Go ahead, get all of the Lonely Boy jokes out of your system. Penn Badgley doesn’t mind the inevitable comparisons between his new Lifetime drama, You, and Gossip Girl — especially since a tech-savant psychopathic current runs through both of his characters. Based on the 2014 novel by Caroline Kepnes, You follows a bookstore manager named Joe (Badgley) who becomes obsessed with Beck (Elizabeth Lail), an aspiring poet, after a chance meeting in his shop.
Joe quickly graduates from cyber-stalking to following Beck’s every move across New York. Soon enough (and creepily enough), he’s jacking off in front of her apartment and kidnapping her hookup buddy Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci) in an underground lair. When he finally winds up “reconnecting” with Beck, she’s blissfully unaware of his inner monster, fueling what’s bound to conclude in a confrontation scene for the ages. Ahead of You’s premiere, Badgley was nice enough to give Vulture a call to discuss his trepidations with the role, how the show fits in the grander scheme of the #MeToo era, and the one Gossip Girl GIF that still haunts him to this day.
Just when I thought I figured out everything I need to worry about in 2018, I’m now convinced I can never use credit cards around handsome shopkeepers. Thanks, Penn!
Yeah, I know. It’s a strange role! I have a conflicting relationship with it.
Why is that?
As compelled and interested as I am by the project as a whole and the character, I don’t like it. I don’t think anyone can comfortably say, Yeah, I like that guy. It becomes more and more complicated, especially being the person who has to embody him. There’s no way around it — Joe’s not a great person.
What convinced you that this creepy stalker role was worth exploring?
It was really my conversations with [You co-creators] Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, because they settled all of my concerns. They were so numerous that it’s hard to outline them all in one conversation. Now that we’ve made the first season and I’ve been gauging reactions with critics and friends and viewers, I can say there’s a certain accountability — an emotional and psychological responsibility — that we hold the viewers and Joe to. It’s not this wildly irresponsible, escapist fantasy at the perfectly wrong time. I think the show came out at the right time, because any other time, we wouldn’t have had the courage at a social level and have conversations about why we’re drawn to it, but also why we know we shouldn’t reward it. We don’t want to reward Joe more than how he’s already being rewarded.
The bottom line through all of this was that I wasn’t sure about anything. [Laughs.] I put my trust in a lot of these people. I wasn’t sure I could understand Joe enough to believe in this at all times, but I’m gonna believe in these people. They were all integral in helping me jump aboard the train. I’m really trying to be open about it. Because I don’t want to act like we’ve come to any conclusions, or say what we’re doing is right.
How does one prepare for such a role? This is a bit of an extreme, but Michael C. Hall supposedly followed people on the street to get in a Dexter headspace. Were you ever tempted to do such a thing?
Wow, that’s commitment. [Laughs.] I’m not that kind of actor, and maybe that shows in my performance. To me, it was far more of a shapeless psychological preparation. I’m not so concerned about being conscious of Joe’s every dimension at every point, because I don’t think as human beings we do that. One great difference between Dexter and Joe is that Joe isn’t conscious of what he’s doing. He’s not conscious of his own alien-ness and his humanity.
Do you think viewers will cheer on this depraved man for being a self-described “fool in love”?
I’ve thought a lot about it and I still don’t know. To me, a conversation I hope it starts is, What is it about the show that’s compelling? Why am I watching it? Am I enjoying it? Am I agreeing with Joe? What about all of this do I enjoy most? Those are the questions I had preparing for the role. As much as we’re calling this the #MeToo movement, consider that out of all things we could call an age where the equality and empowerment of women is becoming a focal point at the national and global level, we refer to it as #MeToo. That’s not a name that really communicates the depth to which we really should be examining our own conduct, right? The degrees of which you’re enticed and excited by a show, there’s a lot more scrutiny in terms of the stories we’re interested in telling and consuming — the things we’re still charmed by and attracted to. Because Joe shouldn’t be allowed to behave the way he does. But only the viewer can decide.
Yes, we made You, so we’re culpable as well. With the blind spots we have, I hope we’re held to some sort of accountability for it. I want people to point out those things. I was very concerned all along about the things we might be missing, and I was curious what focal point I represent for the show and the character. So I’m prepared for that as well as I can be. If there’s anything the name #MeToo calls to us, it’s that there’s a lot more dimension to the equality of men and women and the empowerment of women, which also is like the empowerment of men. All of this to me is a bit like a Pandora’s box. All of this is relevant, but how relevant will it be while watching it? I’m curious where most people fall in that spectrum.
I know you’re not too active on social media, but will you be monitoring the reaction when the show premieres?
Yeah, I will. Maybe even less monitoring and more participating. Here’s the thing — I don’t like Joe. I don’t like the guy. A lot of actors like saying, Don’t judge a character, you might fall in love with him! Not me. It took every ounce of my capacity to do my job. I’m so lucky I had the trust of the women around me, and the women writing and directing the show, to help me understand why I was doing it. I’m going to continue to rely on those women. Because I feel a certain amount of detachment from the character because of my dislike of him. I don’t feel like Joe. So, I’m interested in how we all contributed to this project and how people are going to receive it. I’m not going to try to defend Joe, clearly. [Laughs.]
Even though you dislike Joe, do you see any redeeming qualities about him?
Oh sure, absolutely. I don’t believe that pure evil exists, personally. I definitely was able to find him one humane and human quality. All you need is one fragment of something pure, so I picked and became fixated on his curiosity. At some point, someone will receive some kind of miseducation that they can’t escape. Some of us reach erroneous conclusions and some of us don’t have communities or families or friends to help us recognize these errors that we’ve made. I think Joe is one of these people. I’m not apologizing for him or anyone like him, of course. That’s one thing I don’t want to do. I don’t want Joe or this show to increase people’s sense of paranoia and desperation at finding any sense of meaning or nobility or higher purpose in human beings. How are we all anticipating these false standards and cultural norms, which miseducate legions of young boys and young girls? Obviously, Joe is the extreme and the exception. I’m not so much worried about a Joe in real life, but these are the questions I asked myself when shooting the show.
How afraid should we be of Joe? Transforming a bookstore basement into a prison cell is next-level crazy.
You should be afraid of him. I remember what Greg said to me when we were filming the pilot, when I said I wasn’t sure I wanted that masturbation scene in there and some other fleeting moments. He said, In the pilot you have to introduce the audience to the palette you’re going to be working with. And there’s a time in the pilot where Joe is extremely sensitive, boyish, and seemingly innocent. Don’t you think there are flashes of that?
There are points where you see even more of that to understand him better. You see the other darker moments of the palette, too. The pilot is so fast, and the route becomes more circuitous and scenic and doesn’t turn back. So should we be afraid of Joe? Yeah. But he can’t sustain that kind of fear. In the third and fourth episode, it changes. Their relationship develops. He initiates a relationship with her and they fall in love. There are points where you’re allowed to forget everything he’s done and you might actually want them together. The fear is never one-dimensional.
For some fans, it’ll be easy to compare the technological prowess of Joe with Dan Humphrey. Do you welcome those parallels, or wish people would be more conscious of separating the two shows?
In a way, it’s the only comparison they can make before they see the show. It’s not my job to distinguish what people think. I’m not so concerned about that as I used to be. By the way, as many links that there are from You to Gossip Girl, I don’t think anybody in charge ever consciously manipulated that into being something more than it was. Maybe I’m naive there. [Laughs.] I think it’s a strange thing when we all collectively realized, Wow, this could be Dan Humphrey. If it casts a different light on Dan because of how similar Joe is to him, that’s really cool. For all the frothiness of Gossip Girl, there was a dimension into what he was doing to everybody that was sociopathic and manipulative and abusive. Right? We love to enjoy it and we love to watch people ultimately being abused. It’s a strong thing to say, but there’s a dimension to that in every drama. It casts a fluorescent light on it, and you realize it’s kind of strange. I wasn’t connecting those dots back then, but now I am, and I like that.
A few weeks ago, you mentioned you were honored to be a popular GIF, even if the one you’ve seen was humiliating. Please, you must share what this GIF is.
I meant in the literal sense! [Laughs.] Okay, I can’t remember the episode or context around why he was doing this. Do you remember the moment [in Gossip Girl] when Dan is laughing and looking up and typing something at the same time? I remember everything about the moment, but nothing about the story.
In the moment, the crew was trying to get me to laugh and look up and type. I was laughing to myself and rolling my eyes. I said to the director out loud, C’mon! I was basically just scratching keys because it was such a Hallmark moment. But the youths love it. All they need is one moment! I wasn’t trying to act like it was remotely serious, but of course, I’ve seen people laugh about it because it’s so evident that I’m not acting. I imagine the people who are watching it are like, Damn, this man’s a terrible actor. It’s not my best work.