Fun fact: Penn Badgley can show up nearly an hour late to an interview, and you won't be annoyed with him because he gives you a puppy dog "please forgive me" smile, and then launches into answers like you've known each other for years and are just trading philosophies on life. At least, that's the way it felt when I met with the onetime Gossip Girl actor in advance of the release of Greetings From Tim Buckley, which is currently playing in L.A. and New York and opens in Denver this Friday (plus, you can watch it VOD right now, no matter where you live). As the titular Buckley's estranged son, Badgley gets to show off not only his acting but also his musical chops in the film, recreating a Brooklyn tribute concert that was staged before his own rise to fame. You don't have to be a Buckley fan--or a Lonely Boy fan for that matter--to appreciate the subtle story about parent-child relationships and artistic inspiration that's woven throughout. And we promise, there are no jaw-dropping reveals in the last five minutes.
Do you have a favorite Jeff Buckley song?
Yes, I do. His live cover of "Strange Fruit." It's what initially turned me on to him, and I think it will always be my favorite. It's not written by him, but I think he was a different kind of artist where he wasn't at all a typical writer, he was an interpreter first and foremost. He was like the most exceptional interpreter.
Did you listen to much Jeff or Tim Buckley music while filming?
You know what's funny, during the shoot I actually didn't really listen to Jeff or Tim, but before I listened to both. I listened to Jeff, and I read about Tim's life; what I learned about his life beforehand really moved me more than what I found out about Jeff's. I can't really explain it, but I feel like I sort of understood Jeff in a way, I just intuited what he was going through. But when I learned about Tim, that really gave me the kind of sympathy that Jeff needed to develop for his father, that he is developing for his father [in the film]. He certainly resists that sympathy that he might have, but he realizes that his father is a human. I did the same with Tim in a way; I kind of was like, All right what's his deal?
You're also a songwriter, did anything about this movie influence maybe how you write songs or play music in your own life?
It influenced it in the fact that I started playing my own music and writing my own music more than I ever had. It's influenced me in ways that are not all musical--just as an actor, creatively, in directions I might take in the future. It was a really wonderful thing.
Is there added pressure in playing someone who exists in real life, and isn't just some fictional character?
It was a fuzzy line to walk. People tell me stories, and sometimes I'd be like, "Just stop!" Because sometimes it just felt like I was stepping on his territory. I think the biggest thing for me was that I took qualities that he had. I had this mental list that I couldn't articulate--he was kind of feral and feline and sort of feminine and kind of agile in a strange way even though he wasn't athletic, but then he was athletic because the stamina he had to sing for hours on end the way that he would--I just took those qualities and tried to endow myself with them and evoke them. His speaking voice was an octave higher than mine, so I could have chosen to be like, "Hi, I'm Jeff," [in a higher pitched voice] which you can see tiny little hints in the movie where I'm trying to just carry this sense of it. I wondered, would anyone notice a difference? What's the difference, what really matters here? Am I trying to mimic him? And thats not what we were doing. It's not a conventional narrative, it's not a typical biopic.
Did your opinion of Jeff change as you were filming the movie?
Yeah, that's interesting. I think I sometimes struggled with this notion of him being such a romantic and you know the reality. Where we are in his life telling the story is when he was in some ways very shy and introverted and quiet; he could melt into a wall and people would never notice he was there, but then he had this ability to shock a room with a single utterance. So I would always battle with, like, what was he really? What is anyone really? Sometimes I feel like he was just this kid, this ratty kid, and other times I feel like he was a god. Other times I feel like he's a lover. Other times I feel like he had no idea the fuck he was doing. So I would always battle with that, and I think I finally struck more with him after the film.
The record store scene is amazing. How hard was it to perform?
It was scripted, but it said, "He does this song, he does that song, he then does the entire album. It's beautiful." And it's like, "Okaaay." That was one thing that I shared with Jeff--it's a very small thing, there are a million people who can do that, but they don't all look like him--the mimicry, the retention of songs and lyrics and melodies that I actually knew most of that already. If I hadn't I would have been fucked! We did three takes and each one was really different and I think they pieced two of them together. I remember when I was over with that scene I was like, "Phew, thank God. Thank God I pulled that off."
What are you doing next?
I don't know, man.
Think you'll ever put out an album?
Yeah, maybe when I'm 35 or maybe tomorrow, but I just can't tell you. I'm in a movie in December that's called Parts Per Billion that is an apocalyptic setting for a couple vignettes of different relationships. It's got a pretty great cast with Gena Rowlands, Frank Langella, Rosario Dawson, and it's another weird little independent movie, so I'll probably just keep doing those for a little while.