In the new Lifetime drama series YOU, a young man falls in love with a young woman, who terrifyingly has been following for her months. Love and obsession comprise of the two sides of a young man who seems to be embody two personalities, and it remains to be seen if one side can save her from the other. In an exclusive interview, executive producer Sera Gamble talks about bringing this dark tale from the Caroline Kepnes’ book to screen.
This new series looks like it is the hottest and most-anticipated new show coming out this year. Yet it also seems a little controversial. There is an issue of consent because it definitely appears like this is a “consent by fraud” situation, which is definitely what Penn Badgley’s character is perpetuating as he is insinuating himself into this woman’s life under circumstances she’s not aware and he has been stalking her.
SERA: It goes far beyond that. I mean he breaks into her apartment in the pilot. He crosses many lines. I don’t think anyone is going to watch this show and think that what he’s doing is okay. It’s not okay. It’s also not tremendously different than what people do in romantic comedy movies — at least at the beginning. I mean, he takes it to places that I think have never been seen in a Matthew McConaughey-Kate Hudson movie. This is much, much darker. But this starting place. We know he’s not doing what you’re supposed to do in a consensual adult relationship. He is kind of doing it with a wink. He is doing what you are supposed to do in a great sweeping love story. So really this is subversively a way to look at the stuff that we all internalize.
Are we supposed to feel a little squeamish about it?
SERA: Yes. I mean, like the experience of reading Caroline’s [Kepnes] book, is it being compelled to turn the page — because you’re in his head and his inner voice is just so honest and raw, and kind of delicious. But at the same time you know what he’s doing is extremely problematic and that word is so soft as to be like a little ironic.
How long does the deception go on before the woman in this story figures it out?
SERA: The answer to that is quite complicated. There’s also a lot about his relationship with Beck [Elizabeth Lail] because they do also get to know each other in a more straight forward, two people in a room, kind of way. They develop a form of a real relationship, and there is an honesty and there is a connection that’s also real between the two of them. There’s a friendship, that if you can just forget all of the other shit he’s doing, it would really make sense. But of course, that’s not the story. So that’s the kind of mind that we talk about all the time in the writer’s room. That’s really what’s interesting to us about the story.
What’s the entry point for the average female viewer? Are we supposed to feel a little afraid? Or are we supposed to be having our toes curling and going, “that’s kinda creepy”?
SERA: The thing that’s so interesting is that many people watch the pilot and then say that they are, in spite of everything, rooting for them as a couple. But Joe is doing things that I think most people would agree he’s crossing lines and that they’re not right, and they’re correct. It is not what we consider to be appropriate behavior. His motivation for doing the things he does is always a sort of code that we see him have about love. He really wants the best for this woman. He really wants to help her. He’s sort of acting like a bit of a white knight. And sometimes in the stories, the white knight has to slay dragons. He has to fight for the honor of the maiden.
Those stories are deeply, deeply revenant to us. There’s something that’s been trained from like the first fairy tale we read at five years old to root for that. That is the most heroic man in that story. We should win the princess and there’s something about that story that just does not mesh with real life. And the fun of the show is the clash of those two ideas: of an adult woman who should have agency and who should have discretion, and who should be able to decide these things, and then there is this man who brings this sweeping romantic idea in.
Why did you cast Penn Badgley as this? In my mind, he is such a very innocent looking guy.
SERA: That’s part of it. He is. Penn is. Penn brings a lot of depth and thoughtfulness to this role and Joe Goldberg is a really thoughtful guy. He’s extremely well-read. He’s a keen observer. He’s got just a bit of the Sherlock Holmes in him. In that he is very observant. He would take a look at you and he would know a lot about you based on what you are wearing and your demeanor. And Penn really brings that to life. He’s really, really thoughtful and he also really understands the reason that we’re telling this story. The conversations that he has with Greg Berlanti and with me and the directors are a lot about these delicate lines we are walking in telling this story. So its been really great to have him as a creative partner. The short answer is that he’s brilliant, so he’s perfect for the role.
Are we supposed to kind see him as our white knight hero? Or should we see him right away as our villain and we need to be cautious of him?
SERA: Kind of both. It’s interesting. I’m always interested to hear what the moment is in the pilot where it clicks for people where they realize that what they are seeing is not what they thought it was. Because all of the cues, all of these moments, are moments that we grew up going , “Yes, he’s right for her. Look at how sweet this cute meeting. Like I really want them to work out.” And then there’s a moment where you’re like, “Wait a minute.” The interesting thing when you’re reading Caroline’s book is that, for most people who read the book, they find themselves being understanding that what he’s doing is dangerous and that there is a real dark side to Joe, and yet that adult mind is telling you the best thing to do is to part friends and never see each other again. And then this other, deeper, intensely romantic part of you kinda hopes these two crazy kids can find a way to work it out ‘cause in many real ways they are very compatible. Those things are true. So it makes it fun.
Obviously you found your male lead and you wanted to work with that and make them feel conflicted about it. So how did you go about casting female role with Elizabeth?
SERA: With Beck, there had to be something instantly intriguing about her, and Elizabeth Lail just brought that into the room. This story is every bit as much about her as it is about Joe. Ultimately, I think by the end of the season people have a very complete picture of who Beck is and that she embodies a lot of contradictions, which, one of the most exciting things about this story is the chance to get pretty granular about being a young woman. Good choices, bad choices. Maturity, immaturity. She’s ardently devoted to her craft. She’s a writer. Writing means everything to her and she’s easily distracted by her friends. Both things are true, right? She wants to hone and perfect her art and she wants recognition today. Both things are true. As they are when you’re in your twenties and you’re just trying to make it. So there’s a just a quality about Elizabeth that brings that to life. You believe that she is this graduate student and that she’s both very, very serious and also extremely flawed.
You have also cast Shay Mitchell and John Stamos. Where do they come in to this cast? Where do they fit?
SERA: Shay plays Peach Salinger, who is Beck’s best friend. She too is very, very devoted and entwined with beck. And she’s sort of the queen bee of their group and she’s got a lot more money and status than Beck does and she helps us really understand that Beck is in over her head in a number of ways in New York. I think over the course of the season, we really get into Peach’s character as well and because Joe is a stalker, we get to find all this private shit out about the characters. When he crosses paths with someone and they either raise a flag for him or intrigue him in some way, he’s someone who would go to some lengths to find out about them and he doesn’t just leave it at, “I wonder what Peach’s deal is?” He finds out what the fuck Peach’s deal is.
This has a Mr. ROBOT feel to it, a little bit.
SERA: It does. But there’s a huge difference between the two in that MR. ROBOT, the character of Elliot is this genius hacker, he can do shit on the computer that none of us can do. Joe is not that. Joe is about as equipped as you or I. It’s not that hard to Google the shit out of someone. It doesn’t take a pro to find someone’s address, stand outside their house, and find a way in. He’s doing things because he’s smart, and intuitive, and he’s sort of scrappy. But he’s not the kind of tech genius. By the same token, Joe’s not some kind of cold-blooded, death street kind of guy either. He’s just like a guy trying to do the right thing and he’s got some of that very, very twisted.
He definitely has some dark shades to him. What do you think the audience is gonna appreciate about the show because obviously there’s something more that you’re wanting to sell than a stalker tale.
SERA: The experience of reading the book, Caroline’s book, was probably the closest I have ever felt to wanting to binge the shit out of a TV show. Every page that I was reading, I just wanted to know what happened next. Everyone who reads that book — that’s why this book has so many fans — because it’s intensely addictive. First and foremost, it’s really a lot of fun. So there’s a lot of dark humor. Caroline is extremely tongue in cheek when telling this story and we have tried to bring that to the TV show as well. There is a cheeky subversiveness. There’s a knowingness. The audience is in on this. We’re not trying to sell the idea that stalking is a great idea. But we are inviting the audience deep inside the story because, the story is thrilling, ambivalent, compelling, dark, and it’s fun.
Do you think this would be leaning towards a modern love story because of all the technology and the social media available where people can easily check out whoever’s out there before you even meet them?
SERA: Exactly. I would go even further and say, I think at this point, it’s a little weird if you don’t at least Google someone before. You wouldn’t hire someone after a job interview if you didn’t call their references and Google them and look on their social media. So it starts from an intensely recognizable place. And I think a lot of us have thought to go further, just most of us don’t actually do what Joe does. But I don’t think people are gonna find his behavior so alien. In a certain way, he’s kind of doing some of the stuff we have the impulse to do, but he’s just actually doing it. He’s actually crossing that line cause there’s almost a line he won’t cross, when it comes to love and obsession.
I’m curious about his boundaries. Does he have any?
SERA: He’s learning them in the course of this season because Beck is this profound person who’s come into his life. He’s just so moved and kind of shaken by this woman. It’s not as though he’s like some practiced person at any of this. As the situation arises and he comes to understand what the details of Beck’s life are, and what would help her, and what stands between him and her — what’s keeping them apart — he’s kind of acting by the seat of his pants. He’s figuring this is like new information for him too. So some of the stuff that he does so, first time for everything.
So maybe a little element of modern love just because the technology is available and we just aren’t utilizing it quite the same way yet. What has surprised you about the project?
SERA: The biggest surprise for me has actually been the cultural conversation that’s arisen in the last few months. The hashtag “MeToo” and all of those. We’ve been working on this project for a while — the book first and then the TV show were a way to talk about some of these things — the way that a young woman struggles to find agency and find her own voice as she struggles against a lot of people who are trying to control her. And she finds herself kind of at a disadvantage in a lot of situations, because of the unfairness of our society in certain ways. She wants to be a writer. She’s being harassed by her thesis advisor. She doesn’t have a ton of support in her life, and the support that she has is coming with a lot of strings. We are not just telling this as a fictional story — it’s not uncommon or unfamiliar to some women who may have been in a similar situations like Beck.
Then the “MeToo” conversation happened and now the set of facts that are sort of being agreed upon culturally in terms of just what the experience of being a woman is: the power and balance, and just the stuff that a woman in college and graduate school are subjected to every day. I’m in two writer’s rooms and they have incredible writers of both genders. The men in those rooms are extremely feminist. They’re really thoughtful, very evolved, and yet, nevertheless, there have been conversations about the absolute universality of “MeToo”. The fact that the crazy, rare exception would be a woman who had no such story — that it would be very strange to meet an adult woman who had no version of the me too story. The fact that we can say this now, and that we don’t have to sort of, like argue for this set of facts is actually amazing.
This show is gonna be very thought-provoking in this new era of “MeToo”.
SERA: It’s exciting. Greg Berlanti and I had a lot of conversations as this started about how there was a timeliness to this story that we could not have predicted. But, as we were watching the episode from post, we were like. “people are gonna think that these scenes were written after the stories were told.”
Have you developed a game plan on how to address social media once your show begins? Because these are gonna be hot button topics. It’s gonna prompt a lot of conversation.
SERA: Conversation is good. I don’t think the fact that were talking more about women changes that too much. I think this has always been a very titillating story and one that is quite edgy and thought-provoking. I mean, just the fact that it’s a love story about a stalker.
Will the social media aspect change the dynamic of how you’re portraying your show?
SERA: As somebody who’s been making a lot of TV and getting to participate in a lot of TV over the last few years, as social media has become more and more ubiquitous instead of the TV conversation, that instant feedback from a certain segment of the viewing audience, that pretty instant major reaction, there’s always gonna be some of that. I’m kind of feeling like you have to tell the story you want to tell and speak to your audience basically.
That part I am excited about because one of the reasons we made this TV show is to talk about this stuff. If there is a subject where people are like, “are you sure you want to talk about that?” Well now, I really want to talk about it. I hope we have a passionate fan base. I’d welcome a passionate fan base.
Nobody’s trying to convince anybody that stalkers are good. On the show, we’re telling this story so that we can talk about all this stuff. And were telling the story because one of the amazing functions of art is that you get to explore. We say: to portray is not to condone. To me, there’s a lot that’s interesting about portraying it, about exploring it, and about shining a light into all of those corners. The delicious added-bonus is that it’s a really fun show to watch, and one that I hope will spark a lot of conversation.
What about the show would you describe as the fun elements?
SERA: First and foremost, is the fact that you are inside Joe’s head. He seems so friendly and unassuming and sort of soft spoken when you meet him and then you hear what he’s thinking. And it’s raw and it’s unfiltered. It’s very rye. He has a lot of dark humor and there is something so fun and delicious about hearing what someone is thinking. And I think all of us have polite conversations and what were thinking is not that polite, not politically correct. So it’s fun in just hearing what he’s thinking, and that starts in the very first scene. So you’re kind of on this intense rollercoaster ride with him. Sometimes you’re screaming for him to stop or make another choice. Sometime you’re kind of like, “no, do that” and see what happens.
You mentioned earlier that you want to see if this couple can work through this situation — as bizarre as it might be — and see if they can find the genuine connection through it.
SERA: I think that there are times when you kind of wish that Joe will just put some of that behavior behind him, because he’s got some many amazing qualities, but of course all of these things go hand in hand. And it just becomes very complicated as the season goes on.
It would kind of be fun — and I’m speculating here — to introduce another character that was female who did the same thing to him, without him knowing. Then you see the mirroring-effect of it.
SERA: There’s a little bit of that in the second book actually.
Oh, really? Just cause it seems like that world ripe for that kind of story.
SERA: Yeah, I mean he’s not the only one. Joe is the guy in the poster who is doing crazy shit, but there’s a lot of people, male and female, doing crazy shit in the show, so we are definitely building on that as well. He thinks he’s got the game all wired, and yet there’s other stuff going on.
To find out how this twist fairy tale all gets started and whether Beck and Joe van build a real relationship in the midst of it, be sure to tune in for the premiere of YOU on Sunday, September 9th at 10:00 p.m. on Lifetime.
YOU 1st trailer:
YOU 2nd trailer: