Penn Badgley on YOU, Gossip Girl and Piercing Hearts
Penn Badgley, star of YOU (Netflix’s current #1 TV show) has been the subject of persistent click bait headlines since Season 4 of the show premiered last week. First, entertainment outlets made a big deal out of his admission that he doesn’t like doing sex scenes and requested they be reduced this season (he sees them as a form of infidelity to his wife). Then, he apparently critiqued Netflix and its hit show Dahmer for romanticizing the serial killer. Both points, though valid, were portrayed as biting the hand that feeds him. But after speaking with the actor last week, we’re guessing the statements were out-of-context characterizations, amplified and aggregated to create buzz and get hits. Which is ironic considering the two shows he’s best known for concern presumptions and personas perpetuated online.
Badgley is an engaging interview, even within the confines of a junket slot on Zoom. Soft-spoken and extremely thoughtful when he answers a question, the actor gives off a reserved, keep-it-real energy that’s very much un-like YOU‘s Joe Goldberg, a fiendishly malevolent fraudster with a penetrating gaze and way of pausing in conversation as he obsesses about everything. The gist here is that Joe comes off as a mild-mannered “nice guy” to everyone on the show, but his mind constantly stews with judgment and sinister ideations that only us viewers get to hear. He does a lot of creepy stuff, and in Season 1, set in New York, it quickly escalates into twisted and gruesome territory, all in the name “love.” Possessing the object of his affection, which has changed with each season of the show, motivates everything Joe does and YOU’s writers make sure to lay his psychosis on thick, even as he often makes a lot of sense in his observations about people and world.
Of course, Badgley has to address the conundrum at the heart of the show’s success, because every journalist (us included) has to ask about it: Joe is a psychopath, stalker and murderer, but he is also a funny, sexy and charismatic man. To some he’s a heartthrob even, and that is pretty problematic.
“For the first couple seasons, I was kind of an ironic referee about that dynamic,” he tells LA Weekly. “I don’t take it too seriously on one hand, because the whole point is that he’s not a real person. It’s not a clinical portrayal of a serial killer. Therefore, the way people are attracted to him I think is very much forgivable, and part of what the show is doing is playing with that.”
Badgley insists the show isn’t really about a maniac, but rather about examining what love is from different perspectives, especially toxic ones. “It’s using archetypes of masculinity and femininity to explore all these ideas. So in that sense, I think maybe the show is evolving past whether or not it’s crazy for people to fall in love with Joe,” he says. “The point is, the characters fall in love with Joe. We’re living a little bit in his world where he is an object of desire and can’t help turn everyone else into an object of desire. There’s no easy answer and I do worry about that. I have worried about that. But at some point, I have to let it go because I can’t control it.”
He does admit that he’d feel different if the character was a real person, like Jeffrey Dahmer (who was played by Evan Peters in Ryan Murphy’s mini-series and did receive some backlash). “None of us who are making this show are interested in that kind of show, or that kind of story,” he adds.
If younger viewers aren’t sophisticated enough to see the satiric nuances in YOU, Joe himself ultimately spells them out on the show. This narrator might be unhinged but he isn’t unreliable in the traditional sense; he justifies his behavior at times but he also acknowledges his turpitude, especially as the show progresses. There is a humanity and a genuine empathy that bleeds through his deplorable actions and in these moments the writers have as much fun with his self-reflection as they do with skewering the stereotypes of the communities he inhabits.
In Season 2, set in L.A., there’s a lot to make fun of on both sides. It’s our favorite season both for the familiar locales and for the characters – Joe meets his match in the quirky rich girl Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) and her boho-riche family, and he creates a bond with a young girl, played by none other than Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega (whose current success he calls “awesome and phenomenal.”)
“There was something about the way the show gave side-eye to L.A. that was rewarding,” shares the 36-year-old, who was born in Maryland and grew up in Washington, before coming to Los Angeles to pursue acting. “The Northern California kind of suburban thing in Season 3 wasn’t as distinct and isn’t as distinct. This season in London actually is a very different beast. I think Joe as a character loves London and he’s trying to escape there. The second season was the first time since I was a teenager that I spent a long time in L.A. I lived in Burbank and I was shooting on the same block as my apartment complex by the Warner Brothers ranch. I don’t feel the same about L.A. as Joe does, just for the record.”
As the show moves to Europe in Season 4, Joe takes on a new identity as Jonathan Moore, a college professor who becomes entangled with a group of wealthy Brits– who soon start dying. In Part 1’s slate of episodes (Part 2’s shows wont air on Netflix til March) he comes to realize someone knows about his murderous past and is framing him for the new murders. As he tries to find out who that is, and plays a game of cat and mouse with the anonymous tormentor, Joe resists a new romantic fixation with art curator Kate (Charlotte Richie); but of course that doesn’t last for long.
“I think watching Joe squirm is where the show succeeds,” Badgley says of the new season. “Especially when he’s in danger. I like that. I’m interested to see how people respond. But I hope that people are liking seeing him on the other side of the knife.”
The new season has its share of twists, especially in the second half that’s yet to air. We won’t spoil anything here, except to say there are shades of Fight Club in the way it explores Joe’s psyche and as a cultural critique of class and privilege. It has this in common with the hit that put Badgley on the map, too. Gossip Girl also benefited from a witty narrator, and it should be acknowledged that part of why YOU and Joe are beloved, has to do with the fact that fans of GG have grown up with Penn and followed his career playing these two very different men. We had to ask: what does he think about the new version on HBO Max?
“I just heard it got canceled. Maybe this is wrong of me, but I’ve still not seen it,” he admits. “It’s not been a conscious decision. The reality is, I have two kids and I don’t watch a lot of TV. There’s just not a lot of time in the day. The one thing that we watch is The Voice, of all things.”
We tell him the revamp was pretty bad, lacking the sweet bite of the original starring himself and Blake Lively. “It wasn’t going to capture the same cultural zeitgeist, I think that’s clear,” he responds. “It’s not 2007 so it’s a very different cultural temperature. Back then, it was fun and titillating, a sort of guilty pleasure and high camp. Whereas now, I just think the way that especially young people think about the world, there’s not the opportunity to have the same kind of show. The thing about Gossip Girl is that nobody wants their business to be seen. But now, thanks to social media everybody will do that to themselves. You’re your own Gossip Girl.”
Speaking of social media, YOU really shows us how easy it is stalk people online, we tell Badgley as our interview concludes. “Yeah but he’s just clumsily using Google to figure out everything, it’s not that complicated,” he insists. “It shows how much information is out there. When the smartphone came out, I remember maybe the first or second season of Gossip Girl having a conversation with castmates about whether or not we were going to try out this new iPhone thing. And I was resisting– I was like, ‘Why do you need all that stuff with the phone? It’s just a phone, you know?”
The original Gossip Girl concerned a scandal-hungry blogger who sent out blasts about people before phones really got smart. Badgley’s Dan Humphries was ultimately revealed to be the titular antagonist, a mystery that was teased throughout the show’s run. For a lot of fans it didn’t ring true. Dan was too earnest and boring to be that wicked. This is not the case on YOU; in what might be an award-worthy performance this year, the actor embodies Joe’s duality and tortured evil in a way that’s more compelling to watch than ever, evoking his humanity and insanity, sometimes in the same scene. As season 5 of YOU has already been announced, we can’t wait to see which side of him wins out in the end.
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