LOS ANGELES | Ed Westwick remembers a day when photographers didn't bother to take his picture, when his name didn't wind up in gossip columns.

But  today, he realizes, that's just part of being on a hit show like "Gossip Girl."

"When I left to start this show, I was living in my parents' home. I was 19...and it's been quite a unique experience," he says. "I'm only 24 but I feel like I'm 44 -- in a good way. I've experienced so much in a short period of time."

The character he plays -- a rich bad boy -- gets in all kinds of scrapes. Occasionally, the actor does, too, but that's just part of the game.

"At the end of the day, I'm a performer and we want people to like us and watch us," the British-born Westwick says. "It does help the career a little bit. When your privacy isn't appreciated as much as it should be and you don't have as much as other people, it's difficult. But it's champagne problems, really."

Some publications, he says, aren't really interested in "real" stories. "Unfortunately, we live in this world where news isn't necessarily news. Instead of giving exposure to important issues, they're interested in me in a bar having a drink. Attention should be on the local community, not me."

Still, that tabloid fascination has raised his profile considerably. Since the start of "Gossip Girl," Westwick has gotten roles in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," "Chalet Girl" and "Californication."

He's shooting a new big screen version of "Romeo and Juliet" (he plays Tybalt) and he's contemplating life after television.

A quick getaway? Not in the least. "I have this fantastic character who has had a great evolution," he says of Chuck Bass. "Every episode is validating to me. I'm so fortunate to be doing something so many people would like to do. It really stimulates me."

Because "Gossip Girl" remains interesting, there's no rush to resolve Chuck's relationship issues or plunk him in a 9-to-5 job. "It's a testament to the potency of television," he says of the show's success. "It's a huge investment on these people's parts to stay with a show and stay with a relationship. I'm constantly baffled."

Though Chuck and Blair have split, there's always a chance they can get back together, Westwick says. "Why not?"

Chuck, though, is hardly made in Westwick's image -- despite the playboy reputation they share.

"I'm a much better dresser," Westwick says with a laugh. "He's got a lot of money, but I'm not doing badly."

Chuck spends his nights in clubs. Occasionally, Ed does, too. "But I stay at home and watch 'Planet Earth' and drink cups of tea. That's my evening. Of course I have been documented in the press once or twice for interesting moments somewhere in New York. But I'm a young man. I'm going to be going out having fun once in a while."

A broad smile breaks across his face.

"Romeo and Juliet" should show the range he's able to play. Other classics could be in the offing. "My favorite author? William Shakespeare is definitely up there. But I'm just reading some Herman Hesse and it's fantastic."

To prove he's serious about his reading, Westwick spills out a poem. It's a tongue-twister about women that tests his oral dexterity.

Shakespeare? "No, it's by 'Anonymous,'" he says.  But "that's just what I do."

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