On the primetime soap “Gossip Girl,” Penn Badgley and Chace Crawford played two very different teen characters: Badgley’s Dan Humphrey was a member of the Brooklyn literati, while Crawford’s Nate Archibald inhabited Manhattan’s social whirl. Now, their grown-up roles subvert those images: Badgley plays a bookseller — and snobbish serial murderer — on Netflix’s “You,” while Crawford makes for a smirking, haughty superhero on Amazon’s “The Boys.” Of course, the two actors had a lot to say about “Gossip Girl” too. They talked to each other over video chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors issue.
Chace Crawford: Penn, buddy! I checked out Season 1 of “You” a couple of years ago, but watching Season 2 last night, it was interesting to see a guy I worked with for so long on my TV screen again. But was it interesting for you — the show starting out at Lifetime having a certain trajectory, and then being moved to Netflix and being in front of 100 million people instantaneously?
Penn Badgley: I think when so few people were watching it on Lifetime — the network for women, of all networks — I think I was wondering about the moral ambiguity of it. I’ve been transparent about my moral conflict playing this guy. I felt much better about what we were doing once a lot of people were watching, not because I needed the gratification of a lot of viewers, but more like, it makes sense; people are responding to the way we’re coming into this conversation about the tropes of the romantic comedy, and the tropes of the romantic white male lead.
On a streaming show, you make the whole thing before anybody has seen it. Is it the same with yours?
Crawford: It was. Not only did we make the first season, it got picked up for a second season and it still hadn’t come out. It’s interesting to me, because also, man, to be honest, we move on from “Gossip Girl” to playing despicable white male privileged guys. I had the same qualms you did.
Badgley: What I really like about your character, which is for better or worse, similar to mine, is that you start out knowing carte blanche just how bad he is. And honestly, for me, not knowing the tone of the show, the first episode, it continues to unfold, like, “Oh, wait.” I honestly was so excited to see you play this dignified superhero. And then I’m like, “Oh, no. It just took such a turn.”
They’re both shows where immediately they take the trope they’re working with, in your case it’s a superhero and my case I guess it’s like the romantic male lead, and then basically within the first episode it’s bludgeoned it with a sledgehammer. It’s quite interesting to see the commentary and satire that showrunners are most interested in now, and what audiences tend to be the most interested in.
It’s like, we’ve seen the happy, sweet, saccharine stuff, and now we’re looking to deconstruct it all, because we see how it hasn’t served us maybe.
Crawford: I agree with you fully, and actually I had a question about that. I was going to ask you, do you realize how funny you are in some of the moments? He’s almost pathetic —
Crawford: It’s kind of this weird gray area that you don’t want to feel.
Badgley: I found your character to be far more relatable and sweet. Your guy, especially because by the end, he’s being assaulted himself, which I have to say, I was like, there’s something about a gill and her. And I’m sorry if I’m spoiling this for anybody, but it was so visceral. You couldn’t otherwise show such an intimate kind of assault if we were dealing with actual human genitalia, but the fact that it’s like this. It becomes an allegory in a way where we’re seeing her penetrate you. And it’s weird, man.
Crawford: It was tough for me to even watch, and trust me, it was not fun to shoot either, with the director right in there and giving very specific notes.
Badgley: How much of that was prosthetic? How much of it was CGI?
Crawford: They did the actual prosthetics on my skin for the first part of the scene. They had a great special effects guy replicate my entire torso down to the little chest hair. I’m laying there, and I have my own fake torso on me with the gills that have a little bit more room, and he’s behind me pumping them with these air pumps so they move, and the director is right over me. I’m like, “Guys, I’m nauseous. Can I just get out of here?”
Badgley: I had a similar thing where we had to make a prosthetic of my right arm, because I get my pinkie cut off in the second episode. That was a bit surreal.
When The Deep doesn’t want … does he have a human name?
Crawford: It’s Kevin.
Badgley: That’s funny. So when Kevin, The Deep, when this woman asks him to take off his suit — I don’t know. It was just another moment where I was surprised by the vulnerability of your character. I think my character plays at having vulnerability in a way, but probably has, well — definitely has a much deeper psychosis.
Crawford: What’s interesting about Joe — it is almost like an odd continuation of Dan.
At the end of “Gossip Girl” the show, whatever your reaction is on whether it was smart to do that or not, that he’s Gossip Girl — it didn’t really line up with the character of Dan. Right?
Crawford: I just find it interesting that Joe, we kind of know who this guy is. You guys as a show really go for that. It’s interesting why people want to continue watching that and see where it goes. Is it torture porn? Is it shock value? People love it.
Badgley: It’s all of those things and more. I think it’s emblematic of our time, because back in 2007 – I mean, dude. That’s a long time ago when we were just boys. People wanted to watch a show like “Gossip Girl” because it was aspirational. It was like an escape. It seemed like it struck a certain cultural chord because it was this aspirational fantastical vision of excess and wealth.
But now, cut to 13 years later, people are not interested in that. And I think rightfully so. Now they’re interested in deconstructing why we’re so fascinated with that in the first place. We’re interested in deconstructing those systems of privilege. I’m not saying that our television shows are doing that, but I’m saying that’s what people are more interested in, so therefore these shows reflect that.
Crawford: The curtain has sort of dropped. Back in ’07, “Gossip Girl” was edgy.
Badgley: I know, man. That’s funny because it really was. And now, I mean, I haven’t seen it in so long. It would be very interesting to watch it now. Have you seen it recently?
Crawford: Buddy, you have to strap me to a gurney and pop my eyes open like “Clockwork Orange.” But no, it would be interesting to see the first couple maybe.
Badgley: I know that I watched with my wife, with Domino [Kirke], before we got married. It must’ve been six months after we met. She had never seen it, and that’s the last time I can remember seeing an episode. I remember even then, it has nothing to do with the show, but it was very hard to watch. These snapshots of yourself when you’re 20, 21, 22 years old. Who can enjoy that? Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable.
Crawford: Yeah, of course. I don’t like really watching myself that much in general. So to go back and open that time capsule, I think there would be some nostalgic value. We’re doing that when you come to L.A. We’ll have a drink.
Badgley: A little watching party. Dude, if we live-tweet a viewing of any episode of “Gossip Girl,” people would love that.
Crawford: We didn’t have to deal with all that. Remember, ’07 was when the very first iPhone came out. I remember you got it. I remember you had it at a Halloween party. You had the first iPhone, and think about that now. I remember we were more about camera phones and this and that. There wasn’t social media.
Badgley: Blake [Lively] got me that. I literally was like, “I don’t want this thing. It’s so cumbersome, and it has all these apps on it.”
Badgley: But, man, I remember even meeting a publicist that first season, and she was talking about this thing called Twitter. And as she explained Twitter, I was like, “What is this nonsense? I don’t want to have a Twitter account, and you tweet. What is this bird thing?” That’s something that actually years later, I think we got to give credit to “Gossip Girl.”
Crawford: It was ahead of its time. It really tapped into something interesting on the cusp of it all changing. I’m like, “Why would I want to put my life out there? I’m trying to crawl into my hermit shell. I’m a Cancer.” But now we’re all partaking. It’s part of the business. I should follow you.
Badgley: We should follow each other.
Crawford: What are we doing?
Badgley: We could have had Rihanna-level followers. Actually, that’s probably not true. I’ve always tried to be both transparent and forthcoming and grateful of the way “Gossip Girl” positioned me to be in a role like this and for it to have the particular effect that it has. Because it’s interesting that regardless of my performance, the fact that it’s simply me, just one of the main characters of the show called “Gossip Girl,” and I ended up being Gossip Girl — even though we can debate about whether or not that makes sense. And we can debate about whether or not Dan is even really a male lead in the show, because the heart of the show was somewhere else.
But anyway, it’s me [on “You”] playing this guy Joe, and it makes a lot of sense in a way. The funny thing is I didn’t get excited to be like, “Oh, this is such a different and interesting take on a similar vibe.” I was, if anything, too self conscious about that, and I was inclined to be like, “This is quite different.” But in a way, it’s almost like Dan, just with bloody hands.
Crawford: I hear you.
Badgley: I think what became really gratifying is as you get into it, especially I think Season 2, especially the second half — episodes seven through 10 — which I think you really start to see Joe both try to change and get worse. It gets into the psychosis of this stuff at a really detailed level. I do feel like I’ve gotten to stretch my legs.
Crawford: On the LSD trip, did you do some research? Your performance was amazing.
Badgley: In my early 20s, I did plenty of research.
Crawford: Do you have any improv?
Badgley: I think actually where I improv the most, ironically, is in the voiceover booth. I’ve developed a trust with the co-creators Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble. They really trust me to go in there.
I go in there alone, save the engineer and a co-producer, and I get almost no direction sometimes. I just go through an entire episode, and we’ve not shot it yet generally — so as it comes out of my mouth, you realize there’s something about this logic. There’s often so many different layers of a moment: he’s saying one thing to the person he’s in the scene with; he’s thinking another about them; but also, this [other] person who maybe he’s killed and they’re in the trunk of his car. Meanwhile, he’s tweeting or texting or something to cover it up, and then he’s also thinking about what he’s going to do in the next scene.
Crawford: That’s a lot. You make it so seamless you don’t realize how difficult that is to do.
Badgley: The voiceover, I feel like that’s my largest contribution to the show. It’s almost like I’m a voiceover actor first. And then, basically, the rest of the time I’m just staring.
I feel like for you, you are still just scratching the surface of your comedic breadth. I feel like the whole cast of “Gossip Girl” felt like if you could be given some leeway in your bizarre brand of humor, that it would just be such a phenomenal hit. I’m sure your co-workers on “The Boys” have seen it. But I feel like you are a comedic well just waiting to be tapped.
Crawford: I’ve finally got to let it fly. It’s been fun. I remember I did in “Gossip Girl.” I felt like our scenes in particular were the only ones I tried to work it in. I think some of the most fun moments are in the Nate and Dan scenes.
Badgley: Nate was such a tough character because you were such the straight guy. It was kind of like he was so perfect that he only had anywhere to go but down.
Crawford: Yeah, always punching his dad. Those were the good days, though. I don’t even remember what our first moment was on set. I remember the Palace hotel. It was definitely my first time experiencing New York. We got the red carpet right away.
Badgley: That was remarkable. It feels like another lifetime to me. When I think of being at the Palace, that just feels like a different person. It feels like another world, another life. It’s pretty wild.
Crawford: I’m trying to remember the name of the manager who would always take care of us. We’re sitting there in the courtyard between takes, he’d just come over and be like, “Camera love you,” and just walk away.
Badgley: He’s the one — when Blake and I went there to eat, it was probably when we were shooting there. They had a grilled cheese sandwich there called “The Gossip Girl Grilled Cheese Sandwich.” And I was like, “You should just call it ‘The Gossip Grill.'” And then, he took the menu from me and went inside, changed the name right there, printed a different menu and handed me a new menu with my suggestion. And I was like, “OK. This is a way to live.”
Crawford: The new kids won’t get that treatment [in the “Gossip Girl” reboot for HBO Max].
Badgley: Dude, I’m so interested to see what it’s like. I wish them well. I really am also interested to see how people react to it.