January 10, 2019 02:06 PM

Penn Badgley‘s newest character puts Dan Humphries’ stalking skills to shame.

In the edgy thriller You, the Gossip Girl alum plays deranged bookstore employee Joe Goldberg, whose obsession with pretty customer Beck (Elizabeth Lail) leads him down a homicidal path. The series (based on Caroline Kepnes’ novel of the same name) premiered on Lifetime in September, but Netflix acquired season 2 and recently started streaming the original 10 episodes. Now that fans are in full binge-mode, take a look at PEOPLE’s interview with Badgley, 32, for insights into his darkest role yet.

Penn Badgley
Richard Phibbs

What made you want to come back to TV?

When it comes to this project, I think I was compelled by this interesting convergence of the obviously dark nature of the book, but then also there was something about my conversations with [creators] Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble that had a lot of life in them. That was initially confusing to me, and initially I can’t say that I was certain that I wanted to portray this character — not because of the overall project but just specifically embodying Joe. I really wasn’t certain that I would want to do that for an extended period of time for obvious reasons. It’s a credit to the book that it is so chilling, and I found it really difficult to make it through, and I suppose it’s a credit to the show that when we watch, we’re disturbed in any manner that we are, but there’s only one person who has to be Joe day in and day out, and whoever that is, they have a different relationship to the whole thing than anyone else. So I think that’s what I was questioning.

It was ultimately my conversations with Greg and Sera that led me to believe that there’s an unexpected soul to the journey that we go on with Joe. I hope. … I anticipate some people might really like it and I anticipate some people might have their misgivings, and I hope that whatever it is, that with this show we can make some kind of valuable contribution to the conversations that exist around gender roles and human behavior.

Penn Badgley and Elizabeth Lail in You
Lifetime

How do you say goodbye to Joe at the end of a day?

I’m just not the kind of actor to take things home with me in any excessive way. I don’t find that difficult, I just find it difficult when you’re struggling with a character who you don’t agree with. I think the task that is challenging is to get behind them and believe them and believe yourself and be present as an actor. To me, it wasn’t so much how do I turn Joe off — it was a little bit more like how do I turn him on?

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What about him do I find compelling and what about him do I think is most important for us to be looking at if we’re not engaging in this totally irresponsible, almost pornographic view of such disturbing elements of human behavior? So I focused on his intense curiosity and sensitivity. That, and making him very human, because he’s longing deeply for human connection, for a sense of his own humanity, so therefore he looks for it in a relationship. This is the logic of our culture. If you look to any of our art, whether it’s music, television, movies, art, anything — we seem to be really looking for love, and often in all the wrong places.

Was any of your hesitation about playing another character who was always active on the internet, like in Gossip Girl?

Not really. Yeah, it occurred to me. I somehow, as I always tend to, underestimated the significance that other people would find in it and love to make those connections, but I was completely aware of them and it is what it is. It’s funny because I do think in the first scene, he basically seems like Dan.

How closely does the first season follow the first book?

There’s a few ways in which it really veers, not the least of which is the character of Paco. He doesn’t really exist in the book. And there are a couple of other major things that are different.

Penn Badgley in You
Lifetime

What were your thoughts when you heard the show was picked up for season 2 before anyone’s even seen the first episode?

I suppose the powers that be have great hopes for it. I’m glad. It means I’ll be living in L.A. for some time, which will be interesting. [The bulk of Kepnes’ second Joe Goldberg book, Hidden Bodies, takes place in Los Angeles.] I haven’t lived there in a very long time, and, because of some of the significant differences from the first season to the first book, I am just interested to see where it is that the writers are going to take it . … I think there’s a bit more mercy in the show because it’s a different medium. The book I found to be brutal in this way that’s very brave and bold on Caroline’s part.

My biggest concern, to be honest, with this entire project is that if in order to make Joe more palatable ultimately, which I think is some of the task at hand, in making him more palatable, do we risk diluting the very thing that he needs to be, which is kind of a disgusting human being?

I’m nervous about moments where we become too forgiving of Joe, or we make too many excuses for him.

Me too. There’s some moments … like when I was masturbating in the first episode, I don’t remember what it ended up being, but I really wanted to keep my eyes open and be pretty jarring and creepy about it. And I kept on getting the note to be less creepy, and I remember thinking to myself and being very adamant on set, like, “Which way are we going here? If we’re pulling our punches right when we need to be sending them home, what kind of mixed message does that send our viewer, particularly our younger viewers?”

I think it will be the viewers who decide for themselves. I’m really interested to see what people think, because I was always concerned about this, and I wasn’t always happy about it. But in the end, having seen the whole season through, I somehow feel like we were responsible in that very particular respect. I think he ultimately is not let off the hook, the viewer is not let off the hook for liking him if they do. I think that’s the most important thing — that we don’t let Joe off the hook and we don’t let the viewer off the hook that’s watching us.

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