Meet K.J. Apa, 'Riverdale's' 21st Century Archie
Archie Andrews may be an enduring figure of comic book Americana, but when the producers of "Riverdale," The CW's new, off-kilter adaptation of the classic Archie Comics crew, they looked far and wide for their leading man -- really, really far. Like, New Zealand far.
Yes, actor K.J. Apa had to dye his hair Archie-red and ditch his Kiwi accent to embrace the role of the all-American teenager whose romantic misadventures have filled comics pages since 1941, but he proves a fine fit for Archie's letterman jacket (and without it, adding washboard abs to Archie's many attributes).
As the series debuts and adds a "Twin Peaks"-ian level of sinister small-town secrets into Riverdale's high-school setting, Apa joined Moviefone for a look at how he came to embody a pop-cultural icon -- with a twist.
Moviefone: I've asked everybody your age where Archie fit in your pop cultural mind before this job came along. Did you know much or anything about Archie?
K.J. Apa: I wasn't too familiar with Archie, mostly because I wasn't really exposed to him over in New Zealand. In fact, I wasn't exposed to him at all, but I think before I went into the audition and when I had found out that I was going to be auditioning for this character, I definitely did some research and I realized how big of a deal it was.
It made me think, as well; it made me wonder How are they going to do this? How are they going to make it different? Is it going to be exactly like the comics? I read the script and I thought that it could either be really, really good or it could be kind of cheesy-ish. I think we really hit it on the head.
Tell me about those discoveries and the research, the essence of the traditional Archie, and then the newer material that informs this show.
I think, when I first looked at the comics for the very first time, I was wondering who created it, what made them want to create something where a boy with red hair has two beautiful women fighting over him, and he's friends with a guy called Jughead who's wearing a crown all the time? It's the most bizarre thing I've ever heard of, but it's what makes it so unique and so lovable, I think. Yeah.
So after reading the script and knowing a bit about the comics from the first comics, I definitely saw some similarities, like the love triangle and his relationship with Jughead, although, it isn't on the same kind of level as it is in the comics. But there were definitely some things that were brought over, like in the most recent adaptations by Fiona Staples and Mark Waid. I think that's what we're most like. I think we're most similar to those kind of comics. Yeah, I think there are lots of similarities.
What was fun -- and what was not so fun -- about the physical transformation in getting the shade of hair just right, the eyebrows just right, and the look just right?
It wasn't so much a fun process, but we got it done. I was in the salon for about 10 hours, and I had to get the right shade of orange. So we did that. That took ages, but they ended up getting it right. Once they had gotten it and I had seen it, and it had set with me a bit, I was happy. That was because I wanted it to be real.
I didn't want to step into this for it to look so bizarre that no one is going to believe it, because otherwise I wouldn't want to play the character. I'd want the character to be perfect. I think we got there, and I'm lucky that, because I have dark brown hair, I'm lucky that it kind of works. So yeah, it made me really happy to see that it looked good.
Creatively, what's exciting or intriguing to you about redefining Archie and his relationships with Betty and Veronica in particular, not just being about "Why are these two beautiful women competing for him?"
I think it's going to be awesome for people to see the depth of all our characters and that it's not like the comics where he's just bouncing between the two of them -- and it's more than that.
Veronica comes in, and he's immediately just attracted to this girl. With Betty, he's got this long friendship with her. They've known each other their whole lives. They do love each other as friends. They've been neighbors for their whole lives. They've been in the same class. They've got that massive past behind them, but they haven't quite gotten to that level of intimacy yet. But I think it's going to be cool for people to see that relationship, their love triangle, in way more depth than the comic.
The show had me when it introduced the Miss Grundy twist -- both the way the character appeared based on a directly opposite image of the comics version, and then the juiciness of the plot line. What was intriguing to you about going there with Archie?
The most intriguing part about the Miss Grundy side of things was that, for a start, I was so surprised when I found out. When I first heard it I was like, Oh no, Miss Grundy. Then I saw what Miss Grundy looked like. I was like, OK, it's OK then. Sarah Habel is amazing. She's such a great actor. She plays the character really, really well.
So I think the fact that Miss Grundy is this whole new character is exciting, and I think a lot of people aren't ... I've seen some negativity toward it, where they're like "No, it should be the same as the comics." But I don't know. I think fans should approach it with an open mind and know that these things happen.
When people are as passionate as they are about Archie, it's intriguing that, the minute you get cast, you have an instant fan base, even though they haven't seen a second of the work yet. And then you have that side that's like, "Not MY Archie!"
Tell me about your experience just being a part of that process prior to the show debuting.
I knew stepping into it that it would be a responsibility to play this character, because it's such a nurturing and well taken care of character. He's got so much past behind it. It's so well known. So I knew I'd have to treat it with a lot of respect. Being from New Zealand was another anxiety that I had about it. Would Americans accept me in this role? But I think if I stayed as honest as I could with it, and I treated it with that respect, I knew that it was going to be fine. I think we've all done that. It's important for all of us, whether you're from America or you're from New Zealand, I think it was important for all of us to be really careful with these characters and to play them honestly for the fans.
Did you get any insight into comic book fandom from co-star Cole Sprouse, who knows that audience well?
He used to work at a comic shop! I went to the comic shop with him. He knew all the guys there. I couldn't believe he used to work at a comic shop. But yeah, it was amazing to me to realize the love that people have for these comics. I didn't realize it. Yeah, I didn't realize that there was this whole other world out there. I wasn't much of a comic book reader. My dad kind of was. My dad grew up reading the comics as well. He grew up in Samoa, which is just a tiny little island. So it just shows how much reach that this franchise has.
Did you have much familiarity with this sense of small-town noir? Being from New Zealand, do you get that "American small town with little secrets"?
I was familiar with it on a level where I'd seen it on TV a lot. We were, not replicating, but getting ideas from the movie "Brick" as our preparation for the show. So the pilot director, Lee Krieger, showed us this movie and told us to watch it and said, "Yeah, there will be some ideas from this movie that we're going to incorporate into the pilot, with the same kind of feel or vibe." I think we did that. It is kind of film noir-ish.
Your show's creator and producer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Archie Comics' Chief Creative Officer, knows this material and the source material backwards and forwards. Tell me the experience of being around a guy so plugged into it all, but also creating this very original vision.
Exactly. Roberto is so talented. He's always got things running through his mind, and I've told him. I was like, "What's going through your head?" As a writer, I would love to be inside the minds of these people sometimes. But yeah, he's so invested in this. You can see that he's really passionate about it and he wants it to be the best, just as we all do. Yeah, it is funny to know that he knows so much, while knowing so much about the history of Archie Comics, he's able to produce something completely different.
If this show hits big, you may see Archie in the comics move closer to your TV take on Archie -- for example, the Iron Man of the comics right now is very much inspired by Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. So, as Archie moves closer to you and your take on him, what would that mean to you?
That's crazy! It's a big responsibility. It's a massive responsibility. You really put it into perspective when you talked about Iron Man. I was thinking like, "Sh*t. I don't know!" If we get to that level, then I don't know. Until we get there, then I don't know. I think we should just chill out a little bit!
What's been your favorite part of this journey as an actor?
It's all been so surreal. I didn't even know I was going to be acting two years ago. I had no idea that I'd be where I am now. I'm really blessed and thankful for it. I don't know. The coolest part for me is probably just to be working with such amazing actors, like Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald. All of these guys are so cool. I think I take it for granted sometimes to be doing what I'm doing and working with the people that I'm working with.
Luke Perry has been in your type of role, in a sense, in "90210," and now he's giving Archie advice. Tell me about your dynamic with Luke and what he has to tell you about his experiences.
Luke has some really, really cool and funny stories about his experiences and we have a lot of fun on set. I learn so much from him, just from personal things, life stuff. We'll talk about heaps of stuff and it really helps me. He gives me advice and then just things like being on set, saving a shot by not blocking someone. I'm constantly learning things from that guy. He's such a legend, and I think we're all really blessed to be able to work with that guy.
Had you mastered your American accent already, or did you do it for this part?
I did two movies before this. I used to talk to myself in an American accent when I was a kid. I was one of those weird little kids that would walk around talking to himself when he was alone, and I would still do it. But that part of it never was a problem for me. I think I'm thankful in that regard, because it just becomes another thing to think about.
But when I'm in a scene it's not something that I'm thinking about. It's weird. I'm not thinking about putting an accent on. It's just on. I struggle doing it outside the camera. Off-camera, I can't do it because I just feel like a dork.
"Riverdale" premieres January 26th on The CW.