ARTICLE DANICA LO
PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID ARMSTRONG
STYLIST BENJAMIN STURGILL
PENN BADGLEY’S LIFE IS ENTWINED WITH HIS GOSSIP GIRL CHARACTER—MAYBE NOT FOR MUCH LONGER
“I’m not just a teen star idol. I’m not just that.”
Penn Badgley is lounging in a wicker chair on the second floor of the elegant Bowery Hotel. He’s simply dressed in well-worn, faded black trousers and a white Hanes that wasn’t intended to be the muscle shirt it’s become, revealingly stretched over his broad shoulders and biceps. It’s a humid Sunday afternoon, and Penn has just finished a three-hour photo session—not an unusual way to spend a Sunday for a “teen star idol.”
For those homeschooled without a TV or raised by wolves in a forest, 22-year-old Badgley is the unlikely nerd-hunk–dark horse breakout star of the CW’s Gossip Girl, a cultural phenomenon of a soap opera aimed at teens that has sucked in all other age groups. He plays private school scholarship student Dan Humphrey, the earnest working-class foil to the show’s more conniving brats.
“They brought me on to be the awkward sort of confident nerd,” Badgley explains. “In the beginning, they wrote to my ability to stutter very well—it’s a comedic kind of thing.”
Badgley thinks that his character on the show has developed, though.
“I have a certain ease that permeates all that is Dan Humphrey,” Badgley says.
Gossip Girl has garnered an unprecedented level of attention since its debut. It took Penn awhile to get used to the hysterical screaming that is now the sound track to his life.
“You know what’s fucked up?” Penn asks and then answers himself. “You barely have to be famous for people to scream when they see you.”
The show is such a sensation not only for its highly sexualized plotlines and scandalizing half-naked “OMFG” ad campaigns, but also because of the oddly symmetrical real-life personal affairs of its cast members.
“If you look at the lives we’re leading on the show and the lives we’re leading offscreen, I mean, they’re very fucking similar,” Badgley agrees. “But it’s not weird. It doesn’t feel incestuous.”
In real life he’s dating blondie Blake Lively, who happens to play one of his love interests on the show. His relationship with Lively, which was solidified in the public’s eye when photogenic images of them cavorting in the sea came to light, is off-limits and Badgley won’t discuss it directly. The boundary between fantasy and reality is further blurred by the padded and protected New York City bubble-lives into which the transplanted L.A. actors have been thrust.
“In certain circles we’re treated like royalty,” Badgley elucidates. “We’re treated like the Kennedys. We’re never going to be able to separate New York City from Gossip Girl and vice versa.”
The show’s verisimilitude has spawned identity confusion in the media, where interviews with Badgley read more like Q&As with the fictional Humphrey.
“I’ve always tried to distance myself from the character,” Badgley says. “You don’t want people to think of you as this one guy.”
This dichotomy is something Badgley struggles with himself. The only child of a contractor and interior designer, Badgley was nurtured and groomed for greatness, coming of age in the thick of ’90s child actor subculture—“this really awful place,” he calls it—in deepest, darkest Los Angeles.
“I was a very shy kid when I first came into this business,” Badgley remembers. “I started doing theater when I was 9. I auditioned for The Music Man and played Winthrop, the main little kid with the lisp.”
At 13, he acted in his first film, 2001’s The Fluffer, where he played the young ingénue who grows up to be, what else, a fluffer in the gay porn industry.
At first glance, he thought The Fluffer was going to be about a dolphin and the film would be something of a Free Willy-style outing. Not exactly.
“I read it and was, like, ‘Uh, mom, you might want to read this and see what a fluffer is,’” Badgley recalls. “I was going to pass, but my agent at the time said it was good to be in a controversial film.”
He landed a handful of small roles on soap operas (The Young and the Restless) and sitcoms (including Will & Grace and What I Like About You) before being cast as the sensitive and overanalytical scholarship student on Gossip Girl.
Badgley makes his first motion picture foray since becoming a household word in next month’s The Stepfather, a remake of the ’80s thriller which was based on the true story of John List, a New Jersey man who murdered his family, then moved to a different town, remarried, and worked as an accountant for nearly twenty years before being captured after appearing on America’s Most Wanted.
“One of the first things Penn said was, ‘I’m not Dan Humphrey, I’m not Dan Humphrey,’” says Stepfather director Nelson McCormick. “He made that a mantra that he kept saying to himself over and over. I think it was an important thing for him to separate in his mind because, at one point, he was flying back and forth, having to switch gears from our guy to the guy in Gossip Girl.”
Badgley’s the first in the GG cast with a major motion picture stemming from the small-screen success (Lively starred in the epic The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies before joining Gossip Girl). Like Dan Humphrey, Badgley is more comfortable with himself. He feels like he is in his element working in films.
“At the end of Stepfather, it gets pretty physical for my character,” he says. “I was doing a lot of stunts and it was fun, bringing your physicality into a role is a whole new arena I’d like to explore.”
As for his regular gig, there will be a lot for fans to look forward to in the new season—notably, a transition to collegiate life.
“Dan can go anywhere now,” Badgley says excitedly. “He’s been the good guy long enough that I think he could go anywhere.”
So could Penn Badgley.
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