Former Gossip Girl and Easy A star Penn Badgley seems refreshingly grounded about the fact that he’s being bombarded with romantic online attention from women who’ve fallen under the spell of Joe, the romance-minded nutcase killer on the Netflix (originally Lifetime) series You. As the A.V. Club’s Joelle Monique put it in her essay on the sly dissection of male romantic heroes and their attendant clichés in You’s first season: “Joe is a self-professed romantic with a skewed way of thinking—his motivation is to protect his partner, but he doesn’t leave her any room to be herself.” Oh, and as Badgley noted to The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert when describing a crew-unnerving photo shoot where his character is seen stalking his first season “love” interest Beck (Elizabeth Lail), that particular woman “isn’t around any more” for season two. (Colbert made a grimacing throat-slash gesture to indicate that Joe’s version of romantic obsession is a whole lot more toxic than idealized masculine.)
Still, Badgley wasn’t unaware of why his creepy, murderous stalker character is—in You’s tricky exercise in satirical point-of-view—seen as a potential love object for very real viewers of the show. Calling the series (co-created by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti) “social commentary,” the actor explained that, to him, “We are purposely creating a device that’s meant to be provocative, hopefully thought provoking, and not just titillating.” Along those lines, Badgley responded to Colbert’s question about what fans’ “thirsty” reaction to the serial killer he’s playing says about society by noting, “It says something about how much we’re willing to be patient and forgive someone who inhabits a body that looks something like mine, the color of my skin, my gender, these sorts of things, these sorts of privileges.” Doubling down on that point, Badgley decried “how much less willing to forgive people who don’t those boxes.”
Underlining the point of just how much less work a hunky white guy has to do to get attention, Badgley then demonstrated how easily he can go from the affable talk show celebrity to creepy serial monster. Staring into Colbert’s camera three, Badgley simply turned off his puppy dog smile and did nothing. (What Joelle called Badgley’s “dead shark eyes” helps.) It sort of worked, honestly, proving that, for handsome white guys, even evil is a comparative walk in the park.