The actor Penn Badgley from Netflix ‘You’ talks long an in exclusive for Variety Magazine covers February 2023 Issue.
Penn Badgley doesn’t actually need to be on the internet to stoke his popularity. He’s already the internet’s boyfriend, and has been since the original “Gossip Girl” premiered in 2007.
Badgley became famous at the exact moment when the celebrity-industrial complex, fed by the toxic brew of the gossip sites TMZ and Perez Hilton, was at its most pernicious — which was the same moment that teenagers everywhere got their hands on their first iPhones. “‘Gossip Girl,’ if you think about it, wouldn’t have happened at any other time,” Badgley says. “That was the spirit of the show: It was Perez. It was TMZ.”
But back to that TikTok. Badgley is well aware of his earnest image, mostly projected onto him by the public because of his portrayal of Dan Humphrey, the brooding “Gossip Girl” character he played for six seasons until the show ended in 2012, and now as Joe, the devastatingly devious embodiment of toxic masculinity. And by goofily lip-syncing to Swift’s chorus — “I’m the problem, it’s me!” — he’s showing he can be funny and playful and not that serious at all.
The video went viral, with Swift anointing it in the comments with an “OMG!!!!🤩” Headlines followed, rejoicing that Badgley had joined the TikTok generation. Even his “Gossip Girl” castmate Chace Crawford saw it. “I was dying laughing,” Crawford says. “I was a tiny bit jealous — I’m like, ‘God, Penn really knows how to work that social media.’ I’m pretty stuck in 2000. I mean, man, I don’t know how to do shit!”
Joining TikTok is a small thing. But for Badgley, it serves as an important “signifier,” he says. He used to resist his fame, but he says the character of Joe revived him as an actor. With Joe, Badgley says he’s “finally exerting the kind of performer that I am.”
Before this period, Badgley was less engaged. During “Gossip Girl,” he did a few film roles that felt like he was on the right track, with small parts in “Easy A” in 2010 and “Margin Call” the following year. He also starred as the doomed folk singer Jeff Buckley, who drowned at age 30, in the 2012 indie “Greetings From Tim Buckley.” There were years when Badgley just went through the motions. He even stopped acting for a bit in 2016, in favor of being the lead singer of the band MOTHXR.
But he feels different now, and like any savvy actor in the digital age, he’s using this spotlight to leverage new paths for himself. Badgley wants to do more as an artist — producing, directing, creating — and he’s excited about what’s next. “Things are so digital, so online,” he says. “I think you’ve got to be fully in or fully out.”
As the streaming age of television matures, there have been more and more bumps along the way, beginning with Netflix’s correction last year, which caused the whole industry (and Wall Street) to question whether this model will ever pay off. But for all that agita, “You” is one of the period’s great successes.
As for how the show will end — will Joe be justly punished after everything he’s done? Badgley finds the question interesting. “Is killing Joe enough?” he wonders. “Whoever kills him is brought down to his level.” He has an idea of what Berlanti and Gamble have in mind, but won’t say what it is. “I think it’s the only way it can go,” he says.
Putting those questions aside, directing an episode this season fulfilled a long-standing wish. When I ask what surprised him the most about it, he answers quickly. “Maybe that I really loved it? Not that I expected not to, but — I loved it,” he says. “It reinvented the show for me.”
Despite how much Badgley took to directing, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to do it again during a presumed fifth season of “You.” It was too much. After a day of acting, he’d come back to his place in London — he was staying with Kirke-Badgley’s aunt during production — and work with editors in Los Angeles over Zoom.
“I was managing it, and not even feeling exhausted at all — I was very alive to the work,” he says. “And it was really enjoyable, but extreme and unsustainable. And if my family had been there, I would have had zero time for them.”
Even if that does turn out to be the only episode of “You” Badgley directs, let it be known that it contains a Taylor Swift reference. So does that mean Joe is a Swiftie?
“I think, unfortunately, he would despise her,” Badgley says. “Because she’s successful and blond, maybe? I don’t know, but I think he would.”
See Season 4 of “YOU” on Netflix:
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