For Penn Badgley, 'You' (Anti-)Hero Is a Work in Progress (Exclusive)

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Penn Badgley
Lifetime/Getty Images

Penn Badgley delivered one of ET's Standout Performances of the season for his role as Joe Goldberg on You.

For the better part of a year, Penn Badgley has made the rounds dissecting, discussing and more recently, tweeting about You. The provocative psychological thriller, adapted from the best-selling Caroline Kepnes novel, explores bookstore manager Joe Goldberg, and his growing lust over a girl, Beck, that becomes deadly rather than romantic. Originally a Lifetime series, where it saw limited success last fall, the move to Netflix months later paid off almost immediately. You blew up. “We expected some burst of viewership on Netflix, but we couldn’t have anticipated that it would be to the degree that it was. It really seemed to sweep people up for a moment,” Badgley says, a hint of astonishment evident in his voice.

It’s late afternoon on Mother’s Day and Badgley, 32, is in the car on his way to meet his mother for dinner at a Los Angeles restaurant when he calls to chat about You and the growing dialogue surrounding it. For the next half hour, the conversation flows from the public’s “fascinating” obsession (ahem, thirst culture) with Badgley’s controversial (anti-)hero to the unexpected companionship he sometimes feels with Joe to the disturbing circumstances of, spoiler alert, Beck’s violent death that still haunts him to this day. Definitely not comfortable dinner topics to tackle with mom.

“It’s been gratifying to see the sensitive and intelligent conversations around this character and around this show, whether it’s a journalist in an interview or somebody on the street who’s seen the show and enjoyed my performance,” says Badgley, who’s utilized You and its exploration into toxic masculinity (albeit through more salacious means), as a tool to bring to the forefront the standards by which white men are held. “I’m appreciating that because it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. With a show like ours and a role like this, we could have really fallen flat on our faces, you know what I mean?”

But not everyone has engaged in that way with the character, who resorts to killing in pursuit of his flawed ideation of love. Scan Twitter long enough and you’ll come across various tweets from viewers remarking on how “attractive” Joe is or asking Badgley to “kidnap” them, a la his character. (In response to the romanticization of Joe, Badgley reminded fans in January that the character is, to put it bluntly, “a murderer.”) It’s a reality Badgley, who uses his social media accounts as platforms to incite action and awareness on real-world issues like the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or reuniting separated immigrant families, has had to adjust to several times over. 

“We, as the creators of the show, and me, as the actor, certainly want to take responsibility for him being likable in the way that he is,” he acknowledges. “I don’t want to just say that it’s problematic and that the viewers themselves have a problematic reaction, I think what’s inspiring about it is that at a time when we’re striving for the empowerment of women and for the equality of men and women, that we are also simultaneously able to be transfixed and charmed by a character like Joe. It speaks to how deeply ingrained a lot of these standards and norms are where we love to see a guy behaving like him. In a way, Joe is a great cultural touchpoint to say, ‘We still have a lot of work to do.’” 

You
Netflix

The former Gossip Girl star, who is three months deep into production on season two when we connect over the phone, admits he’s still “learning, alongside everyone else,” about the catalysts that drive Joe to the swallows of darkness, though he has a “better understanding” why he’s being received the way he is -- more so than he did the first season. “What is it about Joe Goldberg?” Badgley asks, mostly to himself. “I felt like with every interview I was actually learning something myself. I think that will continue when the second season comes out because it does change and it is more expansive.”

It doesn’t take much for Badgley to compartmentalize Joe, the character, from Penn, the person. The trick to separating the two, he says, is to treat Joe like an everyday person walking down the street, as screwed up as that may be. “I really focus on his curiosity, his sensitivity and his investigative nature,” the actor says, instead of zeroing in on the macro of it all -- the fact that he’s a psychopathic killer with dubious intentions. “He’s a fixer. He’s a hero in his mind, so he strives to do all of those things and he’ll use whatever means he can to get to the end that he believes is right.” 

Badgley has been vocal about the difficulties he had reconciling Joe’s many unforgivable acts. His perspective hasn’t changed, but now there’s an added layer to it. “I see inconsistencies in Joe because he’s very specifically not meant to be a clinical portrayal of a serial killer,” Badgley observes, pointing to Netflix’s Mindhunter as serving that purpose. “He’s meant to be an embodiment of the many ideas we have about men and women, and romance and love.” He pauses, almost as if he’s conceding to the contradictions that belie Joe. “But then as a character, I see him as a real honest human being trying to love. As an actor, it’s often dangerous to think about your characters that way, but I feel like, with Joe, it’s somehow a necessary dimension of it.”

If you ask him to revisit the “kill” that still haunts him the most from the first season, Badgley is quick with his answer: “Beck’s death, even though it didn’t happen on camera.” After a flurry of sensational twists and turns, Beck discovers Joe’s true murderous ways in the finale, which leads to her furious attempt at escaping the locked bookstore basement only to be overwhelmed by Joe, who abruptly pulls her back. Presumably down the stairs, ready to inflict the fatal blow (or neck twist?). 

“There’s a revisitation of that with Joe in the second episode of the second season, where you get to see a bit more of the hard reality of what he did to her,” Badgley hints, “whereas you’re sort of, for better or worse, mercifully saved from seeing that in the first season. That always haunts me, thinking of Beck. It’s like, ‘You really did that in the first season, and we’re still going, and people really like this guy?!’ That’s disturbing. In his mind, she’s not even dead.” He stops for a moment, feeling the need to clarify what he just said, so as not to start any ill-advised rumors. “I’m not giving you some kind of spoiler, she’s dead. In his mind, everyone’s still alive because the pain that he feels he suffered at their hand is very much still alive.”

For Badgley, the most disturbing scenes aren’t the ones where Joe inflicts violent terror, they’re usually the moments afterward, where the consequences are laid bare. “It’s the ones where I’m trying to embody Joe really living in that house, really having these rare moments of coming to terms with what he’s done, and that’s far more difficult than committing a certain act in a moment, whether it’s hitting Shay Mitchell over the head with a rock or stabbing someone in the neck,” he muses. “There are some things I’ve done with prosthetic bodies in this [new] season that were kind of nauseating as I did them, I will say that.”

You
Netflix

When You briefly delved into Joe’s childhood in a past episode, revealing the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mentor and father figure, bookstore owner Mr. Mooney, it would have been feasible for someone to be faced with a moral quandary: Am I supposed to feel bad now? Badgley, though, is adamant Joe’s tragic upbringing doesn’t absolve him -- not even a little -- of the horrific things he’s done since. “This is a person who’s unconsciously and sometimes consciously repeating patterns of abuse and trauma. Joe causes the viewer to reflect more on themselves and wonder, ‘Why do I like this guy so much no matter what he does?’ I feel like what I hear from a lot of people is, ‘What is wrong with me?’ They’re not asking what’s wrong with him and I like that. If a piece of art you’re a part of can inspire that kind of reflection, that’s interesting.”

Based on Kepnes’ sequel novel, Hidden Bodies, anticipation for the sophomore run has been steadily building over the past few months. The actor isn’t worrying about living up to whatever those expectations may be. “If you think about that too much, it’s just death to your performance,” Badgley says, uninterested in dwelling on the point. Even so, he does share that the first two episodes are “apparently testing very well,” clearly a point of satisfaction for him. 

What he will say about the new season is that much of the DNA that made You addictive still remains intact. Characters may be able to swear more and do more outrageous things, but the series won’t “cross the line aggressively,” as Badgley puts it, just because it’s on a less restrictive platform. “There are certain liberties we’re now able to take, but it’s very much the same show.” 

With the action moving from New York City to L.A., a new woman will catch Joe’s eye, aspiring chef Love Quinn, played by The Haunting of Hill House’s Victoria Pedretti. “I’m really excited for people to get to know Love. She adds a dimension that hasn’t existed yet,” Badgley previews. “There’s a side to Joe that we haven’t seen yet because her character, in some ways, is the polar opposite of Beck.” 

“Joe was always trying to get Beck’s attention, sort of almost against her own instincts and will, whereas Joe is trying to be better. And Love won’t let him say ‘no’ to her, even though he’s trying desperately,” he adds. “It’s very different between Joe and Love than it was with Beck, and thank god, because you can’t do that again. That would just be brutal. To me, that would be irresponsible if we did the same thing again.”

While fans await the next chapter in the Joe Goldberg saga, Badgley is doing his best to keep the noise at bay and focusing on the work. “It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. He’s a lot to take on,” he says, calling it an “all-encompassing experience.” “Like, I threw my back out on Friday just for this one particular scene,” conveniently leaving out the details. 

"There's something about his mind that I understand. The more natural and comfortable I become in his shoes, the more practice I get in performing all the mental and emotional gymnastics to make his actions just in my mind," he adds. "It can sometimes be an insular experience because he’s often telling three different lies in one scene, and they’re profound lies. To some degree, it can be quite an isolating experience.”

“I feel like Joe is a weird portal for me where, even though I take to it a little bit like a fish to water, the water is extremely polluted,” Badgley concedes, “and I don't want to stay in it any longer than I have to."

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