Behind the scenes of our photo shoot with the bearded actor.
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Penn Badgley
Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Photo shoots, like most creative ideas, don’t usually go according to plan. And that’s usually for the best.

For EW’s new digital cover featuring Penn Badgley, we started our brainstorm with “you know, something like American Psycho” and ended up with (my words) “sort of a demented Bachelor.”

As Joe Goldberg on YOU, Badgley is uncommonly, unnervingly charming — no matter how many people he kills, right around the corner will be another sweet, almost-but-not-quite cloying romantic moment that makes you swoon. Our digital covers aren’t shot in character exactly, but I think they work best when they evoke both the actor’s own personalities and the general, to be very California about it, vibe of the project.

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With YOU having up and moved from New York to Los Angeles — and also from Lifetime to Netflix — we were looking for a way to capture both the inherent darkness of the series and its dreamy seductiveness. EW’s photo editor Alison Wild worked closely with photographer Mark Leibowitz to imagine a series of setups that, like the show, would dig deeper into that dichotomy.

“We wanted to walk the line between showing Penn as himself while letting his character add some not so subtle twists,” Leibowitz says. “We began with the idea of blood on glass, similar to the cage in the bookstore. From there, determining how to reveal Penn was the key, and we decided on a squeegee for the dramatic lines it created in the composition. We also loved mixing flowers and blood, especially the graphic nature of blood dripping from the flowers.”

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What you can’t fully count on until you’re really in the thick of a shoot is how the subject will respond to the environment you’ve created. Badgley is a thinky, smart actor who’s well aware his character’s become a most problematic fave — and at EW’s shoot, he seemed to relish the chance to play with that a little.

“Penn’s ability to make subtle adjustments in his character and expression is one of the things that makes him such an incredible actor,” Leibowitz says. “During the shoot, I spoke with him about specific actions and nuanced directions — he nailed all of them.”

This was Leibowitz’s first shoot for EW, but he’s well-versed in motion portraiture. “You need more than ‘the moment’ that you capture in a photograph,” he explains, “so as we are concepting each idea, we always look to create a narrative arc within the talent’s actions. The idea is to have a start, middle, and end for each of the moving portraits, just like you would in a longer narrative piece.” He also credits his wife, Domenica — who was the production designer for Badgley’s shoot — with deeply impacting how he thinks about his work. “She is constantly pushing me to find ideas and inspirations beyond photography and film,” Leibowitz says, including museums and artists who work in diverse mediums, architects, and fashion.

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On the technical side, for this shoot Leibowitz and his team used a Steadicam with a RED camera flipped 90 degrees for the vertical format; after each series of motion was captured, the photographer would jump in front of of the RED setup to shoot additional stills. (That means we can offer all the YOU reaction GIFs you’ll ever need and a full gallery of gorgeous stills to put on your lock screens.)

We’ve also broken convention in one other way by holding these shots and Samantha Highfill’s brilliant cover story until just after the second season dropped on Netflix late last night/early this morning, rather than in the window leading up to its premiere. We know exactly how it feels to want to absolutely immerse yourself in the show you love first, then go looking for all the no-holds-barred extra explanation and other goods. (Credit to Sam also for, uh, not quite stalking me but rather insistently following up to suggest I watch the show and consider this for a cover. I’m very glad I gave in.)

We’ve got more spoilers, analysis, interviews, and binge recaps to come on EW.com throughout the day and week ahead. I hope you’ll have as much fun devouring Badgley in all his bearded glory as we had making this digital cover.

— Shana Naomi Krochmal
Digital Director, EW

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