Spoilers forward for the primary season of “You.”
Penn Badgley has some difficult emotions about going viral.
“I wouldn’t say I regret it,” he stated in a cellphone interview earlier this week. But “all of this nuance is lost on social media, which I have to learn again and again.”
Seeing individuals on social media swoon over his efficiency as Joe, the murderous stalker on the middle of the twisted hit thriller “You,” Badgley fired off just a few tweets over lunch earlier this month. (“You” debuted final fall on Lifetime however just lately broke out through Netflix, which is producing the following season of the present.)
What he wished was to have interaction in considerate dialogue about some viewers’ sympathetic reactions to Joe. What occurred was that he put a minimum of one fan “on blast” for romanticizing the character — his tweets obtained as many as 100,000 favorites, the trolls arrived and he tweeted a clarification.
This is maybe an apt interplay to accompany a present that sharply critiques each social media and America’s tendency to give charming white males each good thing about the doubt. (Did a fan tweet “kidnap me pls” at Badgley because she was enamored by Joe, or was it in the same glib tone that a Tumblr account lusts after photos of young Joseph Stalin?)
In a phone interview, Badgley discussed the importance of digging into nuanced conversations, toxic masculinity and what Joe and Dan Humphrey from “Gossip Girl,” the actor’s other best-known role, have in common. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Did you know you would be engaging with viewers on Twitter before the show came out?
I hadn’t thought about it, and when I did it I wasn’t thinking about it as a strategic move. I didn’t intend for it to go viral in this way; the whole point is for us to have an elevated conversation about the themes of this show.
What I ended up doing after a few of those tweets went viral was follow some of the users I quote-tweeted, and DMed them just to check in. So I actually had a lengthy conversation over DMs with one woman, and she correctly pointed out that I had sort of misinterpreted what she said. She was talking about why she was so charmed by me, the actor, rather than by the character of Joe.
What I just didn’t anticipate was that so many people would look at her as a “problematic fan.” People definitely were trolling her. And in fact, there was a person who did say in typical troll fashion, “maybe we should send real murderers to your house to make sure you know the difference.” That’s chilling and that is exactly what Joe is, so it dovetails too perfectly, because we can’t get away from Joe. I think what he’s meant to be is an embodiment and a portrait of the parts of us that can’t escape rooting for Joe. In a more just society, we would all see Joe as problematic and not be interested in the show, but that’s not the society we live in.
The misunderstanding that arose in these good faith interactions read to me like another layer of the dangers of social media that the show explores.
I agree. It’s not every project that I think it would be interesting for the actors to be engaging in this way. For this show it made sense, because Joe is such a singular character, and because [in the show] we live so much in Joe’s head. It’s an interesting way to keep the conversation going. I think everybody who was a part of this show was very aware we could fall on our faces here. If we don’t get the tone right, this could be irresponsible and too problematic to be forgiven, and we’re pretty certain that in this climate we won’t be forgiven. So my engagement online made a lot of sense as a way of making ourselves vulnerable.
Part of the brilliance of the character of Joe is that he thinks he’s an ally to women. How do you hope self-identifying progressive men reflect on some of their convictions while watching the show?
It would be awesome if any man watching this show could have any degree of the experience that I’ve had playing him. Personally, it’s been extremely enriching because, just look at the level of conversation we’re having now. You’re not always forced to think about the social forces in this way. We’re encouraged to some degree to “Netflix and chill” and we use television often to check out — I think there’s something about this show that forces you to check in, even though you are using it to consume and disconnect.
In my experience, it tends to be men who are more horrified by Joe. I’ll go out on a limb and wonder if that is because it’s less of a novel idea to women. He’s like a nightmare that you’ve repeatedly had, whereas men are like, “This isn’t real!” Women are like, “Of course it isn’t real, but it’s extremely representative of something.”
I wonder if, as a viewer, no matter how much you’ve enjoyed the frothiness of the show, you can’t get away with liking Joe without taking responsibility for being a part of Beck’s death. There are so many stories in the media about what we currently call “toxic masculinity” and I feel like that still doesn’t get to the depth of the phenomenon. It’s just really interesting that this show of all shows is so popular right now.
It seems important that Joe looks the way that you do, which allows him to get away with so many things.
I do think it has a lot to do with the way he looks. Joe is not that far from some of the characters we love to see as art and dissect ad nauseam, who we’ve found in Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger’s work. But this was before we were having the kind of more nuanced conversations around race and gender that we are now. If anyone other than a young white man were to behave like these characters behave, nobody’s having it.
To me, Joe is this work in progress in dismantling and dissecting the myriad privileges that a young, attractive, white man carries with him. I’m not suggesting that the rest of the world shouldn’t have these so-called privileges. But I think when only one group has them, it’s actually a horrific blindness when it comes to being in touch with humanity. I think it’s material privilege but it’s not emotional or psychological or spiritual privilege, and it seems that that can be a great bondage.
A lot of the themes Joe embodies seem to echo the themes of Dan Humphrey, your character on “Gossip Girl.” Do you think they both share the thread of being a creepy observational outsider?
Yeah. First of all, any part of me that was resisting the Dan Humphrey comparison has stopped because I’ve come to recognize how much of this is a surreal progression of Dan Humphrey. He’s the very special white man who somehow thinks that he’s an outsider, and it’s like, “Bro, you’re not an outsider — you are the inside; everyone else is on the outside.” It would all be so comical, if it wasn’t also the generating impulse for so much prejudice which can get translated into violence.
I think there’s a way of seeing Joe as the first time we’ve represented this kind of character in a responsible fashion, because to the degree that we are making him romantic and charming and glamorous, we are still being like “Yeah, but he kills four people and then Beck. What more can we tell you about his character than that?”