How You Transformed Penn Badgley Into a Creepy Dreamboat

Photo: Netflix

Somewhere between watching Joe Goldberg stalk his crush around New York City, surreptitiously masturbate on her doorstep, and commit increasingly bonkers acts of violence to win her love, the viewer of You comes to an uncomfortable realization: This guy is a megacreep … but he’s also pretty hot?

You first aired on Lifetime last fall but became a sleeper hit on Netflix in late December, giving a nice career boost to star Penn Badgley, who marries the brooding sardonic sexiness of Harry Burns with the sociopathic tendencies of Hannibal Lecter. The strange appeal of Joe Goldberg is undoubtedly the secret to the show’s success, but it’s also a tightrope walk from a technical perspective: It takes hard work to make a guy that handsome into a believable creepmobile, while still also maintaining his status as a certified dreamboat. Vulture hopped on the phone with the show’s directors, cinematographers, and lead makeup artist to find out how they pulled it off.

Setting the stage for a ‘New York love story’

The common wisdom about the importance of a good first impression is extra applicable when it comes to making your audience fall in love with a sociopath. To sell Joe’s romantic appeal from the very first shot, director Lee Toland Krieger gave You the look and feel of an entirely different sort of show.

“I wanted something that felt like a great New York love story, just with a very disturbed protagonist,” Krieger says. “The show opens with these luscious slow-motion shots. There’s that amber glow. It doesn’t feel like a thriller.”

Krieger and DP David Lanzenberg took inspiration from the work of cinematographer Darius Khondji, whose moody settings are the lone common thread between Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and David Fincher’s Seven, and used anamorphic lenses with a dreamy vignetting effect: a visual manifestation of “this deeply romanticized worldview that Joe has when he’s looking at, or lusting or longing for, Beck.” Everything about You, from the sunset-colored palette to the dolly camerawork to the soft focus at the edges of the frame, tells you that you’re watching a romance. So by the time you see Joe in one of his most transgressive moments — playing a peeping (and, er, masturbating) tom on a stoop with a view into Beck’s bedroom window — it’s already too late.

“We cut inside Beck’s apartment and Joe’s there, and we have this kind of fun pop song playing, and his jacket is off and he’s smiling — hopefully you do get swept up in the fantasy of it,” Krieger says. “You’re in Joe’s head. It’s a safe place to be.”

Finding the ideal balance of ‘creeper’ and handsome

By any objective measure, Penn Badgley is handsome as hell, which was both a boon and a challenge to the people in charge of capturing his performance. David Lanzenberg summed it up best: “In Hollywood sometimes, you end up with very pretty boys. They don’t have any angle or any character to their face. But Penn has such great angles, such deep eyes.”

On the plus side, Badgley’s good looks made it possible for Joe to engage in behaviors that would alienate an audience if wrapped in a less-attractive package. (Sad but true: On television, as in life, pretty people get away with things the merely average-looking cannot.) But in the wrong light — or with a five o’clock shadow — a man with chiseled features like Badgley’s can start to read as sketchy rather than stunning.

Todd Kleitsch, the production’s lead makeup artist, has a formula for making an actor look like the kind of guy you’d cross the street to avoid: “You put some down lighting on him, and give him days of scruff, and put dark circles under his eyes, and there’s your creeper.” So for You, he leaned in the opposite direction: “It’s a more natural look. Penn has such a handsome face that it would be hard to improve on that. We just played with the level of beard tone so that he looked as approachable as possible.”

But when it was time to give viewers a glimpse of the sinister darkness lurking inside the hopeless romantic, all Joe had to do was bare his teeth — literally. “Penn is a little like Johnny Depp. His smile without teeth is devastatingly handsome. But with teeth, it’s not this dazzling, sparkly, perfect Hollywood smile that we’ve become accustomed to,” Krieger said.

That toothy grin, just a little bit vulpine, is the only crack in Joe’s chivalrous veneer for nearly the entirety of the first episode. It’s only after an hour of meeting-cute (and a little light stalking) that the mask fully comes off, when we see Joe in the bookstore basement setting that was constructed to make his chiseled features look skeletal. “The design is such that people can only look creepy,” says Mott Hupfel, the DP on the show’s latter eight episodes. “Nothing good ever happens in the basement.”

Building a sympathetic perspective

A good-looking guy in a rose-colored romantic fantasy is how You sets its stage. But as the story goes to increasingly dark places, the show employs a few manipulative tricks to keep you on Joe’s side.

“A lot of the credit goes to Sera [Gamble] and Greg [Berlanti],” says Krieger, referring to the series’s creators. They created a new character in the form of Paco, the neighbor boy to whom Joe is a confidant and a hero — “He’s our classical save-the-cat kind of idea.”

The Paco scenes became vital as the show went dark. Marcos Siega, who directed the last eight episodes, paid special attention to camera angles: “When I would shoot Penn, it was from Paco’s point of view. To make him the strong figure, the big brother.”

Siega also steered the show back to its romantic roots in the aftermath of its most violent scenes, which is why Joe’s first onscreen murder (and subsequent body disposal) are interstitched with scenes that feel straight out of a rom-com. “You can win the audience back,” he says.

And when necessary, you can also wink at them, just to let them know that it’s all under control. One of You’s best visual jokes comes in the episode where Beck reclines in a bathtub, not realizing her friend Peach is watching her. That’s when Joe begins monologuing in a judgmental voice-over about Peach’s creepy loitering — even as the camera swings around to show him peering out from inside the closet behind Peach’s hallway hiding place. She’s peeping, he’s peeping, and, hey, we’re peeping at the peepers. It’s a triple-peep! A meta-peep!

“We put that bathtub in that space so that I could get that shot,” Siega says. “It gives you a sense of being there with him, watching them.”

The moment of levity helps release some tension, but it also makes you complicit. You’re right there with Joe. You’re laughing. You hope he doesn’t get caught.

As You, the series, rushes toward its bloody denouement, you, the viewer, have been inside Joe’s head long enough to sympathize with him in spite of yourself. That loss of perspective is just what Krieger wanted to accomplish. “I think there’s a part of all of us that finds something intrinsically exciting and romantic about a person who will go to any lengths to be with you,” he says. “It’s John Cusack on the lawn with the boom box, or Rob Pattinson in Twilight sneaking through the window. If you take that character and you just turn the dial up one or two notches, suddenly showing up on your lawn with a stereo is creepy. What we’ve tried to do is find that line.”

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How You Transformed Penn Badgley Into a Creepy Dreamboat