Penn Badgley Has No Interest in Being the Next Internet Boyfriend

Don't swoon over the You star...he really doesn't want you to.

By Tierney Bricker Jan 09, 2019 3:47 PMTags
You, Lifetime, Penn BadgleyLifetime

Spotted: Lonely Boy masturbating outside of his dream girl's apartment in NYC.

No, this isn't a storyline from a very twisted revival of Gossip Girl; it's a scene straight out of the premiere of You, Netflix's stalker drama starring Penn Badgley

Of course, Badgley, 31, is best known for playing Dan Humphrey, the too-hipster-to-define-himself-as-a-hipster outsider, for six seasons on The CW's Gossip Girl. And he's also known for being publicly conflicted over the fact that he will probably always be known for playing Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl, which was once a full-blown pop culture phenomenon, shooting Badgley and his then mostly unknown co-stars, including former girlfriend Blake Lively, into hyper-fame. Think the Riverdale gang without Instagram.

We Ranked All the Gossip Girl Couples
Watch: Penn Badgley, Elizabeth Lail & Shay Mitchell Talk New Series "You"

But Badgley never really seemed to enjoy the fame that came along with the show, struggling to comprehend it in interviews.

"It really does feel like we're living the show sometimes," he told New York Magazine way back in 2008. "The psychology of celebrity is such a weird and new thing. I think the last time people treated anybody else like this was demigods like in the time of ancient Greece."

The irony, of course, is that Badgley was a well-chiseled cog in the machine he was so wary of, inadvertently fueling it by dating his co-star who played his girlfriend on the show, blurring the line between reality and fiction. 

And as the series continued, with storylines getting more and more outrageous, Badgley's tendency to hate on Gossip Girl became an on-going theme. 

While promoting his turn as the late singer Jeff Buckley in the critically acclaimed indie Greetings From Tim Buckley, Badgley took a dig at the show.

Andrew Eccles / The CW

To be proud of something is a really nice feeling... And it's a new feeling, and it's something that I wanna keep going with," he told Salon. "I can walk a little taller feeling that I don't have to be constantly apologizing for the work that I've done in the past."


In a 2017 Vanity Fair article looking back on the show's run, showrunner Josh Safran had this insight that we're not sure the actor would love, but makes sense: "Penn didn't like being on Gossip Girl, but...he was Dan. He may not have liked it, but [his character] was the closest to who he was."

After Gossip Girl finished its six-season run in controversial fashion thanks to its decision to reveal the identity of Gossip Girl in 2012, Badgley needed a break--possibly a permanent one—from television.

"It's just the nature of television. And that's why after so many years of working in it, I was, Seriously? I cannot do this anymore," he said in an interview with Vulture as the show was ending. "Not to discredit whatever success I have, but right now being famous, being successful, whatever, it exists in this giant gray area."

He went on to admit, "I think there was a phase where I was really upset. I was 23 years old and wanting to be an artist, and I was on a f--king TV show. Going to fashion parties and stuff. I was like, 'What the fuck am I doing?'"

Badgley did a take a break from acting, but not from the headlines, thanks to his two-year relationship with Zoe Kravitz and attending Occupy Wall Street protests. He made music and toured with his band. He appeared in a few indie films. 

In 2015, he made a brief return to TV in NBC's The Slap, a mini-series that premiered and faded away about as fast as the red marks left on skin after a slap. In 2017, Badgley married Domino KirkeJemima Kirke's sister—in a courthouse wedding in Brooklyn. 

Which brings us to You, Badgley's official foray back into life as a conflicted leading man—on and off-screen.


Based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes, You centers on Badgley's character Joe, a smart and charming bookstore manager who likes a girl (Beck, played by Elizabeth Lail). So he decides to use social media to stalk her and gaslight her into dating him. If that sounds creepy, it's because it is. It really is. He follows her. He masturbates outside of her apartment. He believes he's entitled to her simply because he believe he's the only one who really sees her. "What you really need is someone to save you," is how he justifies his behavior in a voice-over.

But Badgley, aware of pop culture's tendency to romanticize troubling behavior from men, specifically attractive white men (see: Edward Cullen, Christian Grey), is clearly struggling with this role, knowing Joe's actions will likely be the inspiration for .GIFs that will be shared and swooned over on social media. 

"I personally was troubled..." he told E! News of the role. "I understood the appeal, but I was really ambivalent. I was really troubled, and that was also what [executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble] said was appropriate about me playing him. I remain ambivalent. I'm really questioning why people like Joe so much."

He added, "He's like a troll, like a real troll, like an internet troll." Alas, most trolls do not have that jaw line and that head of hair you just want to run your hands through. Most trolls aren't handsome white men who viewers can't possibly imagine doing something wrong because then they have to question their attraction or come to terms with the fact that someone "pretty" can be downright ugly.

"I personally feel it is a bit of a social experiment. It's a litmus test to see the mental gymnastics that we're still willing to perform on a cultural level, to love an evil white man," Badgley said on stage at the show's panel during the 2018 Summer TCA Press Tour. "I'm very curious. I'm not nervous, personally, because we shot it already I suppose. I think it'll certainly add to the conversation and it'll create its own conversation, so I'm looking forward to the response."

Well, here's a few we found when we searched the show on Twitter after the premiere on Sunday night:

In the premiere episode alone, he hacks into her phone, breaks into her apartment, and (spoiler alert!) almost kills her on-and-off again d--khead boyfriend. 

"'Yeah, but he loves her, but he's sweet, but it's a love story!'" Badgley imagines fans saying to justify why they like Joe when he talked to E! News ahead of the premiere. "In what world?! I don't believe that's love. I don't think that love equals this, so I think we have to question, what is love, and if we think this is love, where are we mistaken?"

The social media-stalking and obsession is something Badgley knows about, thanks to his years as a teen dream on Gossip Girl, saying he became the object of "pretty full-on obsession." 

"I think as an actor you can become an object of desire, which is something women are already accustomed to more or less around the world—I've definitely been, I mean I don't want to sound sensationalist, but I've literally been molested—just in the literal sense of the word—by many people in the moment," he said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. "Because that's what they do." 

The publication reported Badgley was "thoughtful and cautious" while discussing his experiences and he #MeToo movement, noting he was "quick to acknowledge the privilege that being a man, not to mention a white man, affords him."

In a statement to provided to E! News, Badgley clarified his comments: 

"The point of my comment was not to confess a personal trauma. I was speaking about the way emotional and physical boundaries are violated for someone in the public eye, who is seen as an object of desire. Depending on so many factors, it can range from conscious abuse to something very unconscious— and that is the point I was making, cautiously, in the context of a conversation about fanaticism and cultural norms which support manipulative or abusive behavior. These are the same norms which support predatory men, but not exclusively predatory men. They affect, and infect, us all."

Working on the show proved to be a "learning experience" for its leading man, who noted that You is a conversation-starter of a show for the post-Me Too TV era. 

"I think that a lot of the conversations that we're having around the show are elevated and have a depth that I really appreciate because, for all the faults and all of the perils of the times we live in, we are becoming more sensitive to some things," he said in The Daily Beast interview. "I think it's significant that a show like this is coming out now, because if it had come out any other time, we might not have been having these necessary conversations around it. And we might have been all too ready to consume something that I think actually has some really dangerous seeds in it."


So after experiencing the highs and lows of Gossip Girl's success, Badgley said, "I definitely took a break. I definitely had to question if I wanted to keep doing what I've been doing. But I'm excited—I think."

Badgley's often made fun of and criticized Dan Humphrey in past interviews, once calling him a "judgmental douchebag," his relationship with Joe and You itself seems just as complicated, just for completely different reasons, ones he will continue to have to wrestle with as Lifetime has already picked up a second season of the psychological thriller.  

"I guess like everything that I've done," he said, "I have a conflicted relationship to it."

You season one is now streaming on Netflix, with season two coming.

Originally published on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, 12:47 p.m. PT.

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