Role models

Gossip Girl’s Zuzanna Szadkowski’s take on maintaining a fulfilling acting career

Zuzanna Szadkowski, who starred in such top TV shows as “Gossip Girl” “The Knick” and “The Sopranos” has more than 20 years of acting experience. Apart from appearing in numerous popular productions, including “Modern Love”, “Girls” and “The Good Wife”, Zuzanna was part of acclaimed drama plays, such as Delia and Nora Ephron’s “Love, Loss and what I wore”, as well as “Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet”, for which she was awarded a “Wall Street Journal Performance of the Year” distinction in 2018.

In an interview with W Insight, Zuzanna takes us back to the beginnings of her professional acting life, shares insights into maintaining a long-term career (beyond Gossip Girl), discusses challenges she faced in the industry and explains why the “9 to 5 job” wasn’t the right fit.

Do you remember your first professional audition?

I think my first on-camera role was on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I played a waitress, and it was really exciting. I did the scene and it was great. And then when it aired, they cut my scene out. So it was really disappointing. I told everybody to watch it and I wasn’t even on TV. I was in my 20s at that time. I started acting when I was a kid, but it was my first professional role.

When they cut your scene, what did you say to yourself to keep going?

Well, you know, I always studied theater, and so the fact that I even got a job on television at all was really exciting to me. So I felt very hopeful from the beginning. Even though my scene was cut, it wasn’t too much of a blow and there were more auditions that came after that. I think shortly after that, I got a job on The Sopranos, which was a great show, and I played a Polish housekeeper. It was almost exactly the same outfit and everything I played when I was Dorota on Gossip Girl. Then I started getting TV jobs. So it was always very exciting that I could be on TV at all. I never imagined it.

You graduated from the top educational institutions in the US, like Columbia and Harvard. How did this education support you in your professional life?

Those institutions provided me with a great education and personal connections. Neither program was particularly attuned to the business of acting and they have some pros and cons. So after after graduating from Barnard at Columbia, I had a great passion for theater, and I had a great wealth of knowledge and a lot of other educational advantages. But I really didn’t know how to pursue the profession of acting. And I think that other academic routes have better job placement opportunities. So there are definitely different paths in the arts. But to me, what’s always been important is being a well-rounded artist. So I feel like those schools didn’t necessarily set me up for success as a professional actor, but they made me a whole person and helped my world view and my passion for acting. Thanks to my graduate program, the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, I was able to get an agent into acting. That did help me begin my career. But it’s always a learning curve because the world of show business is so uncertain.

In this case, what would be your advice to aspiring actors: go to an acting school or just audition for different roles right away?

It depends. I think that if a young person wants to study acting in an academic setting, I don’t think it’s a waste of time. I think it’s a great way to develop your craft.

On the other hand, when I was on Gossip Girl, all of the show’s stars, those guys had all been acting since they were kids. So, you know, they were in Hollywood grinding away. When they became big and had a breakthrough as young people in their teens and 20s, they had already put in 10 years of hard labor in Los Angeles.

My journey was going to school and starting my professional career later in my 20s, and I kind of missed that window. But I was never in a hurry. For me, the longevity of a career is as important.

When I interview people from the creative industry, they often talk about luck and being at the right place at the right time. But it’s actually not something that we control, or is it? What can we do to support our career even though we don’t have total control over it?

As artists, there’s a lot of busywork that we do to keep ourselves sane, when we try to assert that we have some sort of agency in places that we really don’t. But I do think there are luck and opportunities and decisions that get made that we can’t control. And so redirecting our energy to what we can control is important. And to me, this idea of pushing through is crucial.

Finding a way to show up as your best self every time an opportunity does present itself is important. And I often think that saying yes to opportunities, especially when you’re building your career, is a good route because you can never predict which is a great opportunity and which isn’t.

So for example, my job on Gossip Girl turned into a great role. When I auditioned for that, I didn’t have any lines. It was a nothing part. So say yes to a lot and be open and give 100 percent in every instance you are given a chance to pursue your artistry. You can, in a way, create your own opportunities or chase them where they were hidden.

You’ve worked on some of the most popular productions in recent years. I think many people know you and loved you in Gossip Girl. You were my favorite character in the show. And I know that you were Mayor Bloomberg’s favorite character. You just mentioned that when you started this role, you didn’t even know if you would have any lines. And then this role grew so much: you had your own episode and there even was this spin-off Gossip Girl show called “Chasing Dorota.”  I’m wondering, how much of that expansion of this role was your strategy and how much was by chance?

Not to be immodest, but I do think, embracing the opportunity that is in front of you is crucial. So when I started playing that role, I threw myself into it and I thought that this was a fun role. Blair and Dorota had a relationship that was set up for success because you have a young woman who often doesn’t have parents at home. And then you have the housekeeper who’s there all the time, so the potential is there. So it’s really diving in and fleshing out that character, finding how she’s funny, finding how she’s lovable, playing the hell out of it as much as possible, having fun with it, and being comedic, kind of using it as my stage of being like this. So I do think over time, the editors were cutting to it a little bit more, so then the writers were writing a little bit more. So I think it was an organic process. 

But there’s another part in that show specifically, which is that this show was really poised on the precipice of the development of social media; the internet was functioning differently in the way that it related to entertainment. So it was one of those shows where the writers and the creators were in conversation with the audience for the first time. We were making shows and then there were all these bloggers and websites that were recapping episodes, and there was so much internet commentary and so much fan fiction. The writers were able to hear what the audience was saying, and the show started to grow in an organic way in conversation with the audience. Because the audience was really relating to my character, I think partially because my character was such a supporter on #TeamBlair and the audience was on #TeamBlair ; it was this whole snowball. So the writers started to create more content for Dorota. And I think that it was a little bit of my labor and then a lot of where the audience’s affinities were panning out. And then over time, all of a sudden it started to grow.

I recently called my actor friend and I told him about this interview. He’s at an earlier stage of his career. I asked, what he would like to learn from someone with such a big experience as yours. And this is what he said: let’s get back to your first commercial success. Have you had a situation where you had this spectacular performance, but you didn’t receive many phone calls after that and you felt a disconnect? If so, how did you keep going to maintain a long-term career? 

Yes. I think it’s such a tiny sliver in the world of stars or actors who have careers that self-generate, the kind of careers that they have a big break and then for the rest of their lives are getting offers and they never have to audition and everything is on the up forever. That’s a very small sliver. I think most working actors live in the world that I live in. Somehow I’ve been working for, well over 20 years, and this is my career, my means of making a living.

I think that once you set aside that idea of a big break and big fame (which does happen for some people), you look at it in the long-term perspective and you stop counting it in terms of these peaks and valleys, and you look at the long-range picture.

As long as I can stay afloat in this career where I’m able to work on television and make an income, it’s satisfying and I try not to waste too much energy waiting for those big hits. Instead, I try to fill up my time and career roster with great work that I’m excited about and commit to. There are different satisfactions in being an artist. One is, yes, being like, “Man, I made it!.” But that’s a little bit harder to hold on to. So I think what’s more important is the satisfaction of feeling like I’m growing as an actor over time and somehow, I get to actually live in those moments. Like I just walked on set yesterday* on a new show I’m working on on Showtime and just those moments in front of the camera where you discover something or you have a great turn and it’s like, “Okay, well, this is my career.”

Another challenge of working on your long-term career as an actor is being perceived in a certain way. Because I’m Polish, I have a Polish name and I have some Polish language skills that I have worked a lot with, people saying “Oh, she can do the Eastern European.”

When I was on Gossip Girl, people saw me as a Polish housekeeper, the comedic type of role. So that doesn’t translate into different roles in Hollywood. Most people don’t have the imagination to see Dorota from Gossip Girl playing Lady Macbeth.

So I can’t be bitter that other people don’t have the imagination to translate Dorota into other things. I have to go and sort of start afresh with every opportunity. willing to do that because I’ve committed to, you know, a life of an artist. So I’m going to appreciate that job, and what came of it. 

This is interesting! I guess Tom Felton will always be associated with a young Slytherin wizard, even though he has had extraordinary roles after Harry Potter.  

Yeah, I think it’s one of those things, where you can’t concern yourself with how you are perceived. In the industry, you just have to play the role in front of you. I have no control over how people perceive me. 

You often talk about theater. And you played in Nora Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore” and also “Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet.” Which one do you prefer – theater or TV?

If I had to pick one, I probably would pick film and television because it’s easier to make a living that way. But theater is definitely my home space. And I think that also the experimentation in theater is broader. On stage, I’ve played roles that I would never play on camera, like I played a female King Lear. So I feel like it’s a little bit of a wider scope of roles that I can play. I do like the social aspect of television; it’s a different kind of family feeling. But unless you’re on a show all the time, you’re walking into a world with so many people and it’s more intimidating than the theater. Theater was my first love, and I love the community and the social aspect. I like to work with a cast and do a play every day.

Have you ever had a moment when you wanted to change your job?

I did some writing and I want to write more (edit. Zuzanna’s essay appeared in the NYT). I wrote a play that is potentially going to be produced in New York and off-Broadway in the near future, hopefully. But I don’t love writing. I find it to be very painful. I procrastinate. But I begrudgingly write. If I had to pick an entirely different career path, I really don’t know what it would be.

And what do you like to do in your free time?

I have a really cute dog that I hang out with. And I really like to travel. I haven’t traveled recently that much. But I spent a lot of time in Poland. I have a lot of friends and family there because I came to the US when I was three. I like to go to Europe or I’ll usually go to Poland and then with my Polish friends, do some other European travel when I’m there.  I’m a pretty social person and I like to just hang out with my friends and I watch lot of television. I’m not ashamed of that.

And how do you take care of relationships in between intense work schedules?

Yesterday* I worked on set and I had to leave my house at 4:45 in the morning and then I got home at 12:15 at night. My call time was like 6:12 in the morning. And so when you’re on set on a day like that, that is all you’re doing with your life that day. But the way my career has gone, I’ve never had that on a daily basis. So in all of the roles I played on television, I’ve had a chunk of work here and a chunk of work there. Probably the hardest thing for me is that I don’t have a routine, so unless I’m doing a play for a long period of time, it’s like I have a very amorphous routine. But my boyfriend that I live with, he’s a stand-up comedian, so he also has an amorphous routine. And most of my friends are actors. I’ve always surrounded myself with people who are kind of cool with that. My mom passed away in 2012, my dad is retired now, but both of my parents were scientists – my mom was a biochemist, my dad’s an engineer. And so for them, it was all initially very confusing why I would want to be a crazy actor, but just it’s the way it went down.

What is your favorite thing about being an actress?

My favorite thing is that anything can happen at any time. Today I could get an audition for something awesome in Hawaii or something. That, to me, is exciting, but it has a big negative: there’s never a sense of stability, so you have to learn to thrive in the nomadic middle place. And to me, it’s so worth it, it’s worth it!

When I first got out of graduate school, I had a day job for five or six years. And it was in an office in finance. I had a little experience of the sort of daily routine of going to an office, and that to me was much more…surreal. I had a very hard time working in that way, so I would rather be a little bit unstable and a little bit of a scary existence, but have those highs. 

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

Photos in the featured graphic provided by Zuzanna Szadkowski

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