Since 2007, Penn Badgley has been known best as Gossip Girl's "Lonely Boy," Dan Humphrey, the seemingly harmless prep school outsider with a game-changing secret. However, now that The CW hit show has ended, and the legions of screaming fangirls have somewhat calmed down, Badgley is back on the grind in search of new and exciting projects to showcase more than his teen soap skills.
Enter: Greetings From Tim Buckley. The Dan Algrant-directed film, out in limited release in New York and L.A. today, follows legendary singer Jeff Buckley (Badgley) as he prepares to perform at a tribute concert for his late and forever estranged father, musician Tim Buckley. Ironically, like the concert was for Jeff, the film functions as a perfect re-introduction to Badgley as a true talent.
Complex got the chance to speak to Badgley about the pressures of embodying an icon, the father and son relationship at the core of the film, and what life is like after Gossip Girl.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Did you feel any pressure taking on a real-life, beloved musician?
I didn't feel any pressure from anyone more than I did from myself. I think with any actor people are like, "What?! They put her in that role?! They put him in that role?!" And it's like, "Look, the people who are most worried about fucking up is us." For me, I was so invested that I wasn't even concerned about something almost as superficial as fucking up. I was aware of the kind of karmic weight of playing an artist who's dead. That's a pretty heavy thing if you think about it. Put yourself in their position. You don't want some asshole to just make your life their kind of vanity performance. It's definitely a fuzzy line to walk.
At the same time, I was very just intuitive. I wasn't in the tense space where I was doubting myself so much; I was just having to move ahead and have faith in myself. Also, this movie is such a strange, small, slice of Jeff. It's not what everyone thinks. It's not all about "playing Jeff Buckley." It's a much more approachable story that we are telling.
For those that aren't familiar with Tim or Jeff Buckley, it's basically just a story about father and son.
Yeah, it stands alone, and for that reason I think it's such a special little film that, as artists, Jeff and Tim would theoretically appreciate. It's not clinging to them for its own story, it stands on its own legs.
Did you relate to the message of the movie?
Yeah absolutely. The relationship between any father and son is always a complicated one, regardless of whether or not there there is a relationship. I was exorcising my own demons, not that it was the same at all, by any stretch of the imagination.
I am incredibly proud of the film—the tone and every performance in it included—because it speaks to not only Jeff's special qualities as an artist, but the special qualities of art and of music. There is a quiet sort of rhythm to the movie that I think you don't often find in film that lends itself to music. It's kind of lyrical. I'm forever grateful to Dan and everyone involved in the post-production to finding that delicate balance in tone and editing, and just the sound.
We recorded the whole thing live, which at the time we were like, "Of course that's the only way we can do it." But in retrospect, I see that that's kind of nuts. We didn't have that much rehearsal time at all. We were all flying by the seat of our pants, but that's the way it should be told. So there's a typical polished quality to the movie that we didn't capture—we didn't have time, we didn't have money. I was working on Gossip Girl and moving at the same time. On the nights I wouldn't be working on one set and going back to the other, I was up packing until 5 a.m. So it was just this crazy frenetic energy we were all in that it gives the movie, to me, a really grounded authenticity.
What was your relationship to Jeff Buckley's music before the movie?
I listened to him a lot when I was a teenager. I went through a six-month phase where I just drank in his Grace album. Actually, I was really familiar with his live, early stuff which is really appropriate because Grace isn't until much later when he evolved a lot and refined himself. Whereas this movie is about a time when he was really unrefined and he was undefined as well. He was an out-of-work session guitarist in L.A. then. And so he came to New York City, and nobody quite knew what the hell was going on, and neither did he. He was just sort of this shapeless ball of raw talent at that point.
It's interesting in the movie that Jeff doesn't say a lot. He seemed like a really introspective person.
Oh he definitely was. Like he says in the film about his father—as is the case of anyone, especially people who are really gifted like he was—he's a million things. And I think where he's at in this movie is where you start to see him realize what he can be, what is in him. He has been this sort of introverted, depressed, shaggy, ratty guy who nobody thought much of, but he's like, "I'm more than that." This the moment where he realizes that, and other people see it. It's a really special time in his life that not lot of people are at all aware of. I mean, how could they be?
You brought up an interesting point actually. Do you feel any challenges to be taken seriously as an actor coming off a hit teen show like Gossip Girl?
Sure, yeah. I was aware of it, but I wasn't really thinking of it more than I needed to while I was making this. But now that it's out and people have seen it, I can appreciate that my job is to convince people I can act. It's a lot easier now. Thank God. [Laughs.]
Are you just fielding different offers now?
It's always different. You might get an offer, you might get an audition, you might get a meeting. You also might not get any good scripts, which is often the case no matter who you are, no matter where you are. I'm just waiting for the next thing to come along in a way that will excite me. In some ways, I was spoiled by this movie because i had such a good time, such a perfect experience.
What was your experience like working with Dan Algrant and Imogen Poots?
Both will forever be near and dear to my heart. Dan especially because he lives in New York, and I get to see him more. Him and I formed a very particular bond, the likes of which I don't think either of us had ever had. He and I had this really strange sort of telepathic wave length we were on together. He makes me seem very normal, which I don't find myself around very much. Figuring out what the hell he is saying is a real task and I somehow tapped into it quickly and well. In fact, there are a couple of scenes where we basically took out all the words and were just like, "This is what it is."
I am incredibly proud of the film—the tone and every performance in it included—because it speaks to not only Jeff's special qualities as an artist, but the special qualities of art and of music.
Imogen was there right next to us every step of the way. There was actually a lot more that she was in that was cut out. She wouldn't be as present when she is in the film as she was without us having shot, like, several days of more footage and stuff with her that didn't quite fit into the way the story had to be told. There was so much more going on between the three of us, and I can imagine that we will always probably be in touch. The way I speak about the film is from a soulful place, and I know they feel the same way. We were all really keyed into the fact that it was special story, and we all tried to make it as special as we could.
What was it like to literally recreate the concert?
It was strange at points. I was nearly the exact same age, the exact same point in my life, living around the same neighborhood, and meeting a lot of the same people as Jeff. We shot it all in the same neighborhood, with some of the same people.
Hal Willner, played by Norbert Leo Butz in the movie, was there helping us curate musicians for the show. Hank Roberts, one of the cellists, him and I kind of arranged the "Lilac Wine" cover in the end that you hear. He played at the show with Jeff. Knox Chandler ,who helped me with guitar, he knew Jeff some. He played guitar in Susie and the Banshees. It was all the same people. There was definitely an eerie vibe around, and it was a beautiful thing to be in the presence of.
Another thing that was eerie was how similar Tim and Jeff's timelines were.
They were very different artists—Tim was like a prolific writer, and Jeff was not at all—but they were both these bursts, these shot-gun-electric-lightening-blasts, you know? They both were abbreviated way earlier than it seemed like they would go. And they were similar icons of their respected generations, and they both were revered for their voice. Every really big icon of their time would turn to them and be like, "Oh no, they are the real deal. That's who I listen to." And yet they never knew each other, and they were father and son.
It's beautiful and it's strange and it's kind of un-fucking-believable, and that's why we chose to tell that story.