Some actors delight in playing villainous characters. Penn Badgley is not one of them — at least, not when it comes to playing murderous stalker Joe Goldberg in Netflix’s “You.”
“Playing Joe is not this terribly enjoyable experience,” he tells Variety.
Season 2, which premiered on Dec. 26, kicks off with Joe mourning the loss of his girlfriend Beck (Elizabeth Lail) — whom he murdered, recall — and running from his ex, Candace (Ambyr Childers), who resurfaced at Mooney’s Manhattan bookstore at the end of Season 1, much to Joe’s surprise and chagrin. Now he’s a stranger in a strange land — sun-drenched Los Angeles — and loathing it, even as he finds himself obsessing over a new woman, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti).
In real life, Badgley found that inhabiting this character on the West Coast was “even more isolating because there was literally more space, so it’s almost like the void that he stares into represents the void in himself that he’s terrified of.
“It maybe became more oppressive,” he continues. “He is a little bit of an oppressive character, if not extremely, and there’s something I experience of that when playing him. So just privately, the weekends were refuge, because I was able to live in L.A. like a normal human. It was really refreshing sometimes.”
“You” showrunner Sera Gamble has a theory that “part of the reason Penn does such a beautiful job playing Joe is because as a person, he is so horrified by him. He’s deeply uncomfortable with roughly 96% of everything in every script.”
That’s not to say that Badgley is difficult to work with, just that he understands how horrible Joe’s actions are. “He and I are on really the same page about why we’re telling this story,” Gamble says. “He’s deeply committed. He has fun with it.”
Just as in the first season, “You” is told from Joe’s warped point of view — a device that works to draw the viewer’s sympathy to Joe, as he justifies his actions with one rationalization after another, all in the name of love.
“The fundamental question this show prods the viewer with — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — is, ‘Why are we still telling the story through this guy’s eyes?’” says Badgley. “It’s the question we as creators ask, it’s the question that the viewers have to ask themselves. The inevitability seems just that, it’s inevitable. What is he going to do? It’s not a question, what he’s going to do, is it? And yet we find ourselves continually asking it.”
What is perhaps disarming about Joe and Love’s relationship in Season 2 is that it contains the little insanities of new romance — the argument-causing miscommunications, the heightened reactions of love, untested — that wind up initially masking any toxic proclivities waiting to burst through.
Morally objectionable as Joe’s choices may be, “You” is leavened by Badgley’s charisma and the show’s satirical touch, and it only takes a quick romp on Twitter to see that there are many, many #TeamJoe fans out there. Last season, that prompted Badgley to gently, cheekily point out to them that the man they are fawning over has done some very bad things.
After Season 1, many viewers were quick to point out Beck’s imperfections, a marked contrast to their adoration of a man who racked up quite a list of victims before even reaching California.
“We live in a patriarchy,” is Gamble’s response. “I think it’s part of the essential experiment of the show. We’re all holding hands — the writers, the performers, the directors and the audience — we’re collectively looking at this question, ‘How much would we forgive in a man like Joe, and how quick we blame a woman like Beck? Or Candace?’”
How viewers react to the end of Season 2 is a point of curiosity for Badgley.
“Really, almost against my desires, there was something I felt like I was really learning through Joe,” he says. “Hopefully, I would really love to think that translates to what audiences see. If as many people are as excited to tune in this year as they were last, and if that many people find something new that they’re excited to watch again, I think that would be rewarding.”
He adds: “I’m particularly interested in how people continue the conversation for themselves. No one really gets away with watching this show and just thinking, ‘Oh, that was nice.’ It’s unsettling and disconcerting and I think for good reason. So I’m interested to see how that conversation takes shape this time.”