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The Untold Truth Of Penn Badgley

Penn Badley got his start on the soap "The Young and the Restless" in 2000, but it wasn't until 2007, when he took on one of the leading roles in what would become an ultra popular teen drama "Gossip Girl," that he really started becoming recognizable. He played aspiring writer Dan Humphrey, aka "Lonely Boy," for six seasons. In the series finale, Badgley's Dan turned out to be the anonymous online blogger Gossip Girl, who had tormented the teens of Manhattan for years with posts about their personal lives. It's considered quite the controversial ending — there are several plot holes working against the ending of "Gossip Girl," but regardless, it remains a memorable finale and, for Badgley, a memorable role.

After "Gossip Girl," Badgley took a break from television for the most part, instead focusing on music with his band, MOTHXR, and appearing in films — such as 2012's "Greetings from Tim Buckley" and 2016's "The Paper Store," as noted by his IMDb page. In 2018, Badgley made his way back to TV with the leading role in Netflix's "You," a psychological thriller in which Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, a self-identified romantic and sociopath who will do anything for the woman he loves — even stalk, manipulate, and kill. The series became a hit and is now multiple seasons in. In fact, "You" was renewed for a fourth season before the third had even premiered (via Deadline).

So, who is the man at the center of "Gossip Girl" and "You" anyway? Read on to find out the untold truth of Penn Badgley.

Penn Badgley is named after a tennis ball

Penn is a fairly rare first name, so just how did Penn Badgley get his name? Surprisingly, he was named after a tennis ball. In a 2008 GQ profile on the actor, writer Sarah Goldstein noted that Badgley was "named after the Penn tennis balls his dad was nervously squeezing during his mom's first sonogram."

The topic also came up on an October 2021 interview on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Kimmel noted the unusualness of Badgley's name and asked if it was a family name. Badgley elaborated on the tennis ball story, saying, "I was, I think, about the size of a tennis ball. That's what my mom said to my father, [who was] bouncing a tennis ball. And that was how it happened." Kimmel responded, in jest, that it's pretty fortunate his dad didn't have a wiffle ball. Imagine what his name would have been! 

He graduated high school (very) early

Penn Badgley may have become famous for playing a high school student on "Gossip Girl," but he himself didn't exactly have a normal high school experience. In fact, he was finished with high school by the time most kids are still in middle school — at age 13.

As reported by the Mirror, Badgley has spoken out about finishing high school at such a young age. He said, "I graduated when I was 13. It was really just to avoid the on-set tutor thing. I was taking community college courses when I wasn't working so I'd spend six months working and six months going to school, on and off."

Further, Badgley was also accepted into the University of Southern California at one point. On this note, he shared, "I was accepted at USC but I never went. I was working as well and I realized at that point I didn't want to go to film school, I just really wanted to work and do what I was doing." Luckily, for Badgley's fans everywhere, he decided to forgo school and was able to eventually land his role on "Gossip Girl," on which he starred when he was 21 years old (via Newsweek).

Badgley once said music was 'more important' to him than acting

What a lot of people may not know while watching Penn Badgley in "Gossip Girl" or "You" is that Badgley is also a musician. He even released an album titled "Centerfold" with his band, MOTHXR, in 2016. His musical tendencies may not be well known, but music is incredibly important to Badgley — once he even said music was "more important" to him than acting. While speaking to Vulture in 2012, Badgley said, "I've always loved music. It's actually always been more important to me than acting."

Writer Kyle Buchanan then asked him why he was an actor, and his answer pointed to a difficulty in finding good roles leading to a dissatisfaction with acting. He responded, "That's a good question. It's an interesting thing. What's so cool about this role [playing musician Jeff Buckley in "Greetings from Tim Buckley"] is, for the first time, I'm like, "Oh s***. I love being an actor." Of course, I'm going to struggle to find something like this again."

A few years later, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Badgley described himself as "both" an actor and a musician. He continued, "I kind of hate using the word 'artist' because I certainly wouldn't expect anyone to consider me as such at this point. I enjoy making all kids of different things and different creative projects."

He finds Dan Humphrey to be 'villainous'

The reveal that Dan Humphrey was Gossip Girl certainly raised a lot of eyebrows — after all, Gossip Girl was responsible for spreading rumors and personal information about everyone from Serena (Blake Lively), Dan's off-and-on love, to his little sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen). In fact, Badgley is the first to point this fact out.

In a video interview with Esquire, Badgley was asked to name the worst things that Dan did as Gossip Girl. He said, "He outed his sister, losing her virginity. These storylines are twisted! This is villainous!" Within the show, Dan reveals that Jenny found he was Gossip Girl years before anyone else and had a say in what he posted about her. Further, Serena defends Dan at one point by saying that he was "as hard on himself" as he was everyone else (via E!) — but still, Badgley has a point.

For Esquire, he also named the hardest "Gossip Girl" scene to film as the one in the final episode when Dan declares, "Gossip Girl is dead." Badgley told Esquire, "I could not keep it together. ... Something came over me, and I just couldn't say it. I kept laughing. I couldn't stop. I was sweating. I was having an out-of-body experience."

Badgley originally turned down playing Dan

Dan Humphrey of "Gossip Girl" almost had to be played by a different actor. At the start of "Gossip Girl," Penn Badgley had already starred in short-lived shows on The WB (which soon became The CW) and was hesitant to take on another high school role. In 2012, following the end of "Gossip Girl," he spoke to Vulture about why he hesitated to take on the role and noted that he was wary of being typecast — he feared there would be "no way [he'd] get out of that thing."

Badgley further explained, "I've just done so much television. I've been getting a gift from the head of Warner Bros Television since I was, like, 15 years old. That's 10 years, pushing on 11. ... I was frustrated and I was broke and I was depressed and I was like, I cannot do that again. I can't." However, his manager and his parents helped give him the push to sign on to play Dan.

Co-creator Stephanie Savage also implored him to reconsider, but he still turned the role down before finally agreeing. Badgley continued, "And then they couldn't find anybody for it — which is weird, because a million people could play Dan Humphrey — and she came back around, I was about to get a job as a waiter, and I was like, 'Okay.'"

He was also hesitant to take on You

Six years after "Gossip Girl" wrapped up, it still proved difficult for projects to land Penn Badgley as a lead, as the actor was also hesitant to take on the leading role of Joe Goldberg on "You." In this case, his reluctance had to do solely with the morality of his character.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, when asked his initial reaction to the part, Badgley responded that he wasn't interested because of how dark the character is. Mostly, he was concerned with being a part of putting someone like Joe on screen. He elaborated, "I had no interest in humanizing him. Like, please, spare us. But then I realized the only thing you can do as an actor is bring a character to life, and all that that means." Luckily, he was able to be convinced by creators Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble. He shared, "I knew that I would be conflicted about the role from day one till the last day, and that is why they thought I would be good for it, is that I'm not psyched to play somebody of this nature."

He then explained his biggest worry with his character, which ties into why he was hesitant in the first place. "The only thing I was really concerned about was not [letting] my own nature make him too human," he noted, "human in a way that maybe somebody like him can't be."

Badgley loves the You voiceover work

One of the most crucial elements of "You" is Penn Badgley's voiceover work. He narrates the show's events as Joe, letting viewers into the twisted logic of the serial killer. The heavy amount of voiceover puts Badgley in an interesting position as an actor, as much of his characterization comes from the narration rather than dialogue with other actors — a dynamic he has come to enjoy.

Speaking to Jimmy Kimmel, Badgley explained what it's like for him on set. He said, "I would say 80% of my lines, if not more, are actually voiceovers, so most days I go to work and I actually don't have any lines often." He went on to describe how he'll often just be filmed looking at the camera, listening to his stand-in read the character's thoughts, while other actors have significantly more lines than he does. He continued, "I have grown to like it. It can be a bit isolating, but it's also, again, the highly technical dance with the crew is actually something you don't get to do a lot as an actor and I really like that."

Badgley elaborated further on the subject in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. He said, "I had to be conscious of things that I think often actors very specifically do not want to be conscious of in order to maintain a certain level of spontaneity to their performance ... I felt much closer to a crew member and just part of this team making this thing. I personally really liked that."

He practices the Bahá'í faith — and says it led to his marriage

In regards to Penn Badgley's personal religious beliefs, he practices the Bahá'í faith. The official website for the Bahá'í faith details that their beliefs focus on "the oneness of God and religion, the oneness of humanity and freedom from prejudice, the inherent nobility of the human being," as well as equality, justice, and the peaceful coexistence of religion and science.

Badgley told People that he became invested in the faith following the adjustment of the fame he received from "Gossip Girl." While he was thankful for the success he experienced, he noted that there was an adjustment. He explained, "The phenomenon of fame is literally invisible, but it influences and dominates your life if you aren't careful. Learning how to accept it and accept that lots of people thgink they know me is ultimately what led me to seek out such a spiritual perspective."

After becoming involved with the Bahá'í faith, he found himself able to fully connect with another person — his wife, singer and actor Domino Kirke. Badgley continued, "I don't think I could truly value human love until I developed divine love. [Domino and I] very much had a romantic beginning, and I think that you discover in marriage that what sustains a marriage for decades — there are less and less people who can tell us this — but I think it has something to do with [divine] love."

He was surprised by one element of the big You Season 2 plot twist

Spoilers ahead! One of the biggest shocks of "You" is when it's revealed that Love (Victoria Pedretti), who is introduced in Season 2 as Joe's love interest, is also a killer. We learn this when Love brutally kills Candace (Ambyr Childers) to protect Joe — after she'd already killed another woman who knew his true nature, Delilah (Carmela Zumbado). Despite proving herself to be Joe's (twisted) perfect match, Joe is appalled to find out Love is a killer.

Speaking with BuzzFeed, Badgley discussed his thoughts on the twist, revealing that the creators told him that Love is a killer before shooting the season, right after he read with Pedretti while she was being considered for the part. He told BuzzFeed, "I was like, 'Oh, interesting!' But what they didn't tell me was that Joe would not like that. I thought, I just imagined, okay, so we're gonna go on some weird Bonnie and Clyde Season 3 kind of thing ... I mean it's consistent with Joe [that he] wouldn't accept Love. That really hurt my heart, but, again, it's morally consistent with Joe."

Badgley found being a father in real life made portraying one on You harder

In Season 3 of "You," Joe takes on fatherhood, following Love's reveal at the end of Season 2 that she was pregnant. The two get married, move to the suburbs and attempt to be a normal family — the type that doesn't kill people — as they raise their son, Henry. This happened to coincide with Badgley's personal life, as he and his wife, Domino Kirke, had their first child together in August of 2020 (via People).

However, Badgley says being a father in real life actually made it harder to portray one on "You." Speaking to Access, Badgley said, "I was curious what my new fatherhood would ... how that would influence my experience with Joe and acting with him. But sometimes it was almost not helpful because I was having such a light and, like, joyful experience — and still am — and Joe is like so petrified, he's like so scared. And, of course, I can identify with the fear, but, I mean, he's just so morbid in his obsessive self-preservation and primal instinct that sometimes I almost found it harder as a result, you know what I mean? It really depended on the scene."

He called his relationship with Blake Lively a 'learning experience'

On "Gossip Girl," Dan Humphrey and Serena van der Woodsen always find a way back to each other — regardless of all the shady things Dan does to her as the sneaky, rumor-spreading Gossip Girl. At the end of the series, the two are married and presumed to embark on their happily ever after. In the real world, however, Penn Badgley and Blake Lively didn't experience the same outcome. The two co-stars dated each other for two and a half years before calling it quits in 2010 while the show was still in production, according to Elle.

To make matters even more awkward, Lively married Ryan Reynolds while "Gossip Girl" filmed its sixth and final season. Badgley stated their breakup didn't affect anything since the two were consummate professionals throughout, despite their romantic past. Speaking about the relationship with Elle, he added: "We were very much caught up in the show, which itself was a six-year endurance test. Our relationship was a part of that and helped us through it. I mean, like anything valuable, it was good and it was bad and it was a learning experience."

He's become a kind of TikTok star

Many marketers spend weeks analyzing and strategizing how best to utilize social media to get maximum reach and engagement for their clients. Despite the countless hours sunk into this exercise, no one can predict what the next viral sensation will be. The Internet simply chooses who it will anoint as the chosen one when it does. While Penn Badgley has been declared the Internet's boyfriend on more than one occasion because of "Gossip Girl," "You," and "Easy A," he hit the headlines in 2022 for lighting up TikTok, per Vogue.

As a platform, TikTok is renowned as the place where people can film themselves singing and dancing to popular songs in entertaining ways. Yet, no one had Badgley showing off the moves to Taylor Swift or Meghan Trainor's tracks on their yearly bingo card. It's certainly a major departure for the actor, especially after his comments about social media a year earlier. Appearing on "Baha'i Blogcast with Rainn Wilson," (via IOL), Badgley admitted he wasn't the biggest fan of social media and reined back his usage over the years, saying: "It was not the most fulfilling or meaningful contribution that I could make as an individual seeking to better the world." Maybe Badgley hadn't discovered his spirit animal, TikTok, when he spoke those words back then.

He wrote a song for Zoë Kravitz

While Penn Badgley often portrays the outsider or the boy who seems to struggle to find love, it's anything but in his own personal life. The actor has never been short of romantic suitors and has dated notable celebrities in the past. One of his most high-profile relationships was with Zoë Kravitz, whom he dated after the split with Blake Lively.

Discussing several details of their relationship with Elle, Badgley admitted he had written a song for Kravitz, though this is something he had done for every partner before her as well. The actor was reluctant to share the lyrics for the special song when asked, stating: "If it ever comes out and you hear it, I'm happy for you to do so. The song is a sprawling meditation on love. I'll give you that."

Badgley and Kravitz broke up after two years together in 2013, as per Glamour. Reportedly, the two stayed on good terms, but it was a case of them being too busy in their careers to make it work.

He launched his own podcast

Fortunately, Penn Badgley didn't go into the gossip-mongering business like his "Gossip Girl" character Dan Humphrey. What he did do, though, was start a podcast dedicated to the rollercoaster time known as teenagehood titled "Podcrushed," per AP. The premise is simple: Listeners submit their first-person stories from their adolescent years, while Badgley narrates the tale and then discusses the topic with various guests, such as former co-stars Victoria Pedretti and Leighton Meester.

Discussing the meaningfulness of "Podcrushed" and the stories shared with him, Badgley said: "I just became really enchanted with the stories. Recalling that period of time for me, that was when I moved to LA and started becoming an actor professionally. I do find myself reflecting on that time a lot, the sense of self that I developed since then because of the things I experienced and witnessed."

The actor also revealed that narration has become a big passion of his, and he would even consider doing it full-time if the opportunity presented itself at some point. That said, one has to wonder how many people would immediately think of Joe Goldberg from "You," no matter the story that Badgley narrates.