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It's a huge challenge for any actor to star in a biopic, especially when it's a movie about a performer, someone whose life and mannerisms are very, very familiar to fans. That job gets even harder when you're doing it in your 20s, and triple-harder when you're still most famous for starring on a soapy teen show about rich kids.
That's the challenge Gossip Girl alum Penn Badgley faces this weekend with his starring role in Greetings from Tim Buckley, in which he plays the singer Jeff Buckley in the years before he recorded the landmark album Grace. Jeff is asked to perform at a tribute concert for his father Tim, who died when Jeff was a child and who was distant even before then. Grappling with his own troubled history with his father, as well as his own burgeoning musical ambitions, the Jeff Buckley of this movie is young and lost, but also goofy and endearing, flirting with an intern at the concert (Imogen Poots) and singing spontaneously in the middle of a record store, like he's got a gift that he just can't hold inside.
When I spoke to him in the middle of the Tribeca Film Festival, where Greetings from Tim Buckley played on its way to theaters, Badgley told me he identified with that side of Buckley, while also admitting that from the moment he read the script, he felt like he knew the guy. Read below for more from our conversation, and catch Greetings from Tim Buckley in theaters this weekend or on VOD. (more info here)
Your director told me you sent in an audition tape and he claims that the entire performance that you have in the movie is in that tape. Do you agree with that?
How do I answer that? There was no way to prepare or rehearse for that. It was either you can do it and you do do it or you don’t. So, I basically did that, like what you see, but not exactly. I mean, I couldn’t possibly do it exactly the same, know what I mean. I just sort of like did all that shit and then more and then less at the same time. It was just like this big blast of-- I was trying to remember words from all of these different songs and just kind of bouncing around the room and I think you can see clearly, that I could do that.
So, it was something closer to the record store scene where it’s up and down and really wide-ranging?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
How long did that take you to really capture that, because Jeff Buckley is not a voice that’s very easy to replicate.
Well, that’s where, you know, this is a very small slice of Jeff when he was unrefined and undefined musically, and even as a person. He was this shapeless ball of raw talent. There were a lot of liberties I was able to take and I was able to sort of, at some point, use my own voice and sort of shape it after his. As far as the record store scene goes, that was something that I understood in him because I had a little bit of the same quality. I grew up just mimicking everything that I heard and retaining a lot of what I heard and being able to recall it later and just doing that kind of thing.
And being a little bit of a public show-off, not really caring who was in the record store staring?
Well, no. Actually not at all to that degree. I wouldn’t ever do that, but I would do it for myself. I would do it for myself in the shower or at all points of the day. As a kid I was always singing to myself, kind of like that, imitating everything I heard. So, when I read that scene, I was like, “Oh shit. I know exactly what that is. I can do that.”
That’s a really interesting side of Jeff Buckley. He had this really fragile voice and these beautiful songs and died young, there’s this sense of him being this fragile creature and that scene is really energetic, and really, it’s kind of cutting beyond that legend.
Well, again, when I read it, I think this is true for every page of the script, but really with that scene I was like, “This is Jeff.” For some reason, and I can’t explain why, because at that point I didn’t really know anything about him, but I was like, “This is him. I can tell." I understood how he could be very gentle and shy and seem fragile, but possess this inner intensity that would really shock people.
At the age that you’re at, it’s kind of rare to be in a biopic. Playing a real person is certainly that kind of hurdle that you hit later when you’re playing a president or something like that. Did you hesitate when that came along cause it is such a big leap to make?
I’ve actually never thought about it like what you just said, but you’re right. Most people are a lot older when they’re playing famous figures, but that’s also because these kind of figures are famous because they led a long life of success and creation, but Jeff is a case where he was 27 at the time he made his only album and this movie is telling the story even before then. So, I think in that way, I could appreciate this was not a conventional narrative at all. I was at an age when I was kind of ready for that.
Well, it seems like this came along at a time when Gossip Girl was wrapping up and you really were at this big transition. This is about as different from a CW TV series as you can get. Were you really actively looking for stuff that was a big leap for you?
Yeah, well, I knew that this was a big leap and I wanted to make one, but I didn’t know if there would be the opportunity to. And then this came along and I was like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” So, I actually felt the compulsion to prove myself in a way. It’s like you’ve been on a television show for a long time and why would anyone think you can do anything more than what they’ve seen you do. And I think Jeff was at a similar point, and Jeff had this unbelievable talent in him, waiting to burst out and no one knew he could even sing. In that way, I kind of had a little bit of the same energy going and that just helped me even more.
Yeah, the TV show can be a little bit of a gilded cage, and you’re far from the first person to have experienced this. Not that it’s not a great opportunity, but you spend a lot of time trying to get a job and then all of a sudden you realize it’s holding you back in a way.
Well, I realized that before I ever read a word of the script of Gossip Girl. I actually turned it down for that very reason, and then thankfully that came back around and I did take it after a lot of deliberation. I’d been working in television for a long time and I was actually, much like Jeff, I was living in LA, I was broke. I was cynical. I was out of work, but I was thinking to myself, “I can’t do any more television.” I knew it would eventually become a double edged blade, but I had always believed I could make it out. So, it wasn’t a concern of mine, which I only realized in hindsight now, might have been half-delusional, but sometimes it takes delusion to get through it.
What has the difference been for you since you put this out there and people have been seeing what you can do in this?
It’s really liberating in a lot of ways. I mean, first and foremost, fuck all of the business stuff. It was liberating to experience this and to know that I could participate in a project like this. It was like, “Alright. I did that,” and I proved something to myself first and foremost.Since then, that’s been kind of marinating in me and then people have been responding well. So, that’s nice and it’s validating, but you know, I’m just excited to be able to keep making steps forward in a career I can shape by challenging myself and approaching it not as a career but as a body of work I can be passionate about.
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