In You, Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, a good-looking serial killer, with irresistible menace. Joe often hides away his victims inside an elaborately constructed clear box, limiting what they do, until he can move on to the next step in whatever nefarious plans he has for them. People leave the box only via escape or death. And for the start of Season 4, Badgley wanted out of his own box—and he no longer wanted to do sex scenes.
“I’ve been typecast. Let’s be real,” Badgley laughs from his square of our video call. Inside the box of our computer screens, Badgley wears an oatmeal-colored sweater over a black shirt. His dark beard is full and thick. His careless curls, perhaps in need of a trim (but don’t you dare!), bounce in place over his right eyebrow. He is a handsome man, with a voice and face made for swoons. Yet after the success of Gossip Girl and now You, plus his early roles as thick-necked teen crushes in films like John Tucker Must Die and Easy A, he’s ready to move away from playing the romantic lead.
“I think there’s a million stories you can tell and just realize that you don’t have to include [intimacy scenes] in the same way,” Badgley says. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t tell the story about love. It’s just you don’t have to do it the same way. Now, if it’s just a story about a guy and a girl falling in love, well, yeah. Then you’re up against the challenge there. But I’ve told that story, you know, and I can’t say that I’m very interested in it anymore.”
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After Badgley revealed his desire to step away from sex scenes, social media squeezed every bit of juice out of the topic, with a surprising amount of scorn. How could he be okay with depicting heinous acts of murder and kidnapping but not love scenes?
“I also don’t wanna do that,” Badgley responds. “When you are simulating murder, nothing of reality is happening. When you are simulating sex, your body is touching another person’s body. There is an act that is not being simulated. Right? Would I like to play a less violent person? Are you fucking kidding me? Of course. Would I like to not depict all these things? Sure. It’s a case-by-case basis, but when my body actually touches another person’s body, that’s not a simulation. That’s the only thing that isn’t being simulated. Everything else is being simulated.”
Badgley digs further into that criticism. “That blood’s not real. Those people who died, they’re alive, you know? If this is a larger conversation about what we do and don’t want to tell stories about … sure. But I’m not a writer in any of these things. I just started directing, and I am producing and developing things with my company. If anybody’s wondering about hypocrisy or, you know, really stepping up to the plate and delivering on what I’m talking about, well, just wait and see, because everything I’m developing delivers in that sense.”
The actor claims he’s felt uncomfortable with sex scenes from the beginning of his career, but didn’t feel he had the ability or enough clout to express his discomfort and be taken seriously. As the #MeToo movement highlighted, it’s a struggle many women have also had to face in Hollywood. Considering some of the backlash he’s received for saying no more sex scenes, is he more empathetic to what women often go through, when coerced into revealing more of themselves than they may like, for the sake of the script?
Yes. Badgley explains, “I’ve been doing this professionally for 25 years. I’ve been pursuing a career for that long, and I’ve been pretty finely tuned to this for most of that time, and felt very uncomfortable with a lot of the things I’ve had to do throughout my entire career. It doesn’t have to be sexual. It’s just, as an actor, you are an object. And that is the experience of women largely. It’s also the experience of men, but the dynamic that develops for women and men is different.”
He continues, “I’m hopefully always becoming increasingly sensitive to the plight of others generally, and specifically to women as it comes to sexual objectification and specifically in our industry. I’ve always thought about that. So again, none of this thinking for me is new, to be honest. I have been painfully aware of these challenges that especially women face in our industry for quite some time. I’ve said publicly that there have been a few moments where I’ve questioned whether or not I could continue acting. This is one of the reasons.”
Badgley’s frustration with the acting industry is clear as he wonders out loud if he wants to stay in an “atmosphere where objectification is the norm.” But Hollywood is an industry that places high value on beauty and charisma, both of which Badgley has plenty of. Penn’s foundational audience, the people who will watch him in each project he does, follow his work largely because they are physically attracted to him. That’s no disrespect to his talent and skills as an actor, but we must be honest. He is an object of desire. How does he juggle the need to walk away from being that object with the vain machinations of Hollywood and the projections of his audience?
“Uh, hopefully one day with grace,” Badgley laughs with self-deprecation. “I mean, you know, the short answer is talk to my therapist.” He laughs at himself again. “The slightly longer answer is something like, if anyone’s been conscious of the way that I hold myself publicly and has wondered why I’ve expressed so much resistance and conflict throughout, go back to early Gossip Girl days. I was saying the same stuff then. At least I’m consistent, right?”
It seems important for Badgley to make it clear that his thoughts on the unrealistic expectations of actors have been around for a long time. He even brings up the old rumors that Denzel Washington supposedly has in his contracts that he won’t kiss his costars as proof that placing these types of intimacy boundaries is nothing new.
Badgley’s current show, You, is all about boundaries—those of love and justice. Joe Goldberg constantly slips past those boundaries with violent, deadly results. However, in group chat and happy hour discussions of the show, my friends and I couldn’t help but notice there is a certain group of rare Joe survivors: Black women. It’s pretty refreshing to see Black women make it out of a serial killer-based thriller alive. We can’t help but wonder if that’s on purpose.
“I’m not the one in the writers’ room, but I’m pretty sure it was quite deliberate,” Badgley says. “Karen Minty was written, I think, as a very white, like, Long Island woman in the book series. And I think that was at first maybe a deliberate and conscious choice to have a moment of casting diversity, whatever you want to call that. But I think, as it’s now played out, I think it’s become more deliberate and more conscious.” (In the first season, Karen Minty is played by Natalie Paul, who is Black. In the third season, Tati Gabrielle and Shalita Grant star as Marienne Bellamy and Sherry Conrad, respectively. By the time Season 4 begins, all three women have different levels of intimate knowledge of Joe, but manage to walk away, although with varying degrees of trauma.)
We pause to discuss a potential spoiler, and I admit that as great as it would be to have Black women take down Joe Goldberg, I wouldn’t want the show to land on the messy and lazy progressive attitude that Black women will save the world. Badgley agrees that could be tricky.
“I know. Yeah. Trust me. I’ve thought a lot about that too. And I think [the showrunners] could also delicately just leave it so that nobody comes back and just be like, ‘Look, we did a good thing for a bit.’” It goes back to the boundaries of justice. What would be the right end to Joe and the series? Badgley argues that if some of Joe’s victims gathered to take matters into their own hands, then that’s no longer justice. It’s vengeance, and it brings them down to his level. But if Joe ends up in jail, it brings up prison abolition and the American carceral state. Badgley admits he’d love to see the conversation that would happen if Joe went to prison.
Badgley loves to remind people how terrible Joe is and that being attracted to Joe is a problem, but he also loves to poke fun at the character, like in his first official TikTok, using Taylor Swift’s song “Anti-Hero.” He first used TikTok with his Podcrushed cohosts, Nava Kavelin and Sophie Ansari. On Podcrushed, Badgley reads audience-submitted middle school stories that examine teenage heartbreak and self-exploration. Once Badgley and his cohosts saw Swift’s video for the song, they realized it would be the perfect moment for him to launch his own account. He hasn’t really curated his For You page yet, because he mostly uses the platform to interact with his friends, but he does watch a lot of “dad stuff,” which is fathers making content with their kids. Badgley has a child with his wife, Domino Kirke, and she has one from a previous relationship. What has parenthood been like for him?
“People associate parenthood with the burden,” Badgley begins. “Yes. These things are hard, like time management … . Is there pressure? Absolutely. And I take it very seriously. I’m not dismissing the extreme rigors of parenthood, especially when you think about single parents. But in a way, I feel like my wife and I have put the work into [it], so that there is something of a foundation for our kids. And when you have that, it can feel light. It actually can feel great.”
He goes on to say that parenthood has shown him what community means, and that even though parenthood can hit you like a freight train, it is “a radical act of hope.” He continues, “[In] our culture, it’s somehow like drinking and smoking and doing drugs is nonconformist. And having kids is conformist. And when you experience these things in reality, I feel like it’s just the complete opposite. To be a good parent is a radical act.”
As a child-free woman, I can’t speak to the act of parenting, but if Badgley’s well-documented love of D’Angelo is anything to go by, he knows what he’s talking about.
“Here’s the thing about being a D’Angelo fan. There’s something to Joe in there actually. It’s like, you will never be—you will never get what you want,” Badgley laughs in frustration. D’Angelo notoriously takes a long time between projects. Since his debut in 1995, the singer has released a total of three albums, the last of which, Black Messiah, came out in 2014. No other album tops what Voodoo means to Badgley, who has had his own music career as lead singer for the band MOTHXR. They released an album called Centerfold in 2016, but Badgley isn’t sure if he’ll return to music professionally.
“Professionally, it’s very hard to say, ’cause there’s so much that comes with that,” he admits with a pained look on his face.
Moving back to perhaps safer territory … Does Badgley know how You will end? Yes, he says, and it’s perfect for Joe Goldberg, but he cannot reveal it. Fine, but maybe he could speak to how he would want the show to end if he weren’t starring in it? Again, Badgley chuckles through his response.
“I would love for people to just be like, ‘Wow, it’s over and I feel good and I don’t want to watch it again.”
Nichole Perkins is the author of Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be (Grand Central Publishing, 2021).