For two seasons on Netflix’s “You,” with at least one more still to come, Penn Badgley has lived inside the mind of a serial stalker and killer. Badgley’s inhabited the character of Joe Goldberg as he’s made targets out of women, lied and manipulated his way into their lives and brought death to anyone who stood in his way.
It’s an experience that Badgley describes as “isolating,” but in a way that might be dangerously familiar to anyone watching. “I’m continually surprised by how deep of a metaphor we’re working with this guy,” Badgley said in an interview with TheWrap. “Because there comes a point where when he kills somebody, that’s his response in this story, but we do the same thing in our minds in relationships. We come to believe that the other person in the relationship is the reason that we’re unhappy.”
It’s a line of thinking drilled into us by the love stories we’re told, stories more interested in sweeping emotion than healthy, well-maintained relationships, Badgley says.
“To me, it’s kind of like taking the tropes of modern relationships that we see — which I don’t think are actually healthy functional relationships — and it’s basically just showing us a logical end,” he said. “It’s like, look, this is actually that feeling. When you fucking hate somebody, and you imagine your mind all the ways that you could get out of this scenario that you, that you won’t take responsibility for, that’s Joe.”
Read the full interview with Badgley below.
TheWrap: I wanted to start with the move to Netflix. We saw the show explode in popularity between Season 1 and Season 2 as new viewers found the show, what was your experience of that like?
Badgley: I mean, there was a definite difference, just in the fact that it didn’t have that exposure. And on Lifetime it was much harder to gauge what people thought about it. And, therefore, I think the sort of moral ambiguity of the show and the centering of a character like Joe, I think was definitely a huge question mark … But I think once it went to Netflix and people just overwhelmingly responded, I think that was when I was able to appreciate, “Okay. So this is, it is really striking a chord. It’s pretty relevant in whatever ways it’s relevant.” So I think for me, it was encouraging and heartening, especially going into the second season with a guy who is was just so clearly a villain but given the sort of role of a hero.
You tweeted a while back telling people they should not be attracted to Joe. Was there something in particular that made you feel it was important to clarify that?
Well, I mean, so to be, to be very frank, I mean, I think the first time I ever tweeted anything about that, I was … it was somewhat offhand. It wasn’t meant it wasn’t measured. I wasn’t being extremely thoughtful about it. I chose to get on Twitter to see what kind of response it was having — I think it was mid-January, so the show had been out for about two weeks; I was about to do a bunch of press in Asia for it. So I think that’s what I was like, “I wonder what people are really thinking about this.” So I was just scrolling through a lot of the responses and I just, I noticed what we would call “thirst” for the character.
Look, I mean, it wasn’t remotely surprising, and was it truly disturbing? No. Because I mean, we all knew that was going to happen, but so I just thought I would playfully interact with that … It seems to have taken off and, what’s meaningful for me, is that it has opened up the door to actually have far more meaningful conversations about the themes that the show is working here.
A lot of Season 1, for the viewer, was kind of about seeing how far Joe was willing to go, but Season 2 really sees him trying to pull back and do things differently. For you as an actor, did your approach to the character change at all?
It didn’t really change, I don’t think. Except that it just deepened, and it just became more of what it was. The approach that I have with my coach, I work with, I would say it’s very spiritual, and it doesn’t give a lot of attention to the, I don’t know, techniques and other models. To me, it’s just about being present with the words that you’ve got to say. And I just really, really honed in on that, I think. And there are times where I think it really paid off. And then there are times where I grapple with what is really possible for a man who is capable of what Joe was doing, could he really be that sympathetic. Could he really be that sensitive and caring and charismatic? I’m not sure, but I think I just try to be as present as possible and to mean everything I say, you know?
To the point about being present, when you think about acting opposite Victoria [Pedretti], versus Elizabeth [Lail], did it feel different?
Yeah. They are very different actresses, and they have very different trajectories as characters. So actually everything about it was quite different. The first season was really hard because every time– The first season felt darker to me. I don’t know what it feels like to viewers, but to me, because always knowing that Beck was going to die was really hard. It was really hard to get behind Joe and believe him. And even when I watch it, I can see myself struggling with that. Whereas, I feel like there was less of that in Season 2, because I knew that at least there was some level of parity, some level of equality, some level of– if it’s not justice, it’s at least something closer to equality.
Season 1 followed the book much more closely than Season 2 followed the sequel.
Yeah, a lot more.
Was that part of it, in terms of knowing the ending and what was coming? Did you read the book?
Yeah. I read the first book, and I read some of the second, but I think because it was such a departure, reading the first one was all I needed in terms of understanding the essence of the concept and what Carolyn Kepnes created. And then, actually, I think to a point reading book two was almost problematic because of how different Joe is. I mean, the truth is Joe in the books is a heinous, monstrous, right? Sex addict and his psychosis is in a way, much harder hitting, much deeper cutting. That for me, as a man, at least was very hard to read. I think, interestingly, a lot of women defined a certain affinity with the book for reasons that are complex and you could spend the whole interview on. But I think for me, I really had to at some point choose to depart from the Joe in the books because it’s just not what we’re doing.
I do want to ask in what specific ways you feel that they’re different. The two characters feel very different, but when you look at it on paper, he’s doing a lot of the same things.
He does the same things, but I think we — whether this is wrong or right, better or worse — I think we’ve made Joe a lot more palatable. We had to somewhat revise the peaks and the valleys that you go through as a reader with Joe, because, keep in mind, the device is something you cannot literally translate. You’re actually inside Joe’s head in the book. The medium is just so different. To really be in that mind and to bring it to life and see it more visually, I think would be quite disturbing. Think about some of the things that happen in the book. They’re so much more graphic, and I think because there’s a certain, there’s a safety in reading where you kick yourself along as the reader. When you’re watching something, it’s a different goal. It’s a lot more passive. So I think, so in a way, if we really brought Joe to life from the books, it would be more violent. It would be more like an attack … To me, the difference really is that he has to be a more sympathetic character in a visual medium. He just has to be. So you have these abusive relationships with these young people to kind of do that, like Paco is key.
The dimension of Joe from the books that I focused on is this sincere desire to investigate and know the inner essence of another person. I focused on that. And I think that informed my approach probably more than anything.
One of the really fun things as a viewer watching Season 2 was seeing him move to LA and seeing how he interacts with a different kind of city culture. For you as an actor, how much did that element of setting factor into what you were doing?
Well, it was a different experience. I mean, I found being Joe in LA was more isolating. It was probably also partly because I wasn’t in my own home. I was actually displaced. And playing Joe is isolating anyway. [But] overall, I had a more enjoyable experience in Season 2. It’s hard to recall what it was, but I think I was able to have more fun with Joe because I’d already gotten in the water. I think the first season was just constantly struggling with like, “Damn this dude,” you know? But the second time around I was able to play with it more, I think. And I don’t know if you see that on the camera, but.
One thing Sera [Gamble, showrunner] really emphasized is that the show has no interest in redeeming Joe. But there is a point in those later episodes where it does seem like he’s at the very least willing to accept the consequences of what he’s done.
That doesn’t come to bear, but have you thought at all about what that would’ve meant for Joe and how that might’ve affected him as a person?
Yeah, obviously I’ve thought about it a lot, but I don’t know what it would mean because in a sense it didn’t really happen. It’s like he came dangerously close to the event horizon of a black hole, but he didn’t cross it … If Joe is really a real person, what would it take to redeem someone like him? And I think this is a legitimate question. We can probably ask anybody because it’s like, what does it take? What do we mean when we say redemption or justice? What does that actually mean for him? Does it mean death? Does it mean prisons? Is it possible for someone who’s done those things to transform? Actually? I mean, these are actually really big questions. And so, to me, I think the entire show is kind of like an exercise in exploring that question. Because it has to do with why we also were so willing to watch a show about a guy like this.
Do you feel like your thought processes on those questions have changed since you’ve done the show?
I don’t know that they’ve radically changed, but they’ve probably developed.
When you think about the way that the season ended and how Love ultimately comes to him on his level, is that a good thing for Joe? A bad thing for Joe?
Well, I think it’s good. It’s good for Joe, and it’s good for the viewer because he’s confronted the very thing that he wanted. That he believes he wanted. And he realizes, “Oh, that’s not even close to what I wanted.” Because what he actually wants– I mean, he’s such a damaged, traumatized person, and he’s become so awful and blind and abusive that what he actually wants is to destroy people. What he actually wants is to control people and annihilate them. But he thinks that he wants to love them.
I’m continually surprised by how deep of a metaphor we’re working with this guy. Because there comes a point where when he kills somebody, that’s his response in this story, but we do the same thing in our minds in relationships. We come to believe that the other person in the relationship is the reason that we’re unhappy, as opposed to understanding that we have personal work to do to realize that no one can actually fulfill the needs that we have, our deepest most, our deep most needs. And that actually the point of a relationship is not to be made happy and to be fulfilled by another person. That actually, a healthy relationship doesn’t serve that purpose in your life. What we should be doing is sacrificing our desires and learning to be of service to each other.
But the model of relationships in storytelling that we see in TV and movies, most of the time, is not that at all. It’s only the beginning when you fall in love, which is basically the same thing as taking drugs. It’s like, “How high can we get? How high can we get off of each other?” And then once that’s gone, “Well, we’re going to break up. Or we’re going to end the movie and assume that everything works out.”
So, to me, it’s kind of like taking the tropes of modern relationships that we see — which I don’t think are actually healthy functional relationships — and it’s basically just showing us a logical end. It’s like, look, this is actually that feeling. When you fucking hate somebody, and you imagine your mind all the ways that you could get out of this scenario that you, that you won’t take responsibility for, that’s Joe. He’s just been following the logic really awfully. So that’s the way that I find him to be a really compelling, the whole show and him to be this really compelling journey.
Like you said, it’s kind of the project of the show to explore these questions without answering them definitively either way.
Yeah, not at all.
But do you get the sense that this is a thing, this is the lesson that Joe could learn? Is that even possible in his world?
I mean, it could be that if Joe really learns that, the whole premise of the show starts to unravel, right? What would it mean for him to learn that? I mean, I think it’d be really compelling to see him start to learn it, but I think past a certain point the show then no longer– It kind of undoes itself. But I think this is actually what the creators have in mind at some point … What would that mean? And I think Greg and Sarah are very smart, and they’ve probably been thinking about this the whole time.
I know some of the writing for Season 3 is already underway. Have you read any of it yet? Do you know what’s in store?
No. I know almost nothing. I just know that there’s a baby.
What’s your sense of what that means for Joe personally and his relationship with Love?
At least for me, I know that by the end of every season so far, it’s kind of dawned on me how it is such a functioning metaphor for the way that we all struggle personally in relationships when we are selfish. Ultimately this comes down to this thing where it’s like, “Are we self-serving? Or are we serving others?” Are we self-serving, or self-sacrificing? Joe ultimately always chooses himself. And I think that’s going to be reflected now in the dynamic of parenthood and family households more than it has. So I’m really interested to see what that means. But I really don’t know. How does a child change him? And how does a child not change him? I think that’s going to be a really, really interesting question.
“You” Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Netflix.