KJ Apa goes to the gym. A lot. Just about every day, in fact. It’s something anyone who’s seen approximately 10 minutes of The CW’s Riverdale would gather, as he very frequently removes his shirt to the delight of the millions of fans who have become more or less obsessed with the show since the series premiered in January.
“I have to maintain a pretty tight physique, being shirtless pretty much every episode,” Apa says. “I try to get to the gym every day. It takes a lot of stress out of stuff. It’s a long season. We’re doing 22 episodes in Season Two, and we’re about halfway through now. It’s crazy to think that right now last year we were finished. To think that we have 11 more episodes is a lot and overwhelming.”
So that’s what the 20-year-old New Zealand native’s life is like now. He works; he goes to the gym. If for some reason he’s doing neither of those things, he’s camping somewhere near Vancouver, where the show is filmed, with his sister and his co-stars Cole Sprouse and Charles Melton. “Even sometimes just going out by myself and being out of the city and getting a chance to clear my head is important,” he says.
I’m talking with him over the phone on Halloween, one of his few days off—but he’s already been to the gym and was called into work. Which is okay, because the cast has already gotten their Halloween party out of the way. (“A couple members of the cast met up and we had a few,” he says, “and there was a little Halloween party at work on Saturday night.”) It’s a gym-work schedule fitting for the likes of Captain America, Thor, or any other blockbuster action superhero—the likes of which Apa would very much like to play someday. But that’s becoming increasingly harder as the list of available superheroes is getting smaller every year.
“All the spots are being taken up while I’m shooting Riverdale,” he says, expressing slight disappointment as he’s a big Marvel fan, and of Spider-Man in particular. “I was actually Spider-Man for Halloween. I think doing some more physical roles would really excite me.” (Of course, his four million Instagram followers already know he was Spider-Man for Halloween. He posted a video of it over the weekend, which already has nearly one million views.)
His dream of playing a caped defender of justice is, honestly, a pretty reasonable goal. He is, after all, currently playing one of the most beloved comic book heroes of all time—even if he’s not fighting aliens or megalomaniacal billionaires who are trying to take over the world. Riverdale is a dark and sexy take on the Archie comics, combining the classic all-American elements of the comic book series and placing its heroes—Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead, et al.—in the midst of numerous mysteries. In this brooding TV version of the comics, the local diner is a joint where kids deal Jingle Jangle (the drug of choice at Riverdale High, which is basically an upper the teens throw back like Pixy Stix), the murder of a popular boy unravels a greater plot involving a dangerous drug cartel, and a gang known as the Southside Serpents is vying for control of the town’s drug trade. Yeah, it’s dark—enough so that it’s often compared to David Lynch’s masterpiece Twin Peaks (which Apa admits he hasn’t seen, understandable considering he was born six years after the show was canceled in 1991).
Apa himself is excited about the upped ante on the show’s sophomore season as he describes how the epic battle scene was filmed. “We were shooting with a phantom camera, so we had all the high-speed effects and rain towers,” he says, before expressing some slight disappointment that he couldn’t perform his own stunts. “Actor-on-actor [fighting] is not allowed—it always has to be with another stuntman,” he continues. “I broke my hand during one of the scenes in the first season, so they’re not so sure about me.” Yet the fight sequence, which begins with Archie delivering a slow-mo punch that would make Zack Snyder quiver, only solidified Apa’s previous desire to play a superhero. And there in the pouring rain, lit by parked cars, Archie gets knocked to the ground and kicked in the chest while one of his buddies gets stabbed in the leg. It’s closer to Batman v Superman than anything in the pop-art world of Archie. “Shooting that scene actually made me realize that I really, really love action,” he says.
Archie himself has become Riverdale’s moral center; he and his friends have already solved the central murder mystery of the first season, and now he’s become some sort of teenage vigilante attempting to track down a new masked threat. “It’s like Archie’s Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne moment, where he wants revenge,” Apa describes in familiar comic-book terms. The character always has the best intentions—even if he’s not always going about it the right way. But that’s because Archie is as undeniably sweet as he is self-righteous—kind of like a meathead with a heart of gold.
Working out at the gym, sitting alone in the Vancouver wilderness—those are escapes from the hectic life of becoming a full-time teen heartthrob in less than a year. Filming a massive, rain-drenched fight scene is a drastic change for a 20-year-old who this time last year couldn’t predict if the show would be a success or a failure.
“This whole thing has been moving so quickly, and the show has blown up in a way that no one really expected it to,” Apa admits. “Before I started shooting the show, I had my questions about it; I wasn’t really sure how it would go. It felt like we were in this bubble. No one had seen it yet, and we couldn’t even imagine it coming out.”
Despite any uncertainty, the show was a hit—first gaining an early cult following and solid reviews, then earning an even bigger following between seasons thanks to the show’s release on Netflix this summer. The second season’s mid-October premiere drew 2.33 million viewers—double its pilot episode. Now, Apa and his young co-stars are teen idols whose every move is under the intense watchful eye of Riverdale fanatics. Apa doesn’t tweet much, but he still has to watch himself on social media—even when talking about his friends and co-stars Lili Reinhart (who plays Betty) and Sprouse (who plays Jughead), whose on-screen and IRL relationship has become the stuff of tabloid fodder. “There’s a level of privacy that needs to be maintained,” he says, “which is another reason why it’s so great that we get along so well.”
Still, the experience is a lesson for a young actor—a hard one, sure, but one that even a more seasoned pro in the industry should remember every now and then, too. “It puts things in perspective for actors on other shows; when you’re driving home, you’ve got to be mindful and make sure your mind’s right and that you’re not tired,” he continues. “I was really lucky the production was there for me and helped me the whole way, which made me feel looked after.”
The long, grueling hours on set may pale in comparison to the high expectations Riverdale fans have for the second season, particularly the rabid coupling-off taking place within the halls of Riverdale High. The fan “Shipping Wars,” as Lili Reinhart calls them, are intense online battles over which relationships Riverdale obsessives most want to see play out over the course of Season Two. Think of it as competitive fanfiction, which are so intensely abundant that Apa himself can’t even keep up with them. “I don’t really follow that stuff,” he admits. “I know the girls are really into that stuff, and I do hear about it at work.” Maybe the fan response can be intimidating, but Apa isn’t put off by their fervor. “I find it cool that the fans get really involved in it and they stand by their shipping teams—if that’s how you say it, I don’t know,” he laughs. “They’re ravenous, man. They will fight to end for these characters.”
There’s specifically some debate about the famed love triangle between Betty, Jughead, and Archie. For now, Betty and Jughead (called Bughead by Shippers) are very much in love. Archie, meanwhile, has paired up with Veronica—but that hasn’t stopped fans from dreaming of a Archie-Betty relationship, which seems more likely every time Archie casts a longing glance at the girl next door.
“I think it’s that iconic love triangle between Archie, Veronica, and Betty,” Apa says. “It’s one of those things that goes so long in the comics, and we’re bringing it to life and putting it into real situations on Riverdale. I think Archie still has feelings for Betty, and you can clearly see that in those little moments between the two of them. Whether or not that will be the endgame is something that the fans will have to wait to see.”
And there’s a lot of Riverdale ahead in this season—and likely beyond, considering its popularity. Which is good news for Apa, who wants to ride this wave as long as possible, for whatever else is in store with Archie and the gang. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be watching Riverdale: The College Years four years from now. After that, maybe KJ Apa will play a superhero. Maybe he’ll fully embrace being a fitness god. As for now, he’s still a good kid in a letterman jacket, working harder than most people his age.