"Penn said he has to shave his chest hair because it's threatening?" Ed leans back, a trio of metal chains nestling in his own not inconsiderable pelt. The 21-year-old Brit stretches, grins, narrows his eyes a kind of silent purr. "Reeeaallly ... Well, I think Penn's chest hair may be more like a scaahf. It actually comes out of his neck! So maybe that's why he has to cut it. Threatening? I don't know what threatening hair would look like. We'd have to get Penn here to see!"
Ed is having a roaring great time. By day he gets to play the nastiest piece of work in soapdom, and at night there is downtown New York, his for the taking. Ed is a charmer his off-camera semi-blokey growl of an accent is a knockout special effect that one suspects has gotten him a lot of phone numbers. He corkscrews with comic embarrassment when I ask (at Chace's urging) if he lifted his character's Waspy drawl straight from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "Ummmm ... a little bit, maybe! I don't know, man, there's a slight thing in Carlton Banks, that kind of über-preppy, that I did pick up on."
The Internet defines you fast and with the fierce severity of fan fiction. To become a star, you implicitly agree to serve as a fictional character in the Web's ongoing, anonymously written reality soap. Penn? Whipped boyfriend! Chace? Closet case! Ed? Hard-drinking party boy! But today, Ed on time, alert, and pounding back orange juice is not going to give Gawker any ammo. Ambling around Chelsea's Half King, the restaurant/bar/hangout he's chosen for our interview, chatting with pals, locking eyes with a waitress, twirling his porkpie hat, then setting it back atop his bed-head he's in his element. "I've never had a problem making friends," he says. "Put me in a bar and I'll make friends straightaway. And I'm at my most impressionable age. I need to meet new people, and soak up everything like a sponge."
When he got Gossip Girl, Ed had a girlfriend. "That created a kind of emotional rock," he says, "which is no longer the case." Now untethered, he spends his evenings out and about. Last fall, he and a buddy got matching tattoos he pulls his shirt aside to show me HEARTBREAK HOTEL on his left pec, and 21G (21 grams = the title of the cool, depressing indie movie / the putative weight of the human soul) below his left shoulder. I picture annoyed makeup people smearing concealer onto him for the next 15 years, and wonder if he has some impulse-control issues. Ed says no. "My brother has always been like, 'Go do it, and worry about it when you're in jail!'" he says. "But I've never really been that way. If anything, I'm overanalytic."
Ed grew up in a middle-class town 30 miles outside London. His father is a university lecturer and his mother is a psychologist. Approaching the end of school in the U.K., he was miserable. "I don't understand how the government expects a 16-year-old to know what they want to do," he says. "It made me incredibly anxious and upset."
But things happened fast. He was cast in Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering. Then came Gossip Girl. As Chuck, he oscillates between malice and unexpected decency, and rocks the freakiest wardrobe on TV: old-line yachtsman meets naughty schoolboy meets punk peacock. Plus Argyle kneesocks. "Chuck's just this vain kind of metrosexual Manhattan eccentric living in a flash world," Ed says. "He's young, and still figuring out the way he wants the world to see him. Those costumes are my right-hand man." (Off-camera, too: Ed wore a neckerchief to the Teen Choice Awards. Ed has balls.)
If Penn and Chace thirst to explore their characters' dark sides, where does that leave the guy who's already there? "It's not like Chuck is stickin' a knife to a granny's throat," Ed says. "He's just mischievous. In the second season, you will see him do more of the good-guy thing." But could he go the other way? "Chuck Bass is American Psycho!" he says, beaming. He and Chace like to watch American Psycho. Over and over. Which makes sense: What else is American Psycho, with its obsession with psychotic consumerism and moral rot, but Gossip Girl writ large, without the obligatory-for-network-TV "human" dimension?
Ed with costar Leighton Meester
Still, Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman as role model? Slightly creepy. A week earlier, Ed and his castmates went to the premiere of Bale's film The Dark Knight, and they were the ones who were mobbed. It's fun, and also part of the drill show up, look good, be photographed, work the press line, hit the after-party. Ed loved the movie. "That's me," he says. "Batman. I am Batman." He leans forward, liking the ring of it. "I am Batman."
"Secret identity?" I ask.
"Oh, yeah," he says.
"So who are you right now?"
He smirks. "Pure Bruce Wayne."