Welcome to scandalous, abs-filled, hormonal world of Riverdale, Archie. The CW teen drama has taken a decidedly broodier and definitely sexier take on the Archie comics, and a lot of that has to do with casting, with Greg Berlanti & Co. picking the half-Samoan New Zealand native K.J. Apa for the lead role. (No, he isn’t a natural redhead, but it’s nothing that some hair dye can’t overcome.) It’s been a big year for Apa: He also stars in the Lasse Hallström movie A Dog’s Purpose, which got into some controversy when a leaked video appeared to show animal endangerment on set. (An independent investigation concluded that the footage had been edited and that animals had not been harmed.) Vulture got on the phone to talk to Apa about suffering through a “gnarly” dye job, who he’s shipping on Riverdale, and what it’s like to become a sex object.
Did you always go by K.J.?
Yeah, I always go by K.J. My real name is Keneti James Fitzgerald, but K.J. stands for Keneti James, which is a Samoan name.
Your father’s Samoan, right?
Yes, he is. I have a massive Samoan family. And the Samoan culture has always played a massive part of my life. I’ve got hundreds of family on my dad’s side that live in Samoa and in New Zealand. I’ve just been surrounded by the culture ever since I was a kid. I actually used to speak Samoan, but me and my sisters all kind of lost it. We go there at least once a year to see family. And my dad recently just got a traditional Samoan tattoo. He’s a chief in Samoa, so he got that tattoo to commemorate it.
I saw that you also have a tattoo on your right shoulder.
Yeah, I do. I got that when I was 15 when my dad became the chief of his village.
So, I have to ask: What’s your natural hair color?
My natural hair color is dark brown.
Did you dye your hair for the auditions?
No, definitely not. [Laughs.]
I just like to imagine actors going into auditions wearing red wigs.
I didn’t see any red-headed people auditioning. All the guys that I’d met at the audition, none of them were American either, so that was also crazy as well. You see guys coming over from Australia and England who are just killing it. I feel like Americans love English people.
What’s the process for getting and maintaining that hair color?
It’s pretty gnarly, man. I had to go to the salon every two weeks to get it dyed and bleached and stuff. So yeah, it’s not my favorite thing to do, but obviously I’ve got to do it because the roots keep coming up and my hair grows really fast. So, two weeks max I can go shooting, and then I have to get it dyed again. I’m sitting there for at least two-and-a-half hours, so I’m on my iPad and I read some scripts and stuff. I keep myself entertained.
Is it painful?
It was really painful the first and the second time I got it done because they do my eyebrows as well. They ended up bleaching my eyebrows, and I had two holes — they burnt into my skin. I was like, “Oh, my, we’ve got to sort this out.” Luckily, I haven’t had that again, but yeah, it was pretty gnarly.
That sounds awful. I was curious about doing the American accent. What you watch to study it?
I never actively went out and studied the American accent. I just came over here to the States and it was something I was able to do. Like, I never struggled with it. I used to talk to myself as a kid in an American accent. Other than that, I don’t actually know why I can do it. It’s an easy accent to do, I think, in terms of accents. It’s harder for Americans to do a New Zealand accent than it is for a New Zealander to do an American accent. I think that’s also because of how popular and how just broad all American culture is around the globe. I think my musical side has always helped as well. I’ve always played by ear with guitar and piano, so I think that can also play into it as well. I’m able to hear and then mimic it or something.
When you talked to yourself as a kid, would you play characters?
Yeah, I would never be myself. I would kind of just whisper. I would have conversations with myself as two different people. I still do it now, actually. It would always be an American accent.
Are you rooting for one couple over another for Archie?
Before I became involved with it, I wasn’t familiar with Archie at all, but I think, because of how famous the Betty and Archie thing is, I would love to see Betty and Archie get together. I think it’s so iconic and everyone kind of wants that. If there was any relationship that I would ship for, it would be Archie and Betty, which is kind of a classic, iconic relationship.
Archie is very much a sex object on Riverdale. Is that a strange role to take on?
It’s always strange to play a sex object; it’s never a natural kind of feeling. But when I read the script, it was not hard to tell that was how they were taking it. So I was prepared for that, and I knew that people were going to take it like that as well. But yeah, it is strange. I don’t think it’s anything I’m ever going to get used to. As soon as you get used to becoming a sex object, that can be dangerous.
When people look at you as a sex object, that’s not how you’re defined. I think you just need to come back to the heart of it. There’s more to Archie than abs and his body and getting with girls and stuff like that. He’s a humanized character, and people should see past that, you know what I mean? I think people do, but initially, at first glance, people are going to have that first impression of sex object.
Well, it helps hook the viewer, shall we say.
Exactly, yeah. Someone has to have abs on the show.
When you were shooting A Dog’s Purpose, did you have treats in your pockets to train the dogs? Or did you have to learn commands?
Yeah, so shots where the dog is running up to you and licking your face, you usually have treats in your hand. They get the dog to sit, you go to your mark, and then the trainer will be like, “Go,” and the dog will run over to you because it knows that you have a treat and it will eat that treat. It’s funny, I had a thing with Britt [Robertson] where we had to do this kissing scene in the car. It was scripted that the dog comes up in between us while we’re kissing and starts licking her face, and the only way to get the dog to do that was by rubbing chicken sauce on Britt’s cheek. So that was kind of strange. Kissing while having chicken grease all over your face. It was real hot.
Let’s talk about that controversial “manipulated” footage of a German shepherd on set. This wasn’t in your scene, but did you see the video?
I did see the video. You know, it’s a shame that an edited video created this untrue perception of the movie, which is about love. It’s unfortunate. It had a lot of hate on it for, like, two days. Everyone was talking about it. But I haven’t heard much about it anymore. And Gavin Polone has come out with an amazing article. He was our producer, and he came out with an article telling how it actually is and what actually happened that day. I would encourage people to read that if you haven’t.
Every time I was on set, I witnessed a production team that went to amazing lengths to ensure that the dogs were treated with the utmost respect and love. I wasn’t there the day that video was shot, and I can only comment with things that I’ve seen with my own eyes, but obviously I wouldn’t be involved with any production that would abuse animals, or humans, in that manner. Every day I was on set, those were the most loved animals that I’ve pretty much ever seen. And they were happy as well. But in terms of that incident, I wasn’t there. I can’t comment on it because I didn’t see it.
You snagged the Archie role early in your career. What other kinds of roles do you hope to play in the future?
That’s a good question. I’m still really new to acting and I feel like I’m still learning, you know? I’m still grasping what it means to be an actor. Even things like this stuff that happened with the movie, you know what I mean? Being an actor isn’t just being an actor. You have all these other responsibilities that you’re responsible for, because when shit hits the fan, people are looking at the guys onscreen to be accountable for stuff.
At the moment, I really want to do action. I feel like I really want to be more physical. And I feel like action movies will give that to me. I definitely want to make movies after doing A Dog’s Purpose. I was thinking to myself, even while I was doing that, imagine if I could do this forever. Making movies is definitely something that I want to become more experienced at doing. I want to get away from the high-school jock.
This is a really stupid question: Do all famous New Zealanders know each other?
[Laughs.] I mean, no. No.
So you don’t know Lorde, then?
No, I don’t know Lorde. I’ve seen her, actually, though. I’ve seen her in New Zealand. I walked past her in a car and I looked at her and smiled and she completely just looked away and I was really gutted.