Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

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(MUSIC PLAYING)

archived recording 1

Love now and for always.

archived recording 2

Did you fall in love?

archived recording 3

Just tell her I love her.

archived recording 4

Love is stronger than anything you can feel.

archived recording 5

For the love.

archived recording 6

Love.

archived recording 7

And I love you more than anything.

archived recording 8

(SINGING) What is love?

archived recording 9

Here’s to love.

archived recording 10

Love.

anna martin

From “The New York Times,” I’m Anna Martin. This is “Modern Love.” Today, a conversation with the actor, Penn Badgley. Penn is best known for playing brooding characters. He plays a bookish, handsome serial killer who stalks women in the name of love on the Netflix show “You.”

archived recording 11

Where is she? Tell me where she is! Tell me or I’ll kill you!

anna martin

And of course, he played Dan Humphrey in the original “Gossip Girl.”

archived recording 12

Within weeks, I was getting dozens of emails with stories about Upper East Siders, so I posted them anonymously.

anna martin

Dan Humphrey is the outsider among this wealthy group of high schoolers. And spoiler alert for a TV show that finished airing in 2012, he ends up being revealed as the anonymous blogger ruining all of their lives. So, brooding might be an understatement.

At first, I thought the “Modern Love” essay Penn chose to read today felt like a departure from the work I’m used to seeing him in. It’s an essay about a father who needs to embrace his vulnerability in order to help himself and his three sons. Penn is also a father and a stepfather. And today with me, he opens up about what it means to be a parent who models humility and compassion.

Penn Badgley, welcome to “Modern Love.”

penn badgley

Thank you for having me.

anna martin

So, I know I am not the first person to say this to you, but I am loving you on TikTok. You’re so good on TikTok.

penn badgley

(LAUGHS): Thank you.

anna martin

I mean, listen, you’re dancing, you’re singing. You have a TikTok about your feet. Explain that one.

penn badgley

Well, that one really was just because there were enough comments. I am often barefoot because when you’re inside, it’s either for me socks or barefoot.

anna martin

Absolutely agree with you.

penn badgley

And I don’t know. I mean, I think a lot of us are barefoot. We’re just not all, like, on social media.

anna martin

You’re getting so defensive. A lot of us are barefoot!

penn badgley

It’s a lot of us are —

anna martin

Yeah, a lot of us do that.

penn badgley

I mean, it’s zany. It’s like, it’s just quick cuts.

anna martin

It is zany.

penn badgley

This is me in my version of directing a comedy. This is like —

anna martin

You are putting your whole self. It’s physical comedy, Penn. It’s physical comedy.

penn badgley

Yeah, which is to — I don’t know. I mean, to me, it’s like, what else are you going to do on TikTok? You know what I mean?

anna martin

I mean, I love it. We get to see a totally different side of you, so different than the characters you play. It’s much lighter. It’s much more joyful. How does that feel for you?

penn badgley

Well, I mean, I have both sides to me. I’m quite capable of being serious and brooding, but I feel like at this point in life, that’s like a drag default. I don’t need to explore that anymore. You know what I mean? Not even as an actor, I’m saying as a person.

anna martin

Huh.

penn badgley

Like, there’s no — I don’t know if there’s value any longer in the seriousness and the brooding. I have that on lock. That’s 37 years of experience there.

anna martin

Yeah. Was there a specific moment for you where you kind of felt yourself transition from —

penn badgley

Dark to light?

anna martin

Yeah, to put it that way.

penn badgley

No, there’s definitely not one point. I would just say that for a number of reasons, I’ve been coming to terms with, as we often do as adults, probably the grievances, the grief maybe, the sadness of early life. And not everybody has a lot of sadness to pull from in their early life.

I happen to have had some experiences and events before 20 that kind of oriented me in a way where, frankly, those were the heaviest years. Like, those were very much the heaviest years. I would say throughout my 20s, I was unburdening. And then if there is one moment, I would say my 30th birthday, suddenly, something clicked a little bit, just a little.

anna martin

I need to hear this because I’m 29, about to turn 30, so this is personally very important to me. Keep going. What happened on the 30th birthday?

penn badgley

So, I would imagine some people experience maybe something of the inverse, but I just really felt lighter because I think there’s something quite heavy about actually adolescence into adulthood, into early adulthood. By the time you’re 30, you just can no longer say — there is something where it’s like, all right, that stuff of youth is officially kind of over. It’s like, well, look, this is me. This is my life. I mean —

anna martin

Mm-hmm, yeah. I mean, I know what you’re saying. When you’re 30, it feels like you’re fully responsible for dealing with what happens in your life, the things you can control and also the things that you can’t. It actually makes me think of the essay that you picked to read today. It’s called “Watching Them Watching Me,” and it’s about a dad and his children dealing with a tragedy together, something that none of them saw coming. Can you read that for me?

penn badgley

Sure. This is “Watching Them Watching Me,” by Dean E. Murphy.

“To celebrate our 25 anniversary, I had the videotape of our wedding converted into a DVD as a surprise for my wife. This was going to be a stay-at-home anniversary. We had splurged on our 20th, knowing that by this year, our oldest son would be frighteningly close to college, so a quiet dinner and a movie, our own movie, were what I had in mind. My wife and I hadn’t viewed the ceremony in years, but the routine was delightfully predictable. She would cry, on cue, at the moment when she choked up reciting her vows. And we would hold hands and give each other that knowing look, the one that said, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

I’d forgotten how long it took to get beyond our background stories, the high school swim teams, the travel, all leading to that electric day in Santa Barbara, California, when we first laid eyes on each other and knew almost instantly we were meant to be. I’ve met the man I’m going to marry, she reported to her mother that first night.

As the DVD played on, the tears began welling, but this time, long before we recited our vows, and it was me crying. My God, she looked gorgeous, as she stepped out of the white Cadillac, dodging the raindrops. She beamed a smile at the camera, her eyes filled with anticipation. Everything was perfect, down to her painted toenails. I remember it all so well, back when heaven was so generously shining on me, the lucky guy I was, this dream bride at my side.

My oldest son wandered into the room and grabbed a seat. He had seen the tape before, but didn’t really remember it and certainly had never watched it with such purpose. On screen, I had a full beard and thick, wavy hair and looked more his peer than the middle-aged father now sitting next to him. It was funny watching me pace with my groomsmen, awkwardly waiting for the ceremony to begin.

As I sat in front of the TV, I laughed and cried all at once, knowing with hindsight all that awaited us. His mother, well, she looked stunning to my son, too, and there was no mistaking her. Let’s get the show on the road, she ordered. My high schooler immediately recognized his mom, a quarter century of distance erased by a handful of take-control words. Still, he didn’t stick around. It turned out to be too hard for him to sit with me, his dad, by then, reduced to a helpless spectator to his own life. He felt like an intruder, he later confessed.

When one of his brothers happened by, he, too, was so unnerved that he darted out the front door. His eyes were swollen and red when he returned, not a word needing to be exchanged between us. You see, as hard as it had been for my three sons to lose their mother, she died rather suddenly, two months shy of our 25th. I learned that anniversary night that it has also been hard for them to watch me lose the love of my life.

As alone as I feel, I am not actually alone. I have three sons who can pinpoint with laser-like precision the gaping hole in my heart. It is an odd feeling as a father to be so transparent, so naked in front of the children you still provide for. But the death of a spouse rewrites the rules of a family in ways I never could have imagined. Some decisions in life, it turns out, are made for you, leaving you an unwitting accomplice and spectator at once.

My sons stood witness as I spent the better part of five months trying to keep my wife alive. She received a diagnosis of kidney cancer a few days after Thanksgiving, and we buried her the week before Easter.

In some ways, it was a flash, those 134 days fighting for treatments, arguing with insurance companies, pushing for another drug, getting her to the hospital for chemotherapy. Always another deadline, something to arrange, a problem to solve.

But the boys lived every day of it. And while I was caught up in the moment, they were watching in slow motion, each frame frozen in agonizing detail.

When they would act out or indicate neglect, I was frank in my plea to them. As harsh as this may sound, I can’t make you my priority right now. So, please, don’t insist on it. I love you and remain here for you, but my energies are focused on getting your mother healthy. She needs me like never before.

Not that they didn’t test me. Little things would conflate into big ones. The struggle over just getting to school on time became a flashpoint beyond reason, as the routines of everyday life from when to eat meals to whose authority to respect were suddenly up for negotiation.

My updates on their mother’s condition were rarely taken at face value. I was hiding something or spinning them, or worse, I was in the dark myself. In a near instant, the world was not what it used to be. It never would be. Nothing anyone did made much difference, not in stopping the cancer or even in managing the pain.

Still, when it became clear that she was not going to get better, she mustered her strength and invited the boys into our bedroom. It would be another 10 days before she died. But she said her goodbyes that night in the sanctity of our home and on her terms.

We all curled up on the thick, white sheets and fluffy down comforter, craving her every affection, tears streaming down our cheeks, incapable of saying much beyond “I love you.”

We knew this was one of life’s consequential moments, even if we did not wholly appreciate the finality of it.

Apart from the grief of a beloved spouse gone missing, a widow or widower has the institution of marriage to confront. Not just because you are suddenly without it, but with kids still at home, the marriage lives on in the world you’ve built as a family. The living room furniture you picked out together, the unfinished plans to remodel the kitchen, even who walks the dog in the morning, all residuals of a bygone bond.

Over the summer, we celebrated my middle son’s 16th birthday with a boxed cake I concocted with the help of his little brother and a tub of storebought frosting. Birthday cakes were his mother’s domain, and she made magnificent, artistic monuments to their lives, confections that told the story of the past year better than any journal entry or photo album. Mine was hardly that, but I did my best to keep my wife’s tradition alive, and with it, our marriage.

In a moment of despair, after every effort to save my wife had failed, her mother pulled me aside. I had never felt so helpless or inadequate, and she could see that. I may not recognize it now, she told me, but I had given my sons the greatest gift a father could give — the example of unconditional marital love.

What she didn’t say was that in providing that example, I was also inviting my sons into the inner chambers of my life. That is not something fathers normally do, at least not in the case of adolescent children. And once that door is open, it does not easily swing shut. That such an isolating time in my life that is, perhaps, not a bad thing. But this new order can take some getting used to. My mental health, social life, and work ethic are all fair game to my children. Is your belief in God shaken, Dad? Are you angry? How are you taking care of yourself?

On a visit to the doctor to get his flu shot, my 12-year-old lectured me on finding healthy ways to vent my sadness and frustration, gently pointing out that I might have come down too hard on his two brothers that weekend. To that same point, there was nearly a round of applause when I announced that I’d found a bereavement group I intended to stick with. You’ll like it, my youngest told me. Sometimes you just need to say whatever you want and not worry about it.

When I look back to the morning my wife died, it is now clear to me that my sons were well down this road, even then. That they recognized our family’s changed order and its consequences. As we were driving home from the hospice in exhausted silence, my oldest son, in the passenger seat, where his mom had always sat, turned to me, and then to his older brothers.

It is just the four of us now, he said. We’ll need to be here for each other.”

anna martin

Thank you so much for that, Penn. That was really beautiful. What did it feel like to read?

penn badgley

Oh, it’s really — it’s poignant. To me, that is even richer than just sadness or tragedy because it contains, well, love, actually, is what it contains. It contains a lot of love.

anna martin

After the break, Penn talks about unconditional love and learning how to say “I’m sorry” as a parent.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Penn, you just read Danny Murphy’s essay, “Watching Them Watching Me.” Did any part of this story in particular really resonate with you?

penn badgley

Yeah, for me, what he says about this gift that he’s unintentionally given his sons, that they’ve been able to glimpse something of unconditional love that he’s giving to their mother and that he’s also allowing them into, as he says, I think, the inner chambers of his heart or his life, which is not what fathers typically do, especially for adolescent sons. And I mean, oh, my goodness, that’s everything. That’s so uncannily beautiful. So beautiful.

anna martin

That line, “I was inviting my sons into the inner chambers of my life. That is not something fathers normally do,” I want to ask, when you were a kid looking at your father, do you remember a moment where your father was open or vulnerable with you in the way the author of this essay is?

penn badgley

No, but I know that in some ways — I know that in his own way, he tried.

anna martin

Can you say how you knew that?

penn badgley

I know it now. I’m not sure what I thought or knew then, but I know it now.

anna martin

I mean, as a dad yourself now, do you remember a time where your kids saw you be vulnerable?

penn badgley

I have an interesting situation where I have a biological son and a stepson. And my stepson is — his father is very much in his life, so his father is his father, and I’m something else. So I have two different kind of parental roles. And then my biological son is only 3 and 1/2. So, that’s a very different thing, too. I’m going to need to be able to more consciously show him my vulnerability as he gets older in those years, you know?

anna martin

I was going to say, your son is probably a little too young to perhaps register these moments of vulnerability from you now, but as you plan for childhood and teenagehood and adulthood and beyond, how were you thinking about incorporating vulnerability into your parenting?

penn badgley

Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, one would be to first understand what vulnerability is. Because we talk about it in a way that I think it’s often assumed that it’s just being — it’s like sharing a lot maybe or being open. And I don’t think that’s the — I actually think that the ways that I’m open are not always I have to tell you exactly what’s going on inside. It’s more like living it, demonstrating it.

anna martin

Can you give me an example maybe of what that means? And again, I know that three is quite young, but I bet you’re still doing things even now to model how to interact with the world, how to interact with people. I would love an example, if you can think of one.

penn badgley

OK, well, first, I remember when my toddler started saying sorry.

anna martin

Oh. (LAUGHS)

penn badgley

Like, I’m sorry. And yeah, that’s the right response because we, in our culture, say sorry all the time, and it’s meaningless. It’s like, oh, sorry. Oh, I’m right behind you. Sorry. Just sorry, sorry, sorry that. And then the first time you hear a little child, who’s learning words, anytime they say anything for the first time, you’re like, oh, that’s — you notice it’s the first time that word is being used.

So this little human saying sorry for the first time, I remember when he said it, it was like, oh. Like, you don’t need to be sorry about something, and I don’t recall exactly what it was. It weas something that was innocuous, but that, technically, was his fault. Like, maybe he — it wasn’t spilling because we don’t freak out about spills at all in our house. It was something small that none of us were upset about.

But he said sorry, and I think we were just like, oh, an apology is not needed. I remember just thinking to myself, let me reorient things so that you don’t have any compulsion to apologize when it’s not necessary.

anna martin

Hmm.

penn badgley

And then furthermore, I remember the first time that I apologized to him.

anna martin

(GASPS): Tell me about it.

penn badgley

We were getting into the car, and he was being completely unreasonable as a toddler will be, you know? Like absolutely —

anna martin

(LAUGHS): Absolutely out of control three-year-old, yeah.

penn badgley

I mean, it’s just like, oh, you don’t want to do the thing that you just said you want to do because we’re doing it now? Oh, that makes a lot of sense.

You frickin’ maniac. If you translate that behavior to older people, it’s like, toddlers are just terrible people. But they’re not, of course. They’re not. This was actually the first time, really, more or less, the first time that I was becoming impatient with him.

anna martin

Wow.

penn badgley

He was 2 and 1/2 and, there was something around that age that changes, where they’re starting to just consciously defy you in a way that you can sometimes have nothing but patience and grace for. And then other times, it’s like we’re going to be 45 minutes late if you don’t — like, I know how this is going to go because I’m an adult, and you’re a stupid child.

anna martin

And I have a watch. (LAUGHS)

penn badgley

And you’re saying no for no reason other than your brain doesn’t understand how to process your feelings any better than that.

anna martin

Oh, my gosh.

penn badgley

And you want autonomy, but you don’t understand you’re not the center of the universe. And you know what I mean? It’s like, it’s just — if you look at it in a certain way, it’s a complete lose-lose. And if you get caught up in that, you can take it personally, and you can get really impatient and really angry with them. You really, really can, of course.

anna martin

Absolutely.

penn badgley

And I was being short with him. I was like, well, we got to get you — I was just — I was being clipped. Because what had happened is I’d forced him into the car seat, and he was crying, but he’d stopped crying. And it was just like he looked kind of like devastated, you know?

anna martin

Yeah.

penn badgley

Like, I’d broken his will somehow. And of course, this happens all the time, and they snap right back. And then I stopped for a moment, and I said, are you upset because I was being impatient with you? And he goes, yeah. And I said, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for speaking to you that way. And that was for me, as a man and as a father, it was actually such a moving moment. And I was like, oh, I didn’t get that. That is really important, you know?

anna martin

Yeah.

penn badgley

That, to me, is vulnerability. It’s not a bunch of sharing necessarily. It’s not even apologizing when you know it’s important. It’s meaning it. And it really was the first time, by the way. Like, that’s what’s so — I’ll always remember it.

anna martin

We talk all the time about these moments where we realize our parents are human and make mistakes, too. And even though your son is maybe too young to completely understand your words or to remember this moment, I kind of feel like he’ll feel it in some way, you know?

penn badgley

That’s the thing. He won’t remember it, you’re right. There’s actually no neurological way he could ever remember it. He’ll only know it in his nervous system if he grows up with a father who keeps doing this.

anna martin

Absolutely.

penn badgley

You know?

anna martin

Absolutely. I mean, it models for him how he can act in situations.

penn badgley

Yes, as he gets older.

anna martin

I want to change gears somewhat and talk about another theme in the essay, this idea that we can’t protect kids from the hard stuff in life. The author, Dean E. Murphy, lost his wife, and his kids lost their mother. As much as he wanted to shield them from that pain, they still felt it so deeply. I wonder how you’re thinking about that in terms of your own child, the fact that you can’t protect him from the hard stuff.

penn badgley

Well, it’s impossible. In any other interview, if I just said this out of context, it would sound wild. But I think, in some ways, children should be accustomed to hardship.

anna martin

Hm.

penn badgley

Because they will encounter it, by the way. They will. And I actually think it’s more like, if we were to embrace reality, try to demonstrate unconditional love as much as we’re able, the truth is, is that in hardship, they would see vulnerability. They would see humility. They would see love from their family and friends. For whatever reason, those are the times that we seem to demonstrate it most.

anna martin

You’re bringing up unconditional love again. And earlier, you talked about the part of the essay where the author’s mother-in-law tells him that he’s given his sons the greatest gift a father could give, which is an example of unconditional marital love. How do you think about unconditional love in your roles as a father and as a husband?

penn badgley

I think unconditional love is actually very hard and rare in a way. I think, for instance, with my wife, we’re learning to condition ourselves so that we can be unconditional, you know? Unconditional love, I don’t think, is ever just magically visited upon anybody. We say a parent’s love is unconditional. That’s actually not true.

anna martin

(LAUGHS):

penn badgley

It’s not true. It’s just not. It is conditioned quite often.

anna martin

Hm.

penn badgley

It just is. And that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person at all. Unconditional love is like — the author mentions God at some point. I’m personally spiritual and experienced God in my life and is part of my worldview. That’s the only love that’s unconditional, as I understand it. We’re learning and attempting to be unconditional. I really would want to interrogate anybody’s experience of so-called unconditional love because I think you, unfortunately, find a lot of conditions. (LAUGHS)

anna martin

I think you’re articulating something really true, which is that love requires work, right? The author is giving his sons this model of unconditional love. But it’s not easy. There is so much effort there. There’s so much grief there. And even so, he still provides these moments of joy for his sons. He throws his son a birthday party. He decorates the cake.

To end on a bit of a lighter note, I wonder if there was a moment recently where you tried to give your child a moment of joy. It can be really small, even.

penn badgley

Yeah, I mean, that, especially with a toddler, is easy. That actually happens all the time.

anna martin

Yeah, how gorgeous is that, huh?

penn badgley

Well, yeah, it is gorgeous. It’s a beautiful, beautiful dimension of life. There’s joy often, so often. I’ll actually switch to my 15-year-old for that one. Very recently, we had a rare kind of like bedtimes — and when you have such an age spread, it’s kind of hard to make time for everybody. And he’s older, and he doesn’t want to spend that much time with us anyway.

So this was like a night, an evening where I was sacrificing sleep after many nights of not much sleep, I think. Our littlest was sick, but it struck me, and I was like, hey, we need to watch a movie. We are going to watch “The Edge of Tomorrow” with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

anna martin

OK, I love —

penn badgley

And it is such a good action movie, like such a — you know what I mean? It’s like, there’s something — it’s the best that an action movie has to offer.

anna martin

So you say to your 15-year-old, we need to watch this movie tonight.

penn badgley

Yeah, because it was just like we are going to have a great time together. And it was one of those very male — we didn’t talk that much because it was super late. And frankly, I was exhausted, and I was like, I’m going to get maybe four or five hours of sleep. And whatever. But I just knew it was important. It was like the stars had aligned so that my wife and youngest son were asleep, and I was just like, this is a good time to do this. You’re not going to play video games right now. We’re going to do this.

anna martin

What did your 15-year-old think?

penn badgley

Well, he loved it. No, he loved it. And you want to talk about Modern Love. One of the ways you got to do that is watch things with people.

anna martin

That is so sweet. I love that. You were like, dude, let me unlock the best film ever. I have to tell you, I had to covertly google it as you were speaking because I’ve never heard of it. But I need you to know that later, I will be watching this movie.

penn badgley

You’re welcome in advance.

anna martin

Yeah. Thank you so much. And actually, that’s what I wanted to say. Penn Badgley, thank you so much for this conversation. Such a treat.

penn badgley

Oh, thank you for having me.

anna martin

Listeners, check out Penn’s podcast called “Podcrushed.” It’s about embarrassing middle school memories. We all have them. It’s very funny, and it is available wherever you get your podcasts. Next week, I talk to actor and singer/songwriter Miya Hawke about what she wished her life would have looked like as a child of divorce.

miya hawke

I think the dream situation is captured by the film “Parent Trap.”

anna martin

(LAUGHS): Secret twin.

miya hawke

Yes, secret twin, get your parents back together.

anna martin

“Modern Love” is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, Reva Goldberg, Davis Land, and Emily Lang, with help from Kate LoPresti. It’s edited by our executive producer, Jen Poyant. Special thanks to Paula Szuchman.

The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music by Pat McCusker. This episode was mixed by Daniel Ramirez. Our show is recorded by Maddy Massiello. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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