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Penn Badgley.

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Penn Badgley on Margin Call, Gossip Girl, and What He Googled Before Occupying Wall Street

A thriller about the financial crisis may be the last film you'd expect to see Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley star in — unless, of course, you saw the pic of him occupying Wall Street a couple of weeks ago, holding a sign that said “Bring back the Glass-Steagall Act.” Then it all makes sense. We spoke to the actor about playing a greedy financial analyst, his upcoming Jeff Buckley biopic, and what he really knows about the Glass-Steagall Act.

So, are you excited about your book?
My book? Ummmm ...

Sorry, I mean, your movie. Margin Call. It’s really your first serious film, no disrespect to The Stepfather.
Yeah, it’s wonderful. For me, this was a watershed experience as an actor, as a creative person, as a spiritual person, as an emotional person — just, everything about it was really wonderful. And to be working alongside such experienced, brilliant, nuanced actors was a gift. It’s a very exciting time. And it’s certainly timely, with the release.

What kind of preparation did you do? Your character is an analyst who throws around terms like VaR. Did you understand what you were talking about?
I think I was coming to a bit more of an understanding at the time, of that world, but it’s epically complicated.

Do you know what VaR is?
No. No, and I don’t need to, frankly. I think of anybody in the film, my role was really just to watch and learn and keep my head above water, and that’s basically what I was doing.

That’s true. One of the running sort of jokes of the movie was that hardly anyone at the bank understood the products that caused their undoing. And your character was especially representative of the kind of Wall Street dude who is obsessed with making money but doesn’t understand or care about the effects of what he does.
Yeah, yeah. I think if anybody represents the lowest common denominator in the film, it’s him.

So the ignorance of financial matters was a creative choice.
No. But I suppose it worked. [Laughs.] But what’s cool about the movie is that it is really trying to look at the moral ambiguities of any human situation. These people are all human at the end of the day, and I think my character, as much as he might seem without a conscience initially, he discovers how difficult and emotional some of these things can be.

You were at Occupy Wall Street recently holding a sign that said “Bring back the Glass-Steagall Act”. You know what the Glass-Steagall Act is?
I do, actually. I Googled it before I held the sign up because I felt like I had to be responsible. But somebody actually just gave me the sign and I thought, Okay, well, let me figure out what this is, briefly, and just make sure that it’s positive — and it is.

Do you remember what it is?
I certainly can’t educate anybody on the specifics of it, but I know it’s about deregulation. I think, in truth, bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act is the first of many, many, many, many steps that need to be taken. It’s not the only thing we need to be worried about. But I thought, you know, why not? If somebody sees my face holding that sign, then Googles the Glass-Steagall Act the same way I did, then that’s a good step in the right direction.

Millions of teenage girls are going to Google Glass-Steagall right now.
Yeah, why not? They Google what products I use in my hair, so why not try to influence it in a bit more educational direction?

Is Occupy Wall Street something you’re going to stay involved with? Or was that a one-off deal?
I’d like to be involved in it as much as I can. I was down there several days. There’s not one person with the answer, which the occupation is acknowledging. But there’s a beautiful, surprisingly quiet, and stable perseverance and hope to the movement. It’s not just an occupation; it’s not just a protest. It’s a movement. It’s a hopeful revolution. There are some brilliant, brilliant minds down there really trying to figure out how we as a society can find some real democracy and justice, and I think that’s incredibly important.

Like a lot of New Yorkers, you have friends who work on Wall Street. Do you argue with them about this stuff?
They’re not friends anymore.

[Laughs.] No, I’m kidding. For me, I don’t look at this as a strictly financial crisis. I think the financial crisis is symptomatic of an even larger problem and human trait. Corruption and greed is not unique to Wall Street. That is totally human. It’s much more obvious and blatant in the financial arena and in government and politics, but it’s something I think we need to confront in a sort of larger global consciousness. And the occupation is only one facet of that. It’s more of an awakening of the younger generation realizing, like, “We need to make sure we’re setting foot in the right direction.”

That’s all very wise, for “the guy from Gossip Girl.”
Yeah, well, that’s not all I am, as you will hopefully come to discover in coming years.

Your next project is the Jeff Buckley biopic. Is that done?
Yeah. It could be released — you know, I actually can’t say anything about that because there’s all sorts of politics involved. I can say, for me, creatively, musically, professionally, spiritually, emotionally, it was a really moving event for me. And a transformative experience. And I hope that that translates on-camera.

His fans are quite intense, right? Did they give you a hard time? Did they accept you or did you get a lot of hate mail for being, again, the dude from Gossip Girl?
You know, nobody was more aware of that than me. But I didn’t pay attention to anything that was online or the blogs; I stopped paying attention to that stuff a long time ago because it all becomes negative after a good five minutes. So any fans that I’ve encountered who’ve personally said something to me, in person, they were all actually glowing, because a lot of them were on set and they saw what we were doing, and what I was giving to it. A lot of people are gonna be, I think, surprised and initially disappointed, because what we did was not at all what people are expecting. But it’s the kind of thing that if you truly love Jeff for what he did, then I think you can appreciate it on a wholly different level.

Do you have any indication of how much longer Gossip Girl is gonna be on? Because you and me are tied to this together, you know, ‘cause I have to do these recaps.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I don’t think it can go past six. ’Cause that is what we’re contracted to.

So there’s no chance it’ll become The Golden Gossip Girls?
No. [Laughs.] No, I really don’t think so. But, you know, you never know.

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images