When You first premiered on Lifetime in September 2018, it stayed under the radar, and was even dubbed a "dud" for the network by The Hollywood Reporter. Its move to Netflix just three months later introduced the story—of a New York bookstore manager who becomes obsessed with and (spoiler alert) eventually kills a female customer—to a wider, Very Online audience. On Twitter, fans of the thriller expressed their unabashed (and definitely concerning) attraction to Penn Badgley's character Joe Goldberg, the unhinged stalker/serial killer at the center of the series. Yes, the man we all grew to know and love as Dan Humphrey (or Woodchuck Todd) was now a cold-blooded killer—and a fascinating one.
The extreme thirst for his admittedly hot but still very bad character even gave Badgley himself a slightly queasy feeling. "It was sort of like every one of my greatest fears and hopes for people’s engagement came to be fulfilled. There were the reactions of overlooking all of Joe’s faults, which is the whole point of the show, and just being really into him," Badgley told VICE. "That is, to say the least, problematic and disconcerting, but it is also part of the device, because we’re playing with that energy. We also want to encourage this reflection on why we’re so willing to watch a character like him. It was both gratifying and troubling."
With season 2 of You (out now) picking up after the murder of Joe's obsession and lover Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), the return of his mysterious and long-missing ex-girlfriend Candace, and a move to the land where a sociopathic murderer can get a decent base tan—LA, baby!—there are sure to be more questionable moments of viewers being horny on main, as well as continued controversy over how the series addresses toxic masculinity and violence toward women. We spoke to Penn Badgley about the thirst around Joe, being maybe too good at playing a sociopath, and how his character might even be an allegory for white supremacy.
VICE: Hi, Penn. Pop culture has historically hidden problematic or abusive behavior under the guise of romance—like in Twilight, for example. But You makes it pretty clear that your character, Joe, is not a great guy. He’s actually a very scary, terrible, horrible person. How does You address these issues differently? Was it troubling to see the–for lack of a better term–a horny reaction to Joe after the first season?
Penn Badgley: I think it helps us to see that we have some really strange and distorted ideas about love and relationships that seem more like lust and possession than actual love. But we’re inundated in pop culture with stories of love that have nothing to do with love. And we have been as long as there’s been pop culture, so I think the fact that the show makes us think about these things is actually really great.
Another story about relationships, in a way, would be quite boring. I’m excited to engage with any kind of media now that asks, “Can we think about something other than romantic relationships? But if we are going to think about romantic relationships, can we see something new?” It’s definitely true that the show doesn’t produce any constructive answers, but it at least lets us see how much we should be deconstructing the norms that do exist.
You hit the nail there, especially as someone who’s done romantic comedies. (Badgley has previously acted in Easy A and John Tucker Must Die.)
It’s all I’ve ever done! Are you kidding? That’s almost all there is! There’s one role since I was 14 or 15 where I haven’t been the object of somebody’s affection or somebody who’s desiring another as the object of their affection. And that movie was about the financial collapse, so there you go.
So this is a bit of a change-up! At least you get to be a psychopath.
In a way, it is a more honest reflection of these norms. These "norms" are just fantasies. The idea of the way men and women should behave, we’ve completely constructed them. We’re all understanding that at different levels and at different speeds. There’s a lot about culture that is arbitrary. It’s been chosen by arbiters who are of a very small segment of a very small ruling class which has always been white men, at least in modern Western culture, and paraded around the world. It’s really, really significant that this show makes so much sense in a way. It’s interesting to watch it deconstruct these norms we have about male behavior, relationships, and female behavior, too.
The ideas of these all-powerful white men from years and years ago has infected everything.
If anything, I feel like Joe is an allegory for white supremacy, and the way governments or anybody in power behaves in that construct. Not to get too heady–it’s also just a show–but it’s definitely there.
The idea of “This is mine. I want it, and I will have it.”
And that “I deserve it,” is the biggest assumption.
In terms of stepping into this role, what was the kind of research you did? Were there any figures you looked at or tried to emulate?
A lot of it was quite intuitive. There were a lot of archetypes I was thinking about through the different seasons. To be honest, it’s hard to talk about because some of them are quite intense and I feel like in order to have a nuanced conversation about them, time and care needs to be taken. I wouldn’t want to be taken the wrong way. I take this very seriously. I do struggle so much throughout the process because just trying to make these things real can often be super emotionally taxing. But recognizing that they resonate in this way sometimes is very surprising and very spontaneous. I’m not trying to intellectualize them. It just kind of happens. And the way that Joe functions as an allegory of men in power throughout history is really consistent, so there are all kinds of people that I think of throughout.
Are there parts of Joe that are you, just in a more extreme way?
Joe potentially exists in all of us. It might not manifest as Joe, but we all have a tyrant judge latent within us if we choose to awaken him. Thank god most of us don’t do that, but at the same time, we don’t completely abstain from it. Actually, we can be quite emotionally violent to one another; general discourse on Twitter is extremely emotionally violent even if it can be full of truths, you know? You can say something true in an emotionally violent way, and the funny thing about that is that it doesn’t resonate as true, even if it was. So that’s where I think we’re all compelled by Joe, and sometimes he’s on to something. But he’s violent, so it sort of doesn’t matter [if he is]. That’s an interesting thing about human behavior; it’s not just what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it—not just what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it. That’s unfortunate, because it would be great if justice unadorned could reign.
I think with Joe, the allegory’s pretty deep; anything that resonates on a cultural level with a show like this has to be understanding something true about people, whether it’s positive or negative. I feel like there’s something to the allegory of Joe that [the book's author] Caroline Kepnes originally understood in conceiving the character, and that [show creators] Sarah Gamble and Greg Berlanti and the rest of the writers drew out. So something really is clearly working, and clearly they have their finger on the pulse. I feel like for me, I just try to be honest. I just try to believe everything he says, as much as possible.
Is there any point where you don’t want to be too good at [playing Joe], because of what it could mean?
To be honest, all the time, I’m unsure of what to do. I think it ends up being an intuitive thing where I try to do everything like he believes it, because I think he does. And when people are that bad, I just don’t think they can be that conscious of it. Doesn’t mean that they can’t be somewhat conscious of it, and actually do some really profoundly terrible things consciously, because obviously, that’s what our world leaders are doing. But I still don’t think it’s possible to be [totally] conscious while being that bad, because the whole reason you’re that bad is because you are not that conscious. So he just believes it. You lack the thing you’re seeking.
Thanks for speaking with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.