LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Penn Badgley, best known for his role as a hip young New Yorker on television series "Gossip Girl," is now claiming a place in the spotlight by headlining a feature film for the first time and showing off his previously hidden singing talents.
Badgley, 26, stars as late U.S. musician Jeff Buckley in the indie film "Greetings From Tim Buckley," opening in limited release in U.S. movie theaters on Friday.
The film chronicles Buckley in the days leading up to his first public performance at age 25: a 1991 tribute concert at New York's St. Ann's Church for his late father, experimental rock great Tim Buckley.
In theory, a TV star with a big following of teenage fans may have seemed an unlikely choice to play the brooding musician who died of an accidental drowning at the age of 30.
The film's director Daniel Algrant told Reuters even his own producers had those same reservations - casting a "kid from a teeny-bopper show" to play the soulful, reserved Buckley.
But luckily, Algrant had never heard of "Gossip Girl" and cast Badgley based on his audition tape.
"I wanted someone who was willing to take risks and on this tape, he took so many risks," the director said.
Among them is a scene that takes place in a record store where Buckley sings several different songs as he tries to impress a young girl.
Out of the 100-plus tapes Algrant watched of potential Buckleys, Badgley was the only actor who tackled the challenging record store scene effectively.
"It was so riveting," recalled Algrant. "It was 10 minutes long; he'd interrupt himself and say, 'I made a mistake let's do it again.' But it was so real and so true. And he could sing."
Algrant's gut instinct proved right. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Badgley's portrayal of Buckley is a "vibrant break-out performance" while Variety said the actor "does a thrilling job" on vocals.
The Playlist observed that Badgley's performance reveals "that the 'Gossip Girl' star has quite a few more talents than he's thus far been given credit for."
Badgley appreciates the recognition, but harbors no resentment towards those who may have doubted him at first.
"You pay your dues," Badgley told Reuters matter-of-factly. "I wouldn't expect anyone to expect that I could do something like this, so it's nice to have people respond so positively."
He said his biggest fear in taking on the role was "not wanting to misrepresent" a singer whom so many hold dear.
"The greatest Jeff Buckley fan should rest assured that I was the last person on Earth who wanted to screw it up," said Badgley. "I never intended to not give it everything I had."
To prepare for the role, Badgley studied the singer's life, his interviews, spoke to people who knew him, and practiced his vocal skills in front of a crowd at St. Ann's church, the same place Buckley performed 22 years earlier.
Both Badgley and Buckley struggled in Los Angeles before finding success in New York.
"Jeff was a depressed out-of-work session guitarist in L.A.," Badgley said. "Then he came to New York and the whole world opened up for him.
"I know what that's like to be despondent and broke and out of work, and then coming to New York and this whole world of success kind of greeting you, falling in love, and all sorts of things like that."
Badgley began his career making guest appearances on TV shows like "Will & Grace" and playing supporting roles in movies. But three network series he signed onto from 2002 to 2006 never made it past their first season.
All that changed in 2007 when the actor was cast as the soulful poet Dan Humphrey on "Gossip Girl," which ended its run after six seasons last December.
The show had a huge fan following among teen girls and put the public and personal lives of stars Blake Lively, Leighton Meester and Chace Crawford on magazine covers. Badgley's one-time off-screen romance with on-screen on-and-off girlfriend Lively also fueled attention.
With "Greetings from Tim Buckley," New York became once again a blessing, providing Badgley with an opportunity to showcase his acting and musical chops in a new way.
"I'm really grateful for this film to have come along, and for me to be challenged like this," he said. "And to have risen to the occasion and not fallen on my face."
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Walsh