Penn Badgley on His Twisted Stalker in ‘You’ and the Dark Side of ‘Gossip Girl’ Fame
In his darkly comic new Lifetime series, the ex-‘Gossip Girl’ star skewers the obsession Hollywood sells us as romance.
Penn Badgley, best known as Dan Humphrey, patron saint of Brooklyn loft-dwellers and scraggly MFA students, is finally playing another TV heartthrob. Except the heartthrob is a funhouse mirror distortion of a romantic lead, deploying his good looks and ardor to stalk the object of his affection and terrorize the people she loves. Meet Joe, the anti-hero of Lifetime’s You.
You is everything a Lifetime show starring an ex-Gossip Girl dreamboat shouldn’t be. It’s sardonic, biting, and more than a little terrifying. As a meta-commentary on the dangers of media representations of romance—particularly the notion of getting the girl at any cost, even if she doesn’t want to be got—You is essentially critiquing the kind of series it could have been.
Viewers tuning in expecting a “21st century romance” will find instead a gripping satire, anchored by Badgley’s truly sick performance. It’s the perfect role for an actor who has emerged from the singular experience of being crushed on, obsessed over, and adored by millions of strangers. When it comes to Joe, Badgley’s greatest concern is that he isn’t creepy enough—that, despite the actor’s best efforts and protestations, the world will fall in love with him all over again.
Joe is a bookstore manager who spends his days ogling first editions and female customers. When he first encounters Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), You’s love interest, he narrates her entrance in a brilliant internal monologue that’s at once intellectual and obsessive, complimentary on the surface but misogynistic at its core. He wonders if, finally, he’s met someone who isn’t like all the other girls—someone who’s actually deserving of his intelligence, and his adoration. Almost immediately, he concludes that Beck is begging for his attention. It’s in the loud bangles that she wears, and her V-neck shirt. She’s asking for it. Joe knows what he wants, and more importantly, he presumes to know what she wants too. So when he finds Beck on social media, hunts down her address, and proceeds to stalk her, inserting himself more and more aggressively into her life in ways both seen and unseen, it’s all under the guise of facilitating her happily ever after.
Joe sees himself as the romantic lead; we quickly come to realize that the story that’s playing out in his head is not the one we’re seeing on screen. As Joe huddles in Beck’s shower after breaking into her house, he quips to himself, “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that men like me are always getting in jams like this.” The genius here is that Joe isn’t wrong. Placing classic rom-com plots within this predatory context helps the viewer to critically examine what we’ve been sold as romance. In You, stalking behaviors and boundary pushing are revealed for what they really are—early signs of an unhealthy relationship that are likely to escalate. Badgley sees Joe as “a monkey wrench or a grenade,” following common romantic narratives to their disturbing conclusions and breaking them down in the process. “He’s like, I’m following the logic,” Badgley explained in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “I’m infatuated, and I will stop at nothing for the object of my affection. This is what I’m packaged and sold, and no one’s been able to tell me differently.”
“Of course he must be held accountable,” Badgley continued, “because everybody needs to account for themselves, but at the same time, at some point, everyone is an innocent child. And at some point that innocent child receives a miseducation.”
In the name of love and chivalry, Joe is determined to learn everything about Beck and protect her at all costs. First, he zeroes in on Beck’s sometimes-boyfriend, Benji. Joe doesn’t see himself as a predator taking out the competition, but as a savior who knows that Beck’s ex is no good for her. Benji, he believes, doesn’t understand the real Beck—the one whom Joe has constructed from fleeting conversations, social media, and glimpses of her outside a window.
Badgley knows a thing or two about Joe’s brand of asphyxiating affection. As the star of a mammoth teen drama, Badgley was watched on and off screen. Actual New York City high schoolers stalked the Gossip Girl set in the hopes of seeing their favorite cast members. Many Gossip Girl actors, including Badgley, were romantically linked in real life, further blurring the lines between television and reality. So Badgley understands how it feels to have a stranger think that they “know” you, when what they really know is a character, or a product of their own imagination.
When asked how he relates to the central themes of the show on a personal level, as someone who has experienced “semi-obsessive fame,” Badgley responded, “Well not semi, pretty full-on obsession.”
“I think as an actor you can become an object of desire, which is something women are already accustomed to more or less around the world—I’ve definitely been, I mean I don’t want to sound sensationalist, but I’ve literally been molested—just in the literal sense of the word—by many people in the moment. Because that’s what they do.” Badgley was thoughtful and cautious when discussing this; he doesn’t want it to be taken the wrong way, and is quick to acknowledge the privilege that being a man, not to mention a white man, affords him. But recent events have caused him to revisit these experiences and reconsider them—Badgley cited Terry Crews as one catalyst, saying, “these things very much happen, you know.”
“And it’s interesting to even hear you have that reaction, like ‘I’m sorry,’ because I didn’t even think of it that way then,’ he continued. “You’re led as a man, particularly, that when it happens you should feel great about it. Particularly when it comes from someone who’s feasibly an object of your desire as well. And I think that’s the interesting thing about this show, is that Joe looks like me, he acts and talks like me to a degree, so I think the audience is supposed to be like, ‘Aw that might be nice if someone was that infatuated with me.’”
He is absolutely right. Joe, like Dan Humphrey before him and like Badgley himself, is a good-looking man. He possesses stereotypically attractive traits—he’s charming, funny, intelligent, and caring. He also locks people up in a sound-proof cage in the basement of his bookstore.
Badgley has previously described the show as a “litmus test to see the mental gymnastics that we’re still willing to perform on a cultural level, to love an evil white man.” Will viewers buy into the romance narrative that Joe is writing, the love story in his head, against all odds and evidence to the contrary? Badgley said that he knew while they were making the show that “it stood the chance to be as compelling as it is—and I sort of hated everything about that sometimes.”
“I was really frustrated,” he continued. “I was like, why is this the story that we’re telling? And by we I don’t just mean the creators of the show, I mean anybody who’s participating in it by watching it.”
Nothing could be timelier than considering Joe, and viewers’ reactions to Joe, as a window into the “mental gymnastics” of forgiving, empathizing with, or even coming to love a predatory man. And while Badgley might be deeply conflicted about his character, he’s excited about the potential for meaningful debate and conversation. “I think that a lot of the conversations that we’re having around the show are elevated and have a depth that I really appreciate because, for all the faults and all of the perils of the times we live in, we are becoming more sensitive to some things.” Citing the Me Too movement, he continued, “I think it’s significant that a show like this is coming out now, because if it had come out any other time, we might not have been having these necessary conversations around it. And we might have been all too ready to consume something that I think actually has some really dangerous seeds in it.”
Which isn’t to say that Badgley didn’t fight like hell to make Joe as unpalatable as possible. “In the pilot episode,” he recalled, “The director was trying to get me to be at some points less disgusting. Like when I’m masturbating on the side of the street, he really wanted me to close my eyes. And I was pretty adamant—I don’t remember what they ended up using, but I only closed my eyes for one take, because I was pretty adamant about not wanting to do it. And it’s because it was so much creepier with my eyes open. Like, why are we trying—Joe is masturbating on the side of the street as he watches a young woman…and we’re worried about it being too creepy?! Do we not think it’s already crossed that line?”
“So I was always kind of on the sidelines like, we don’t need to defend Joe. We don’t need to defend Joe.”
In addition to its sinister lead, You offers a taxonomy of “bad men,” as Beck navigates predatory professors and casually cruel exes. Joe is well-attuned to these gendered injustices. He describes Beck’s hilariously douchey hook-up as “the poster boy for white male privilege,” and is enraged when Beck’s advisor makes a pass at her and takes away her teaching job when she doesn’t put out. It’s a sharp and instantly recognizable portrayal of the “woke” dude who convincingly masks his internalized misogyny. Joe thinks he’s saving Beck from a lesser breed of men, when he is actually the worst man of all. And there’s a lot of competition.
Badgley described the You set as a “learning experience,” pointing out that “by and large, all of the people responsible for this thing are women.” He lists Caroline Kepnes, author of the novel You, and Sera Gamble, who co-wrote and created the series with Greg Berlanti. “But really she’s the one at the helm, and I think Greg would immediately concede that,” he adds. “And most of our directors were female, most of the writers were female, most of the cast was female. There were just a couple of men involved.”
“So quite often, it would just open up this—I would just listen to why it is that the women involved were interested in this thing, and how it is that they saw it.” But at the end of the day, to hear Badgley describe it, playing Joe was a lonely and at times deeply uncomfortable experience. Talking about the allure of the project, Badgley cited fascinating themes central to the series and source novel, but added that, “The prospect of actually embodying Joe—being the sole person who actually has to embody Joe was not actually something I was really excited about at first. It’s a very different experience to watch Joe than to be him, and I’m the only one who has to do that.”
With a laugh, he concluded, “I guess like everything that I’ve done, I have a conflicted relationship to it.” It doesn’t take Joe-caliber online research to uncover Badgley’s ambivalence towards his most famous role. In the past, he’s pointed out that neither the show’s ending nor Gossip Girl itself made any sense (true), and called his character a “judgmental douchebag.”
Badgley has spent years being mistaken for Dan Humphrey, a fictional character. No wonder he’s pushed back against interpretations of You that posit that Joe is just an updated version of Dan Humphrey with a better internet connection—the well-read, cynical outsider who falls for the bubbly blonde (and stalks her every move online). It’s an easy first instinct, and “Dan Humphrey is back”-style headlines abound.
But Joe isn’t Dan 2.0—a role that Badgley doesn’t seem keen to revisit. Instead, he’s an opportunity to parody the Gossip Girl character, exaggerating the obvious flaws that teenage fans probably overlooked. Rather than a reprisal of the beloved role, viewers will find a clever takedown of the bookish outsider archetype (judgmental douchebag indeed). It’s not a stretch to say that Badgley’s murderous new character is taking a sledgehammer to Dan Humphrey and delivering a final, fatal blow.
Badgley might not be playing Dan, but he is returning to TV in a splashy starring role—and his face has been plastered all over New York City. Asked if he’s ready to be back in the spotlight, Badgley is once again conflicted. After Gossip Girl, “I definitely took a break,” he explained. “I definitely had to question if I wanted to keep doing what I’ve been doing. But I’m excited—I think.”
“When it comes to the fame side of things,” he continued, “I don’t think anybody, whether they’re famous or not, could claim to understand that phenomenon or have any sort of power over it. So I’m just cautious and careful.”
“For the time being I’m interested in this show, I’m excited by it, and like I said, if these kinds of conversations can be had, that’s great. And if I’m gonna be ‘more famous’ or whatever, if that comes along with it then…sure.” He sighed, unsure again. “I mean, it’s not one thing! With it comes blessings, and with it comes burdens, and that’s life, right? So I just suppose we’ll see.”