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June 14, 2019

Cold Comfort

Penn Badgley wonders why his stalker character in You is so popular.

Sarah Hirsch
  • Mike Ruiz

Why has You, a show about a stalker, been so well received?

Its star, Penn Badgley, has given the question some thought.

"Certainly it's crafted to be very watchable," he says, before conceding that casting plays a part. "Are we more ready to humanize someone who's white, someone who's a man, than we are any other group of people?" Badgley wonders. "That's what got me excited about this show — the part that's like a social experiment or litmus test.

"Because it should be repulsive… and somehow it's not."

The psychological thriller from executive producer Greg Berlanti (Riverdale, The Flash) follows Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager who meets and falls in love with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). Through social media prowess and a complete lack of boundaries or self-awareness, he manipulates her into falling in love with him, too.

The series premiered on Lifetime and moved in December to Netflix, where a second season will drop later this year. What Joe does for love — obsessing, stalking, even killing — understandably gave Badgley pause. "I was really concerned whether a portrayal of this kind of character was something people would be interested in… or need right now, of all times."

Ultimately, he was swayed by his colleagues, particularly the women. "If it was a bunch of men creating this, I would have steered very clear," he says, then praises coshowrunner Sera Gamble and also novelist Caroline Kepnes, who wrote the bestseller of the same name on which the series is based.

Badgley, who began his professional acting career at age 12, is perhaps best known for playing Dan Humphrey on six seasons of Gossip Girl. Many have likened his role in that teen drama — a bookish guy who tracks his love interest with the help of social media — to an origin story for Joe.

Despite the similarities, the actor is only looking forward. In fact, he's decided to adjust his approach to Joe in the coming season: "I want to challenge the idea of how much a character can change and progress, as much as possible within the construct of the story.

"The viewer is comfortable with this guy," Badgley says, "and I don't think we should be comfortable with him."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2019

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