Penn Badgley has managed to shoot movies like Easy A and Margin Call during his breaks from the TV show Gossip Girl, but he’s never had a big-screen vehicle quite like Greetings From Tim Buckley, which premiered last week at the Toronto Film Festival. In it, the 25-year-old actor plays Jeff Buckley, the real-life singer who died at a tragically young age after the release of his first album Grace, though the movie skips back even further, tracking Buckley during a single pre-fame weekend as he prepares for a concert to honor the father he never knew. For audiences used to seeing Badgley as his Gossip Girl character Dan Humphrey, the performance is likely to be a major surprise, not least because Badgley is able to hit those same heavenly high notes that Buckley was famous for. We sat down with the actor the day after his film debuted to talk about his transformation, his secret singing talent, and his complicated thoughts on Gossip Girl as it enters its last season.
How has it been for you since the movie premiered?
It’s been wonderful, man. It’s been really great to have people see it and like it. Apparently it’s gotten rave reviews; I haven’t read any of them yet.
Have you been avoiding them?
No, I’m actually not. This [movie] is something where I’m finding that I feel it’s not perfect, but it is beautiful. It’s a rare piece that is soulful and quiet, you know? Certainly, it’s not using a linear, conventional mode of storytelling, but I think that’s strange and appropriate. Beyond that, it’s all a matter of what you like, but I know it’s good. It’s solid. It’s a very quiet, moving piece and that’s just a really unbelievable thing to be a part of.
Most audiences got their first taste of your Jeff Buckley voice a few weeks ago, when a live concert performance you did of “Lilac Wine” leaked to YouTube.
I was talked into that by a friend, and I’m so glad that I did it. But the fact that it got online … I was sorta like, “Shit!” That was the first time I had ever played for a paying audience.
It sounded really good.
Thank you so much, thank you. I mean, obviously I’m going to pick myself apart more than most people … well, actually not more than most people. [Laughs] But yeah, no, it was cool. Don’t know if I’m ever going to play that song again just because I never intended to be the guy who plays electric guitar and sings “Lilac Wine” like Jeff Buckley, for obvious reasons.
That YouTube actually convinced me you could do it. Because when you were first cast in this project …
Nobody thought I could do it.
It’s more that Buckley’s voice is so high, in this ethereal upper register, and your speaking voice is so low. I didn’t know if anybody could really hit those notes.
Totally, man. I mean, listen. I have to choose my words carefully, but I mean this in just the most plain way: I knew I could do it. I was not concerned about the singing. I was concerned about doing it in the right way, because I actually can imitate him more than I did in the movie. I could have maybe focused more on the mimicry. But I decided not to. I decided the most important thing was to open up different parts of myself that maybe he was opening up during that time. And in some strange way, I was doing things at the time that were eerily reminiscent of this particular story.
How do you mean?
Just, a lot of the things that were happening to him at that time, like falling in love, for instance. Meeting people, playing music for the first time. Dealing with your family. We all have imperfect relationships with our parents, and I knew where he was coming from.
If I were you growing up, I would have told everyone, “Here’s a party trick: I can sound exactly like Jeff Buckley.”
You know what’s cool? None of my friends really knew I could sing like that. And none of Jeff’s friends knew he could sing, either.
Because he was just a gigging musician when he first started.
And that’s what I mean. I’m not Jeff Buckley, but I was living a percentage of what he was experiencing at the same time. I was finally given a chance to do something I knew I could do. And it really meant something to me. It was kind of terrifying because I was the only person who thought I could do it.
Well, you and the director at least.
Yeah, that’s true. Everybody on the film was super-supportive, but stepping into this guy’s shoes was a big thing. And I had to know I could do it, but I was kind of terrified, like, You’ve been thinking you could do this your whole life, so now the chance, now’s the time when you have to step up.
Did you sing growing up? I had read online that you recorded a single when you were much younger, though I couldn’t find any other information on that.
That is dismal and it will never see the light of day.
How did that happen? What was that about?
Well, when you come to L.A. as a kid with your mom, you’re lured into doing things that you think are cool and fun and a good idea, but they’re cheesy and awful. And recording a pop single was one of them.
Was there once a potential boy-band future for you?
Good God, no. But I’ve always loved music. It’s actually always been more important to me than acting.
Then why are you an actor?
That’s a good question. It’s an interesting thing. What’s so cool about this role is, for the first time, I’m like, “Oh shit. I love being an actor.” Of course, I’m going to struggle to find something like this again. I don’t know how it could get better, honestly. I don’t know how a role could be more all-encompassing. It won’t ever get better, it will only get different.
Did you change yourself physically to play Jeff?
I would meditate on words like feline and feminine, because he’s like a feral cat. What made him so beautiful is that he was a man, but he was so feminine, too. He was gentle, but he also had such rage. I had to take all of his energy in. I wasn’t going to augment my voice and sound like Michael Jackson the whole time, because Jeff had a very high speaking voice, a full octave higher than mine. I’m a little more muscular than he was, I wasn’t quite as thin. My hair wasn’t as long as it was at that time, but it also looked a little like the Grace cover. I think this is interesting for anybody playing [a real person], what choices you make and how you choose to go. Because like, Jamie Foxx [in Ray], you’re like, “That’s not Jamie Foxx, it’s Ray Charles.” Whereas for me, I had to find myself and do the parts of me that were like Jeff because we were not making a movie where an impersonation was the story we’re telling, you know?
Did you really have to go after this movie?
I nailed that audition like I’ve never nailed an audition before. I remember walking out of it thinking, I might get that. [Laughs.] I really did feel it. But then the link that they sent to Dan, the director, was dead. So he didn’t see my audition tape for two months. Then I got the call and they were like, “He wants to meet you tomorrow.” I was in a place in my life where I was going through a lot, in good ways and bad ways, and I poured myself into it. And for the first time I feel like I can say those things and it’s worth something because it shows in the movie. That’s cool. I poured myself into that audition and I had a day and a half of preparation. I was livid with my agent: “You know how much I want this thing, and you give me a day and a half?!” And I was supposed to be flying to Colorado to go snowboarding because I loved snowboarding at that time in my life. My mind was in a million different places. So I just pulled through. I did it. I had to do it.
In this industry, you’ve probably nailed other auditions, but they could still decide not to hire you for reasons totally out of your control.
Totally. I’ve been on over 1000 auditions. And I’ve gotten maybe ten of them — and that’s good! I mean, that percentage … You know, the thing about this was I knew I had a chance because I thought, I fucking look enough like [Buckley]. I sound enough like him. I have to be on a shortlist at least. Like, there are millions of talented people out there, but they might be six foot five, or blonde, or black, or Asian. I happened to fit. And I knew I happened to fit. So I fucking ran after it. I don’t believe in auditioning. I’m a bad auditioner. I don’t like it. But with this, I had to get over that.
You seem almost painfully self-aware of how you’re perceived. Is that a good thing in your profession? Because there are a lot of other actors who go through life like “I’m the shit.”
Yeah, well, fuck those people. Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s good. It keeps me grounded. I can sit here and talk about myself; I mean, that’s technically what we’re doing. [Laughs.] I ultimately think it’s good because this industry is fucked up and it can really fuck people up. And it’s powerful.
How are you not fucked up, then? You’ve been in this industry forever.
There might have been a point where I was. I had some falling-outs with people. Everybody goes through … I don’t know. I’m grounded, I can say that. I can say that. I am, and it’s great. I don’t know where it comes from. But I’ve always been like that.
Are you worried about being typecast?
Oh yeah. Hell yeah. I turned Gossip Girl down because I was like, “There’s no way I’ll get out of that thing.”
Before Gossip Girl, you’d done a lot of CW shows that barely lasted a season. So what was it about this one that made you wary of doing it?
Gossip Girl? Because I’ve just done so much television. I’ve been getting a gift from the head of Warner Bros Television since I was, like, 15 years old. That’s ten years, pushing on eleven. I’m just like … I’m done, dude. Look, I absolutely appreciate the opportunity it’s been. I wouldn’t be here without Gossip Girl, so I will always be in debt and grateful. And I’ve said some shit that … I don’t regret it, but I’m just maybe too honest about it sometimes. But the reason I turned it down initially was because I was just frustrated. I was frustrated and I was broke and I was depressed and I was like, I cannot do that again. I can’t. But then my parents and my managers, they let me come to my own conclusion, but they were like “You need this, man. It’s not your thing, it’s not your bag, but …” Stephanie Savage, the creator [of Gossip Girl], she said to me, “I know you might not want to do this again, but just take a look at it.” And I actually was like, “I appreciate so much that you thought of me. I just don’t want to do this. Thank you for understanding that I wouldn’t want to do this.” And then they couldn’t find anybody for it — which is weird, because a million people could play Dan Humphrey — and she came back around, I was about to get a job as a waiter, and I was like, “Okay.” You know?
Why don’t you like your character? Would you rather have played someone else on the show?
Nah. When I first started, my ego wanted to play Chuck Bass. No, it’s not that I don’t like my character. It’s just, after a while, you’re known as somebody that you’re just not, and this is somebody who I so am not. He’s not real. He’s a tool on a show with soap-operatic arcs and he needs to be a judgmental douche bag sometimes. I get that. I don’t hate anybody for that. But it sucks when people call me “Dan” and think that I’m him.
But at the same time, even though Gossip Girl is a very buzzy show, it’s never been highly rated. So when you’re meeting with a director, or going up for a film like Margin Call —
They’ve never seen it! You’re right.
So the financiers love you, and the directors don’t know Gossip Girl enough to typecast you. That seems like a pretty good situation to be in.
You know, you’re actually right. That’s where I’ve totally come to terms with it. I think there was a phase where I was really upset. I was 23 years old and wanting to be an artist, and I was on a fucking TV show. Going to fashion parties and stuff. I was like, “What the fuck am I doing?”
You still go to plenty of parties.
I do. I get paid for that. [Laughs]
Isn’t that a little bit weird?
Totally. I brought one of my very close friends to a party for the first time. He was like, “I’ve never seen you like this.” You go to a party and they’re like, “Take a picture. Take a picture. Do this. Do that. Talk to him.” And my friend said, “You were just like ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Hi. Yeah. Yeah.’ Dude, it’s crazy. You were so checked out.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s what it is.”
So then why do you do it?
The parties and stuff? I’m probably gonna stop, actually.
I mean, it’s crazy money.
That’s why I do it, yeah. Why not? It makes things easier. It makes it so that down the road I don’t have to make decisions for financial reasons. Which is the death of anybody’s soul, I think. Money is … I’m very conscious of it because I have it. It’s powerful, man. It can change you ever so slightly, ever so slowly, and all of a sudden you’re addicted to a million-dollar lifestyle and you’ve got no choice but to make a bad movie. And I just don’t want to do that. There’s no fucking way I’m gonna do that.
Now that the show’s ending, how does it feel?
Great. Honestly, the reason I can even talk like this is because I’m so secure in feeling like I just can do what I want now. And I don’t know what that is yet, but it’s just nice. I can live and be myself and see what it’s like to not have to go to work every day, all day.
Is that the vibe on set? Because everyone else in the cast is making their big leap into movies, too.
Yeah, definitely. We’re not counting off the days, but we’re all just like, “Wow. We’ve been on this show for so long, and it’s about to end.” We’re all in our mid-20s, and we started this show when we were all 19 and 20. Yeah, it’s weird, honestly, that it’s ending. I think the day after it ends, I’ll wake up and think “Whaaaat am I gonna do now?” [Laughs]
Did you at least enjoy the Dan and Blair storyline last season?
I did, actually. Well, I didn’t like how it ended, because it was just kind of [draws in breath sharply]. But I do like the scenes with Leighton because I get to kind of interact in a fun way with her. When Dan and Blair are together, I think that’s him at his brightest, maybe.
Do you think you’ll appreciate the show more in the rear-view mirror?
I think it’s already in the rear-view mirror and I do appreciate it more now. You know, I’ve always been honest about how I feel about the show — which, every now and then, has bitten me in the ass — but I’ve always been appreciative. I’ve always forced myself to just accept that it’s good. I mean, nothing’s perfect.
You could have ended up on a truly terrible show for five years. Gossip Girl’s not that bad!
Hell yeah. All the little things you nitpick in your head, nobody really cares that much outside your head. So all those things I don’t like about my character? Doesn’t matter.