AGAINST ALL ODDS – Penn Badgley sheds some light into one of the most subversive shows on TV right now: the creepily awesome “You”
Some actors start their careers at a young age. Penn Badgley “was a professional at 12.” his first TV appearance was in an episode of “Will & Grace,” back in 1999. The next year he would step into the big screen and became a household name as the lead in “John Tucker Must Die” six years later. Of course, his TV adventures would continue, most notably in the uber-popular teen drama “Gossip Girl.” Right now, however, he’s making waves in “You,” a psychological thriller that deals with such modern-day horrors as online stalking through social media. Picking the brains of somebody playing the lead role in a show like this definitely promised to be quite a ride—and Badgley certainly didn’t dissapoint.
DAMAN: Around now, the last episodes of the first season of “You” have just started airing. Since some of our readers might be unfamiliar with the title, can you give us a brief rundown of “You” and your role in it?
Penn Badgley: it’s a subversive show—somehow in a particular way that i feel i haven’t seen before. it very much plays into being exactly what you think it might be: a frothy, binge-worthy thriller where boy meets girl, boy stalks girl, starring “Gossip Girl,” no less … and it lures you in. Then it sort of skewers you along with the concept and the social norms that support such a familiar narrative. it does so in this way that is intelligent and self-aware but not condescending to the viewer because it is also, oddly, fun. it’s nimble. The writers have done a fantastic job, and everyone else really did their part along the way because the whole thing could otherwise fall very flat.
DA MAN: In your opinion, what would be the number one reason to get into the show for anyone who missed the initial broadcast?
Penn Badgley: I really can’t say. Me? if they’re reading this interview chances are it might be me, whether that’s reasonable or not. I personally cringe when i watch it. But, that’s just me.
DA MAN: Your character in “You” is basically a stalker. What’s your secret to portray somebody like that in a convincing way?
Penn Badgley: Never thinking of him as a stalker when i’m in it. he’s a human striving for things, desiring things. i personally detest him as a human, but he’s human. i always tried to keep his humanity in mind, so I couldn’t reduce him and fall into typical habits or beliefs about how he might do something.
DA MAN: “You” tackles a problem that really gets under your skin. Are there any particular parts of the story that made you feel especially uncomfortable?
Penn Badgley: Yeah. The whole thing, really. I was extremely uncomfortable with Joe. He masturbates in public, he judges people incessantly … and he murders people. He’s not just a stalker. This is no secret. This does not seem to bother other people enough, however. That’s what is so strange to me.
DA MAN: Is there a lesson to be learned from “You”?
Penn Badgley: Maybe we’re learning it together. It’s a bit of a social experiment, gauging reactions to this show. The lessons i learned over an entire season of shooting were deep, but they’re not the same lessons a viewer might walk away with.
DA MAN: How would you describe your own personal relationship with social media?
Penn Badgley: Divorced, but we have joint custody.
DA MAN: Personally, how do you deal with the less-than-savory aspects of social media? Even if you don’t have an actual stalker following you, nasty comments and pesky trolls are basically ubiquitous in today’s online scene, right?
Penn Badgley: Yeah. Lots of prayer and meditation. This is true for all things. Prayer and meditation are foundations of living.
DA MAN: All that being said, do you think that having a strong social media presence is important for somebody in your line of work?
Penn Badgley: I really can’t tell, at this point. Social forces are great and complex, and people with fame are influential, yes, but I worry that we greatly underestimate the capacity of the individual who is not famous. Fame is a dark horse. I am very wary of it.
DA MAN: Back to “You,” and to put things on a more positive note, what would you say is the best part of being on the show?
Penn Badgley: it was an enriching experience for me, as i said. i’m still learning because of how much the character troubles me, and how much people like him.
DA MAN: What was it that first drew you to the show?
Penn Badgley: At first, i was disturbed. The book was too much for me. i have always been able to appreciate the project, as a whole, as compelling. But playing Joe is not like playing anyone else or doing any other job on set. it was pretty grim at points. What convinced me were my conversations with Greg and Sera [show producers Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble]. They were honest, intelligent. They helped me see the special sensibility this show has, and i am coming to appreciate that more and more. it’s very different while feeling familiar enough that you aren’t alienated as a viewer.
DA MAN: Today, the market is saturated with high quality series; yet “You” still manages to not only stand out but also gain high approval ratings. What do you think is the key behind the show’s success and acceptance?
Penn Badgley: That’s the original concept by Caroline Kepnes translated by masters of the craft, Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble. They’re all very cunning. Like i said, the more i see of the show, the more i am impressed by the vision shared between these three people. They’re making it very easy to digest a tough, complex idea: That we’re all getting some very basic, fundamental ideas about human nature very wrong, particularly in terms of romantic love. Popular culture is too influential in how we behave in our most intimate relationships. it can, and does, lead to some really awful, toxic behavior. This is a chance to see the worst come alive, i think.
DA MAN: Are there any specific genres or roles that you want to explore more of in the future?
Penn Badgley: Playing Joe actually makes me tired of playing anyone. We just see too many people like me on camera. The sooner i get behind the lens, the better. i can’t say more than that.
DA MAN: Looking to the past a bit, however, what is your all-time favorite role?
Penn Badgley: Jeff Buckley [in 2012’s “Greetings from Tim Buckley”].
DA MAN: How about the one that really put you on the map? Which film or TV show was it that convinced you that you were definitely meant to be an actor?
Penn Badgley: Putting me “on the map” and convincing me that I am an actor are two very different things. “Gossip Girl” clearly put me on the map. Playing Jeff Buckley showed me what it was like to fuse creative joy and professional craft. it was then that i felt i could say definitively that I am an actor and that it felt good. But keep in mind I’ve been doing this, essentially, all my life. I was a professional at 12. So, I’ve never not felt like an actor. it’s feeling good about it that is a struggle sometimes.
DA MAN: When you’re not busy filming or otherwise working, how do you usually spend your time?
Penn Badgley: I love to read. I don’t have enough time for it. Studying historical events, people, philosophies, religions. If it’s not true, as the world is in such staggering pain, I don’t know what the point is—and I hold good fiction as true, but good fiction is not terribly common.
DA MAN: Last question: If a new actor came up to you and asked you for advice on how to make it in today’s entertainment scene, what would you tell him or her?
Penn Badgley: Get out. Run! Or, write and produce. Examine how much your desire to be known, to be famous, is intertwined with your desire to get into it. I actually do not recommend it to anyone. You will only succeed against astronomical odds, suffer constant rejection, and through means that demand you make sacrifices or compromises which no one can promise you will come back from. it’s a skewed system, this is no secret. it’s not a meritocracy and I don’t believe I would have chosen this path as an adult. I did this at a very young age. So, i guess if you want to make it, first you have to discard my suggestion that it’s nearly driven me crazy and that you probably can’t make it. That’s step one.
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