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‘You’ Season 2: Penn Badgley Talks the ‘Isolating’ Nature of Playing Joe

IndieWire spoke with Badgley about his character's unexpected cultural resonance and viewers "cuddling up" with a killer.

Penn Badgley, "You"

Penn Badgley, “You”

Netflix

Back in the fall of 2018, stalker drama “You” premiered on Lifetime to modest critical acclaim and even more modest viewership. IndieWire’s review of the first season praised “You” for being a “clever and twisty series,” as well as “a bold take on tropes that some romcoms might cast in an adorable light.” Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, “You” was developed by Sera Gamble and the ever-prolific Greg Berlanti, with Penn Badgley starring as the unassuming bookstore manager-cum-unhinged stalker Joe Goldberg. Kind of like how Badgley starred as the unassuming writer-cum-unhinged stalker Dan Humphrey in “Gossip Girl,” only with more murder and a self-awareness of how reprehensible his actions are.

A little less month after the first season of “You” finished airing on Lifetime, it was announced that the series would be moving to Netflix for its second season — which Lifetime had renewed it for months prior to even airing — loosely based on Kepnes’ sequel novel to “You,” “Hidden Bodies.” A few weeks after that, “You” Season 1 dropped internationally on Netflix and instantly developed a passionate following and a whole lot more attention, with Netflix reporting that 40 million households viewed Season 1 of the series in its first month on its new home.

With Season 2 of “You” fast-approaching — set to release on Netflix on Boxing Day, December 26, and with a new setting of Los Angeles, as opposed to Season 1’s New York City location — IndieWire spoke with Badgley about the aftermath of “You” Season 1, as well as the struggles of playing a character like Joe, and what exactly he expects the audience eventually gets out of the show.

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IndieWire: You spoke with my colleague, Steve Greene, before Season 1 of “You,” and you seemed genuinely unsure about whether you, Sera Gamble, and Greg Berlanti were doing the right thing, making this show at all. Were you able to find peace with it after it came out or in between these two seasons? Or has that feeling still kind of lingered?

Badgley: I mean, yes to all things. I found peace, the feeling also lingered, and then it changes. It seems to be, I think, when you learn a good lesson you don’t always necessarily enjoy it in the moment. I feel like there’s something about this show that is that for me. Maybe it is for most people, too. I feel like part of the purpose of this show is to engage at the level of culture. It is cultural commentary and therefore it works really well when a lot of people see it, so ultimately it’s been a rewarding experience. And my concerns remain, but also it’s been gratifying. So it’s many things.

You’ve notably had a lot of, let’s say, discussions with fans on social media about being attracted to a character like “You’s” Joe. Are you worried it might get worse this season?

Badgley: “Worry,” not so much, as… I think it’s always to be expected that Joe will keep Joe-ing and people will keep enjoying that. In a way. Probably too much. Again, I feel like it’s safe to say that, I think everybody really got in the end that the point is we’re meant to reflect on why we like him so much and why we’re so willing to forgive him. And it seems like, I don’t know… I’m not sure if the second season does that more. It at least does it as much. I can’t tell. I’m probably too close to it at this point.

I actually just rewatched Season 1 before diving into Season 2, and I think for the audience — along with Joe — the show makes it so they kind of have to fall in love with these love interests, Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and now Love (Victoria Pedretti), too. Doesn’t that make it somewhat more difficult not to root for Joe? Because, in a sense, you’re thinking, “If Joe finds some true happiness or love, then maybe he won’t be the way he is.”

Badgley: Yeah, definitely. I mean, we’re culpable for people liking him. There’s no doubt that we’re using constructs to make people like him. And so that’s where the show, to me, is never meant to be like a clinical portrayal of a real person. He and the show is like an allegory. I mean, it really is like a social experiment and a reflection of the stories that we tell, because in a way, we’re taking the same tropes and devices you’ve seen and simply following the logic in a way that challenges the entire premise. Which is — this is what relationships could ever look like or should ever look like.

I mean, I think that there’s value to that, because I think a lot of what we talk about, the way they talk about love, in pop culture and as long as it ever has been pop culture, is actually quite distorted and sometimes — if not most of the time — has nothing to do with true love. Because true love is something that can be expressed between many different kinds of people, not just people who are romantically interested. I think a lot of times what we’re talking about when we say “love” is actually lust. There’s nothing inherently wrong with lust, but I mean, it obviously doesn’t always compel us to do the best thing.

Victoria Pedretti, Penn Badgley, "You" Season 2

Victoria Pedretti, Penn Badgley, “You” Season 2

Beth Dubber/Netflix

You bring up a good point: “You” never diagnoses Joe and what exactly is mentally wrong with them. That actually helps with the way the series is presented, tone-wise, too. Because of how tongue-in-cheek “You” is and how much it veers into dark humor, that’s part of what makes Joe’s psyche — whatever is fueling it — kind of easy to take it first. Because it’s funny that he’s so in over his head, but then that’s also what makes him so terrifying, when it all can just turn at the drop of a hat. How do you find playing that switch, from, “Oh, he’s in over his head and just ridiculous.” to “Oh, he is so dangerous. Why didn’t we see this when we had the chance?”

Badgley: Yeah, at times it’s exhausting and isolating, just inherently. Because I spend a lot of time — even when I’m in scenes with other people — I’m alone. Because I’m really thinking about something else or I’m thinking about them in a way that I’m really hiding from them. So, as an actor, it is quite isolating often. And Joe does frustrate me because he essentially never goes in a direction that is good. Kind of strange to say it so boldly. But yeah, he doesn’t make good decisions, obviously.

And again, I think in that way, for me, it is actually fascinating. Because in order to make him real, I do — most of the time, to be honest — I just play him like he really is striving for the things that he says he’s striving for. And so to me, rather than him being an actual killer, he’s an allegory for our own blindness, each one of us. So, I think like in this very deep, spiritual and emotional and psychological kind of way, he’s an interesting lesson for me. I don’t know how much that ends up affecting the reality for other people.

You talk about how difficult and isolating it is to play this character. Certain shows, obviously, go long past their expiration date, so it’s refreshing when things have a set end in mind. Based on the fact that this is based on two novels — with the second season functioning as its own take on the second novel — Is that part of what attracted you to this role? And especially as you’ve gone to play it, does it help to know that there is a finish line?

Badgley: Is there a finish line? I mean, everything technically has an expiration date. I think… It’s not over and it’s not clear when it will end. And I think this show, more than almost any I can think of, does have, built into it… Like, you really wouldn’t want to exhaust its concept. You really wouldn’t want to jump the shark with this concept because then I think it becomes extra problematic. Once you’ve discovered there’s nothing new to explore, I think you’ve got to get rid of Joe, you know?

 

New York City is such a specific setting, place, and vibe, in general, which is of course what you had in Season 1 of “You.” With Season 2, which is set in Los Angeles, there’s obviously and pretty instantly a different energy, which the show addresses. But there’s also a different vibe while watching it. Were you at all worried that the series would maybe lose something in the shift from New York to L.A.?

Badgley: It loses something, but it gains something too. I think it’s a fair trade and I do feel like it’s great that it changes environment, that everything is actually different. We’re seeing similar patterns. Of course, he’s Joe, but I think the show gains a lot after changing everything. Because again, if you’re not doing that, what are you doing? You’re just cuddling up with Joe. And that’s treacherous. And again, because we’re not talking about a third or fourth season yet, this is only the second season. I think, so far, it’s a good one-two punch. We are examining deeper depths, I guess you could say. I hope.

Penn Badgley, "You" Season 2

Penn Badgley, “You” Season 2

Beth Dubber/Netflix

Speaking of that one-two punch, while watching both seasons back-to-back, I realized that they could honestly work as their own standalone seasons, if you wanted to approach them that way. One person could just dive into Season 2, one person could watch Season 1, and it would be a complete story either way.

Badgley: Yeah.

So how would you differentiate this season from the first, other than the obvious change in scenery?

Badgley: I think that in Season 2, he’s kind of staring his own blindness in the face, which is kind of an impossible task for anyone, I guess. But when your blindness is this grievous? I think it’s a whole other degree. He is trying to change, I suppose. I think he is really trying to change, but he doesn’t even realize how much he needs to change. So he’s incapable of changing as much as he needs. There is some kind of exercise that’s happening the entire length of the season I feel like is different.

And also, what is fundamentally different even from the outset, is that Victoria’s character, Love, is different from Beck. She actually wants to be with Joe. From the beginning, he is not having to pursue her. So, that does actually change things. It creates a totally different environment for the same device to work. So I think again… what we do in season three matters, but for now I think it’s a new vibe.

That’s actually why I wondered about worrying about the audience rooting for Joe to get the girl. Because in Season 2, specifically, Love is such a more self-assured and proactive character than Beck. It’s like, she clearly wants him and she’s going to make this happen. So it becomes a question of, “Well, how can you deny her that? How can you deny her her agency to have this monster?”

Badgley: Yeah. I mean, yeah. That’s a good question. I think, I am really interested to see what people think. Because to me that is kind of the whole purpose of this thing. It’s made to be a frothy cultural sort of touchpoint and I am interested to see how it is people feel when they see it, if they feel toyed with, if they feel like it’s still a worthwhile kind of journey to go on.

Penn Badgley, "You" Season 2

Penn Badgley, “You” Season 2

Tyler Golden/Netflix

As an actor, you are really known for playing charming, salt of the earth characters. As Joe, you’re able to play that up and really weaponize it. It’s the Dan Humphrey, Nice Guy dynamic cranked up to 1,000%. But how important is it for you to choose different roles from your past or at least to choose warped versions of roles from your past?

Badgley: I mean, I have a lot of thoughts about that. You know, as an actor you don’t have as much [input] as people assume. There’s still only so many roles. There’s so many people that will get those roles. Even for someone in my position, Hollywood is an exceptional place. So I feel like I’m increasingly less interested in the particulars of my own career. I mean, I care about these things, honestly. I’ve always been a person who is artistic at heart and I really think deeply about all of these things. But then there’s this other level where it’s like, I didn’t anticipate being a part of two sort of a, dare I say, cultural phenomenon [“Gossip Girl” and “You”], you know what I mean? Like, I really didn’t anticipate that. And them somehow being this interesting pair, now that that’s happening, I actually think that’s interesting.

I have no desire to keep doing that, but I also think, like, it’s a strange thing to be an actor and be in the public eye. And somehow, I feel like Joe is an opportunity to break the fourth wall for me as a person who people know, and there’s something that is very interesting about that. Because ordinarily you wouldn’t even want somebody… You wouldn’t want an actor to engage with the fans on social media in a way that I did. Ordinarily, I would say that wouldn’t be needed, it wouldn’t be interesting, or maybe it would be redundant. I don’t know. But somehow, it all really fit, you know what I mean?

So for the time being, this is what’s happening and I’m down for the ride. But certainly as a producer and a writer in the future, the kind of things I’m interested in making are quite different. But I’ll let those things speak for themselves, until then.

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