Penn Badgley Keeps 'You' on Your Toes in Lifetime's Stalker Series (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
On paper, You could've been a nightmare to bring to the small screen.
Based on the Caroline Kepnes novel, the story tracks the inner thoughts and motivations of Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley, best known for playing Gossip Girl's Dan Humphrey), a seemingly nice bookstore manager who quickly becomes obsessed with one of his customers, poetry grad student Beck (Elizabeth Lail). He goes to great lengths to find out anything he can about her -- we're talking Instagram stalking, following her home to her curtain-less NYC flat, tracking her boyfriend's whereabouts -- while also wooing her as he creates the ultimate facade as The Ideal Boyfriend she simply can't say no to.
It's easy to have a story like this, which revolves around a boy stalking a girl, veer into uncomfortable, even controversial, territory. But the Lifetime drama -- which kicks off its 10-episode first season on Sunday -- has somehow found a delicate balance, embracing the overt creepiness of the premise by turning it on its head and relishing in the pure insanity stemming from Joe's brain.
"There are going to be some young fans [and] viewers watching. The work should always speak for itself, but we also need to think about how we speak for it and we’re learning that right now -- to make sure that our younger viewers, if they are watching, how do we create the right context for them? Because so much of the show is potentially problematic," Badgley acknowledges in a sit-down with ET. Trust us, it gets nutty fast.
Ahead of You's premiere, the 31-year-old actor gets candid about why he still has issues with Joe, why he doesn't care if audiences think he's playing another version of Dan Humphrey and why he has no clue how the show will approach its second season.
ET: Do you see You as being a different role for you?
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I do, in that we see you lean into the darkness in a more explicit way through the character of Joe Goldberg. You’ve been known to play nice guys, boy-next-door types; on the surface, Joe is that but we quickly see that he’s also very much not.
It twists even more than you think from [episodes] six through 10. [That’s] when I feel like I discovered the role. When I read the sixth script, it put me in a hard place and shooting it was this crazy experience where it was kind of like, “With fire, we test the gold.” Joe’s behavior was so twisted -- his own sense of morality and humanity was so gone -- that having to embody that, it’s like he repulsed me but then I had to put him on and be him. I just had this great time with it in this way that I did not expect at all. So then I discovered what it really meant to be Joe as an actor.
You’ve been vocal about how difficult it was for you to understand Joe’s motivations while you were making the first season because you didn’t agree with everything he did. How did you reconcile that?
I still don’t know, to be honest. That was just the struggle as an actor, and hopefully, that’s what makes it a rich performance. I know that I struggled throughout. There are times where I see it where I go, “Hmm… I wish…” When you’re struggling that much with a character that much, it’s hard to maintain consistently over 10 episodes at all times. There are moments throughout where I’m like, hmm, I understand it better now, I wish I could have done something different. Overall, I believe in the performance and I believe in the show. But I think I’m still discovering Joe. Honestly, the idea of doing a second season, I’m like, what’s that going to be like? It’s not like anything I’ve done before. It’s fluid but it’s different.
Do you see this role as getting you outside that box that Hollywood had pegged you in?
If that ends up being what it is, that’s great. I also have learned, if anything, that you can’t control how audiences see something and how they interpret it and how they see you. What I’d like decades from now is for my work to ultimately speak for itself. But if this happens to be something that helps people to see me as other than Dan, but they still won’t know me. So what does that mean? Whether they think I’m Dan or Joe or anybody else I play, it’s not actually who I am. I’m less concerned about that.
It has this addictive quality to it and there are even moments when Joe, who is a troubled and incredibly flawed character, becomes a person who a viewer may find themselves rooting for or even empathizing with -- even though he's doing some pretty awful things.
The question really does become: What time are we in? What moment are we in that we find this so compelling? I'm not saying it's bad to find it compelling, but what is it that people like so much? I think with this show, we have the opportunity to explore and we don't necessarily have to feel bad about it, but we should be asking the question. And then there's this other part, where Joe demands that we recognize where we have been operating under faulty logic. Like, "Oh yeah, I was kinda doing it. I just wasn't doing what he did." How disingenuous is it for me to feel so far from how he's behaving if I'm at the trail-head -- he's much further down and he went off on a detour and he's lost in the woods -- and maybe I should just not be here at all. Maybe I should be at a different park. It's an interesting idea. It's an interesting part of this conversation about why we might like Joe, what we find about him that is relatable. In a way, he's trying to be the kind of man that he's seen in movies. He's also threatened by the kind of man he thinks he's meant to be, in terms of a brooding, brutish man; strong, cold predator, more or less. How predatory are the male icons we've loved for decades? He's threatened by the male archetype and then he tries to embody it, and he's sorely mistaken on both counts. But there is a point where I can't blame him and then past that point, he must be blamed.
Could part of it be because you're playing Joe?
I hope it's not just because I'm playing him. I hope there's some more integral reason why he's likable.
The show relies heavily on your voice-over, as it's the audience's way into Joe's mind. How did you approach that part of the role?
In the very beginning, when I was preparing for the role, I actually thought of his thoughts as the place where he gets to pirouette around himself. It's like the Joker and the Witness. It's like every side of him. In my mind, it's not just this calm, low-key [thing]... so at the first table read, out of necessity to have shades of that later on, I was doing it in this way that was making the director really nervous. When we took a break, he came over and was like, [whispers] "Penn, can you just try for something a little different?" I was almost making it like, at points, like slapstick comedy. I think he enjoys his thoughts.
Is this the least comfortable you've been in a role? Just speaking to you, it seems like you're still trying to figure Joe out.
I'm actually more comfortable in this way. I like this. This is what acting is to me. What makes me uncomfortable is when it's mindless and easy, and no job has ever started out mindless and easy. When you do something long enough... And by the way, that's not even -- I shouldn't even attribute to the project as much as my own discipline. I think it's very hard to remain disciplined after four or five years of being on something. To me, this demands me to be at attention at all times that nothing has before that at least lasted as long as Gossip Girl.
Where is this show going to go over time? I don’t think anybody can answer that right now. In fact, I know even [executive producers] Greg [Berlanti] and Sera [Gamble] doesn’t know what the second season looks like entirely. I have said all along, to me there are certain things that need to upheld about Joe that -- if we want any longevity for the character -- so that at the beginning of the second season, it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, we’re kinda doing the same thing over again.” We haven’t gotten there yet, so I don’t know. (Laughs.) So much of this has to do with how much people think when they see it.
You premieres Sunday, Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.