The serious and soulful side of Penn Badgley, 26, emerges in "Greetings from Tim Buckley." He plays singer-songwriter and guitarist Jeff Buckley, the son of Tim in the movie's title, which opens in limited release today.
Badgley's lead performance as a musician living in the shadow of the famous father he barely knew, shows a depth, range, and vibrancy to the actor, who also sings and strums all by himself. Badgley has fond memories of the experience he gained playing heartthrob Dan Humphrey on "Gossip Girl," the show that boosted him to stardom and a regular spot on the tabloid stage. Now, he's ready to blaze new paths and escape the comfort zone of series television. During the Tribeca Film Festival, Badgley discussed how becoming Jeff transformed Penn.
Thelma Adams: You've said, "Music is more important to me than acting."
Penn Badgley: Up until this film, music was more important than acting. The irony is that through this role playing musician Jeff Buckley, I realized I truly love to act.
PB: Because I realized that acting was something that could move me as deeply as music. I'm so proud to have been part of a film that was artful and outside of my comfort zone. I grew up always being passionate about music but I relegated it to the sidelines.
TA: What's your favorite album?
PB: Time and time again, I return to D'Angelo and his moving, soulful album, "Voodoo." The instrumentation is deep. That is music that I found when I was 12, and it has grown with me, gotten me through good times and bad. I understand him as an artist. Similarly, I will say that part of this role and the entire experience that made it so moving was that Jeff was an artist I felt keyed into in the same way.
TA: Jeff has a cult following, and his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" became famous posthumously, but can you explain your connection to him?
PB: The greatest gift Jeff had was his ability to bare his soul and leave himself vulnerable and open to pain. His voice is heartbreaking. He can make women fall to their knees. With his voice, he can take pain and convert it to this joyful energy source. He had that in his voice and in his guitar playing.
TA: Rather than being a sweeping biopic, the movie is set at a very specific time in Jeff's life when he flies to New York to participate in a memorial concert for his father, Tim Buckley.
PB: At this time in Jeff's life, he was a depressed session guitarist. Nobody knew he could sing. He didn't know his father. Every day was a giant step forward. He was growing at an exponential rate. He'd been stuck stagnating in L.A.
TA: Could you relate to that?
PB: I know exactly what that's like to be cynical and broke in L.A. and, then, come to New York where everything opens up. Jeff was somebody who didn't work in L.A. I can relate and sympathize.
TA: That's one way you're like Jeff. What are other similarities and differences?
PB: No matter how unlike a character you might feel, inevitably a bunch of traits that you share will materialize. Jeff, for instance, was a person who already existed. I had to find the middle ground. I couldn't intellectualize because then I would be unsure. I had to enter an intuitive head and heart space where I knew elements of him -- a lot of it didn't even surprise me because I heard it in his music. It was very spiritual and mystical. We share that mystical element of life. He was a seeker. He would walk into dark places and have the stories to tell later. I don't want to self-mythologize but I've responded to his fearlessly moving forward.
TA: Being a fearless spiritual seeker is not a trait you share with your "Gossip Girl" character?
PB: That's something that I don't see at all in Dan. That is an alien quality to the "Gossip Girl" world. In that way, that was a giant dissimilarity with my TV character. We're both literate and intellectual but with Dan, over time those connections became far less fun to explore. With any TV show, you keep hitting the same notes. In retrospect, I didn't respond to my character as much as I did to the life experience. Those six years led to everything I have now. I don't look at Dan so much as a role but as a thing I lived in for a long time.
TA: How would you describe your acting approach?
PB: I try to live in a way that feeds me so that I can bring my life experience to the roles that I play. I like to explore and travel and experiment. The biggest thing with Jeff, for instance, what allowed me to get in that headspace, was that I very simply was going through a lot of things he was going through: living in the same neighborhood, the same age, so many things that were happening, intuitively.
TA: How has playing Jeff changed the way you look at your acting career going forward?
PB: Playing Jeff was such a great watershed experience for me. I saw what it was like to be incredibly inspired. I started reading more scripts and realizing that the roles you want are few and far between. Producing and writing is something that is brewing in me. If I'm going to produce or write something, the biggest thing is that I must have a story to tell. So that will come in time.
Watch the trailer for 'Greetings from Tim Buckley':