"You" star Penn Badgley thinks his killer Joe has "too many sides and needs to die"

On "Salon Talks," the Netflix star weighs in on class elitism, hypocrisy, obsession and of course, love

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 19, 2023 11:00AM (EST)

Penn Badgley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Penn Badgley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This shouldn't be stunning news, but it may comforting to know that Penn Badgley has little in common with Joe Goldberg, the obsessive serial killer he brings to life in Netflix's "You." Badgley is thoughtful, even philosophical, in his reflections on human behavior and romance in real terms and in the way it plays out in the show. In contrast, Joe imagines a rich inner life that he externalized in destructive ways.  

Like the man who plays him, Joe is contemplative. Where the actor and his character diverge is that Joe directs his focus toward devising a way to capture the object of his affection, literally and physically.

Joe is a stalker. In his head, however, he views himself as the magnanimous suitor devoted to protecting the woman of his dreams, to whom he refers as "you." Should she refuse him or displease him, or if someone pushes him too far, he simply gets rid of them before disappearing and redirecting his obsession toward someone else.

Badgley is very up front about his distaste for Joe's behavior. A few times he's interacted online with fans besotted with Joe's unwholesome romantic front by reminding them that they're 'shipping a psychopath. Nevertheless, he remains dedicated to bringing his best to his charismatic villain.

"I might speak out against him off camera, but when I'm on camera, between action and cut, I just try to approach him as honestly and spontaneously as possible," he said in our recent "Salon Talks" conversation.

Every season leading up to this is informed by "You" author Caroline Kepnes' twist on the romance genre. But the fourth leaps into a literary breed with which Joe, ironically enough, isn't familiar: the Agatha Christie-style murder mystery.

This gives the show a new life, appropriate to its protagonist's addiction to rebirth. Having burned his California dreams and nightmares to the ground, Joe has reemerged in London as literary professor Jonathan Moore. The locale is intentional, in that it allows him to track another One That Got Away. Under the skin, Jonathan remains Joe.

But his attention is pulled away from his latest prey to someone else who unwittingly turns him into the mouse desperate to escape his hunter.

When we spoke with Badgley, it was days before the fourth season premiere of "You" and with full awareness that he wouldn't be able to tell us much about its London plot. Having lived with Joe for more than five years, he has plenty to say about the thought process involved in creating each season's arc, whether Joe could possibly change, and what "You" is trying to tell us about love. Watch Penn Badgley's "Salon Talks" episode here, or read our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Every season of "You," Joe moves to a different city. He has moved from New York to Los Angeles to a California suburb and now London. What does London offer Joe in terms of getting a fresh start?

I think it offers him as real of an opportunity as he could have to truly get a fresh start, given that many other places, he'd have to learn how to speak another language. He's in the place that originated the fantasy world of literature that he hides in, that he's created his entire life as a protection from the ways he was traumatized early in life. It really is as much of an opportunity as he's going to get, but of course, he discovers that . . . What is the tagline for this? "Wherever you go, there you are." I mean, he's still Joe. He's still Joe.

London's so interesting because it has these different kinds of strata in terms of how people receive each other. A lot that relies on how you speak. Joe comes in as professor Jonathan Moore, but immediately when he meets people, they size him up by his clothing and the way he talks. The fact that he is a professor of literature does very little to impress them. How much does class difference play into how you present Joe this season?

The show has always had this aspect of Joe being from the American working class. In the book, certainly. He did suffer because of his behavior, but he did come up through the foster care system, so he has always thought about class a lot, even as the people that he surrounds himself with, and despises, and eventually murders a few of, they might not think about it, because they're usually upper class. 

"I might speak out against him off camera, but when I'm on camera between action and cut, I just try to approach him as honestly and spontaneously as possible."

In a way it's just magnifying the pattern that's already been there . . . It's not that class isn't a thing in America, of course it is, but it is different. And being that I'm American, I'm not the best at dressing down British culture, but even just moving there myself, I noticed just how different it is and how everybody can tell where everybody's from, even just by the way they speak. And they speak of different neighborhoods as though they're miles and miles and miles apart. And it's like, "Bro, that's 15 minutes away. You've never been there, really?" To a foreigner, it was a bit surprising.

How are you feeling about playing this character four seasons in?

I stay pretty consistent. I don't ever approach Joe any differently other than I'm always trying to just be honest and spontaneous. Even though I may end up doing the same thing all the time, that's kind of built into the DNA of the character. But I'm just always approaching him like I have to believe him. 

. . . I'm not so much as putting together a character as I'm like a witness. Joe doesn't speak that much on camera. It's hard to realize. For instance, the trailer that came out this year, I say one thing, I have one line, and half of it is off camera, and then the rest of it is just narration and Joe watching and bearing witness and struggling and becoming increasingly desperate. I do just a lot of watching, and it's interesting, because that can remain very, very fresh, and then everything around Joe is what changes a lot.

You're not saying much, but as a viewer, we're hearing this very rich interior dialogue. How is that executed? 

Usually, I go in anywhere from two days to two weeks before we shoot the episode, depending on our schedule, and I've usually read the script at this point. I can go in and have read the script once before, maybe twice, usually in the table read if not another time before, and I can bang the voiceover out because I don't need to memorize lines. . . .  Spontaneity is my sort of catchphrase. Again, I don't know that it's always spontaneous in the way that it appears to the viewer, but I can do it a million different ways and I don't have to worry about it, because it's all right there on the page.

I take off my shoes and I dim the lights and I'm in a vocal booth. There's no one there with me, other than the engineer behind the glass and our post producer online thousands of miles away, and I just go. It's really liberating actually, and for me, it's 100% different from playing Joe on camera where I don't speak. . . . They feel like just two separate roles and I don't do a lot of conscious intermingling of them. The ways that it works together is just, it's always like a happy magical accident in a way.

This series is so wonderful about capturing the literary point of view, but specifically doing that through Joe skews how we interpret him since he is the hero of this story. We're watching him rationalize why he has to kill people and why he does the thing he does. In the first season you had people online really gushing over Joe, and you actually came in and interacted with a few folks. Now that we're four seasons in, do you feel like people have gotten past that and they see this literary paradigm that's being enacted in the show and understand that's part of the trick of it?

"There's an element of fantasy and camp to it that lets us do a lot of things, and, again, I think we benefit from it."

I mean, I think it's both. There's always going to be the lowest common denominator, where there are people who are going to think about Joe more literally on his terms, just because that's the way they're engaging with the story. And OK, so there's that.

But I do think the conversation around the show has continually been, I don't know, lifted up, and I think you're right. The whole show is like a literary device or conceit. It's all an allegory to be exploring the way we view love, the way we think about love. It's taking the archetypes and tropes of our most popular love stories from the last 50 or 100 years and following them to a certain logical conclusion. That's Joe. It really is. If you approach love like a contest to be won, which in a capitalist society is actually exceedingly common, then this bears some semblance. There's something relevant here with Joe, and I think at the same time, it's not all social commentary. It is fun, it is storytelling. So, it's a little bit of everything I think.

Right now, there are a number of stories that are seen as eat the rich stories like "The Menu" and "Glass Onion." They're seen as these critiques of the hyper-rich in society and this idea that they not only think less of people that don't have their money, but also don't really see them as fully human. Each of the various circles that Joe integrates himself into throughout this series seems to escalate in levels of wealth and power. What is it that you think that the series and the writers are saying about wealth and the wealthy, and what makes them such perfect targets for Joe?

That is a good question, and I'll see if I can answer it. What is the show saying about wealth? Well, being that the show is first and foremost about love as a misunderstood concept and phenomenon, that's always what it's saying the most about, and the most incisive and insightful things about. Yes, there's this aspect of privilege and class and wealth and power that this season we're more directly addressing than ever. I don't have enough perspective from it right now. Chances are, statistically, the more wealth and power you come into, the more miserable it makes you. The more suspicious it makes people, the more terrified of losing it. And therefore, the way that just seems to manipulate the worldview of people in these power centers.

I mean, to me, the irony is that we now pretty readily have seen from world leaders to international icons, and we know that this kind of power drives people crazy and that it does not generate happiness, but it is power. And so what is that? Where does Joe land in all of this? I think Joe, in some ways, he's always mimicking this a bit. He's mimicking morality, obviously, in a way. He's not a moral person, but he's very morally concerned. He's toeing a populist line even though he himself is technically an elitist, if you think about it.

Can you go into that a little bit more?

Joe is a perfect device because you can delve into something, but you always have the safety cord or the safety net of, "Yeah, but he's a hypocrite." We are all exploring something earnestly, I think. But of course nobody has a perfect perspective, so if there's any place where it's really got some blind spots, well, that's Joe, frankly. That's OK. So, in a way, I really like that. It's like we can dig in and not worry about having a perfectly protected stance, because at the end of the day, Joe is an unreliable narrator and a despicable human being. So, just because he's thinking it and saying it, doesn't mean that we think it's right. But he is getting at something, and of course people can identify with that. So to me, Joe is like, he's a many-sided die. He's got too many sides, and he needs to die.

Joe is always trying with that new start, moving to a new place, trying to reset his identity. Similarly, in the "Dexter" revival, here's another serial killer sociopath who has convinced himself, at least at the beginning of the series, that he can change, and has been able to treat the fact that he is a serial killer as an addiction. Do you think it's possible for Joe to change? 

"At the end of the day, Joe is an unreliable narrator and a despicable human being."

If we converted Joe into a real person, I think I start with the baseline of, I do think change is theoretically possible for everybody because that's the human ability. That's what we're here in this life to do, is to grow and learn. So, of course anyone can change, but then you have to think, well, what has this person then really done? What are they responsible for? What would it require? What would change then require?

If you've done things that Joe has done, change would mean reconciling in yourself that you have murdered more people than you can count readily on one hand. It's like, "Oh yeah, there's the guy in the . . . Yeah, oh yeah, I forgot about him." If you're really there, I think what would require your reconciliation, let alone that with any kind of judgment in society, is more than you've indicated at this point you're capable of, because you've done those things.

To me it's a catch-22 if you're going to talk about it in real terms. But to be clear . . .  the show is never a clinical portrait of either a serial killer or a man with mental illness. So the fun that we're able to have when we do all of this is that this is not meant to be real. And to me, that doesn't take anything away from it. It's meant to be an exploration, an exercise. There's an element of fantasy and camp to it that lets us do a lot of things, and, again, I think we benefit from it.

There's this idea that is compelling both in television, but also in terms of our romantic vision of love, of the ability for love to repair that which seems to be irrevocably broken. And going back to the way that people interpret Joe, what do you think that's saying about love and how we interpret it?

Well, I think it's more about how we interpret love. I think love is . . . Let me go ahead and talk about love. We do think that when we are tapping into it, we're capable of things that we didn't imagine. Because the love between two people romantically is only one kind, and often it's very narrow compared to the sort of love that it takes to transform the world, to forgive someone who's betrayed you, again, not a romantic betrayal. The discipline that it takes to raise a child, that sort of love, genuine discipline and not authoritarianism. It's like there are so many forms of love that the world is a stage for, and the kind of love we talk about in stories in Hollywood is such a small part of that, and that's what this is about. 

When we talk about love, we're talking about really often a different four-letter word, as pop music has abundantly shown us quite literally, just using those two words interchangeably. And I think this idea of love and then also redemption is at the core of this show. There's this question, is Joe redeemable? But that question of, is anyone redeemable? Who gets to be the judge of that? That really is a God-level decision. That's a God-level vision. What makes any of us think that we have the right to discern, to define whether or not someone is redeemable depending on what they've done according to our bias and subjective view? 

"It's all an allegory to be exploring the way we view love, the way we think about love."

And so I just think more and more the show is checking us and making sure that we remember when we think we're talking about love, we're often talking about something that's more like objectification and obsession. It feels good, because it's like a drug when you first meet or see somebody that suddenly just really grabs you, but again, that's not what sustains a relationship past even very early on. But we only usually see relationships in Hollywood-type stories in the very beginning or the very end, never the in-between. The in-between is a montage. That's what it is. At best, we get a montage. It's like, "Let's skip over many years with some music. That's the kind of attention we're going to pay to the real stuff of relationship and love. Now let's talk about the explosive beginning or the explosive end." And it doesn't teach us that much. I think we've learned those lessons. We need to learn more about the middle. 

I'm going to draw all of this back to your podcast, because I find it's very interesting that "Podcrushed" is all about stories of middle school horror. That's the part of life where people begin to interact with these books, these movies, all of those kinds of things. What fascinates you about that time of life?

Yeah, that's a good question. I had about half of my middle school career. I didn't finish seventh grade, and then I moved to LA and started working as an actor. So, maybe part of it, I've looked at this enough that it's there, but it's not that compelling to me, I was sort of frozen in time there – not me, but maybe my academic career. So my relationship to school, the experience I have doesn't really go beyond 12 years old that much. 

High school, I actually experienced for a few weeks. To me, this period of roughly, let's call it 11 to 15, something like that, this adolescence, this coming of age, I mean, it's a unique period in life. Not only are we developing bodily powers, going through puberty and stuff and discovering sex, but actually we're discovering the world of virtues. What is justice when you're six, when you're 10, and then when you're 12? When you're 12, you can really think about something like justice. That's pretty deep, that's different. I think that's deeper than sex, but that's all we talk about when we talk about that, the change we're going through. It's not just that. 

You're becoming who you're going to be and the encouragement you do or don't get in that time is huge, because that's what people want then. But what does it take to encourage a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old? One of the questions we ask at the end of every episode to our guests is, "If you could go back to a 12-year-old self, what would you say?" And usually it's some version of, "It's going to be OK," and everybody usually has also a pretty unique and beautiful answer that has these variations to it, but I think the thread of it is something of comfort. 

"We only usually see relationships in Hollywood-type stories in the very beginning or the very end, never the in-between."

It's providing genuine comfort that actually relieves the awkward 12-year-old of the pain they're feeling of not fitting in and just the extreme self-consciousness. But the truth is, in order for them to get that relief, they have to believe you. They have to trust you, they have to know you. They really have to love you, or something along those lines. You have to love them, I think, and they have to feel it. So, it's easy to talk about, but not that easy to practice, and I think that's maybe what we're doing. We're thinking about it and hoping to put it into practice too.

By the time people see us talking, the first half of "You's" fourth season is going to be out, the first five episodes, and people will be digesting it. What would you want to tell someone knowing that they've seen the first half of Joe's latest chapter?

Well, I mean, Part 2 really goes to a different place. I think Part 1, in a way, it's a necessary, I don't want to give too much away, but it's a necessary turn to really bring it home in a new way. And I think as of Episode 8 of Part 2, so just a few more episodes in, the show discovers something new about itself that is really special. Which I love, but I can't say anything more.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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