[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “You” Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot.”]
If viewers aren’t sure how to react to the first episode of the new Lifetime series “You,” they’re not alone. It’s been months since he shot it, and star Penn Badgley is still working through his thoughts.
“Did we do something irresponsible? I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that we didn’t. I’m admitting that now because I was concerned about it every day and had to trust. And man, it was tough,” Badgley told IndieWire earlier this summer.
Setting the tone for the pilot came first. When crafting the story of bookstore manager Joe (Badgley) who becomes consumed by his infatuation for one of his customers, series co-creators Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti set up the premiere’s dark ending with a specific purpose. Joe isn’t just attacking and imprisoning his favorite customer’s romantic partner for fun.
“A big conversation that Greg and I had from the beginning was that it was very important that you see an act of violence by the end of the first episode because if we are approaching the subject matter in the way we are, which is very subversive, there’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of aspect to it. We wanted you to know who he was early,” Gamble said.
Another way the audience gets accustomed to Joe’s unnerving pursuit of Beck (Elizabeth Lail) is through voiceover. For a show planted so firmly in Joe’s headspace — not to mention one adapted from Caroline Kepnes’ novel — there’s a lot of self-justification happening internally for Joe.
“This is the most voiceover I’ve ever written because being in his head and hearing his inner thoughts are such a big part of the show, but we were always aware that the best-case scenario is we use less of it,” Gamble said. “We get to start cutting lines because Penn is telling you everything you need to know just with his acting. Frequently that’s the case. It’s interesting, by the end of the season you’ve spent so many hours staring at people in editing bays it actually feels a little stalker-y.”
Crafting what amounts to two separate performances (through voiceover and in person) was a big challenge for Badgley. Calibrating the right amount of subtlety in Joe’s demeanor while the audience hears his thoughts was something that not only took hours of honing, it was something that could have gone in a number of different ways.
“It was a very collaborative thing between me, sound, camera, the writers, and obviously the director and editors. I knew I was really kind of working with everybody in a way that was more technical than what you might be doing as an actor,” Badgley said. “So I liked that, but initially everybody was a little bit like, ‘So how do you want to do this? Do you want to listen to playback of your own voice? Do you want someone else to read it? Do you want to know when to read? What do you like?’ And I wasn’t sure.”
Eventually, he and the crew worked to develop a system where, when he wasn’t able to record his lines beforehand, one of the assistant directors would read the written voiceover from off-camera, trading off for each new episode. That process brought some of those crew members into Joe’s psychology that other circumstances wouldn’t have allowed.
“It became this thing where I needed it just for the timing and we all would laugh. Cedric [Vara] would read it in a very particular manner that was so dislike my own and could threaten at all times to like totally ruin the vibe. He’d be saying something really twisted, but his voice was like he was ordering a ham sandwich. But it required something of Cedric that he’d never had to do. It was very troubling for him sometimes the things he had to say,” Badgley said.
That disembodied voice wasn’t the only thing that made for an unconventional shooting process. Silence could be just as jarring.
“Some days I would go to work and have no lines, I’d maybe act with nobody. I would be looking at X’s of tape on a C-stand or a wall,” Badgley said. “I remember when ‘Avatar’ came out, the way that many of the cast members would say that it was kind of like black box theater because nothing was there. And I kinda had that experience with Joe a bit and I didn’t anticipate that either. A lot of these things about this role I didn’t anticipate and was really able to enjoy. It was a certain kind of workshop unto itself.”
One other trick was making sure, when playing with both sides of the tonal balance, the show didn’t tip over into a rosy filter for all of Joe’s actions.
“A ton of credit goes to Lee Toland Krieger, who directed the first episode, who really knew exactly what he was trying to say with each shot. I mean, we are self-consciously using the tropes of romance, but I don’t think we are saying that [Joe] is a romantic lead. He is very much the opposite of a romantic lead in his behavior. We spent no time trying to justify what he’s doing is correct. Our only job is to justify what he’s doing is honest for the character as part of exploring why he is who he is,” Gamble said.
Subverting those expectations also meant frontloading the story, powering through as much story as the book provides. Luckily, Gamble had experience working on shows that wasted no time plunging viewers into uncharted waters.
“It’s a lesson I learned making ‘The Magicians’ in Season 1. John McNamara had one of those crazy, alternate-universe kind of ideas and he was like, ‘Let’s do it as Episode 4 because it’s so much earlier than anyone would ever expect it.’ There was a very intense conversation about it because it’s not ‘how things are done.’ But what I learned coming out of that was from then on we had so much freedom to say an episode is what we want it to be. This is a very, very different show in tone and structure, but I wanted to find a place early to kind of put our mark and say this show can go in directions you might not expect,” Gamble said.
With just a sliver of the show aired, both Gamble and Badgley explained that for anyone unsure of how to feel about the way the show is portraying (or inhabiting) Joe as a protagonist, there’s plenty more season to come.
“Is it responsible ultimately? I’m really excited to see the response to the show because I do believe that almost against all odds, it is. But you have to see the whole season. And this is where I think people may struggle, fine. Others may not. Maybe it’s more concerning when people don’t struggle,” Badgley said. “I think it’s interesting that this show is just coming out now of all times and, and that a character like Joe was going to demand people’s attention. Having gone through the whole experience. I’m stoked to see what do people think.”
“You” airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.