Penn Badgley Swears It's a Coincidence That He Always Plays the Social Media Creep

The You star on the efficacy of Joe's baseball cap "disguise," date nights with wife Domino Kirke, and his concerns for the 2020 election. 

Penn Badgley Q&A
Photo: Netflix

The 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is teeming with women of varying ages wielding smartphones and toting copies of Hidden Bodies, Caroline Kepnes’s fast-paced thriller that inspired the second season of Netflix’s alarmingly bingeable series You, available to stream now. They’ve come to Dan Humphrey’s old stomping grounds to capture a glimpse (and no doubt, an Instagram post) of another tortured New York protagonist, Joe Goldberg, a creepy-yet-charming stalker and bookstore clerk prone to developing toxic, delusional obsessions with the objects of his affection.

Since being picked up by the streaming behemoth after a short-lived stint on Lifetime, the show has been propelled into the cultural zeitgeist, igniting conversations around hot-button topics like abuse, social media safety, and white male privilege. The first season centers on Joe’s pursuit — and subsequent gruesome murder — of Guinevere Beck, a struggling MFA student and aspiring writer. To fuel his infatuation, he relied on social media to follow her every move, murdering anyone who could potentially interfere with their courtship.

Penn Badgley Q&A

Yet despite Joe’s despicable behavior, the internet writ large was collectively thirsty for him, spawning tweets romanticizing his character, including a widely-circulated one that read, “Kidnap me pls.” Badgley himself was quick to remind everyone that, um, Joe is literally a murderer and not someone deserving of admiration or a fantastical crush.

“It’s always been tongue-in-cheek,” Badgley said of his now-viral responses to the tweets. “Part of the strangeness of the concept for me is exactly why we’re all watching: Why are we making it? Why is it doing so well? These are interesting questions that have something to do with where we are all at, societally.”

Similar to Zac Efron’s portrayal of Ted Bundy, the widespread intrigue surrounding a homicidal heartthrob is troubling, but not if you consider Joe’s duplicitous nature. When he’s not out for blood, he exhibits behavior that’s thoughtful, even paternal. “There are times where Joe is so impossibly sympathetic and even honest and brave,” Badgley says. “Sometimes he’s the exact perfect balance between chivalrous and allowing his partner to be autonomous and empowered. He’s actually in some ways made to be the perfect guy that does this really — to even say it’s terrible is kind of an understatement — thing.”

In season two, Joe, armed with the new identity of Will Bettelheim, relocates to sunny Los Angeles for a fresh start, but soon falls into his old ways when he meets a new love, appropriately named Love, who turns out to be (spoiler alert!) a killer herself. In a surprising role reversal that audiences never saw coming, Love admits that she made Joe fall for her using all the tricks from his own twisted playbook.

And just today, Netflix revealed that You has been renewed for a third season.

Ahead of Badgley’s discussion with Kepnes and You co-creator Sera Gamble at the 92nd Street Y, we talked to Badgley about the role, Los Angeles versus New York, and his political activism.

InStyle: The public’s fascination with Joe is similar to how some idolize Patrick Bateman, even though he’s a sociopathic monster. What attracted you to the role in particular?

Badgley: First of all, we’re not yet at the stage collectively where we’re able to watch anything and not ultimately glorify it. And then you cast people like Christian Bale, who’s this tall, gorgeous talented young man, and he gives a great performance. The way that we capture things on camera is a bit surreal. It’s made to be compelling in a way that may not be exactly like real life. In a way, everyone is always being toyed with.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Easy A. Between Olive’s webcam, You, and Gossip Girl, are you generally drawn to social media-centric projects?

It’s funny, I hadn’t even made that connection with Easy A. I think I just happened to have found myself in projects like that — it hasn’t been conscious. When I first read the pilot script for You, I definitely saw the similarities. I think I was really caught between being able to appreciate how that’s an interesting progression of things for me, but also how it’s not. We pulled off this somewhat remote possibility of the show doing just what it’s done. I feel like the fact that I’m the person helps it be just that thing, because I was Gossip Girl.

Penn Badgley Q&A
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The You memes flying around are pretty incredible. Have you seen them and do you have a favorite?

Yeah, a few people have been texting them to me and I’ve seen some. I think the one that made me laugh out loud was the one where I’ve been given nails and hoop earrings. And there was a tweet with that meme that has been used so many times ["distracted boyfriend"], for so many different purposes to varying effect, and the picture finally had no text on it. The simplicity of that one was very funny to me.

People are also calling out how Joe’s baseball hat functions like an invisibility cloak. Is it really meant to be a full disguise?

I don’t know! [Laughs] Trust me, as an actor, I find it very challenging to sometimes suspend my disbelief when you’re forced into a position that is just in the literal sense of the word incredible. That’s the interesting thing about this show — it works.

You’re politically active on Instagram. What are your concerns for 2020?

I wonder if people in the media have been doing a huge disservice even as they strive to do the opposite, which is to inform and inspire and educate. We’ve gotten here partly because the media is a literal circus … People who are quietly doing good work do not receive the same kind of attention that people with loud mouths and sensational hot takes get.

I think it’s also time to recognize that it’s not Hollywood’s job to explain its condition to the world — it doesn’t represent the average upperclass white man, let alone the average white family, let alone the average American family. People are not going to be persuaded by this small segment of society that is privileged and in some cases out of touch.

Do you remember Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s cameo on Gossip Girl?


Yeah. It was at a New York Observer party.

I literally have no recollection of that.

Speaking of headlines, this season tackles the #MeToo movement with the introduction of Henderson. Was his stand-up comedian character arc inspired by Bill Cosby and Louis C.K.?

Everybody says it’s ripped from the headlines. We know that all kinds of icons now are being revealed to have behaved poorly, so as much as anyone else is able to make the connection, it’s there. It’s a guy behaving badly. I never actually talked to the writers about the details.

You and your wife, Domino, have chosen to live in New York. What are your least favorite things about L.A.?

The hardest thing about Hollywood as an actor is that everyone is trying to do the same thing — it’s pretty homogenous. What’s great about New York is that the industry is simply not at the forefront of people’s minds. To me, that’s always been really refreshing. Nearly all of my friends don’t work in the same business as me, and I’ve always been drawn to them. At the same time, I will say I really enjoyed working in L.A. for the second season. It’s a place that I can visit, it’s just not a place that I want to live.

Penn Badgley Q&A
Sylvain Gaboury/Getty Images

What’s a typical date night for you two?

We just had one last night — we went out and got pasta! It was very nice.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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