By: Jackson McHenry
Penn Badgley spends a lot of time thinking about a just end for the serial killer he plays on TV, if justice were ever to exist in the universe of You. His character is Joe Goldberg, a bookish, seemingly nice guy who has a habit of stalking and killing the women he loves and anyone who gets in his way. So far, Joe has eluded any attempts to thwart his bloodshed, slipping from a literary New York in the first season to a health-food-and-crystals Los Angeles in the second. When You returns for its third season this October, Joe is a golly-gee young father living in a fictional Bay Area suburb populated by tech billionaires, anti-vaxxers, and mommy bloggers. His new wife, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), is just as willing to kill for love as Joe is, but his violent tendencies remain unsated. “When we watch a character like Joe, do we want him to pay?” Badgley muses. “Do we want retribution? Do we want vengeance?”
We’re eating grain bowls by the Hudson in lower Manhattan on a sweltering, 90-plus-degree August day. Badgley, 34, is wearing a black shirt and boots, his beard slightly overgrown and his hair slightly tangled. Since the pandemic began, like many other 30-something Brooklynites, Badgley has left the city — moving first to L.A. and then upstate — and started to acquaint himself with prison-abolitionist thinking. In the past, Badgley says, he had a glib go-to answer for how he’d like to see Joe go out: A Black woman should kill him, an easy liberal revenge fantasy. “But it’s not fair to do that to that woman,” he admits. “Punishment is important, but what form of punishment is actually effective? With Joe, the irony is that death is almost too easy for him.” Badgley has weighed it all out: Maybe Joe could be tortured (“He deserves it, but does someone deserve to have to do it?”). Maybe he just deserves to be eternally miserable (“But he already is miserable”). The actor is prone to existential musing, shifting the premise of a standard interview into an ethics seminar. “It’s a strange question to ask because I really don’t know,” he says, “and this show isn’t going to answer that question.”
What Joe gets away with simply because he looks like a nice white man is pretty much You’s central conceit. The first season, which premiered on Lifetime in 2018 and was based on Caroline Kepnes’s novel of the same name, plays on all the standard tropes of the misfit guy longing for love and inspired people on social media to lust after a handsome murderer, sometimes in exaggerated, potentially ironic terms. The show struggled to find a bigger audience until it moved to Netflix that December, perfectly portioned, it turns out, to be downed in a weekend-long gulp. Badgley is partly to blame for the attention. When his beard is shaved, it reveals finely etched cheekbones that land somewhere between corundum and diamond on the Mohs’ hardness scale, and his brow furrows over deep brown eyes that convey all sorts of Sturm und Drang. “He brings with him the vibe of what Joe says he is on paper,” Sera Gamble, the show’s creator and showrunner, told me. “There’s an innocence to him where he believes in the good of people.” She and executive producer Greg Berlanti had to persuade Badgley to take the part, promising him that they would be responsible in their portrayal. “He’s capable of plumbing those depths and going there, but he was initially
I don’t think repulsed would be too strong a word.”
Badgley admits that he detests Joe. He doesn’t want viewers to root for him; he wants to push them toward a deeper consideration of You’s themes and the societal myths that allow men like Joe to get away with violence toward women. Badgley plays him as a winsome Everyman when forced to talk to other people but drops into a weasel-like scowl as soon as he knows no one’s watching or gets too impatient to control his impulses. One can enjoy You as a deconstruction of romantic clichés or ignore that and just gaze at the protagonist. Badgley still tries to engage those who do the latter. In response to a sudden deluge of tweets from fans begging Joe to lock them inside his murder cage, Badgley attempted to shift the conversation: “You’re supposed to see past my face to the crazy shit!”
It’s not the first time he has been the subject of obsession: Badgley entered the maelstrom in 2007 when he was cast at age 20 in the original Gossip Girl adaptation. He played Dan Humphrey, the Brooklyn “lonely boy” who enmeshes himself in the privileged lives of the Upper East Siders by dating golden girl Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively). This was another role Badgley nearly turned down; he had already done a succession of shows and pilots that didn’t quite hit and was worried that this would be the same. “Agreeing to be the focal point or part of an ensemble of something that’s going to be extremely high profile — I think anyone who’s acting like they don’t think about it is disingenuous,” he says. “And if they’re not [thinking about it], they should because it affects your life enormously. I don’t think the effects could be overstated.”
Badgley moved to Hollywood dreaming of that kind of breakout moment. He liked the craft of acting well enough, but at first, he says, he was really aiming for fame. “Otherwise, why are you going to Hollywood?” he asks. “But at 12 years old, you’re not grappling with the deeper moral implications.” Gossip Girl, never a massive ratings hit, nonetheless developed an intense fan base, and its voyeuristic premise seemed to invite speculation about the cast. (Badgley dated Lively in real life, a relationship tracked by tabloids and fans almost as closely as it was on the show.) He was unprepared for the intensity of the spotlight. “People were not talking about mental health then,” he says sardonically, “not in the celebrity sphere.”
He was college age while the show aired and, in an undergrad sort of way, on a search for direction in his life. Trying to find “something less fleeting than being on a billboard,” he says, he engaged in “a whole range of activities you can do” to find yourself in your 20s. On a trip to Colombia, he met a member of the Baha’i faith, and their friendship inspired Badgley’s devotion to the religion, which espouses equality regardless of race or gender, among other things; he identifies as Baha’i today. That search for meaning, he says, informs some of the other projects he has been working on during the pandemic; he’s trying to claim more control over his roles through producing. Those works are still in their infancy, and he stays vague about any details, though he implies that they will be more esoteric than the sudsy fare he’s known for. He references the director Terrence Malick as one inspiration.
Badgley hasn’t watched the recent HBO Max Gossip Girl reboot. “The truth is I barely watch anything,” he says. (He and his wife, Domino Kirke, sister to Girls star Jemima, have only recently had time for Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. “We want to watch something that’s hopeful.”) He’s only dimly aware of the new premise, which involves a group of teachers led by Tavi Gevinson reviving the anonymous gossip account on Instagram. I suggest he reach out to Gevinson, since his character was revealed to be behind the account in the original run; he just laughs. When I mention that Kristen Bell is back as the voice of Gossip Girl, he says, “Technically, I’m Gossip Girl, but she’s really her.”
Even though Dan did turn out to be a sociopath in running a gossip site about all his friends, Joe is the more complex role. After two seasons focusing on the delusions of courtship, season three of You explores the delusions of marriage, with Joe and his wife alternately betraying and defending each other. Their ever-shifting power dynamic gives this season a burst of creative energy as Joe and Love are caught in games of cat and mouse.
The suburbs are uncertain territory for Joe, but the character’s new fatherhood gave Badgley something to latch on to: Kirke, a doula, gave birth to their son last August. Joe’s an apprehensive father, and his need to protect his son drives many of his actions this season — yes, sometimes to violent ends. “We would often joke on set that I was Method for having a baby on the same timeline,” Badgley says, “and there were moments when sharing that experience was helpful. Though I found it hard to connect to his fears, because I was and still am having a joyful experience with my son.”
We get up to walk along the river, both of us a little woozy from the heat. Badgley ruminates on whether You’s concept will still click with viewers. “We’re all thinking a lot about the state of the world and our lives’ impact on it,” he says. “When you’re a very visible person, you have to think about it.” I’m struck by the way he says “very visible person,” as if his fame were this other thing that follows him around. You is also popular outside the U.S., especially in the Philippines: He describes visiting Manila for a Netflix press tour after the first season premiered on the streamer, facing far larger crowds than he had ever been used to and experiencing “a visceral feeling of not just celebrity — and I don’t know what that word really means — but adulation, or attention, of so many people at once,” he says. He sounds dismayed as he talks about that all-eyes-on-you sensation; he adds that he hopes celebrities will become less important post-pandemic. It’s as if he wants to bring justice down on the concept of fame, if only he could figure out how.