Sally A. Edwards jumped on the telephone with Penn Bagley on his last day of filming "The Stepfather" to talk moving, starting work at 13 and the beloved Dan Humphries of "Gossip Girl".
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 10 print edition in 2008
Interview by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Amanda Marsalis
Styling by Jenny Ricker
Grooming by Miriam Vukich
How Moving House Often Inspired Penn Badgley's Acting Career
Penn Badgley may be one of the babies of this issue, but he’s racked up an impressive CV. Hardly surprising for someone who started work at 13. Now 21, Penn has gone from an early eye-opening experience in The Fluffer – a film centred on the adult entertainment industry to be the main star of the revolutionary TV series, Gossip Girl playing the down-to-earth and highly likable Dan Humphrey.
I spoke to Penn by phone at 8am on a Sunday morning in LA. It was the last day of shooting The Step Father, which had lead Penn to dividing the last few months of filming duties between that on the West Coast and Gossip Girl on the East. So as you can imagine I wanted to talk to him about travel, but first work, drive and his goals. The amount he’s done is something to be really proud of I tell him...
“Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I’ve never really heard anybody say that, except for somebody like my parents, you know and I’ve never thought of myself as a person who is especially driven, or motivated. I fell into acting in a sort of happy accident and developed a passion for it over time. So I wouldn’t say I started out with that drive, like especially intending to do what I’m doing now. What drives me now is just how much I do love the job and the more I work, the more I start to discover little bits of the craft as an art form as well. I mean because up until a certain point when you’re working in this business it’s really just a great job and then as you get better roles, you’re able to manipulate it more as an art and only just now am I really getting to do that. So at the moment, that’s really what’s driving me.”
You’ve moved around a lot haven’t you? You started out in Baltimore and moved to Richmond and Seattle. Can you tell us about how those experiences guided you towards acting?
“Well it’s exactly what guided me towards acting, because I had moved from the East Coast to the West – out to Washington state from Virginia. [My Mom and I] lived in the middle of nowhere for the first couple of months. It was towards the middle of summer and consequently I had no way to meet any friends. So there was a playhouse, about 50 miles away. I think we saw an ad in the paper and my Mom mentioned it to me. I was like, ‘Yeah, OK. Whatever.’ This was just community theatre and it was nothing extravagant, but I got [a role] and I enjoyed the rehearsals and opening night. I thrived off the reaction of the audience and stuff. I mean, as a kid you’re always performing and I think at that age I was probably loving the attention and the performance, and the excitement of it all. Especially the camaraderie between cast mates, you know?
“Then it just progressed and evolved very slowly, naturally and steadily from there. Three years after that I had got an agent and I was going out for commercials and voice overs which really wasn’t that satisfying, but it was a way into a little bit of film and TV. Then finally someone was like, ‘You should try to go to LA, because that’s really the only place go. I was almost 13 and to be honest I wasn’t particularly happy in Washington, so it sounded like a great thing to do. I’m not really sure what fantasies I was entertaining. You know, I’ve never really had a doubt of what I would be and I’ve always believed or known – whichever way you want to put it – that I would eventually have some success and whether that was naive or whatever, [laughs] I just never really doubted it for whatever reason.
“That was almost ten years ago and my career has similarly just progressed really slowly and steadily which is nice, you know? I mean I wouldn’t’ve wanted it to happen any other way. I wouldn’t’ve wanted to get a really great role when I was 14 and blown up then, because I think that sometimes spells out for disaster.”
Going back to you moving around, because I did a lot when I was a growing up, I went to nine different schools and I’ve had about six different accents. So I wondered whether you may have had the same kind of experiences?
“Yeah. I do think there is something to be said about that because when people ask me where I’m from, I always have a bit of a long winded answer. Like, ‘Yeah, well I was born in Baltimore and my roots are in the East Coast...’, but you know I moved around so much that I sort of feel like wherever I am is where I’m from. Wherever I am is home, you know? Particularly at the moment, I’m flying between both coasts twice a week working on two projects and I can say honestly that I feel deeply at home both in LA and New York right now. It’s a really nice feeling, I mean I think moving around as a kid probably caused me to spend a lot of time alone and some people might have not dealt with that well. Some people might think it was really lonely – and sure it was lonely at times, but I think it’s made me infinitely more confident and sound in the person that I am, than I would have been, you know? As awkward and self conscious kids can be and surely I was that too, but I think spending time alone with myself just made me... I don’t know, appreciate myself more! [laughs] I don’t know, I think it was a grounding experience. You’re forced to meet new people constantly and you’re always in a new environment, and as a result... Obviously you’re environment shapes who you are, but I think you find at an earlier age who you are a little bit more clearly, regardless of your environment.”
Can you tell us about moving to LA and also spending time in New York including your experiences of getting to know the cities, going for auditions and getting parts. Are there any particular stand out memories?
“Well, that’s the thing, it’s a huge thing in LA. My first experience in the city was I lived deep in North Hollywood where all the billboards are in Spanish and being white you’re a minority, which was actually a very fun experience for me. When I say fun, I just mean I was 12 and 13, and I was loving the vibe of LA. I think being out of the North West, being out of Washington State and trying this exciting new [place]. I loved it.
“The truth of getting to know the city? I mean I don’t think I started to appreciate it until I had to leave in summer ‘07 when I had to move out to New York for Gossip Girl. I was a little reluctant to go because I was just starting to appreciate things about LA that I’d always overlooked – I think living in LA and doing what I do, it’s very easy to start to resent the city for its superficialities and stuff, you know? Growing up in the city and going to auditions and stuff, I mean as much as I’ve thrived off of the whole experience and I’ve learned so much and I would never take it back, I don’t regret it at all. I’ve enjoyed it. I think that’s an exception to the rule. The rule being that most kids who come down to LA don’t have a great experience and being surrounded by that, knowing it and seeing all these kid actors with their stage Moms, that was an interesting experience growing up. I think that’s why once I did go to New York this time around I was really glad to be there, just to get out of the whole... because the thing about LA is, if you’re an actor you’re always in Hollywood no matter where you are. It’s like it follows you and everyone has a script to sell you.”
Wow, so it’s nice for you to be able to get some time on the East Coast aswell.
“Absolutely, and I’m loving it so much. I think I’ve blossomed as a young adult out in New York. I’m just really happy there and it’s funny, I was kind of nervous moving out there. I didn’t know if I was going to enjoy the experience. I knew that I loved New York, but it’s also a different beast when you’re living there and it can be intimidating and overwhelming, but I just embraced it and it’s been a great experience.”
You’ve done loads of roles leading up to Gossip Girl, I wanted to know if there are any roles you could go back to and revisit at an older age and why?
“Oh... That’s an interesting question. Maybe... Probably one of two roles. When I was 13, I did this independent movie that had a bit of cult success called The Fluffer, which was about a fluffer in the porn industry. It was like a very explicit gay Boogie Nights. That’s how they were selling it. It’s a very different film – but you kind of get the idea of what it is when it’s described like that, and it had the same producer as Boys Don’t Cry. The directors and writers had a very clear vision. It was just to this day one of only a couple of projects I’ve worked on that has been such a clear vision behind the camera and that’s an inspiring thing to be around. Having done so much television that sometimes you don’t get as much. So I would love now to be more mature and to just appreciate that experience. Because at the time I was a little overwhelmed by the subject matter and it was just so explicit and the sets I was on. It was a very, very weird experience, but I would love to revisit that and appreciate it for what it was.
“Then also a role I did where I played a villian. It’s a rugby film called Forever Strong and I grew out my hair and they cut it into a mohawk mullet, kind of like a Kiwi’s on the All Blacks and I had a goatee and I was just a complete asshole. I got to be a total prick and I never get that chance playing Dan at all. So that was a lot of fun. I mean, now would I want to play the bad boy everyday? No, I think it might get a little old. Ultimately playing anything everyday would get a little old at some point. [Considering] that’s not what I usually play, I had so much fun with it and I slipped into that role easier than any other. I mean, it was really, really fun. It was a liberating experience for me. You know, more than revisiting that role, I’d actually just like to play another one.”
I wanted to move onto Gossip Girl. Its second season is almost upon us. Can you tell us the concept of the show and describe your character?
“OK, well the basic concept of the show is an elite group of Upper East siders. They’re all young, incredibly privileged and living wealthy lives of excess. Their world is narrated and ruled by one anonymous blogger named Gossip Girl, and that’s the idea. My character, Dan Humphrey is the one who is from the other side of the tracks. He lives in Brooklyn and I would say he and his family – the Humphrey family are the moral centre of the show. The moral compass. They present the necessary contrast that is upheld against all the other scandalous shit going on. They’re the heart and soul because everyone else seems to – at points – lack one, because the show does have elements of trash and sometimes it can be raunchy; all with a wink to the audience. So as ridiculous as some of those things might get, the Humphreys will ground it and bring it back to earth.”
Is your next project The Stepfather?
“Yeah, I’m actually about to wrap that, today’s my last day. It’s been amazing. Is there anything in particular you want to ask me about it?”
You can tell us what it’s about.
“OK, well it’s pretty basic in concept, it’s a remake of a 1987 horror film called The Stepfather with Terry O’Quinn. I think the idea is to take – rather than remaking something that’s good as so many people do – the seed of the idea of the basic premise that maybe wasn’t executed so well and really try and bring life and depth to it. It’s a universal idea or at least [laughs] in America. I know divorce is a huge thing and kids are dealing with stepfathers and divorced parents. That’s a familiar feeling for so many across America, there [are] so many broken families. So you take that basic premise and it’s a simple story driven thriller. It really is about the people as opposed to the killer and his killings, and what we’ve been saying all along – and hopefully we’re achieving this, is that even if you take the killings out it’s still an interesting story about a broken family trying to pick up the pieces. That said it’s also a thriller and there’s certain rules of the genre you have to live by so it’s not going to change the world, but hopefully it will take scary movies back to a simpler, stronger time. Now I think they’re just so convoluted and complicated with their story twists and their visual effects and shit, and blood and gore you know? I think it’s a hark back to the time when Hitchcock was making thrillers, hopefully. I mean these are all pretty grand claims I’m making. Hopefully that is what we’re doing.”