Tribeca: Penn Badgley Moves Past 'Gossip Girl' and Slays Jeff Buckley's Ghost
Of playing late rocker, he says, "There are people who are not going to be happy unless he’s there, dead and propped up and stuffed with his own voice being piped through his dead body."
"I'm Gossip Girl," Penn Badgley says, laughing and shaking his head. "It is kind of funny. I wasn’t just on it. I am Gossip Girl."
The 26-year old actor, wearing a day or two of stubble and a navy blue cardigan, is sitting in a hotel room in his native New York City, the town where he grew up in front of a generation of swooning girls on the CW's premiere teen soap opera. He's here to discuss his movie Greetings From Tim Buckley, but he can't yet escape the show.
The show ended this past winter after six seasons of bourgeois intrigue and private school drama, finally revealing the identity of the diarist that chronicled the excess and early onset adulthood, unmasking the mole that narrated the tangled web for viewers over those years.
It was Badgley's character, Dan Humphrey, the outsider journalist, that was revealed to be the chronicler (though voiceovers were provided by Kristen Bell), a revelation that took Badgley by surprise. "It didn’t really make sense for anyone [to be Gossip Girl], but if it was going to be anybody, it'd be me," he says.
Now he's desperate to move on from the series, grateful as he is that it provided him fame and a gigantic stage. His role as Jeff Buckley, the mysterious, ethereal and tragically late rocker, in the Tribeca Film Festival entry Greetings From Tim Buckley, is his first opportunity to show off the range he insists is locked inside.
"I know some fans are really surprised that I didn’t totally f--- it up," he laughs.
The film, directed by Dan Algrant, focuses not on Buckley's brief mid-90's stardom, but four days that helped make it all possible. Heavily fictionalized but based on a true event, the movie sought to capture the essence of the artist, not all the exact details. That Buckley left little in the way of interviews or paper trail made it easier to do that, but also presented a risk.
"In that way it actually gave me the perfect amount of freedom, to just kind of evoke similar qualities about his essence, kind of have that going, but not really concern myself," Badgley explains. "It’s not Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. We live in this age of biopics where everybody is like, 'Does he look like him? Does he sound exactly like him?' Well no, that’s not what movies used to be about, and I don’t think that’s always the best route to go. Particularly with a guy like Jeff. All sorts of fans like to use terms like 'spinning in his grave,' but I think if there had been a movie where you really think it was him and it was telling some bullshit story, that’s spinning in his grave."
In 1991, Buckley was living in LA as an aspiring musician, trying to succeed despite his name, when he got a call inviting him to Brooklyn. A group of fans and former bandmates were putting on a tribute concert to his late father, Tim Buckley, a psychedelic folk singer who put out eight albums by the time he died of an overdose in 1975, just 28-years old.
His prolific record output was eight times the number of times he met his son, whom he had left behind with his ex-wife.
The younger Buckley, carrying a swirling brew of resentment and curiosity, agreed to come to New York for the show. He was shy and angry that all these people were assembled to worship a man they hardly knew, venerating a selfish wanderer who abandoned his child. The film goes back in time throughout the track the elder Buckley (played by Ben Rosenfield) on his first venture to New York, where he played in the same East and West Village clubs that his son would one day entertain. He's painted as a tender and confused kid more than a rotten deadbeat, though that's an impression the audience cannot share with the on-screen son.
Jeff Buckley, in many ways thanks to his heavens-reaching cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," is worshipped as well, seen as a spirit-talker whose mysterious death at 30, drowning in a river in Tennessee, marked the loss of a prophet. According to those that knew him, Buckley himself didn't share that perception, and shied away from fame -- ironically, a part of why he is now so idolized -- which is something Badgley kept in mind as he built his "inspired by" character.
"Something I’m finding is that myths are always myths and I’m not inclined to believe in them and put so much weight in them when they’re about tragic icons," he explains. "That in and of itself, he would have rolled his eyes at the thought that he was a tragic icon."
Given the (perhaps misplaced) worship of the late singer, Badgley faced skepticism over his ability not just to embody Buckley, but even come close to matching his singing voice.
"There are people who are not going to be happy unless he’s there, dead and propped up and stuffed with his own voice being piped through his dead body," he says, slightly perturbed by what had to be an influx of negativity when it was first announced that he had won the part. "What do they want? No, I’m not Jeff, and I don’t sound like him because I’m not him, but we’re telling a story here, so either get with it or stop bitching."
It's a sign that Badgley is serious about his work, and yearns to be taken seriously. He curls his lips into slight smiles but maintains a largely focused demeanor, dunking green tea bags while trying to salvage a now-cold brew his only real distraction. In December, he filmed Parts Per Billion, an apocalyptic love story, but says he's carefully plotting his future.
"It’s rare, no matter who you are, good roles are hard to come by. I’m just biding my time," he says. "There were offers I’d get, but the way I feel about it, is that if it’s an offer, it’s not something I want to do. If it’s anything that somebody knows I can do, it’s not something that I want. So far, hasn’t really been much that can show the sides of me that I want to, up until this. So I really want to have to stretch to get a role as well. Or, if some amazing gift comes along and lands in my lap, I’ll take it. But getting a role is the first step."
Given his age and looks, it's suggested that perhaps he'd be propositioned by a major studio for a role as a superhero in a big, lucrative franchise. Would he, for example, want to play DC's Flash or new Green Lantern? Badgley shakes his head. "No, no," he says.
"I spent a lot of times inside the studio culture and I want to get outside of that and see the grass and trees and just be a little more natural in my pursuit of work and actually be creative and artful," he explains. "I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to do that. That’s why anybody initially gets into it, then you get into the machine for a while, and you forget what you ever wanted to do. So I’m really trying to get back to that."