‘My adolescence in Hollywood is a running joke’ – Penn Badgley on teen crushes and terrifying low self-esteem

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<span>Photograph: Jim Spellman/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Even when he’s laid up in bed with Covid, Penn Badgley looks far too good for ordinary humans to relate to. “I’m pleading with people to believe that I’m like them,” he deadpans from under a duvet, fully aware of his pin-up status for fellow woke millennials. The actor, who is surprisingly charming as he speaks from his sickbed via Zoom, says that, despite swapping school for Hollywood at the age of 14, he was never exempt from the universal awkwardness, anxiety and heartbreak of adolescence. In fact, it’s only now that Badgley feels he can revisit those turbulent years – and he has decided to do it for his first ever podcast.

Podcrushed is a series in which Badgley starts each episode by reading out a listener-submitted story about their most poignant middle-school memory; the first is from a girl who pretended to have a heart attack in front of a crush rather than be forced to speak to him. Along with his friends and co-hosts – the super likable Sophie Ansari and Nava Kavelin (“We met when Penn was friends with my roommate, and I’d just have to act like it was normal that Penn Badgely was sitting in my kitchen”) – they reflect on their own experiences of excruciating crushes and low self-esteem. With celebrity guests, such as Badgley’s former co-stars Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) and Victoria Pedretti (You) thrown into the mix, it’s frothy but thoughtful – and satisfyingly nostalgic.

The trio know full well that, thanks to Badgley’s presence, Gossip Girl and You fans are going to be tuning in – and they have a lot of fun exploiting this. Badgley’s literary narration has a big Joe Goldberg vibe, only without sounding like a serial killer (“A key element!” he points out). And the themes speak to outcasts who identify with his Gossip Girl character, Dan “Lonely Boy” Humphrey, who was initially written as the high school drama’s awkward antidote to Manhattan’s glossy teenage elite.

“People associate me with a certain kind of storytelling,” says Badgley. “We have leaned into it; it just feels natural and fun. My adolescence, and growing up in Hollywood, is a running joke.”

Ansari, an illustrator, and Kavelin, a producer – both of whom have worked in education – were initially sceptical about how relatable their chisel-jawed Hollywood host and his high-profile guests would be. They both wondered: “What awkward experiences did this person have? They are so well put together and beautiful and have everything.” Until they thought about it again: “But child actors need to deal with adult bullshit,” says Kavelin. “Can you imagine that, at 13 years old, a 40-year-old is telling you if you’re attractive enough?”

It was awful when I realised, ‘You’re telling me I’m not going to be 6ft 3?’

It’s an experience Badgley became all-too-familiar with in his adolescence: “[It’s when] we first become conscious of our bodies. You’re mortified … people treat you based on how they see you. I remember being that age and realising, ‘This is my body and I will not have another body’ – that is terrifying. It was awful when I realised, ‘You’re telling me I’m not going to be 6ft 3?’ [He is 5ft 9].

It wasn’t just crippling doubts about physical appearance: “When I was 12, the roles I was playing weren’t the cool guy. I’m known for playing awkward people – that’s my bread and butter, playing the awkward nice guy. But I had to look like I had my shit together in front of a casting director … The kind of insecurity I experienced was heightened.” But, he adds, “Just to be clear: I’m not asking anyone to care.”

The truth is, people do care. We want to know if the teenage heart-throbs we grew up watching on TV had the same insecurities as us mere mortals. Badgley understands this cultural obsession, but – as someone who has played that role more than once – he worries about what real representations of teenhood the next generation, including his own stepson, will be plugged into.

Is this podcast his way of reconciling the part he played in that? “I think so, but not consciously. These are questions we delve into in great length,” he says. “In terms of my own personal reconciliation and my place in all of that, I’m not so sure … but I’m using this time of life as a door into culture and identity and self worth.”

Thinking about what is out there for young people to relate to on-screen today, Ansari talks excitedly about Abbott Elementary – a forthcoming StarzPlay show about a Philadelphia public school – while Kavelin gushes about the moment she saw uncovered stretch marks on the leads in the second season of Bridgerton. And what about the Gossip Girl reboot: has Badgley watched it to see how it fares? “I haven’t, no,” he says, grinning.

Down the line, there will be a special episode of Podcrushed in which all three hosts reveal their most memorable middle-school moments. “Most of my stories usually use something quite painful to get at some point about society,” says Badgley. “That tends to be the way I do it.” With such poetic, softboi lines, you are left wondering if he isn’t so far removed from the classroom crushes he plays after all.

Podcrushed is out now, with new episodes every Wednesday.

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