Jazz Tangcay talks to Penn Badgley about his acting process and playing the dark and twisted Joe in You.
In You, Penn Badgley plays Joe, a bookstore owner. Based on the book by Caroline Kepnes, Joe isn’t all he seems to be. He’s creepy. He’s dark. And he’s obsessive. When he meets Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), he resorts to Google and social media to find out all he can about her. It’s what Joe does and as it turns out, he’s not the perfect nice guy.
I recently caught up with Badgley to talk about having to play this twisted character and what his process is as an actor when it comes to playing someone so disturbing.
Read our talk below and find out what Penn’s Forever movies are:
What was it like the first time you saw Joe on the page? Had you read the book before this?
I hadn’t read the book. I first started reading the script. I was compelled by the project as a whole. I think I was uncertain about Joe, and that uncertainty was increased by reading the book. The book is unrelenting because you never get outside of his mind. The things you’re able to do in the eco-system of the mind are very different on the page than showing it on camera. The more I read the book, the more certain I was — for all of the graces of the project — I knew I didn’t really want to embody this guy.
Someone like Joe has to be translated into a character that you’re witnessing on camera. Those were the things about Joe that I was attracted to ultimately. As I say, I was uncertain and I think I am still and so it’s this ongoing conversation between myself and the writers.
We’re really inside his side, even as a viewer and it’s dark. How do you craft someone like that and not let them embody you because he’s not a great guy at the end of the day?
As an actor, it’s an incredible exercise in staying present and not letting the past or the future get in the way. For all of the intellectualization and methodology that an actor is going to engage in, at the end of the day, it’s our job to be constant and be present. Hopefully, we can be quite spontaneous as we take the words off the page. If you think about people, people can be wildly unpredictable and spontaneous. I think that’s what we enjoy seeing when we watch something. It’s what we enjoy witnessing when we watch actors. To me, I really don’t let that get in the way. What I focus on there is his investigation, his great curiosity and his great belonging and sensitivity. These things alone are not at all bad. I think they’re quite admirable in anyone. Obviously, in Joe, they end up being a lot of other things. I certainly don’t admire Joe at all. Except for maybe his willingness to never deviate from his own sense of what is right. It’s a danger to almost intellectualize Joe past a certain point, for me, I just focus on staying present with him at the moment because then it’s not hard to believe in him. Except in the last episode where those moments are exceedingly challenging. There are times when I’m unsure and I’ll have a conversation with Austin and Sera. We are able to discover something together that feels responsible and compelling.
What was your thought when you read that last episode script? It’s a full hour of torture. How do you even prep for that mindset, and then you have to also do the voiceover?
Often, when I read the script, it doesn’t leave me feeling good. It leaves me feeling deeply troubled. When I read the voiceovers, there were things in the first season that Joe says about Peach and it was horrific. I remember the first time I had to say it, it was hard. By the time, I get to the voiceover which we often do before the episode, the voiceovers you hear in the pilot, a lot of those were done before I even shot a single frame.
The voiceover work is an entirely different project. Once I’ve processed the violence and mania of what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, it’s actually quite easy because I’m looking at the words as I manipulate them. It’s more incisive, exact and technical. It’s all the things about voiceover acting that isn’t the same as acting on camera. What I do to embody that is that I just stipulate wildly with my whole body, but focus it all into my voice and into the microphone. It’s wholly this other different kind of thing that I really enjoy. And then, a lot of times there are these happy accidents between that process and the process on camera. Every now and then, it’s highly orchestrated and very conscious, but a lot of times the happy accidents are about giving a lot of variety of inflection in the voiceover performance. Then you leave those spaces where Joe thinks to be ambiguous so you can graft any voiceover performance onto them.
What does the move to LA mean for Joe?
Because of who he becomes fixated on, there is a very dynamic to Joe that we explore in this season. It’s hard to see how initially, but as the season goes on, you realize there’s a 180-degree difference. I really enjoy that and depend on that.
There’s a strange fascination that people have for the dark side, you saw the reaction on social media. Why is this show so compelling to people and to get so vocal about?
As an actor, if you reflect on this stuff too much and let it get in your mind too much, it’s like a death to your performance. But as a person, I actually find it fascinating. It’s very exciting. To me, we could have all, quite deservedly fallen on our faces with this concept. If you don’t hit it in the right way, it’s just awful and problematic. We were holding our breath collectively. On one hand, people are just ready to consume something like this and there’s a lot to explore there. Why are we so interested in endlessly exploring the darker or lower nature of people as opposed to the higher.
There’s also this really interesting dimension where people are willing to have an elevated conversation around this character. The way people were interacting on social media and the interaction I was able to have there, that ended up being really rewarding and gratifying in a way. That was a relief because I personally was really nervous about what it was that people would see in Joe and what it was that they would enjoy in him. Would they live vicariously through his judgment and his violence? That was the most concerning, right?
Or, if they do see his longing, his curiosity and his rigorous examination of the world which comes to terrible conclusions, but to be able to enjoy the process that he’s engaged in, this rigorous investigation of these people and their character. There’s something to really appreciate about that. I’ve also wondered if the fact that people like him so much, means I didn’t lean hard enough into his worst qualities. I think that’s also reflective of the way that the show as a whole is choosing to explore him. We don’t see him constantly committing acts of violence; it’s subtler than that. You’re seeing him try to avoid these things and reach a lot fo these disastrous moments by this unconscious fumbling process. We really want to believe he’s going to be better, and he’s not trying to be that bad.
Right now, I feel there are so many reasons to be upset with the things happening in the world. There is great reason to be anxiously concerned and upset. A lot of people are full of rage and hate. What’s so funny about Joe is that everyone is so ready to constantly forgive him and to constantly be compassionate. I think the best case scenario with Joe is that we’re exercising our compassion. I know it’s not that simple and that there are darker elements to it, but it’s not lost on me that there is something about forgiveness with Joe where it’s like, “What the hell is going on?”Nobody is this forgiving in the public sphere or their personal lives and yet, we all want to forgive Joe.
I guess he’s written. He’s not pure evil. Right? What is pure evil? I don’t know, but he’s not that.
I don’t believe in pure evil. I know this is purely metaphysical, but this is part of my process and it informs a lot of the way I play him, but to me, if my operating system is pure evil does not exist and human beings are born good and innocent. Then it’s about understanding how he or anyone receives miseducation – a very powerful miseducation along the way. That to me is what this character is about, and that is what the conversation around him is about. That’s what I try to uphold. I do that in my performance, but also the way I talk about him with the press. I try to do both.
I think his back story will be really interesting.
You do see a lot more of it in the second season.
What’s your forever movie? Joe says Beverly Hills Cop.
As much as there are so many things about it that I culturally disagree with and principally question, there’s something about Titanic that I can turn on at any point and I’m down to watch it. I don’t know how that happens, but it’s so not what otherwise I’d be interested in. You talk about a forever movie, one you can watch at any time, any place, for any reason, that movie is one for me.
At any point.
Literally. You can go in at any point. It happens so many times over the holiday season, and I’ll watch it.
Also, the polar opposite, but it tells you what age I was when these movies came out – I love Fight Club. I got into it when I was an older teenager. There are so many things about it culturally, the way it portrays men and the way it barely portrays women at all. There are so many things about it that I’m so not interested in depicting. But as a work of art, it’s extremely well crafted. At any point in that movie, you can plug in. It’s so engrossing and it’s so well made.
That’s another one to just dip in. The performances are so great.
It’s also the turn of the century. The kind of movies being made then was so different. Even the way we review things, it was different. Titanic came out in 97. Fight Club came out in 99. American Beauty and those films were so different. I don’t even look to movies for that anymore. For me, it’s very much books and music. Before the 2000s, we had this great golden age of films.
I’m overlooking so many great movies like Being There. Arrival was brilliant. That film is one I could see at any point and anywhere. What do you want from a movie? To me, you want to suspend disbelief and animation, and there are movies that do that so well.