Photography: Atisha Paulson
Few people possess the wisdom in retrospect by age 21 quite the way Tessa Gourin does. Growing up among the wealthy youth of New York’s Upper East Side, the actor admits to getting caught up in a crowd that changed her self-image and dictated her actions, but she never accepted defeat. Everyone can relate to a feeling of unease and slight shame when pondering their pre-teen personality. But what happens when those years of searching for a sense of self are broadcasted on social media? Gourin’s were, as Facebook began to skyrocket in the early aughts. But she discovered herself through acting, a path she considers her “calling,” and one that encouraged her to ﬁnd true conﬁdence in individuality.
With a warm smile, Tessa opens the door to her apartment, where she lives alone except for Keith, her pet Sphinx. Though young, her relentless devotion to work has taken precedence over any desire to follow the conventional route by going to college. After our conversation, it becomes clear she does not, nor has she ever, played by anyone else’s rules.
Despite spending her formative years in a Catholic School, then a small, co-educational Manhattan high school that attempted to stifle the creativity she yearned to release, the young actress has forever valued freedom of expression. It seems as though acting, for Tessa, is not only a passion, but a means of communication from her innermost self to the world at large. Much like a songwriter or poet, Tessa likes roles through which she’s able to channel certain parts of her personality. Through acting, she says, “You can live so many different lives.”
I was thinking about how long I’ve known you—maybe 7 years or so.
It feels like even longer because I always followed you online. Has your relationship to social media as a platform changed over the years?
In high school and middle school, I was a bitch, to put it lightly. I think it was more that everyone was so young. Social media wasn’t as understood as it is now. We were just twelve, thirteen when it was becoming big. Before Instagram and everything, you didn’t really realize the impact of what you posted. So my social media presence before was kind of dumb. Now, not just in terms of social media, I’m such a different person than I was in middle school, high school. I use it as a platform, for sure, to express my personality.
How did you decide you wanted to act?
I took a risk and went to college for two seconds. I’ve always known I wanted to act, so when I got there I was just like, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s never been for me. I was a theater major, but I wasn’t acting enough. It was a major party school and I wasn’t particularly interested in going in the ﬁrst place. Society puts such an emphasis on needing to go to college, and it feels like if you don’t, you’re essentially a loser. That’s why I went, because ‘you should.’ I had a very rocky high school experience, in terms of ﬁnding myself, but I’m glad that I got that out of the way so early. I’m so lucky to feel like I can be my own boss and be successful in things that I’m interested in.
Who in terms of acting do you study?
My favorite role is Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted. I love doing the monologue, just for fun. I’m really attracted to damaged, misunderstood people because I see a lot of myself in them. I love the raw, edgy badass who is so much more complex inside. I relate to the reaction of ‘Oh, they’re crazy, but there’s a lot more going on.’ Winona Ryder is also one of my favorite actresses. Anything Tim Burton makes I’m obsessed with. Edward Scissorhands is one of my favorite movies. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Valley of the Dolls. American Beauty—can’t believe I forgot that one.
So you have The Lucky Guy coming up. Can you tell me about it?
It’s an indie about a girl Mary, who I play, who basically got fucked over by her ex-boyfriend. She’s very dark and seems very harmless, but behind closed doors, is batshit crazy.
I saw you’re starring in another upcoming short ﬁlm.
It’s called Birth Day. It’s the director Eva Baumgardner’s ﬁrst short ﬁlm. It’s starring me and a little kid. I just saw the rough cut of it and I am so excited.
The film industry can be notoriously rough for young actors just starting out. How has your experience been?
It’s really just me doing this for myself. The work I’ve done has come out of meeting people organically, and it’s really been all about word of mouth. So because of that, I haven’t experienced anything too negative. What I would say, is that it’s fucking hard work and there are never any guarantees. [You have] the least likely chance of success and you need to love it enough to keep working.
What was it like being a teenager in NYC?
It’s a shit show growing up here, especially going to school on the Upper East Side. I started at a Catholic School that was extremely traditional, and they do not like people coloring outside the lines, so to speak. Modesty has never been my thing, nor has being discreet in any manner—I’m incapable. That was not the right ﬁt for me. Girls were so catty, especially at that age. There are no words to describe the level of wealth these people would throw around. That was hard for me, when I was ﬁrst introduced to them. I thought, ‘Oh, this is real life.’ There was a lot of judgement and so much pressure to have the best of everything, and being yourself is the last thing you want to do when you’re so caught up in that. I feel like I tried to hide parts of myself and my beliefs, and even my interests.
Do you have any examples?
I remember one of the ﬁrst times I went to a vintage store, I got this sort of grandma-quilted purse and an oversized fur coat. I was in eighth grade and I thought I looked fucking awesome. I went to hang out with these people, and I was so excited, and someone just said to me, ‘What the fuck are you wearing?’ I never wore that shit again. That’s such a classic adolescent story, but now if you asked me, ‘What the fuck are you wearing?’ I’d say thank you.
The people we grew up with were uniquely anti-unique.
Someone would have a party at their house and say ‘but no Tessa.’ Just for no reason. So then you try to change so many parts of you and you begin to lose who you are.
You have a number of tattoos. Tell me about them.
Some of them are meaningless. I hate when people are like, ‘This means reﬂect.’ Some of mine mean some shit, but others were just like, ‘Guess what, I felt like it. I thought it looked cool and I was 16.’ I have a three, which represents me, my mom and my brother. I grew up with a single mom and a younger brother, and it was always just the three of us. I have Jim Morrison’s signature. He’s been a huge creative inspiration to me. I have ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ from the Nina Simone song [of the same name]. The other day, someone said, ‘Oh like the Lana Del Ray song?’ She did a cover, but it’s Nina Simone. I have three dots on my middle ﬁnger, which is just because. My ﬁrst tattoo was a cross, which I think I’m getting covered up soon. I’m not deﬁned enough in my beliefs that I want a cross tattooed on me. This one says, ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ That means a lot to me. I went to a Wilderness Therapy program and a woman there told me this quote. Growing up without a father there, it’s difﬁcult. It really does affect a lot.
What are your plans now?
This summer I’m going to Japan. I’ve always really wanted to go there. I will need to go to LA at some point to do some shooting. I’m still in acting school at the William Esper Studio. It’s the biggest honor for me. I’ve learned insane amounts just in the past year.
You’re 21 now. If you could do anything before you turn 25, what would you do?
I just want to continue to work. I want real deal, bigger projects. I’m shooting another feature this weekend, and honestly I plan to be an established actor. I don’t want to jinx it, and it sounds so cheesy, but I really was born to do it. It was never a question. This is just what I do. I had all these characters and voices that I would always do, and I feel so lucky to know what I want to do in life. I never had a second thought, and I’ve never loved anything more.