Penn Badgley, one of television’s hottest young actors, dons blue paint and a woodchuck costume in his latest role as Woodchuck Todd, the school mascot, in Will Gluck’s hilarious new comedy, Easy A. Badgley’s irreverent character provides the emotional grounding for Emma Stone’s Olive, a self-assured senior whose life begins to parallel Hester Prynne’s in The Scarlet Letter when she’s thrust into the rumor mill after a little white lie elevates her to the status of high school slut.
For Badgley, best known for his role of Dan Humphrey in The CW’s hit series Gossip Girl, playing the part of Woodchuck Todd was so tempting, he arranged to fly between the west and east coasts to accommodate the shooting schedules for both the film and his series. The 23-year-old actor recently completed production on Margin Call, a thriller based on the events surrounding the country’s financial collapse, directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto and Simon Baker. More after the jump:
We sat down with Penn at a roundtable interview to talk about Easy A. He told us about his character, how well Bert Royal had written the role, the delicate line he walked to make sure it worked, and how he handled the mascot stuff with a straight face. He also updated us on the upcoming Margin Call and the satisfaction of being able to play someone his own age, and what fans can expect in this season’s Gossip Girl.
Q: Can you talk about your character? This is a really smart movie and the role you’re playing could have been very one dimensional but you bring a lot more to him.
PB: Well, thank you. Hopefully that is what people see and hopefully it’s not so obvious from page one where he’s headed. I mean the idea was that for that character to work, he’s got to be played well. Otherwise, he just fades into the background because he’s not even there much. You would have to edit around him and then at the end you would just hope people cared that he was with her. I guess it was a bit of a delicate line to walk but a lot of that was on the page as well. Bert (Royal) wrote the role very well. I, for one, loved his irreverence and the way that he pops in and out. He’s certainly off the wall. He can’t quite figure out what he’s doing there and yet he’s pretty grounded and he has a certain effortlessness about him which I think is a really refreshing thing to see in a movie like this where everyone is so concerned with micromanaging their reputation.
Q: Doesn’t he also have the mask to hide behind as the character?
PB: That’s true. That’s interesting. I actually never thought about that. But I think what’s great about that is the one person with a mask doesn’t really require it. He doesn’t need it and that’s not why he uses it. He almost does it as this tongue and cheek wink and nod to himself noting how ridiculous high school is. He’s not your typical high schooler in the sense that he sees beyond it. So he’s able to enjoy it more. He’s able to be the mascot and not be ridiculed because he realizes that’s no reason for him to be ridiculed. He has a confidence about him that certainly separates him from most, even though he is weird. He is a couple stereotypes in one, I suppose. He is not one dimensional which is refreshing. In a lot of teen movies nowadays, you just get the rote six stereotypes like the jock, the cool guy, the nerd, the hot girl, the girl who cares, and the girl who has glasses and is supposed to be ugly but is actually beautiful. This is more than that with a really amazing adult cast and I love that. I think that was really important and Stanley (Tucci) and Patricia (Clarkson) were awesome as the parents. I love watching them.
Q: Isn’t the guy who’s the mascot usually the nerd?
PB: Or, if you look at the last scene, he’s the cool guy. Most of the time, it’s either or. And in this, it’s both and then also some really strange shit as well.
PB: If it was an enormous stretch for me, I might have, but he has a certain kind of laid back grounding to him that I have a bit of which I think is why they thought I would be good for the role. Really all I did was just make an effort to make him grounded and he cannot be judgmental and that was written in. There was no judgment in his lines. It’s very easy to inject judgment into a character but it’s very hard if it’s written in to take it out. It wasn’t at all written in. He was a very accepting, cool, calm guy. So it just played itself out. Another thing that I knew is I just had to play the mascot stuff with a straight face and really invest myself. He actually has to be into it, otherwise why is he doing it? That stuff was really in the script so I just kind of let that happen.
Q: One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the film is that people are very clever, but it doesn’t have that sitcom feel to it. Do you have to have a certain discipline when you’re stepping into heightened reality?
PB: It’s a discipline in the sense that yeah, that’s what we do as actors, but I think if you’re good at it, it’s very fun to do that and you step into it naturally. When you see, for instance, Patricia and Stanley have their rapport in the parental scenes, you can’t teach that. That just happens naturally and that’s not something that requires discipline, that just requires the ability and if it’s there or not. I personally love that kind of comedy. It’s a bit of a heightened reality obviously because life isn’t always that funny, but it’s real. It has a certain looseness to it. I didn’t even have the opportunity to be funny so much in this movie except for the ridiculous outfits that I was wearing. I would look forward to getting a chance to do that kind of stuff a lot more.
Q: Would you say the relationship between your character and Olive’s mirrors the parents’ relationship?
PB: A bit, yeah. One thing that I’ve been realizing only now as I’ve been forced to talk about it over and over is that Olive and Woodchuck Todd are actually very much male and female counterparts in the sense that they both have the same grounding and they both understand that high school is just a step of many. They both are sort of effortless about it and handle it well. But then Olive is thrust into the rumor mill and forced to deal with it because it’s so overwhelming. Whereas, Woodchuck Todd has the luxury of being on the outside and being able to keep her in check and make sure she’s alright. And the parents serve the same kind of grounding for her. They were probably very much the same way in high school. They could see beyond it and they see beyond it now. They understand that their daughter is going through something that might be miserable one day but really what does it matter because in a couple of weeks nobody is going to remember, and when you’re in college, nobody is even going to know. But they understand that she’s vulnerable still. There is a parallel between the two relationships.
Q: Evidently some people really suffer from their experiences in high school?
PB: Certainly and that’s why people romanticize their high school years. There’s something about it as if you don’t quite have any other time in your life and it’s because probably you’re finding out who you are. I didn’t quite have a typical high school experience, but I dealt with my teenage years very much the same way that I feel Woodchuck Todd did. I was very laid back and took it as it came, but then I also did some really ridiculous things because I was acting so I would do it. When I was 15 or 16, I was in an 80s show so I was wearing ridiculously tight parachute pants and blousy collared shirts during the day and then I’d go home at night and I was a regular 16 year old. There are certain mirrors there.
Q: So you were a working actor when you were in high school?
PB: I was. From 15 on, I’ve worked pretty steadily in L.A.
Q: How did you tap into your inner investment banker for Margin Call? These guys are the ones that everybody loves to hate now.
PB: I know. What’s interesting about our movie too is that it’s pretty ambiguous. It doesn’t paint a flattering picture but it also is a bit of a look at the personal tragedies of that, and the people that you’re looking at are the people who are responsible for it. In another movie, they’d all be villains. But we had to give them heart. I think we were all a bit conflicted about that but something about the script was very compelling. It was a really interesting, pretty brilliant script written by this first time writer/director who was able to frame this world so accurately because his father worked in, I believe, JP Morgan or Merrill Lynch. I forget which one. But his father had been there for 40 years. For me, not that I want people to think I can only do one thing, but in this movie I kind of serve because I’m about 10 years younger than everyone else, I’m like the one guy who’s “Whoa, shit! This is really serious.” He’s a bit more normal than everyone else. Everyone is a brilliant, exceptional broker in this but he’s still at the bottom of the bunch. He was probably number 3 in his class but he wasn’t numbers 1 and 2. Whereas, everyone else in this movie is like they are the brilliant minds responsible for creating the structure that crumbled.
Q: Usually when you’re making a film that’s historical, you don’t see the real story still unfolding in the headlines. Was that a challenge for you?
PB: Well what’s funny is throughout the movie there are bits where there’s newspapers on the ground or magazines, and without exception, every time there was something like “The economy is shit,” we actually can’t have this here because that’s supposed to be happening tomorrow in the script. So it was an interesting kind of thing. I don’t really know what else has happened in my lifetime that has literally affected every person in the world. I mean, it affected everybody. Even in a business that’s supposedly recession proof, we’re feeling it big time – not necessarily struggling to make ends meet but the way the projects come together now it’s like it’s so much more conservative and it’s not like we aren’t already fighting tooth and nail to get roles. So yeah, it was a really interesting thing to be a part of. I’m very intrigued to see how people respond to it – to see what they want to see and what they are going to see. I’m interested to see how the movie itself turns out to see where the heart is and who you feel for and all that kind of stuff.
Q: What was it like being a part of another great cast?
PB: It’s an awesome cast. That was an amazing experience for me. It was a real learning experience, a watershed experience because I played my age. I wore a suit. I had a little bit of facial hair. I was able to be an adult although still very much in the movie a child because everyone else is so senior. But working alongside Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Zach Quinto and Simon Baker, I mean, the list goes on. It was amazing. It was really great. It was definitely the first time that I felt like I was outside of my comfort zone. The first day on set I was with Paul Bettany in an Aston Martin. We’re wearing thousand dollar suits and having to espouse all this jargon that neither of us are familiar with. The scene is a linchpin. It’s really an important moment. It’s like the first day of school. You’re finding your way. And even he felt the same way. But I realized like wow, this is a whole other level, this is a whole other ballgame.
Q: Did you talk to people who do this for a living?
PB: Yes, I went to Citigroup with the director one day and met with a couple of traders, people who were around when this happened, people who were in a similar kind of position as our characters, and I spent a couple of hours picking their brain. The overwhelming thing for these people is when this was happening, they weren’t able to tell anyone. They knew a good year before this happened that it was going to happen and they couldn’t say anything. Their friends are acting like nothing is wrong and for a good 8 months they’ve just been like “Oh man, everybody’s just going to freak out.” That’s a mind fuck. That’s a strange thing to deal with and so the weight of the situation was so staggering for them, for this moment to realize what was going to happen and how it was just this global event. It’s pretty overwhelming. And so, it was interesting to see these guys who had been through it. A lot of people might look at them as cold and intellectual but they’re still people and they were there on the front lines, which is kind of a terrible analogy to draw because they’re not fighting in a war but it was interesting. I was a person who when this happened I was like “Fuck them all! We should not be paying for this.” But you realize we’re all kind of in the same boat. They just happened to be steering it. We’re all a part of it. It’s hard to live in America or any capitalist country or any Western civilized country with a lot of money and not take some responsibility for it because none of this would be possible without the same system that crumbled and bent us all over.
Q: There’s a book called “The Wolf of Wall Street” and a theory that sociopath psychosis is more prevalent in developed countries especially in places like Wall Street.
PB: Definitely. That’s the thing. The way that it is, is if we want to live the way we live, we have to take those brilliant sociopaths and put them in the positions they’re in to have no conscience and to make a lot of money for themselves, for their company, and then by proxy the rest of us because everybody would be spending money they didn’t have. And the reason they can do that is because these guys did what they did. As much as a lot of people might not have been aware of the real repercussions, and these guys were, so it makes them a bit more evil, we’re all part of it. It’s hard to really point the finger when it’s such a massive event. And I think that’s kind of what this movie is. A lot of people are probably going to be like “Oh boo hoo. Everyone on Wall Street lost a little bit of money.” Hopefully, it’s a bit more of an existential thing, I guess.
Q: Is Margin Call next year?
PB: It’ll probably come out sometime between next January and May.
Q: You mentioned the satisfaction of playing your own age. Is that kind of a double edged sword because you’re in your 20s now and want to play older characters?
PB: That’s like every actor is always playing a couple years younger that he is. It’s just sort of the name of the game. So I’m sure the next role I play is not going to be like 23. I’ll bet you it’ll be 20 or something. I don’t know. It could be 25. It’s always all over the place and it depends on who you’re cast against as well. In a movie full of the people like Easy A, we all look about age appropriate. I mean, next to actual high schoolers, we might look a bit young. We might look a bit coiffed but it’s a movie. Nobody wants to watch regular people. That’s why we do what we do. But I would say I actually enjoy it because you’re able to go both ways. I’m able to carry myself in a way that I can play older as well as playing younger. For an actor, that really just ends up being a weapon in your arsenal.
PB: No, they’ve actually shot that. We’ve been back 2-1/2 months so they were already in Paris. In fact, while I was shooting Margin Call, they were in Paris and that’s what allowed me to do Margin Call. If I’d been in Paris, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Q: What are fans going to see this season?
PB: I can’t say much but there is a baby on the way. There is a brush with death. There is Paris. That’s about all I can say. Georgina comes back and she stirs the post. I don’t know if you know what that means but if you watch the show…
Q: So a French crib death and cooking.
PB: (Laughs) Yeah.
Easy A opens in theaters on September 17th.