Tribeca Exclusive Interview: Penn Badgley Talks The Legacy Of Jeff Buckley
Penn Badgley is certainly in the middle of having a moment. Getting his start on teenage fodder like Gossip Girl and John Tucker Must Die, the actor is taking a risky step outside of his usual repertoire with Greetings From Tim Buckley. Seen as one of the buzzed about performances of the Tribeca Film Festival, Badgley is deserving of the attention just for putting himself in the vulnerable position of playing the legendary musician Jeff Buckley.
What’s intriguing about Badgley’s performance is that he does an enormous amount of legwork as a musician for the film. A particular scene in a record store sees Badgley riff just as Buckley would, which gives a familiar sense that a legend simply unaware by the talent he possesses is on the precipice of something grander. That quality and the natural naivete Badgley has in his grasp is what pushes the film along.
What Penn has to his advantage is the film’s narrative. A story that’s more about the connection between an estranged father and son, this is by no means a literal interpretation of a Jeff Buckley biopic. In many ways, the audience is invited to efface any knowledge they may know about Buckley. Pinpointing what he meant to people proves to be a hard thing to reckon with and isn’t the main story for Greetings. Instead Badgley is left to examine reminiscent traits of a young man who hasn’t yet hit his stride as a musician while simultaneously having to deal with being in his father’s shadow.
The Inquisitr’sNiki Cruz sat down with Penn Badgley to discuss the task of taking on a complex legend and the connection between father and son.
THE INQUISITR: Do you have a favorite Jeff Buckley song?
PENN BADGLEY: His live cover of Strange Fruit initially turned me on to him and 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 a typical writer. He was first and foremost an interpreter.
THE INQUISITR: By any chance, did you read David Browne’s book Dream Brother? Both the film and the book are similar in their narratives.
BADGLEY: Is it a parallel story, from what I gather? I’ve only read A Pure Drop.
THE INQUISITR: This movie is a turning point in Jeff Buckley’s life where he decides he wants to become a musician. What was the turning point for you?
BADGLEY: My turning point when I decided to be an actor was through music. I always loved to sing, and I did musical theater when I was 9. I was living in the sticks in Washington State and it was like a social outlet. It was a happy accident.
THE INQUISITR: You’re also a songwriter, so did anything about this film influence how you write songs or play music?
BADGLEY: Yeah. I think I was playing my own music, and writing my own music more than I ever had while also taking the role on. It influenced me in a lot of ways. In things that are not only musical but as an actor, and creatively for life directions I may take in the future. It influenced me in a lot of ways that I think that I will only start to see as time goes on.
THE INQUISITR: You brought up your own music. Any chance we’ll see that?
BADGLEY: Honestly I don’t want to talk about it too much because this is me as an actor. Music has always been first and foremost my creative passion. As much as I would love to sit and talk about it seems almost, like I don’t have any material to show for it.
THE INQUISITR: Younger generations aren’t as familiar with Tim’s music as they might be with Jeff’s. Whatever your previous knowledge of Tim’s was did you want to abstain from listening because you wanted to portray that barrier of father and son?
BADGLEY: It’s funny, during the shoot I didn’t listen to Jeff or Tim. Before I listened to both. I listened to Jeff. What I learned about Tim’s life beforehand moved me more than what I found out about Jeff’s. I can’t really explain it but I just felt like I understood Jeff in a way. When I learned about Tim that gave me the kind of sympathy that Jeff needed to develop for his father, or that he is developing for his father. He certainly resists that sympathy that he might have, but he realizes that his father is human, that’s a part of the story that we’re telling so I did the same with Tim in a way. Then there was a huge part of it where I wasn’t thinking about either.
THE INQUISITR: Given that you’re playing a person that lived as opposed to an entirely fictional character, while meeting people that worked with Jeff, how did you serve some of that to use or not use?
BADGLEY: It was a fuzzy line to walk.
THE INQUISITR: You worked with Gary Lucas, who worked heavily with Jeff.
BADGLEY: Yeah and in the way that we prepared for that scene they were playing the beginnings of a song that Gary had written called “Rise Up To Be”. Gary and I just played together. We just would jam. That was crazy because we were basically doing exactly what they were doing. That was encouraging. People tell me stories. I found the stories [PAUSES] actually sometimes I would be like “Just stop.” Sometimes it just felt like I was stepping on [PAUSES] his territory in a way. It’s an interpretation much in the same way he would interpret music.
THE INQUISITR: There’s so many layers to who Jeff was as a person. There’s a lot of idiosyncrasies that he naturally possesses. How did you prepare?
BADGLEY: I had this mental list that I couldn’t articulate. He was feral, and feline, and feminine, and agile in a strange way, but wasn’t athletic, but then he was athletic. The stamina he had to sing for hours on end the way that he would. I tried to endow myself with them and evoke them. His speaking voice was an octave higher than mine. I could have chosen [SPEAKS HIGHER] “Hi, I’m Jeff.” You can hear tiny little hints of that in the movie, and I’m trying to do this cadence and it’s not f–king working. So I tried to say, “What if he had a deep voice? Would anyone notice the difference? What really matters here? Am I trying to mimic him?”
THE INQUISITR: Everyone has a different narrative of who Jeff was as a person. Did your opinion of Jeff change while you were making the film?
BADGLEY: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think I sometimes struggled with this notion of him being such a romantic and the reality. Where we are in his life telling this story is when he was very shy and introverted, and quiet, and morose. He could melt into a wall and people would never notice he was there, but then he would have this ability to knock a room with a single utterance. I always battled with, “What was he really?” What’s anyone really? Sometimes I feel like he was just this ratty kid. Other times I feel like he was a God, at times I feel like he was a lover, and then I feel like he had no f–king idea what he was doing. I think I struggled more with him after the film. For a year I didn’t see the movie and it was pretty intense.
THE INQUISITR: Did it make you reflect on your own personal relationship with your father?
BADGLEY: I would say doing the things that I had to do to sympathize with Tim, I also sympathized with my father. In some ways, I wasn’t aware at the time but I can see now that it did bring me closer to him. I actually have a great relationship with him now, and I wouldn’t say that we always have. When he came to the screening in Toronto, that was really moving. The relationship between any father and son is a potent one.
THE INQUISITR: The record store scene was your audition tape. How did you come up with that idea? Was it hard to shoot?
BADGLEY: It was scripted but it said, “He does this song, he does this song, he then does the entire album, it’s beautiful!” [LAUGHS] That was one thing that I shared with Jeff. It’s a very small thing. That was part of him that I understood in the creative retention of songs, and lyrics, and melodies. I knew most of all of that already, and if I hadn’t I would have been f**ked. Initially when I was about to do it I was like, “What? How am I going to do that?” So I just listened to the songs, and I was like, “I guess that’s all I can do. I can’t practice, really.” We did three takes, and each one was really different. I remember when it was over with, I was like, “Thank God! Thank God I pulled that off!” [LAUGHS].
GREETINGS FROM TIM BUCKLEY IS CURRENTLY PLAYING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL.