Penn Badgley: The man behind sociopathic characters

The actor, who made his name in the series ‘Gossip Girl’ and is now preparing the fifth and final season of ‘You,’ wants to avoid sex scenes in his work. Vocalist of an indie band and voice of Mario Bros video games, he builds his life around family and the Baha’i religion

Penn Badgley
Actor Penn Badgley in a scene from the fourth season of 'You.’©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection / Cordon Press

It is not necessary to appear in big Hollywood productions to be recognized by international audiences. Actor Penn Badgley knows a lot about that. Although he has been acting for 23 years, the most important role of his long career came when he was 21. It was between 2007 and 2012 in the series Gossip Girl, about the adventures of a group of teenagers at an elite high school on New York’s Upper East Side, persecuted by an anonymous blogger who reveals the darkest secrets of the students and their families. The show gave him the opportunity to play Dan Humphrey, a Brooklyn scholarship student who ended up becoming the story’s undisputed protagonist. The production’s five years catapulted him to worldwide fame, and he managed to become one of the best-known faces on television.

But what goes up comes down. While Badgley continued in the film and television industry playing small roles, he didn’t again achieve the fame he experienced during his Gossip Girl run until six years later. In 2018, Netflix offered him the role of Joe Goldberg in the series You. He plays a psychopathic serial killer who uses technology to make the women he is obsessed with fall in love with him. At first he was not entirely convinced by the proposal, but he ended up accepting it. “I didn’t feel capable of playing that man, I didn’t feel ready. But my wife was very insistent that I accept it,” explained the actor in February on the Today Show.

Student Dan Humphrey and murderer Joe Goldberg may seem to have little in common. But, deep down, both hide a dark and shady side. They are both lonely and obsessed with social networks. The former was a good boy with a weakness for bullying; the second, a complete sociopath. These antagonistic characters have sustained Badgley’s artistic career. But these roles have nothing to do with the actor, who has confessed to be repulsed by both. “It’s not that I don’t like [Dan Humphrey]. It’s just, after a while, you’re known as somebody that you’re just not, and this is somebody who I so am not,” he acknowledged in an interview with Vulture at the beginning of You.

In addition to rising to fame with Gossip Girl, he also found love while filming. His character was in love with Blake Lovely’s character Serena van der Woodsen, one of the most popular girls on the Upper East Side, and so was the actor. In 2007, they began a relationship that lasted three years. The courtship was so discreet that no one found out about the break-up until months later. “We were very much caught up in the show, which itself was a six-year endurance test. Our relationship was a part of that and helped us through it. I mean, like anything valuable, it was good and it was bad and it was a learning experience,” Badgely acknowledged in an interview with Elle. Their paths separated and Lively began a relationship with fellow actor Ryan Reynolds. They married in 2013 and now have four children.

Chace Crawford, Blake Lively, Penn Badgley and Ed Westwick, among others, at the recording of 'Gossip Girl', in November 2007, in New York.
Chace Crawford, Blake Lively, Penn Badgley and Ed Westwick, among others, at the recording of 'Gossip Girl', in November 2007, in New York.James Devaney (WireImage)

It was not easy for Badgely to assimilate his sudden fame on Gossip Girl. “I was 23 years old and wanting to be an artist, and I was on a fucking TV show. Going to fashion parties and stuff. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing,’” he told Vulture. With the end of Gossip Girl, Badgley was away from the spotlight and cameras for two years, during which time he had a relationship with actress Zoe Kravitz.

In 2014, Badgley met the singer Domino Kirke, who would become his wife in 2017 and with whom he would be a father in 2020. She comes from an creative family, especially known thanks to her sister Jemima Kirke, a close friend of Lena Dunham and a leading actress in the show Girls. These have not been easy years for the couple, who had to face two miscarriages before they were finally able to announce their pregnancy. Kirke who encouraged the actor to accept the role of You, with which he has become one of the most recognizable faces on Netflix, even though he did not want to be pigeonholed into weird young characters again. Now the series has been renewed for a fifth and final season after the positive reception of its recently released fourth installment.

For the fourth season, the actor asked to limit the sex scenes, according to him, out of respect for his wife: “I asked Sera Gamble, creator of the show, ‘Can I just do no more intimacy scenes?’ I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it publicly, but one of the main things is, do I want to put myself back on a career path where I’m just always a romantic lead?” he explained on his podcast Podcrushed, adding, “Fidelity in every relationship, especially in a marriage, is important to me.”

His family is so valuable to him that he avoids posting images of private life on social media. He uses his Instagram profile —in which he has accumulated almost five million followers— to promote his work, upload humorous videos and share content about his many social causes: improving the health system for black people in the United States, projects with the Red Cross and support for the LGBTI+ community.

In addition to being an actor, Badgley has other secrets: he is the vocalist of the indie band Mothxr and he voices some of the Mario Bros video games on Nintendo. In addition, he professes the Baha’i faith, following the teachings of the prophet and founder Bahá'u’lláh. He shares the religion with his wife, which helped them bond at the beginning of their relationship. “The phenomenon of fame is literally invisible, but it influences and dominates your life if you aren’t careful. Learning how to accept it and accept that lots of people think they know me is ultimately what led me to seek out such a spiritual perspective,” he explained to People in 2018. “I don’t think I could truly value human love until I developed divine love. You discover in marriage that what sustains a marriage for decades —there are less and less people who can tell us this— but I think it has something to do with love. I don’t think I could truly value human love until I developed divine love,” he added, speaking about his marriage.

No matter what roles he plays, for many, Penn Badgley will always be the Upper East Sider who falls for the popular girl in high school and the stalker-turned-serial killer: so similar, so different, so far away from the real him.

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