Q&A: Penn Badgley gets physical in thriller film

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    Penn Badgley from The CW series “Gossip Girl” took a break from the drama of the Upper East Side to play lead in the thriller “The Stepfather.”

    Badgley, 22, plays Michael Harding, who comes home from military school to discover his mother’s boyfriend has moved in. The not-so-cozy family situation quickly turns into chaos as Michael’s suspicions lead to a man-of-the-house rivalry. “The Stepfather” opens Oct. 16.

    On Monday, several collegiate journalists participated in a college conference call with Badgley.

    Q: How is this film different from other thrillers?

    A: There are actually a surprising number of differences between “The Stepfather” and a lot of modern thrillers or horror films. First off, it is a thriller, it’s not straight up horror. It’s not a slasher the way that I think maybe the original was in 1987. But it’s a simpler story-driven thriller. It isn’t full of twists and turns, and I think for that reason people might not be getting what they’re expecting going in, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised. Also, you know who the killer is from the first frame of the movie. It’s explained in the beginning, so rather than it being the usual game of Clue where you’re wondering who it is, it’s really a different kind of thrill.

    Q: How is this film different from anything you’ve ever done before in the past?

    A: First off, it is a lead roll in a film and that is different from anything I’ve done. Probably the biggest differences were two things. One, I didn’t really have much to say even though I was a lead. The character is fairly quiet and he’s borderline petulant; I really didn’t want to make him petulant, but he’s sort of pissed off coming back from military reform school and he’s partially reformed, but he’s definitely bitter a little bit from the whole experience and not sure how to approach his family. So, he’s quiet and almost insolent, but again those things I tried to temper to make him relatable and make him redeemable. And then the physicality of the role. Aside from getting in shape a little bit, I also was required to do some stunts, and I had to do stuff that I’d never done in a role which was really fun. I really loved embracing the physicality of it. Like before all these scenes where you’re having to run around a house being chased by a murderer, to make that real you kind of have to exhaust yourself. Or at least what I was doing was doing pushups and pull-ups and just screaming and letting the blood rush to my head and drooling a little bit even … I probably looked like an idiot in between takes, but I was just trying to exhaust myself to make those moments real … So, it was actually surprisingly challenging, to do something like that because you would think doing a genre picture of any kind would be maybe a little bit easier as far as acting is concerned, but you’re required physically to just really commit, unless you don’t care and then it might not end up being so good.

    Q: From everything that you’ve said about the physical challenge, is that really what attracted you to the role of doing a thriller movie?

    A: Right from the first start the thing that attracted me to it was just the fact that it was a new area and just something different. And yeah, actually, the physicality was something that I was drawn to because the climax of the film, I don’t actually want to give anything away, but it becomes a bit of a head-to-head battle between myself and the stepfather … I did a couple of my own stunts, and I had the bruises and scrapes to prove it…I remember it so fondly, and it’s just a positive experience …With every moment in every movie you get one chance, you have that one moment and then it won’t happen again. And with TV, a lot of people feel like, oh, you know, you have episodes and episodes and seasons and seasons and so you’re not always trying to get that moment right. And the physicality of the movie just heightened that. That meant that I had to really perform, so it was fun.

    Q: Do you think you would stick to doing horror movies or would you want to branch out and do a little bit of everything? Would you want to be that more versatile actor?

    A: Well, I am a more versatile actor so I think I’ll probably start heading in that direction. I don’t think anybody wants to do strictly horror films. I mean, it was a fun experience, and I loved doing it, but I think it would probably take a whole lot for me to do another horror film.

    Q: What do you think college students can take away from this film?

    A: There’s a universal vulnerability in being a teenager, and I think you get that with this kid especially. He’s very vulnerable as far as his family is concerned. He’s been away from them for maybe a year or two and he comes back and there’s a stranger in his home … Anybody who might have had any stressful relationship with their parents – which I think is to say everybody at one point in time, especially when you go away for college – that’s when your parents start pulling every trick they can to get you to appreciate them and love them one last time before they feel like they lose you forever … Aside from that, the fact that he’s a teenager in general. He’s just sort of unsure of who he is and how he fits into the world, and the thing that makes that even more difficult is his own family and them having to really work to accept him again.

    Q: What was your most memorable experience working on this film?

    A: There’s a sequence that takes place outside on a rooftop where we were shooting in the rain, in movie rain, and movie rain is really heavy in order for it to read on camera, so the second it turns on you’re soaking wet. And we shot this over a three-day night shoot, which happened to be scheduled on the only three days where it’s below 50 degrees in LA … I was like in this little thin cotton T-shirt and jeans all night for three nights under these rain machines in freezing cold weather and it came to this point where I couldn’t get dry in between takes … At the time it was really close to unbearable, but I look back on it fondly because honestly the whole movie was an incredible experience for me. I’d never done a big picture like this, let alone a lead in a big picture, so it was just, in so many ways, an awesome time.

    Q: What personal touches did you and the director and the writers bring to separate this film from the 1980 one?

    A: I think there’s more of a story that will be able to draw you in and keep you invested as opposed to relying on gimmicks. Now I haven’t seen the original, so I’m not saying that it did rely on gimmicks, but I think if you were to translate an ’80s slasher film into a modern slasher film, I think you would just get a lot of bells and whistles and a really beautiful looking movie that was full of blood, but you might not be so invested or be able to relate … A huge difference that you have from this one to the original is that my character was a girl and I think they changed that to make the relationship between the stepfather and my character to be one where you can only see one of two ways for it to end and that’s probably one of them dying, so it has to end in a battle. It’s a different kind of tension and it’s a different kind of rapport that they develop, a different kind of interaction. I think the original is probably much more predatory.

    Q: Who do you personally identify with more in terms of the character of Dan Humphrey and the character of Michael in “The Stepfather?”

    A: Surprisingly, it’s actually Michael. You know, Dan is more relatable in a lot of ways because he’s just sort of the every man, and he’s pretty ordinary in most ways. Michael has this stressful relationship between his parents, or at least he has that feeling of alienation, and not that I would relate to that specifically, but he has problems, whereas I feel like Dan Humphrey doesn’t really have problems … For me, Michael is just much more of a real, vulnerable kid. I remember when I was 16 and I would alternately hate one of my parents, and that’s just the way that every kid is, and I think that’s what Michael is going through…Dan Humphrey, I think, probably the most abnormal thing he has is this strong relationship with his parents. Now I actually have a very strong relationship with my parents, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been strife in the past. I think just the universal nature of Michael Harding, the kid from “The Stepfather,” I would relate to that more.