“You” in the Time of #MeToo: A Chat with Penn Badgley - Arts & Culture

“Increasingly, I’m less interested in roles themselves than I am in the whole project and the conversation and experience,” says Penn Badgley. “You can say in that way I’m just less interested in acting than I am in living.” The actor is in Manila to promote his latest Netflix show, You. Originally aired by Lifetime before and then picked by Netflix, the show’s next season will be a Netflix Original.

Based on Caroline Kepnes’ best-selling novel of the same name, You is about Joe Goldberg (Badgley)’s obsessive love for Beck (Elizabeth Lail), and the increasing down spiral of his behavior surrounding her and her friends. The use of the internet and social media on the show is particularly buzz worthy, something the young crowds of fans who watch the show are particularly attuned to.

In today’s current Hollywood climate, with post-Weinstein and post-#MeToo dictating how we, as viewers, consume media, it is interesting to see the reaction to the show. Badgley receives tweets about how charming his character is, despite the heinous amount of things he has done, something he is aware of. “Even though I’ve been encouraging people to consider Joe for all that he is, I also know that we’ve made a TV show and that there’s an obvious reason why everyone’s charmed by him, because it’s a TV show, and I’m playing him,” he says.  “So I actually don’t want to hold viewers solely responsible. It is also our responsibility.”

In "You", Penn Badgely plays Joe Goldberg, who is obsessed with girlfriend Beck (Elizabeth Lail)
In “You”, Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, who is obsessed with girlfriend Beck (Elizabeth Lail)

The Public’s Reaction

A few years ago, the public conversation about a show like this would not have revolved around dissecting its main character’s (many) faults and the actor playing the role certainly would not have been so open about discussing it. In fact, Badgley himself was on a show most famously known for a particularly problematic character (played by someone else) romanticized and coddled despite every awful action because he happened to have chemistry with a favored female character. The conversation nowadays has shifted. Despite erstwhile reactions on Twitter, people are now more open to criticize, and those involved are generally open to discussion. “So, [the show] is saying something about this idea that we’re willing to forgive abusers and blame women, and I think toying with that a lot,” he says.

It is a thin line to navigate, presenting a terrible person and playing him in a way that makes people want to watch and appreciate the skill it takes, but at the same time for those viewers to be cognizant of what they are watching. Badgley is not quite so sure if he achieved it. “I was uncertain the whole time. But in trusting in the process, trusting the writers, I hope it’s there and that it’s something people are responding to,” he reflects. “I hope it’s not just people thinking “man, this guy is charming,” or “he’s just creepy.”

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Penn Badgley is in Manila promoting his new television series "You" for Netflix (Photograph by Magic Liwanag)
Penn Badgley is in Manila promoting his new television series “You” for Netflix (Photograph by Magic Liwanag)

Toxic Relationships

One of the show’s biggest themes is toxic relationships, be it in love, and friendship. “I think the point is if we’re desperate for what we call love, we are probably not going to find it, we’ll try to create it. And we’ll make bad decisions,” he says. With the show’s reliance on today’s social media norms, it is very much a show for today’s current generation, and Badgley notes that even the definition of love has shifted for younger people today. “Love is what exists between friends, teacher and student, brother and sister, parent and child,” he says. “We have made the word love so small, and we’ve actually made it mean like sex a lot of times. It is just so distorted and bankrupt. How many relationships are based on this kind of feeling? Quite a few.”

“The only way you can end up at abuse is if you’re [made to] grossly misunderstand the purpose of a relationship,” he adds. “But then you think, “Well how many relationships are abusive?” “How many people don’t understand the purpose of a relationship?” These are relevant questions. Will you get all of that by watching ten episodes of You? I don’t know. But it’s there.”

In the now-famous photographs co-stars Shay Mitchell and Penn Badgley try the Peninsula Manila's Halo-Halo (Photograph by Magic Liwanag)
In the now-famous photograph, co-stars Shay Mitchell and Penn Badgley try the Peninsula Manila’s Halo-Halo (Photograph by Magic Liwanag)

Penn’s Favorite Books

On a more lighthearted note, we ended with a discussion on Badgley’s favorite books. Joe plays a bookstore owner, so naturally the topic shifted to Badgley’s most-enjoyed reads. “When I was in my teens and 20s, I loved Kurt Vonnegut. He was my favorite writer. Another one was a Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz,” he says. Nowadays, he is more interested in non-fiction. “There’s a book about the abolishment of slavery in the Congo called Leopold’s Ghost. I read that when I was 22 and after that I was like “I don’t know that I can read that much more fiction while the world is in such a state.”

Badgley is the rare actor who actually enjoys traveling for press, mostly in part because he says he can retire to the hotel and read when the day’s obligations are over. Not one for e-readers, he enjoys the experience of having a physical book in his hand. “I actually travel with a whole bag of books. It’s so dumb,” he says, self-deprecatingly. “And I write. So it is really on brand like my character, it is so stupid. But I’ve been doing that before Joe.”

Speaking of Joe, what would he enjoy reading? “He is a prototypical brilliant white male who thinks he’s the most brilliant man on Earth but forgets there’s other culture,” says Badgley. “His favorite required reading in High School was probably Catcher in the Rye.”

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