Penn Badgley Is Done Rooting For The Anti-Hero
The actor on Joe Goldberg’s killer journey in You, a Gossip Girl crossover, and his warning to fans of the show.
Spoilers ahead for You Season 4 Part 2
It’s a rainy afternoon in Soho, London, when I meet with Penn Badgley, just a day before the release of You Season 4, Part 2. A fitting location, given it’s the latest city upon which relentless serial killer Joe Goldberg has wreaked havoc. Badgley has portrayed the titular character since the series premiered in 2018, and understands better than anyone the shock factor of the show. “At the end of every season, somehow, we manage to really stick the landing,” Badgley tells me, reflecting on the tumultuous plot twist which governs the latter part of Season 4.
Joe’s self-righteous hunt to take down the “Eat The Rich Killer” takes a turn when we discover that it has, in fact, been him doing the killing all along. He loses his grip on reality, as does the audience, when it transpires that he has repressed the murders. And so, we journey back with him as he tries to piece together what he’s done. Along with going on a murderous rampage whilst in the UK, Joe has also reassembled his infamous glass box to aid in the kidnapping of his ex-girlfriend Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), and he even frames two people for his various killings. Joe gets away with it all, of course, and retreats back to his native New York to start life anew with his latest love interest, Kate Galvin (Charlotte Ritchie). The near-unbelievable nature of what transpires is part of the beauty for Badgley. “People talk about realism… Shakespeare didn’t concern himself with that. Storytelling is its own world, so what has to be real and true is the emotional residence, not so much the plot points,” he muses. “It’s high camp and high art, but amidst all the absurdity, we always bring it home.”
In the closing scenes of Season 4, Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” plays overhead as we see how Joe remains relatively unscathed and unremorseful, having left a trail of destruction in his wake. The choice of song is poignant, and a full circle moment as Badgley made his TikTok debut in late 2022 by filming a witty video pinning Joe as the focal point of the track. Swift sings “it must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero,” but is any part of Badgley still rooting for his on-screen persona? As viewers, we are always teased with the possibility that Joe is trying to change for the better, but Badgley knows the character all too well to believe in that. “‘Root’ is not a word I could ever use for him,” the actor admits. “Every now and then, I peek into the abyss that would be Joe’s emotional state and it’s so, eurgh, inconceivably chilling.” As he does often during our time together, Badgley takes a moment to mull over my question some more. “My mind goes to a lot of interesting places, and I don’t want to speak out of turn,” he notes. “I don’t want him [Joe] or anyone to suffer, but… I wish he could get out of that abyss, but I don’t know, or think anyone knows, what that would require. I guess it’s a pretty big moral or spiritual matter.”
By means of dealing with, or compartmentalising, his murderous behaviour, the S4 twist reveals that Joe has manifested the deepest, most tortured part of his broken soul into an imagined version of Rhys Montrose, portrayed by Ed Speleers. The actual Rhys ends up being a notch on Joe’s murder post, while the warped, suited depiction of Rhys — Joe’s inner voice — comes across in the same vein as an imaginary friend. Intrigued by the thought, I ask Badgley if he ever had one growing up. “I had an active imagination, and I would probably talk to myself like I was in a play or something, but I never had a full imaginary friend,” he ponders. “I think they have something to do with a desire for companionship, which I had as I was alone a lot as an only child.”
The idea of companionship circles us back to Joe, whose romantic endeavours — however corrupted they might be — lie at the heart of the show. Badgley recently sparked a conversation when he revealed that during early behind-the-scenes talks with the You crew, he specifically requested less “intimate” scenes, citing the fidelity to his real-life partner, Domino Kirke, who he married in 2017, as a concerning factor. Badgley, who also serves as a producer on the show, came to an agreement with You’s co-creator Sera Gamble, finding a compromise that suited both his personal boundaries and the series. “We know why anything that’s graphic is compelling, but how can you be compelling with restraint?” he muses. “To me, my personal boundary is such because there’s one thing in the world that you can’t simulate, and that’s a kiss or a touch, it’s a nervous system response. For that reason, to me it's very clear: let’s just be scientific about it.”
Badgley considers it a conversation with many facets, and one he enjoys exploring. “In this modern age, we’re saturated with love stories, which are sometimes just sex stories, you know?” he laughs. “I’m still interested in love stories and telling some from my own perspective. I have some ideas for that in development right now with my production company. I don’t want to tell something that’s, like, dry, loveless and, [puts on a British accent] Victorian or something like that. I want to tell modern love stories.” The prevalence of sex in society expands far beyond the realm of TV and film, Badgley argues. “Our culture is so sex-obsessed. And sex-inconsistent, by the way. It’s like, can we pick a lane? To me, the way we’ve regarded it, is also reflected in the treatment of women. It’s like ‘Cover them up!’ then it’s ‘Get them naked!’”
In You, meanwhile, a hallmark of Joe’s personality is the obsession he wages over the women he finds himself attracted to, who typically end up dead by his hand. The eerily seductive “Hello, you” greeting he uses is often quoted by fans, some of whom have romanticised Joe and the doomed relationships he embarks upon. Badgley has always been very vocal in discouraging this. When one fan tweeted the actor with a simple request to “kidnap me, pls,” he was quick in his response, sending a clear message with: “No thx.” Badgley tells me that while much of his Twitter activity in this sense has been “tongue-in-cheek,” there are real concerns on his end. “In the age of streaming, people consume things so quickly, you’re not always able to digest it. That’s a really important thing to lose, especially for young people. All I’ve done, what I think is the right thing to do, is remind people to not just binge it without processing,” he explains.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Badgley has encountered a passionate fanbase. The 36-year-old started acting in his childhood, and his big break came when he was cast as Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl. The show became a pop culture landmark upon its release in 2007, lasting for six series and launching the careers of its young cast, which included Blake Lively, Badgley’s on-screen love interest and real-life partner of three years. While Dan was initially presented as the Brooklyn-based voice of reason, a welcome contrast to his Upper East Side counterparts at their private school, the finale revealed that Dan was, shock horror, the eponymous “Gossip Girl” blogger who had tortured his peer group through the means of an anonymous blog. This stalker-like tendency is something both Dan and Joe share, resulting in somewhat of a crossover between the two characters.
Although far removed from the heinous acts depicted by Joe, the Gossip Girl characters were ruthless in their own way. So then, who out of the Gossip Girl crew would be able to defeat Joe once and for all, I ask. Badgley laughs. “That’s interesting. It would be Blair [Waldorf], right?” he says. I tell him I’d most likely hedge my bets on Georgina Sparks. “I forgot about her! She’s crazy. She easily could,” the actor enthuses. “Or maybe Dorota [Blair’s long-suffering maid]. That would be satisfying.” Thinking hard, Badgley offers another possibility. “What about Dan’s brother? Remember him? Chris, was his name?” He’s referring to the often-forgotten half-sibling Scott Rosson, who was indeed played by Chris Riggi.
Outside of his fictional lives, Badgley dedicates much of his time today to his Podcrushed podcast which sees him, alongside co-hosts Nava Kavelin and Sophie Ansari, revisit his middle school years (age 11 to 13). The trio take trips down memory lane alongside their guests, with Badgley sometimes getting visits from former co-stars such as Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester and Chace Crawford. Badgley's family life with Kirke, specifically them raising children, has informed the show’s reflective nature.
The actor and his wife welcomed their son James in 2020, but it’s Kirke’s first-born son from a previous relationship, Cassius, who has had a great impact on the audio series. “He’s 14. Throughout the duration of the podcast, he’s been in that [middle school] phase. Much of it was in lockdown, which is a strange stage of our times, but he’s very much informed the podcast,” reveals Badgley. “Any insights I have are because I’m struggling in my real life to make it a reality to communicate and be open and vulnerable with him and anyone else in that age group.”
Reflecting on his own past is something that Badgley embraces, meanwhile. During our interview, I’m surprised by the ease at which he discusses Gossip Girl, in particular. It can sometimes be the case where actors are eager not to revisit former hit shows, especially when they’re in the midst of promoting something else. “Maybe to a fault, but I’ve never been unwilling to talk about it. It has, of course always, been a giant question. I was open to reflect during it, in a way which kind of bit me in the a** sometimes,” Badgley admits. “I think the only way I could have eclipsed Dan is with somebody who’s able to murder him, and that’s Joe. I feel confident in the fact that I’m past him [Dan], so I don’t need anybody else to be past him.”