Penn Badgley Isn't Who 'You' Fans Think He Is

Penn Badgley is seated on a stool in a sparse photo studio surrounded by four women, all of whom are laughing at something the 34-year-old actor said. His hands wave about his face as he finishes his story with a smile; then, his gaze finds the camera, all precise angles and Burt Reynolds-esque pandemic beard. The room grows quiet again. 

The shoot continues in this way — Penn makes playful comments about his poses skewing "weird" before reminding us why he's famous with just one brooding stare. His years of experience in front of the camera betray him as he wonders aloud whether the reflection of the late September sunlight on the tile floor will impede the carefully balanced lighting. He knows exactly which D'Angelo album to add to the queue.

"Is he like Joe?" friends ask when I tell them about the interview, referring to his character on the wildly popular Netflix series, You. "He sounds just like Joe," our photo editor quipped after watching behind-the-scenes video of the shoot. Which, of course he does. Of course he seems like Joe, sounds like him, looks like him — this is the man who brought Joe to life, from the pages of the books by Caroline Kepnes that inspired the series, to the small screen, to the preoccupied minds of millions of fans who binge-watched the series during the pandemic. But I knew what they meant. Badgley knows what they meant, too. 

"When people wonder about Joe, I'm a little bit like, 'Guys, how many people has he killed?'" he says of the sociopathic murderer he's returning to for season 3 on Oct. 15. "'How far gone is he?'" 

Nonetheless, I find myself asking him about the power dynamics of Joe's relationship with his wife, Love (Victoria Pedretti). How would he view their marriage if they weren't murderous, if we just ignored Joe's worst instincts for obsessing, stalking, controlling? We could analyze the universal struggle to balance new parenthood with the needs of a partner, but to ignore that Love and Joe are violent, that Joe is calculating and Love impulsive, is to rob the show of its point (not to mention its sex appeal). Without the murder and the stalking, You's next season is just another show about a wealthy white family in Anytown, USA. Which isn't to say Badgley wants us to give the family a by.

"I am the least forgiving person in the world with Joe," says Badgley, who compares his character to "a person with deep narcissistic personality disorder and sociopathy." He adds, "He's clearly, to me, not a good husband. He's not a good father, but the ways that he's trying, I think are universal. His fear is probably pretty universal, [but] how he goes about responding to all that is so terrible, obviously." 

In a recent New York Times Magazine analysis of the most infamous modern day anti-hero, Tony Soprano, writer Willy Staley explains that Sopranos creator David Chase was "punishing his viewers for their trespasses against decency" — for their willingness to root for "an increasingly reprehensible Tony." In a similar way, Penn seems to be telling us not to overlook the awful aspects of Joe's character just because at times, he's, well, dreamy. He wants us to see through the chiseled jawline, the thick curls straight out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, the sinewy arms, the disarmingly expressive brown eyes …  where was I? 

Oh, right — I was asking Penn Badgley about Joe's attempts to be a "good husband" to Love. "That's a credit to you and your complexity and your desire for growth, not [Joe's]," he says. In reality, the actor says that Joe is deeply narcissistic, and merely mimics the behavior that makes women swoon in order to get what he wants. And we, as viewers fall for it again and again.

"The audience actually brings a lot to him," he continues, but Joe's "emotional sobriety" isn't actually there. "I don't see how a person like him could be expected to have any emotional sobriety, any behavior that would be anything other than completely and utterly self-serving," he continues. "To me, he's just sort of pandering to the audience in his mind when he says these things." 

He smiles. "But that's the point, right?" We've moved outdoors to a terrace overlooking the Hudson River. Helicopters roar overhead as Penn answers my questions thoughtfully, pausing occasionally for a bite of the salmon grain bowl his publicist brought him for lunch. 

In some ways, you can't blame fans for projecting a bit of Joe's faux charm onto Badgley. The third season of You opens with scenes of Joe and Love caring for a newborn in the midst of pandemic lockdown. Penn, too, welcomed a son, Boone, with wife Domino Kirke in August of 2020; they also share Cassius, Kirke's 12-year-old son from a previous relationship. As Joe contemplates how fatherhood has given a new objective to his life, Penn is also reflective of this moment in time. "I don't know what it's like to be at least a biological father outside of the pandemic," he admits. "It's just been us, my wife and I, taking care of him. And as a result, in some ways, we're thrilled, there's a beautiful joy and lightness to our connection with him. He seems to reflect that. And at the same time," he sighs, "it's so hard." 

Motherhood is a significant theme in You's latest season. The fictional Northern California town where Joe, Love, and baby Henry settle in is even called Madre Linda, which translates to "beautiful mother" from Spanish. The town is filled with well-to-do tech types who've left San Francisco for the suburbs, where they're free to pick up keto-friendly snacks at Love's new bakery and attend STEM-themed birthday parties for toddlers, complete with a miniature TED Talk stage — the perfect backdrop for the resident mommy blogger's IG grid. It's very Big Little Lies, but with less Laura Dern and even more murder. 

Early on in the season, Joe and Love attend couples therapy, where they gripe about jealousy and their conflicting desire to at once fit in with and reject their One Percent neighbors. In one scene, Love attends a working mothers' empowerment retreat, where wealthy women drink wine and "network" by appearing on each other's IG Live streams. The charade infuriates Love, who appears on the verge of a mental breakdown, the fakeness of it all tearing her apart.

Again, there's a disconcerting familiarity to Love, a murderer, and her reaction. Haven't we all seen an influencer with a nanny and a housekeeper and a supportive extended family and limitless privilege waxing poetic about the need for "self-care" when it comes to "being a good mother"? 

"I think the whole point is that we all kind of get where they're coming from," says Badgley when I ask about Joe's and Love's ability to critique the very society of which they are a part with meaningful (and often hilarious) observations, many of which are heard through Badgley's voiceovers. They are, at once, both extremely self-aware and the most delusional of anyone in the neighborhood. 

"They're representative of the inner critic that we all have that, for some people, can actually become not necessarily violent to other people, but themselves," Badgley says. "I think anybody who gets to that stage in reality is so beyond self-loathing. If you hate yourself, well, then you're going to turn some of that hatred on the world around you." 

Acting is already such a psycho-spiritual, existential craft. You are the instrument. So how do you tune your instrument?

Mid-thirties Badgley is thoughtful, someone seeking a greater understanding of the world around him, not unlike his first famous persona, Gossip Girl's Dan Humphrey, or even Joe. There's not a hint of the pretension referenced in some of his earliest interviews as a young twenty-something, when he worried about being pigeonholed as Lonely Boy for the rest of his career. ("'Gossip Girl is certainly not my driving, passionate force in life, obviously," he told reporters in 2011.) He's relaxed, as happy to indulge a question about why he hasn't yet watched the new Gossip Girl ("with a one-year-old and a 12-year-old and dogs and work, my wife and I, we've still not finished Ted Lasso"), as he is to pontificate about society's polarization, or to articulate his meditative approach to acting. 

After 30 episodes and three years, slipping into Joe's persona is second nature. Though the art of achieving his character's slippery, sociopathic charm took "prayer" and "meditation" to master initially. "Acting is already such a psycho-spiritual, existential craft," he explains. "You're not writing something, you're not even playing something. You are the instrument. So how do you tune your instrument?"

If you follow Badgley on social media, you'll know that meditation and prayer are more than just this actor's preferred methodology for achieving his best work. Badgley is perhaps the most well-known practitioner of the Bahá'í faith, a relatively modern religion popular in the Middle East which teaches the worth of all religions, and, in recent months, he has spread awareness of the persecution of Bahá'ís in Iran. He's also lent his platform to boost the voices of anti-racism advocates, medical professionals, and refugees at the Mexico border. His posts, unlike the majority of shame-driven activism content, are pensive, researched, and most importantly, hopeful. 

"I recently saw a study published that says that over half of young people think the world is doomed, more or less — that society is doomed," he says ruefully. But he hopes that his producing projects, still in the early phases, will turn the tide, especially among young people. 

A brighter world, he continues, will not be achieved through "a bunch of misery." 

"We need to deconstruct as well as construct," he says. "I think that the irony is actually that hopeful, light fare is harder to make these days — and I say that because I'm trying to make it and it's hard."

For the man who convinced the world to fall in love with a sociopathic murderer, though, anything is possible. 

Read on to learn what the You star is currently reading, his favorite Norm Macdonald joke, and why he hates dating culture.  

Who is your celebrity crush?

Honestly, I don't think I have one.

Did you ever have one when you were a kid?

Yeah. Years ago it was Rihanna. 

Excellent taste. What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

I'll either be saying a prayer, setting an alarm or reading, like, a paragraph. It's really one of those three things.

What are you reading right now? 

Well, at night, if I'm reading, it's always something from Bahá'í writings before I go to bed. I'm reading a couple things now. Actually, something I've just begun, which [has already] been really interesting and mind-blowing. [The author is Robert L. Woodson Sr.], he wrote a book called Red, White and Black. It's a study of essentially, for lack of a better way to say it, the portrayal of race in American cinema, basically from its inception. It is so … It's beyond in-depth. This guy, he's brilliant. So that's something that I'm actually reading right now.

Am I reading anything lighter? I think I am.

Any Sally Rooney?

No. I tend to read things that are very intense and just dense. I'm carrying around a few books … One of them is actually 21 Questions for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. He's a really brilliant thinker.

Who is your favorite villain?

Jafar.

What is the first album you ever owned?

The Fugees' The Score.

What is your favorite cheesy pickup line?

I've literally never been able to pull those off. I don't have one. I cannot fathom the use of a pickup line and them working. Or even cheesy for the sake of humor, I hate them. Dating culture is one of those things to do away with.

Trash.

Yeah. It's just like, because of all the [toxic masculinity], dating culture to me is a reflection of those things. I'm not about pickup lines at all. 

If you were required to spend a thousand dollars today, what would you buy and why?

Probably a guitar, just because a new guitar, it's a little bit like a world waiting to be explored. There's just something very enticing about a new guitar.

What do you play?

I play a Telecaster. And I've actually had it since I was a teenager and I'll try new guitars, but they just don't ever somehow have the same thing to them. But when they're new, it's like, "Hmm, what's this going to be?" And then eventually I go back to the Tele.

Name one place you've never been, but have always wanted to go.

Chile.

Is there an outfit you regret wearing?

[The outfit I'm wearing] almost anytime I've ever been unaware that I'm being photographed.

Tell us your favorite joke.

I love comedy. [But] jokes?

OK. You know what? Here's a good answer, and it's topical. I've been watching some Norm MacDonald videos, because he died. Have you heard about or heard this moth joke?

I can't tell it because I've not experienced it more than once. Look up "Norm MacDonald moth joke." It's really good.

Who is your favorite Hollywood Chris?

Chris Walken.

When was the last time you cried?

I cry all the time.

Within the last week?

Fully cried? Like more than…

Whatever you define as a cry.

To me, I can get emotional and well up and it's like a break in speech or whatever. Things are happening in the world and also just beautiful art and just living life, constant joy and sorrow. I'm constantly finding myself emotional to the point of tears, but a real cry, like a cry, cry?

Oh, actually, I can't really tell the reasons why, but it was in May. That was a real cry.

What is your favorite bagel?

Everything … Definitely toasted. Definitely cream cheese. Lox is great, but it's not necessary. 

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