Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Penn Badgley’s performance in the Netflix series You.
Have you ever listened to Penn Badgley speak about his character Joe Goldberg in the TV Series You? If so, you’ll hear an actor describing an opportunity to sink his teeth into a frighteningly complex character. As he told The New York Times in 2019, “Joe is this work in progress in dismantling and dissecting the myriad privileges that a young, attractive, white man carries with him.”
But despite the role’s meatiness, Badgley doesn’t shy away from saying how he really feels playing a reprehensible character.
To put it bluntly: he hates Joe. So much so that it’s practically become an internet meme.
“There’s a lot I don’t enjoy about him. To be honest, I don’t enjoy nearly everything about him,” he told DigitalSpy. “However, it ends up being a deep, deep psychological exploration for me…There’s a lot about him that I struggle with, and yet I’m always trying to humanize him as much as possible.”
As he later told Vice, “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. That is, to say the least, problematic and disconcerting.”
I find that Badgley’s hatred of Joe inadvertently feeds his intention to humanize him. Because, as an actor, you want to find the humanity in the person you play, however inhumane they are. But what makes Badgley’s disdain even more interesting is that it flies in the face of an old acting adage. It says that, as an actor, you should try not to judge your character. The idea is that our personal judgment can impact how seamlessly we embody villainous or anti-heroic characters.
Think about it: do the real-life baddies ever think they’re actually the baddies? No, they think that everything they are doing is rational and good. As an actor, you want to meet your character in that place, regardless of the uncomfortable situations the story may take you to.
But that doesn’t mean actors shouldn’t be aware of who their character is way down deep. Badgley knows that Joe is loathsome, and he plays that truth to a T. He has a boyish charm and piercing eyes, but behind those eyes, he hides a cold lifelessness. This is not dissimilar to what Christian Bale did in American Psycho, just toned down for the Teen Vogue set.
But within Joe’s repulsiveness, there is a curious streak of altruism Badgley uses to further humanize his character. We know, to paraphrase Badgley’s own words, that Joe is a sociopathic, abusive, delusional, self-obsessed murderer. Yet we’re still moved by the moments when Badgley’s character is confronted by memories of his traumatic childhood.
And oh boy, did Joe have a bad time growing up. He murdered his abusive dad and was abandoned by his mom. Then, when he’s in his teens, he’s taken in by a bookkeeper, Mr. Mooney (Mark Blum). But where his real father was physically abusive, Joe’s new father figure was psychologically abusive. As a form of punishment, Mooney locks Joe in a glass cage in the basement of his bookstore. Mooney wants Joe to “learn from wiser men” by forcing him to read the classic books that fill his transparent prison.
These are the traumatic events that shaped Badgley’s Joe for worse and for better. How it turned him into a sociopath, well, the proof is in the pudding. But the way that trauma molded Joe into a better man is it made him compassionate towards children. Specifically, those trapped in shitty situations that remind him of his own, like Paco (Luca Padovan) or Ellie (Jenna Ortega). And when Joe senses they are in danger, Badgley gets to erupt in a current of effective emotions. He channels his character’s psychopathic tendencies into something that resembles altruism–albeit murderous altruism.
This altruistic element is why the internet has drawn lines between Badgley’s Joe and Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan. But even though Joe murders bad guys, a serial killer of serial killers, he is not. Joe doesn’t have a code like Dexter, understanding the hard line between right and wrong. No, Joe is still a gross sociopathic stalker who, no matter how much he tries to protect the untrodden, is still just a twisted little psychopath. And Badgley makes sure we see that Joe’s psychopathic tendencies, as much as his altruistic ones, were always intentional.
We see it in a flashback to his first “big boy murder” after discovering his girlfriend, Candace (Ambyr Childers), was sleeping with another man. After confronting the guy, rather than getting macho pushback, the man relents, saying he had no idea Candace was with someone else. A sense of resignation falls over Badgley’s face after this strange, brotherly response. It puts Joe immediately off guard, his fuming rage dissipating as he sullenly walks away.
But as the dudebro starts disparaging Candace’s name, Badgley shows an almost imperceptible shift in Joe’s energy. We see his face light up with decisiveness. He is going to do what he originally set out to do and kill the douchebag. He quickly turns around and shoves the man off of a high ledge. This moment is so electric because Badgley doesn’t play Joe as if he has uncontrollable rage. Instead, Badgley ensures we see Joe intentionally cross the line between right and wrong and never look back again.
While You is now a Netflix show, its first season actually aired on Lifetime, the network dedicated to melodramatic cheesiness. That sensibility is certainly on display across every season of You. But Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg isn’t a melodramatic madman who commits crimes of passion. Joe does what he does deliberately and with surgeon-like care, and Badgley carries that sensibility in his performance throughout every episode of the series. But all of Joe’s murderous faults would be grating if not for Badgley’s powerful performance. He may ultimately hate his character, but that has only made audiences love Joe Goldberg even more.
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