Penn Badgley Knows Viewers Like You‘s Murderous Joe More Than Gossip Girl‘s Dan Humphrey

The actor talks about his divisive characters, from Gossip Girl to You.

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson; Styled by Elin Svahn.

This year, the must-see Netflix how that took the Internet by storm was undoubtedly You, a psychological thriller television series based on a book series of the same name. The ironic thing? The show had premiered all the way back in September, airing it’s entire first season on Lifetime. But once it hit Netflix, it became an inescapable and wildly bingeable guilt pleasure—thanks in large part to Penn Badgley, the show’s omnipresent narrator Joe, who just so happens to be a stalker and murderer. And yet, viewers couldn’t get enough of him. “It’s fascinating that people are drawn to this character,” Badgley said.”It’s not surprising. I think we all kind of knew what we were doing and getting into.” Here, Badgley talks about coming to terms with playing the villain, gives insight into Joe’s inner workings, and hints at what’s to come in season two.

Where are you from?

That’s a good question. I’ve been in New York longer than anywhere else. I’ve lived in LA, I was born in Baltimore, I lived in Washington State, and Virginia.

Where do you film You?

I film You in a different city every season. First season was New York, the second is Los Angeles. He travels but he flees really because he’s a murderer.

Do you find this fascinating that people are so drawn to you as this sociopathic person?

It’s fascinating that people are drawn to this character. It’s not surprising. I think we all kind of knew what we were doing and getting into. Although I think the show touches on a nerve that creates a space for a deepening of this conversation we’re having maybe socially, thinking about violence against women, thinking about the empowerment of women, thinking about the equality of men and women, and truly understanding that we don’t know what that looks like because we live in a world that has been so unjust for so long. Interestingly, this show called You, seems to tap into that in a pretty interesting and unexpected way because it’s also extremely watchable. It’s very bingeable. It’s not all together too heady. I mean, you can binge the whole thing in like a day and that tends to be what people do. So people are consuming this character at an alarming rate.

The show has had an interesting journey.

Initially, when it was on the Network for Women, Lifetime, it didn’t do as well as it did when it was on Netflix. But I think that was somewhat anticipated. I mean, that’s the difference between mediums and media. Lifetime is a traditional network, Netflix is changing a lot of the way we think the rules should operate. So our show is emblematic of that.

Do you like your character?

No. The greatest challenge I have playing him is not judging him, which as an actor, is just death for spontaneity. It’s death of being an actor really, if you judge your character.

What did you think when you first read it on the page? What was your first impression when they sent it to you?

When I first read the script, I was compelled by it as a piece. I was not attracted to him as a character. As a character, I was like, “Oof, I don’t know, I don’t know. Well, no I think I know about this guy and I don’t want to embody him six months out of every year for potentially six years.” That’s the kind of commitment you’re making on a television show. He’s a villain and yet he’s in the position of an anti-hero, which is strange for all of us, and no one could anticipate how much everyone was going to like him. Surely, that has something to do with me, but it also has a lot to do with the viewers, meaning people.

I don’t ever think of him as a killer. Me, as Penn, I look at the show and the character and I’m like, “Well, he’s a murderer. That’s awful. There’s no excuses.” And yet, when I’m playing him as an actor, I don’t think of him as a killer at all because that’s not what anyone thinks of themselves as. It’s a means to an end. So the part of him that I do hold onto that I can appreciate is his investigation and his curiosity, his great, great, great sensitivity. So I really just bring that to life, which is what you see technically, most of the time. You see him stalking but you don’t see him being so violent all the time. So I just give expression to whatever is happening. And when the violent stuff is happening, I actually don’t find it so difficult to tap into the rage and the violence and those awful things either. It’s just that you see them less. Although, you see a lot more of it in a wider range, and spectrum, and diversity in season two, I think. I hope.

*Celine suit and shirt; Scosha ring.*

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson; Styled by Elin Svahn. Hair by Akki Shirakawa at Art Partner; Makeup by Diane Kendal at Julian Watson Agency; Manicures by Megumi Yamamoto for Chanel Le Vernis at Susan Price NYC. Set design by Marla Weinhoff Studio. Produced by Sarah Maxwell and Hanna Corrie at PRODn Art + Commerce; Production Coordinator: Heather Strange; Photography Assistants: Patrick Lyn, Daren Thomas, Romek Rasenas; Digital Technician: Heath McBride; Production Assistants: Mitch Baker, Austin Kennedy; Set Assistants: Ian Noel, Jordan Seiler; Fashion Assistants: Kristina Koelle, Rasaan Wyzard, Erica Boisaubin, Jordyn Payne, Stefania Chekalina; Tailor: Yao Ayeh at Christy Rilling Studio.

Do you tap into his sense of obsession?

Yeah. But I don’t think of it as obsession because I don’t think people who obsess think of it as obsession. I’m just saying, I’m not a psychologist, but I’m human. I think that obsession might come … everything might come from a place that is well- meaning or well-intentioned and yet, it can get immediately confused and the wires are crossed. And so to me, his obsession is not like, “Oh, I’m an obsessive person.” No, he’s extremely desirous of a sincere and authentic connection with a human, a woman. He’s desiring of true love. He really is. And we all are. Because of his experiences, I suppose, it manifests as obsession and compulsion because of his traumas.

So you feel for the guy?

I guess I do. I feel for me when I’m doing it. Joe as a person, I read it and I’m like, “Joe. Agh.” But yeah, I guess I do feel for him. I do.

Were you worried about playing a villain?

When the character that I was playing as Dan on Gossip Girl was meant to be the good guy, I think it was the least likable I’ve ever been. And now that I’m playing not just a villain, not just a stalker, not just a bad guy, but also a compulsive murderer, people love me. They love it.

So going back, what was the first thing you ever auditioned for?

The first thing I ever auditioned for was a roll I got in the Music Man. I played Winthrop, and I had a lisp, and I was probably eight. From that moment on, I’ve really never stopped. I found myself happy on stage, and free, and I was quite otherwise shy. Here I am on camera however many years later.

What was the first thing you booked in LA?

The first thing I booked was an episode of Will and Grace. I just played a kid who was bullying another kid who reminded Sean Hayes’ character of himself as a boy.

Where was your first kiss?

My first kiss was a regrettable experience. It was playing Truth or Dare. And that’s not a great way to have the first experience of anything. It wasn’t enjoyable because—I mean, we’re talking about consent a lot in this day and age, right? And a kiss is a kiss. Okay, fine. And I was twelve. But the sensitivities of a 12-year-old, the ideas of coming into these powers in your body, some of them sexual, you’re not understanding all of these things. I think what I thought I wanted and what I got in this instance were two different things. And to be honest, I haven’t thought about it in a very long time. I don’t see it as a great first experience.

Who did you have a crush on growing up?

I loved Lauryn Hill. I really loved Lauryn Hill. Music was always my first passion and so it was musicians.

And “Killing Me Softly” was your karaoke song?

“Killing Me Softly” was a song I did sing a lot. I’m pretty sure in fifth grade, I got up on a couple of desks and sang “Killing Me Softly” while the teacher was out of the room for a Kudos bar, of all things. And I was very shy, again. Actors are the worst because they’re like, “Oh, I’m very shy,” but then they’ll perform naked back flips on stage for 3,000 people and be like, “But I’m so shy. I don’t know how to talk to people.”

So you could have easily gone into music, rather than acting.

I tried before I got to Gossip Girl. I was considering pivoting away from acting and playing music and for that reason, I turned Gossip Girl down. Not for that reason specifically, but that was one of the reasons. They came back about a month and a half later with an impassioned letter from Stephanie Savage. My relationship with Stephanie was the reason that I was willing to consider it because we had worked together on show a couple years prior.

You know there’s a whole new generation that are obsessed with Gossip Girl?

It’s funny to me because the concept now is almost a little retro.