In Lifetime’s YOU, Penn Badgley goes from playing Lonely Boy to playing… Lonelier Boy? The former Gossip Girl star takes on the role of Joe Goldberg, a New Yorker with a love of books and an even greater love of Beck, a twentysomething poet played by Elizabeth Lail. Once Joe meets Beck, there’s no turning back. First he combs through all her social media accounts. Next he steals her phone so he can read her texts. And then there’s that whole lurking-outside-her-bedroom-window thing. Translation: Joe is stalker who will do anything in the name of “love.”
EW spoke with Badgley about his latest role and why he was so hesitant to join the new series (which is based on the 2014 Caroline Kepnes novel of the same name).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your initial reaction to this role?
PENN BADGLEY: I didn’t want to do it — it was too much. I was conflicted with the nature of the role. If this is a love story, what is it saying? It’s not an average show; it’s a social experiment. And then what was key in me wanting to jump on board were my conversations with Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, the creators, and understanding Joe’s humanity. I knew that I would be conflicted about the role from day one till the last day, and that is why they thought I would be good for it, is that I’m not psyched to play somebody of this nature.
How would you describe Joe?
He’s exceedingly curious and investigative and so sensitive, and ultimately traumatized. But I think if there are any larger social-level questions at work here, the question for all of us as we watch it is: Where do we draw the line in what we would or wouldn’t do following in his footsteps?
So you’re not like, “Joe’s so great!”
Not even close. To be honest, in the beginning of the process, I had no interest in humanizing him. Like, please, spare us. But then I realized the only thing you can do as an actor is bring a character to life, and all that that means.
How does the show compare to the book?
The show is different enough from the book. There are some key moments that are there, but they’re in a different place and happening in a very different way, and then there are some events that I loved in the book that are not just not there, it’s like the opposite happens. So that actually opens up this whole new alternate reality in the show that just doesn’t exist in the book. I think that’s where people who have read the book will hopefully be excited and be drawn to it, and then people who haven’t read the book, what’s the difference?
So much of your performance is voice-over. How did that change your experience?
It ended up meaning that my level of involvement was closer to that of sometimes almost an editor, sometimes a producer, sometimes a cinematographer, only in the sense that I had to be conscious of things that I think often actors very specifically do not want to be conscious of in order to maintain a certain level of spontaneity to their performance. It was very technical. Often I would go to work and not actually have any spoken lines that day. I felt much closer to a crew member and just part of this team making this thing. I personally really liked that. It took some of the preciousness away from my particular role.
What was your biggest concern when it came to Joe?
The only thing I was really concerned about was not wetting my own nature make him too human, human in a way that maybe somebody like him can’t be.
Are you more or less likely to Google someone after taking on this role?
Because I came into fame so early on, I’ve never done that. I don’t investigate through the internet about people who I know in the same way that I think most people do because I know what that’s like to be on the other end of it. I think it gave me a certain kind of discipline, or empathy. I don’t really use social media in that way because of my nature to fame, notoriety, whatever it is. [The show] didn’t change the way I thought about any of this stuff, except that I learned how easy it would be for somebody to do this.
YOU premieres Sunday, Sept. 9, at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.