Chatting with Gillian Zinser, actress/artist/philanthropist and 90210 cast member, we were pleased to discover the exhaustingly talented 26- year-old is every bit as awesome as we had imagined.
Articulate, warm, switched on and straight-forward, the precocious performer is graduating from West Beverly Hills High to the big screen this year with high-profile parts in upcoming features Manson Girls and Oliver Stone’s Savages. A former student of NYU, Gillian continues to explore her studies off campus, which include the inter-disciplines of art, film and philanthropy. Creating self-reflexive portraits and volunteering with projects such as ‘Artists For Peace and Justice’ in Haiti, Gillian has built up a well-balanced CV and loyal following. Returning to UK screens this week as surfing tomboy Ivy Sullivan in Season 4 of 90210, Gillian Zinser speaks to i-D online about the revamped TV teen classic and her own adolescence, talks performance art and shares her top 10 artistic influences.
What was the all-American high school experience like for you? I had an odd experience in high school – remember that movie Mean Girls? Tina Fey adapted that from a book about my school written by someone that went to it… I wasn’t exactly the most popular and I didn’t have the best experience. I was itching to get out.
Did you watch 90210 back in the day? Yeah, of course. I wasn’t allowed to though – I used to sneak off to watch it.
Are you a Kelly or a Brenda? I can’t really tap into my bad girl very easily, I’m going to leave the Brendas to the AnnaLynne McCords of this world. Ivy’s not like Kelly either, she’s more of an Emily Valentine, that’s the direction I would have liked to take her in but they took me on a really different path.
What attracted you to the part of Ivy? She’s not your typical teen drama character… I think just that. I’m not one to watch soaps and, as I explained, my high school experience was very trying and tumultuous and often not a fun one. I guess, in short, I was attracted to Ivy as a character because she was more of a black sheep than anything else and even though she’s your average teenage girl who is riddled with insecurities, she’s found a way to be comfortable enough in her own skin not to conform. That’s a really fun and important thing to bring to television and our audiences in particular because we’re speaking to a large group of teenagers who for the most part are going through such a formative period of development.
What’s working with Tristan Wilds like? Had you seen The Wire before joining the cast? Tristan is the classiest cat around. He’s an extraordinary artist whose talents are far underutilised on the show.
Can you tell me more about your childhood growing up? I grew up in Washington, which I shy away from talking about because I feel so detached from the city because it was so devoid of artistic culture and I grew up in a family of artists. My father’s an architect and my mother’s a painter – we didn’t come from a family of politicians, and I often found that I couldn’t really relate to or associate with the city I grew up in. My Dad’s from New York and my Mom’s from Berlin so I spent a lot of time in between the city (NY) and DC, taking the $10 Chinese Fung Wah bus up every weekend just to hang out with people and seek out forms of inspiration that I could actually understand. The minute I could leave DC I did – I moved to New York for college and never looked back.
Did you study art or acting at New York? My parents didn’t allow me to go to Tisch so I went to Gallatin, which is a tiny school within NYU. They let you choose your own major so I decided to study the relationship between fine art, the entertainment industry and philanthropy and see where we can build bridges between them.
How did that lead into acting? All my life I’ve just wanted to be a storyteller, to share my take on the human experience and explore the consequences of what we do and why. I’ve been infatuated with the potency of film as a platform to tell stories and I guess at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking through a script or the camera, I feel like I’m just here to share my perspective on things.
Are you still making art? Yeah, I’m always itching to make and create something. We have a million moments in between takes and scenes at work so I always have a pencil, a notebook or a camera on me – I’m addicted to the process of creation.
Have you ever done any performance art? I thought that might be a good medium for you… combining the two. A lot of people ask me that but no, I haven’t really had the desire to do that. For the moment I’m sticking to portraiture. I’m inspired by artists like Cindy Sherman… I’m on a show that takes up most of my year and I don’t get to play a lot of characters that I’d love to. Using my downtime to dress up for two seconds of a snap shot to play a character lets me sneak into the skin of someone I would one day like to be able to play but don’t have a chance to. So I guess that is a form of performance art.
What was the last exhibition you went to? I just got back from New York where I saw the Tim Burton exhibit. And did you go to the Tracey Emin show in London? At the White Cube Gallery? She’s so dirty, I love her!
Gillian’s Top 10 Artistic Influences
1. I’m currently obsessed with Marcel Dzama – he’s a Canadian contemporary artist.
2. Kati Heck is an artist I found in Berlin while I was travelling over there and I’ve been infatuated with her work ever since.
3. Goran Djurović – he’s a Serbian artist who I just discovered out at this gallery Obsolete, here in Los Angeles.
4. Mark Whelan is a good buddy of mine I met in Australia and he does something that looks like dipping dots mixed with S&M!
5. There’s a filmmaker, a guy named Cam Archer who just blows my mind… he made a film over here called Shit Year with Ellen Barkin and Luke Grimes and that’s definitely my favourite film of the year.
6. Also have you heard of a guy called Robbie Basho? He’s like one of THE uncelebrated 60s acoustic guitarists.
7. Also, a guy named Moondog – you have to look him up, he’s phenomenal. He dresses up like a Viking!
8. Then a band called Wiseblood who just put out their first EP this year.
9. My friend Malcolm Ford, he’ll be releasing a record later this year produced by Queens of the Stone Age.
10. Lastly a writer, a Kenyan author whose first novel/memoir is called ‘One Day I Will Write About This Place’. His name is Binyavanga Wainaina – he writes about the kind of Africa that’s long been forgotten. It provides a better perspective than that of the Western world, looking in on what we imagine Africa to be.
Text: Frankie Mathieson
Photography © Justin Coit