Mr Penn Badgley Wants You To Stop Thinking About Him
When the pandemic struck, Mr Penn Badgley took stock of his life, but not for the first time. The actor and star of You is leading MR PORTER on a walk through the bustling Brooklyn neighbourhood he’s been staying in this week and, in between attending to his one-year-old child, he’s considering what it means to be someone like him in the world right now: the face of a megahit TV show, a famous person, a father.
Badgley has had to reckon with at least some of these things before. The 34-year-old first became intimately familiar with reprioritising when he shot to stardom more than a decade ago in the hit series Gossip Girl, in which he played Dan Humphrey, a Brooklyn teenager commuting to his Upper East Side high school, trying to find his place among Manhattan’s elite. Fans were quickly drawn to Badgley’s own outsider instincts. Young, dashing and well-dressed, a star of the hottest show on TV with the eyes of millions of fans suddenly trained on him, he tried to rationalise the moment instead of celebrating it.
His thinking process went something like this: clarity, and distance between his work and his life, came with his conclusion that TV shows and movies simply “can’t communicate everything”. We begin our second lap of Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, heads turning as we stroll, while Badgley explains his thinking about the limits of what he does. “It’s not as complex as life,” he says. “It’s often not as cerebral and strange as life. It’s often not as tragic as life. It’s often there to communicate just one basic principle.”
That distance he’s built between the Hollywood machine and his own life has only grown, even as he’s embraced the success that’s come with the popularity of You, his serial killer Netflix series, which has just entered its third nail-biting season. On this unseasonably warm autumn afternoon in Brooklyn, Badgley cuts a figure utterly Of This Neighbourhood: hair both unkempt and coiffed, in a simple blue T-shirt, grey jeans and a pair of well-worn black sneakers, with a signet ring adorning his right hand. His beard is scraggy and masks his recognisable face nearly enough that nearby park-goers have to squint to make out the A-lister underneath.
Badgley pauses every few minutes to lift his son out of the stroller, to feed him a snack, to toss him in the air, followed by peals of laughter and smiles on both faces that speak to priorities the actor says all came into focus upon his firstborn’s birth last year. “Actors are not in the position you think they are,” he says. “We’re not curing cancer. This is pop culture. I think it’s helpful to just know the limitations of what it is that I even do.”
If you’re reading these words, you know what an understatement it is to call Gossip Girl an overnight sensation. Badgley, 20 when it premiered in 2007, suddenly found himself living in a new city with a spotlight the size of a borough trained on his every move. He and his cohort quickly became tabloid fixtures, their sightings spotted and reported by word of mouth in a pre-Instagram world. “I mean, literally my face was on a billboard in Times Square,” he says. “Not everybody’s going to come to New York for the first time and have that.”
Fame and attention quickly took their toll as normality and privacy fall out of his grasp. It became common practice to spot him riding his bike around town. His face was on the side of buses rushing down every major avenue. He made the mistake of wearing suits on nights out, finding that his choice of attire only amplified the scrutiny on his every move. His clothes unintentionally made him easier to spot.
“It was way too attention-grabbing,” he says. “I’m young and I happen to be famous and it’s like, you walk around in a suit all the time.” He shakes his head as if rattling out the memory of the camera flashes.
Badgley’s brush with superstardom left him considering what came next. He contemplated giving up acting, twice, thinking it would bring clarity back to his life.
“I do like what I do and I like being good at what I do,” he says. “I think there’s no shortage of examples of people in our position struggling with mental health for very, very legitimate reasons. Being an actor is almost solely a psychological or emotional task. If you’re any good or successful, your psychological health, mental health, spiritual health… It’s really tested.”
“My face was on a billboard in Times Square. Not everybody’s going to come to New York for the first time and have that”
He kept acting and took on projects such as 2012’s Greetings From Tim Buckley, in which he played music legend Mr Jeff Buckley, Tim’s son, and, in 2018,_ You_, which quickly became the second massive hit of his still-young career. In it, he plays Joe Goldberg, a murderous anti-hero who stalks women and learns everything about them in order to become their version of the perfect partner. Along the way, he kills anything and anyone in his way and coldly disposes of any evidence of wrongdoing as if he’s working his way down a list of errands. It’s a cool, calm and collected nail-biter that became one of Netflix’s top 10 most popular shows, just above the second season of Stranger Things.
In season three, Joe finds himself newly married, treading water as he experiences a new, less bloody kind of thrill: fatherhood. What ensues is a wickedly funny season, complete with plots that riff off antivaxxers, Mr Jordan Petersen’s school of “masculinity”, nosy neighbours and a pair of extramarital affairs that threaten to dismantle Joe’s already fragile marriage.
At its core, Badgley delivers yet another performance that has connected with Netflix viewers as far around the world as Manila in the Philippines, where You held a fan event several years ago. Thousands of people turned up for the chance to gaze upon his sharply angled jawline in the flesh.
“There is a special brotherhood of those in TV or film who are immediately recognisable for one role – now Penn’s got me beat,” says Badgley’s friend, actor Mr Rainn Wilson, who became immediately recognisable himself as Dwight Schrute in The Office. “He has a fascinating combination of quiet mystery alongside a warm, everyman energy that makes us all drawn to him – fans and friends alike. You just want to get to know him more. You’re not sure you’ll ever get there, but you just want to keep trying.”
Badgley has publicly struggled with You’s premise and playing such a categorical anti-hero (to put it mildly), he’s also signed up for six seasons. Knowing that, he’s had to make the space for himself to both question and accept the “moral arc of storytelling” into which he’s folded himself.
“I’ve changed,” he says. “I’ve accepted it. We live in an age where we’re very actively deconstructing a lot of old notions, and what’s coming with that is an obsession with villainy and darkness. I don’t actually think our show is unique in representing any of that.
“The fact that [what I do is] acting couldn’t be more sort of comically, surreally evident to me at any given moment. I am never mistaken that I am in character. I’m not so precious about my own career. There are forces at work I can’t control. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know. I actually think in some way people take acting far too seriously. It’s like, just be present.”
Badgley says the pandemic brought him a fresh perspective and a healthy reality check, as it did for many people lucky enough to live safely through the past 18 months. Acting fulfils him creatively, he says, but the attention and responsibilities that come with fronting two extremely successful and popular franchises have never been what he’s after. “People put so much on anyone who’s famous because they don’t know them,” he says. “What can they do but imagine and project? Somehow, I’ve always been acutely aware of that.”
When he and his wife, Ms Domino Kirke, declined to renew their Brooklyn lease early in the pandemic, they moved their family to Kirke’s Upstate New York country house, trading the city for greener, quieter, more spacious pastures. Their son, Kirke’s second, was born last August, just a few months before Badgley was summoned to Los Angeles to film the third, parenthood-centric season of You.
“Having a baby has been so mystical for me,” he says. “Just watching him be perceptive is such a joy. It’s so humbling and awe-inspiring.” Fatherhood has been so clarifying a process that he’s even grateful for You’s 5.00am wake-up calls, which allowed him to spend time with both boys before he headed to set. Covid-19 concerns meant zero socialising on set, which reduced You to a punch-in, punch-out job, though Badgley’s fear for his growing family’s health superseded any desire for on-set camaraderie anyway.
“The hardest thing initially was being away from him,” he says, nodding his head towards the stroller. “Joe is such an isolating role.”
Fatherhood (and the pandemic) has also meant his once eye-catching style has necessarily, temporarily been swapped for utilitarian fits. For now, anonymity in the big city is as vital to his mental health as ever. “As a new parent, I can’t say that I have much relationship to it,” Badgley grins, when talk turns to matter of style. He’s keen, he adds, to figure out a way to wear the clothes he used to love without the flash and attention they once brought.
“Years ago, I developed a relationship with a tailor in Brooklyn named Craig Robinson because I lived above his shop,” he says. “I am waiting to get old so that, no matter where I am, a suit looks normal on me. Nobody questions an old man in a suit. I’m waiting for those days.”
Badgley plants us outside a bustling coffee shop after a check-in phone call from Kirke. His son, who politely declined to go on the record for this story (he’s only just mastered the “da-da” phase of his linguistic journey), is getting restless, which signals the end of our time.
Although Badgley has never been one for the spotlight, the past 18 months have proved the value of his outlook. Like many of us, he’s reckoned with the idea of a life lived for his career, no matter the field. He’s stepped away from social media, instead digging into the teachings of philosophers such as Dr Noam Chomsky, who, along with his son, has made him more curious about the human capacity for language.
He doesn’t pay attention to what people are saying about him or his projects because he’s concerned about other things, such as climate change and social injustice. He thinks we’d all be better off if we didn’t think about people like him at all.
“Those kinds of thought processes are as important as anything about my character,” he says. “I really do believe that in a far more adjusted, healthy society, we wouldn’t have celebrities in the same way we do.”
As we part ways, Badgley attempts to link all the far-flung corners of our conversation. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the parts he plays, he says, or that he doesn’t think about what he does and how he does it. It’s just that, now more than ever, there’s everything else to consider.
“I’ve never cared more about what I do,” he says. “It’s just that I’ve also never cared more about everything else.”
You season three is streaming on Netflix now