Penn Badgley Reveals How Taylor Swift Inspired Him to Be TikTok Famous
Actor and internet darling Penn Badgley wants to set the record straight: He’s not a nepo baby — but he is a daddy.
While he’s perhaps best known for his role of Dan Humphrey in the OG Gossip Girl, life has changed a lot since Badgley last put on a prep school costume. He’s older, he’s married, and in 2020, he became a dad of two. But in Season Four of You, Badgley returns to his preppy roots, dawning several blazers (and a new beard) as serial killer Joe Goldberg. In real life, Badgley oozes all of Joe’s blatant sex appeal, but (thankfully) none of the murder vibes. But the two do share a connection in the form of fatherhood, which Badgley tells Rolling Stone has made his craft better.
“In some ways, becoming a father has opened me up over the years,” he says. “I think it helps me become a better actor. I have a bigger reservoir to draw on. The things that matter most in life just come to matter more.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Season Four of You. Netflix’s murder-comedy-thirsty drama about psychopath Joe Goldberg (Badgley), You has consistently followed Joe’s unsuccessful quest to stop stalking, kidnapping, and butchering women he has the hots for. But Part 1, released Thursday by the streaming service, finds Joe in a brand new setting: London. This time, he’s masquerading as English Professor Jonathan Moore and hoping to avoid another pile of bodies, a difficult task since he’s fallen in with another group of elite “privileged douchebags” who keep winding up dead (at someone else’s hands). Dropped in the middle of a murder mystery, Joe is forced to wrestle some inner demons and outer foes, in a desperate attempt to salvage his European escape — a meandering plot that Badgley manages to juggle in Part 1 and sells by the finale.
“The first part of You is really this boomerang almost,” Badgley says. “I think it stretches the limit of how much a show can change genre, because it does put Joe in quite a different scenario. He seems to be building toward a hero arc or a redemption arc. And I can’t say if that doesn’t happen. But of course, this is You. And this is Joe Goldberg. And it comes home in Part II in a really satisfying way. I’m just curious how people take that detour.”
Like any streaming show on a good run, You has to justify its existence, and popularity, to its viewers this season. And Part 1 makes it perfectly clear that the show could not succeed with any other actor but Badgley. He is both unaffected and intense, straight-laced and fully aware of his campy lines, and blasé, and so creepy that it will most likely cause legitimate nightmares. Badgley, who had to be convinced by creators to take on the role of Joe, says that that hesitation might play into why he makes for such a convincing serial killer.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to play Joe. And so I bring that to it in a way. Joe is always struggling with who he is, and what he’s doing,” he says. “There’s always like three levels of lies with Joe no matter what’s happening.”
Badgley is also intimately aware of the other reason people watch the show: he’s hot. And previous jokes aside about the state of a culture that would lust after a man actively murdering people, Badgley says Joe’s ability to trick and charm people again and again is part of what keeps his con going.
“We do design him to be [hot],” he says. “It’s compelling because when he’s charming, and pursuing someone, we’re not trying to include the fact that he’s a serial killer. He does it impossibly. Perfectly. He emulates all the archetypes and tropes of falling in love and that intoxication. He embodies that. And then when he’s a murderer, it’s just, full murder.”
Between the heavy lifting of embodying a serial killer and being a dad of two kids (oftentimes uncaffeinated) it’s a shock Badgley has time for anything else. He hasn’t watched the now-canceled reboot of the show that made him famous, which he says is “no shade” just his own personal preference.
“I’ve been vocal about what I do and don’t think of Gossip Girl and my own show,” he says. “It’s not been my cup of tea for a long time. It’s probably the genre. I’ve been starring in teen dramas for my entire freaking life. [But] I don’t have to be the demographic to be a part of creating it. It’s like TikTok. I don’t consume, I just create.”
He’s referring to his newfound fame on the video app, where his earnest-actor persona combined with the memory of his time on Gossip Girl has given Badgley a new kind of viral clout even major celebs with dedicated social teams can’t achieve. Though he says he doesn’t scroll on the app itself, many of the videos often go viral just because he’s in them. And they’re not bad press either. He joined TikTok dressed as Joe, lip-syncing Taylor Swift lyrics from her single “Anti-Hero”: “It’s Me.”/ “Hi.”/ “I’m the problem, it’s me.” The video has 8.9 million views, and prompted Swift herself to comment, “OMG!!!!🤩”
“I thought for years, ‘I’ll get a TikTok when the time is right,’” he says. “And then when Taylor’s record came out, it just seemed the song wouldn’t have worked with anybody else. Me. Joe. Anti-Hero. Taylor Swift? It just was the perfect moment.”
While Season Four of You might not see Joe’s long con end (Netflix has yet to announce Season 5 of the popular series), Badgley does seem a bit exhausted of the character. When asked if he would play Joe for as long as possible, his answer was swift: No.
“[Joe] is like putting on a straitjacket,” Badgley says. “It’s specific, and I wonder how it’ll feel the next time I pick up a big lift creatively as an actor, because it is so technical. Every scene is not really that scene. It’s the scene with me and my thoughts and a third and fourth level. I feel like I’ve learned so much and I do love the process and I’m grateful for it. But when it’s over, I’ll be glad to close that book and say, ‘That was a good book. Let’s leave that book there. Just put it on the shelf.’”
But Badgley is looking forward to the release of Season Four. He tells Rolling Stone that he’s hopeful people can experience the show with a group and make some memories together.
“It’s crazy. It’s always crazy,” he says. “You’re gonna get exactly what you want. And probably then some.”