy" although, oddly enough, not when she's acting.
"It's weird because being in front of the camera does make me less shy [than] when I am myself. When I have to be myself, like in photo shoots, it's just not so good," she laughs. "So it's a weird mixture because I read this script and I said, 'I have to play this part. Nobody could play this part as good as me.' Then when I got it I felt like I didn't deserve it and yet there was nobody else who did. You have to believe you can do this, otherwise you can't."
If she finds the constant media attention especially trying, she hasn't done herself any favours by having a real-life romance with Penn Badgley, who plays her on-again-off-again boyfriend on the show. It's the stuff that gossip columns salivate over. "It makes sense that the media try to draw parallels between [us] and our show because the characters on our show are somewhat famous in their own world," says Lively. "There are people following them around with camera phones and documenting their life and making up rumours about them.
"Our show feeds off buzz and gossip," she continues. "It is unfortunate to be the victim of it, but our numbers weren't amazing in the first year, so being in the tabloids helps keep our show on everyone's mouth."
It's highly unlikely that you will ever see a photograph of the actress behaving badly. While Serena loves basking in the glitz and glamour of New York's nightlife, Lively's idea of a good time is a tad more laid back.
"I was raised in a very grounded family that came from the South, and I was never much of a party girl. I'm a very low-key person so I like to stay at home and bake, or just walk around the city. I'm addicted to cooking," she says sheepishly and confesses to an addiction to cookery programmes. "So I haven't felt tempted [to be a party girl] but if I were to I would think of the obligation I have to the young girls that look up to our show. I feel like there isn't too many great young role models in our business."
Role model? The show depicts a bunch of manipulative, boozy teens who sleep around, take drugs and lie. "The show has scandalous story lines," she laughs. "The show is very much a heightened reality and we're not preaching that this is how to live your life."
Does she think she'll follow in the family tradition and work largely in television rather than film? "With a show you don't have a lot of freedom," she says. "It's much more like reciting lines. You don't get to change many words or really let a scene – I'm sorry, this sounds so cheesy – be organic. You're just shooting scenes as fast as you can to get them out. So I do enjoy doing film more because you really get to plan a character and plot out highs and lows."
So what kind of career does she envisage herself having? "Women I look up to are Annette Bening, Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett. Also, I think Reese Witherspoon has had a really great mixture, some great movies as well as some fun ones."
Not a bad selection, given that, with the exception of Bening, they're all Oscar winners. When Lively realises what she's suggesting, she blushes again. "Well, whatever I do, I try to do my best at it. There are things I feel like I'm good at but I don't do those things enough. I'm a really great decorator and a good cook and yet I act," she laughs. If Lively's talents in the kitchen are anywhere near as promising as her acting abilities, watch out, Nigella Lawson.
'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee' is released 10 July; 'Gossip Girl' screens on Wednesdays, 8pm ITV2