Why Penn Badgley ‘fell in love’ with his creepy character in ‘You’
Has Penn Badgley done anything crazy for love? That question came up unsurprisingly when the 32-year-old actor-singer, who plays troubled bookstore manager Joe Goldberg in the first season of Netflix’s romantic thriller “You,” faced the Philippine press at the Peninsula Manila early this week.
“Getting married (laughs) … and staying married? What else could be crazier than that?” he quipped “Well, in America, at least, people think it’s crazier than elsewhere.” (Penn married his wife, singer Domino Kirke, two years ago.)
The actor and his Fil-Canadian costar Shay Mitchell was in town to promote the show, meet their avid Filipino followers in a fan event, sample halo-halo and other Pinoy delicacies, and pose beside a jeepney.
Penn, who was struggling with jetlag during the interview, surmised that what could have made him a snug fit for the role was that he was actually very far from Joe. He said, “For a person in my position, I’m not what you’d think in terms of romance. I’ve not really been with many people.
“I don’t know if I’m more horrified by Joe than other people, but sometimes, I might be. To some degree, we all can identify with the way he thinks; we just don’t act on our impulses.”
There was something about Joe’s ambiguity that he found truly challenging, Penn said: “I was always questioning what we were doing. There were a lot of difficult scenes, but the last episode was particularly hard to do, for obvious reasons.
“There were scenes that were particularly troubling because of their explicit nature. Like, when I was masturbating outside Beck’s (played by Elizabeth Lail) apartment. They wanted me to close my eyes, and I said, ‘No. Why?’ And they said, ‘Because it’s too creepy when you do it with your eyes open. I answered, ‘What exactly are we doing? What do you mean it’s too creepy?’
“Finding the balance between making him relatable and creepy at the same time wasn’t easy. It makes me think that maybe I didn’t do a great job balancing those, because it seems like everybody loves Joe! But I was always questioning his actions.
“During the shoot, I was relying on [the feedback of] the women around me, like (producer) Sera Gamble, Elizabeth and the directors of the show.
“I’ve always wanted to make Joe creepier. At one point, I was even thinking of not making him human at all … just an ugly monster. Then, they would say, ‘Can you not do that?’
“Later, I realized that the most responsible thing to do was to make [his motivations] human, so that people are troubled by how much of what he does they can identify with and [to what extent they can] forgive him.
“Did [Beck] deserve what Joe did to her? No! In no other world can her fate be justified, except perhaps in the [fictional] world Joe inhabits. And I think if we cross the line, people will hold us accountable.”
In terms of characterization, Penn did find something likable about Joe. “The thing that I like the most about him is that he’s … fictional (laughs),” he enthused. “And because of how likable he is, he’s inspiring a deeper conversation around the contentious themes of the show.
“So, I tried to fall in love with Joe’s curiosity and his intense longing for connection. They’re probably not good enough for other people, but I was able to focus on those characteristics.”
The dashing actor looked genuinely pleased—and a little relieved—when we told him that, other than the act of committing murder, his scenes with Elizabeth made us question how far we’d go for the people we love.
“It makes me happy to hear that,” Penn told us with a smile. “It tells me that we’re doing something right. Basically, what the show does is take every romantic trope, every stereotype, every cliché, then follow that logic all the way to its end.
“But what Joe feels isn’t really love. It’s an obsession, it’s lust, it’s infatuation. It’s also possession, abuse and manipulation. Love doesn’t take people in that direction. So, what the conversation the show is entering into is how people define love.
“Love is not those feelings we often associate it with. Love is the way you discipline a child, or take care of a parent, or console a friend. “Love isn’t sex; we just equate it with sex. ‘You’ helps that conversation move along.”
When we asked Penn what his biggest hurdle was while he was working on his portrayal of Joe, he admitted, “I’m still getting over it, honestly—which is probably why people are looking forward to the second season of ‘You.’
“You know, this whole experience is enriching for me. It’s like when you’re being chastised by your parent—while you don’t really enjoy it in the moment, you nevertheless learn from it. You appreciate it later and say, ‘That was good for me.’ That’s the kind of experience I’m having with Joe. It’s not necessarily enjoyable, but its enriching because I’m coming to understand things better.”
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