A Cut Above. When engaged in conversation with Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley, you are quick to realize that you’re not talking with just any teen heartthrob. This one is polished and refined, and not just in his good looks either.
From his growing collection of vintage vinyl jazz records to his eloquently stated personal goals and ambitions, it is clear that Badgley views his life through a rarefied lens that demonstrates maturity well beyond his age. Over the past two years, Penn has become a household name on the strength of his portrayal of Dan Humphrey, the intellectually motivated foil to the cast of Upper East Side socialites on hit TV show Gossip Girl, and now at the ripe old age of 22, Badgley is poised for even greater success. With a pair of feature films set for release over the next six months (The Stepfather, Easy A), Penn is on the brink of moving beyond television’s guiltiest pleasure to becoming one of the next young leading men in Hollywood. DA MAN was fortunate enough to sit down with Penn for a few minutes in his adopted hometown of New York City to catch up with the rising star. Neatly dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Penn showed up in his signature unassuming style, and he didn’t disappoint.
DA MAN: Hey Penn, how are you? What have you been up to recently in New York?
Penn Badgley: I’m good thanks, how are you? (laughs) I’ve been hanging out a bit on the Upper West Side of Manhattan recently; I really like the vibe up there. New York offers up so much, and whenever I wind up there after the opera or happen to be in the area, I always have a great time. The best days are always spent wandering the streets of a great neighborhood.
DA MAN: Sounds like fun! So, Gossip Girl is one of the most popular shows around the world. How did you get this gig and did you ever think it would be this popular?
Penn Badgley: It’s funny … when I was first offered the part, I respectfully declined! I had worked with Stephanie Savage (producer of Gossip Girl and The O.C.) on a series called The Mountain that ended up getting canceled, and she sent over the script for me to look over. I had done a few other teen shows on the same network and was looking for something new, so I said it wasn’t for me. A few months later, she came back and urged me to take another look at the script as the network hadn’t found their Dan Humphrey yet and we made a few basic changes to the character that made him a little closer to myself.
DA: Like what?
Penn Badgley: Well in the initial script, Dan was too desperate. Desperate for Serena, desperate for acceptance, he just wasn’t that strong of a character. I like to think I gave him a quiet confidence to go along with some of that insecurity. Now, I think he’s one of the strongest-willed (characters) on the show.
DA MAN: Does he have any faults?
Penn Badgley: Everyone will compromise their morals in the world of Gossip Girl, just to get from point A to point B in this crazy little bubble (he chuckles), but he’s pretty strong and confident.
DA MAN: How do you keep your character fresh?
Penn Badgley: I kind of fly by the seat of my pants. Too much worrying can burn you out, and as I have the ability to learn my lines very quickly, I don’t do too much preparation. I guess I’d call it a respectful lack of preparation.
DA MAN: Gossip Girl is notorious here in New York for attracting tons of attention while shooting on location; how do you deal with the phenomenon here in the city?
Penn Badgley: You take it in stride. This might sound jaded, but you adapt to it pretty quickly … it’s not something I think about so much anymore. With modern celebrity and the way the media is so hypersensitive these days, you can’t afford to think about it all the time.
DA MAN: But come on … there has to be a crazy story from shooting that you can’t forget, right?
Penn Badgley: Well during the first season, after we’d premiered, we were shooting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there were about 500 people watching. People would applaud after every take, as if it were on Broadway or something. This was the first day we had bodyguards, but we only had one each, and my trailer was parked a few blocks away. All these girls were gathering outside and before I knew it I was pressed up against a chain-link fence with a hoard of girls begging me for my autograph. Thankfully, my bodyguard grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the rapids!
DA MAN: What do you think makes the show relatable to so many people?
Penn Badgley: People are always attracted to shows about teenagers. The books also definitely helped in getting teen girls frothing at the mouth for anything Gossip Girl. But you take a seed of realism, wrap it in the escapism of unimaginable wealth and privilege and beauty and suddenly you have a show that appeals to familiar relationships and fantasy.
DA MAN: So what’s the coolest part about being successful in New York?
Penn Badgley: It’s all a double-edged sword. With Blake (Lively, his costar and real-life girlfriend) and I, there’s definitely the perks of being a celebrity and getting a table anywhere you want and not having to worry about how much the drinks cost, but you can also focus on the negative side and how the paparazzi are the lowest scum on the planet—which they are.
DA MAN: Speaking of the paparazzi, what’s it like dating Blake and having a personal life in the spotlight?
Penn Badgley: We don’t talk about it much, but we have a special bond. Doing what we’re doing, it can be a potentially dangerous thing, but we have something that was worth the risk and have a great trust and passion for each other. And, (he pauses) we can make it work.
DA MAN: Living in New York where the show is set, do you feel like your off-screen celebrity is tied to you staying in the city? Do you feel like a big fish in a little pond?
Penn Badgley: I feel like a big fish in a big pond! In L.A, if you have a modicum of fame, they’re all over you. New York doesn’t open its doors to just anybody, so if you can make it here, you can definitely make it there.
DA MAN: So, where do you see yourself in five years?
Penn Badgley: No idea. I’d love to be in New York, to see change and everything President Obama promised. I’d actually say that music is my first passion creatively, though my goal isn’t to have a record deal or make an album. I just want to become a fully trained musician and play live under a different name.
DA MAN: What is your most valued possession?
Penn Badgley: Definitely my turntables and my record collection. I have over 300 vintage records with me now!
DA MAN: And finally, what is your life motto?
Penn Badgley: Ugh…..I have absolutely no idea!
Photographs: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
To see the full feature with more full-size images, click here for the DA MAN October/November 2009 back issue.
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