Earlier this year, the CW found itself with a hit teen drama on its hands. Based on the Archie Comics characters, Riverdale eschewed a wholesome aesthetic in favor of a brooding, murderous Twin Peaks–lite narrative about the killing of high-schooler Jason Blossom.
Amid the show’s murder mystery, illicit romances, and campy spats, Cheryl Blossom has proven to be a standout character, shining light on the complexities of a mean girl who’s simultaneously trying to mourn her brother’s death and maintain her menacing social status at Riverdale High. Vulture hopped on the phone with actress Madelaine Petsch to discuss Cheryl’s place in Riverdale, her favorite one-liners, and why the character isn’t a typical TV villain.
Let me start by saying I think Cheryl has the best hair and lipstick game on television right now.
[Laughs.] Aw, thank you. You’ve made my day.
This is your first leading role on television. How did you become involved with the show, and why did you feel connected to Cheryl in particular?
I’m a working actress in Hollywood. You unfortunately don’t get the pick of the litter when it comes to auditions and jobs. I had actually auditioned for a guest star role on Legends of Tomorrow, and the show had the same casting director as Riverdale. I read for a part and the producers made me come back on the very same day, and when I met them, the main director was like, “Forget this role, I’m doing a pilot right now and you’re perfect for a lead, just hold off.” For someone who’s working two jobs and wants this more than anything, “hold off” are the worst words possible.
Believe or not, the next day I actually got a call that wanted me to read for Betty. I read her breakdown and was like, “I love this girl, but I’m definitely not going to book this.” I knew that off the bat. But I went in and was like, “Whatever, I’m going to knock their socks off, even though I’m not blonde.” I knew who Betty was. I read for the role, and the director immediately told me that he instead wanted me for the lead villain of the show. I was so excited, but it took me five months to go in and read for her. So I played the waiting game every day and it was brutal. [Laughs.] Some days were harder than others. But the minute I got the pilot script and breakdown for Cheryl, I immediately understood who she was. She’s clearly so broken and she comes from such a place of anger and hurt. I made her an angry, hurt little girl and it apparently worked in my favor.
How do you think Cheryl transforms the classic “mean girl” archetype into something more nuanced?
I’m glad you feel that way. When you’re in high school, there are so many bullies and a lot of kids don’t know why the bullies are being mean to them, so they blame it on themselves. Riverdale has a new take on that. It shows the younger generation that being bullied has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with the way the person is and how they feel about themselves. One-hundred percent of the time, that’s what’s going on with bullies. Cheryl is so broken and she’s bullying everyone around her. I hope kids can take away the reasons why.
I learned so much about myself through this role, too. I’ve weirdly gotten a lot of closure about events in my life from being Cheryl. I’ve learned a lot about defense mechanisms and the ways people shut down in order to cope with things in their lives. Playing Cheryl has allowed me to understand a larger part of the population a lot better. Which is probably a strange thing to take away from playing a villain, but I’ve learned that most of the things that people do around you have nothing to do with you. Like road rage in Los Angeles. [Laughs.] People yelling at you because of a parking spot, you know what I mean?
Has your opinion on Cheryl changed throughout the series? She can go from being sympathetic and vulnerable to genuinely nasty so quickly.
I really understand her, so I get why she has those changes. As the actor, I have to justify that. My opinion of her changes every second of every day. I’m always learning something new about her and I’m always unfolding another layer to Cheryl. You’re right: Between scenes one and three, she can be best friends with Veronica and then be mean to Betty and Veronica. It genuinely stems from how she feels about herself in that particular moment.
Her actions can transcend basic bitchiness, too. When she helped suspend Chuck Clayton for mistreating female students, but then teamed up with him for a revenge plot a few episodes later, I was like, Girl, what are you doing?!
For that instance, I personally talked to the writers and I was like, “Hey guys, are you sure you want to do this? This might not go over very well.” [Laughs.] But I read it and I made it work. In the beginning of the episode, Cheryl is already in the rocky place because Archie turns her down, she finds out a lot of terrible things about her parents, and she’s ultimately quite miserable. Then she gets tested by Veronica multiple times — her showing up to practice late, questioning her authority. Cheryl’s already in a bad mood. From that moment on, I think Cheryl just decides she has to reinstate her authority in Riverdale because she’s feeling very weak. For me, it was about developing the weakness and developing the anger and vulnerability of feeling like she doesn’t have anybody in her life. That’s genuinely always her reason for lashing out, for teaming up with Chuck and crashing that party. She feels ridiculously lonely. I don’t think it’s enough of a justification for the public, but for her, that’s the way she is.
And her parents are the worst.
The woooooorst! I genuinely think the Blossoms are the worst parents in Riverdale.
But they have that sweet maple-syrup farm …
Oh, I love it. Episode nine was the epitome of campiness.
How would you characterize Cheryl’s relationship with Betty and Veronica? Those three have already been through some of the highest highs and lowest lows.
I think Cheryl would give anything to be their best friend. I genuinely believe Cheryl would love to be part of that group of friends, but she doesn’t know how and she doesn’t want to show her weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It’s an interesting dynamic. They’re much bigger people then Cheryl is, obviously. Cheryl is truly so jealous of Betty and Veronica’s friendship, but mostly jealous of Betty. She looks at Betty’s life and it looks perfect from the outside. She’s the girl next door, has all of these friends, has a 4.0 GPA, is on track to be the valedictorian. She’s got Archie and Jughead and no dead siblings, as far as Cheryl knows. I think she’s very envious of Betty and that’s why she wants to lash out. She’s jealous of Betty’s life.
We recently ran a story that investigated the pop-culture influences for the Riverdale ladies. The picks we had for Cheryl included Rose McGowan in Jawbreaker, Charisma Carpenter in Buffy, and Elisa Donovan in Clueless. Who else do you think influenced your character?
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest! I try not to think about it too much. As an actor, I naturally took nuances from Regina George and Blair Waldorf, but that being said, I didn’t really want to be your typical mean girl or your typical villain. I tried not to pull too much from anybody because I wanted to create this three-dimensional person who hasn’t been on television. So personally, I wasn’t influenced by many people. I’m sure I had some subconscious influences that I wasn’t aware of, but I tried not to be influenced by too many references in pop culture.
I’m consistently impressed by the number of pop-culture references that are packed into each episode.
Isn’t it great? It has a very witty, fast-paced comedy to it. You have to really pay attention to get all of the jokes. It elevates it in the sense that it’s more intellectual and it’s very thought out. There’s not one part of dialogue left behind on Riverdale. You have to really be on your toes when you watch it. You can’t walk out or go to the bathroom when you’re watching an episode, because you’re going to miss a really good joke. I’ll be honest: Most of the time I’ll open up a script and be like, “I have no idea what that reference is, can somebody please tell me?” We’ll be shooting in Vancouver and not checking our phones, then we’ll get the script and be like, “What is that? What does that mean?!”
I wish I was that well-versed in pop culture when I was a teen.
I do too! I wish I was that well-versed now. [Laughs.] I learn something new every day when I’m shooting Riverdale.
Were you surprised by the audience intrigue about whether Cheryl and her brother had an incestuous relationship?
We joke about it a lot of set. We call it “twincest.” I honestly didn’t think people would pick up on it. I was very taken aback by it. It was a brother and sister relationship, and yeah, it’s a little different, but they’re twins and they both grew up in an abusive home. Jason was her shelter, and she really latched on to that. She’s never been in love, she’s never had a boyfriend, she’s never really had real parents. Jason was her everything — her mom, her dad, her brother, her only person. That’s why they were so close, because he was the only person who cared about her or tried to bring her out of her shell.
Will she be able to get some much-needed closure about Jason’s death by the end of the season?
No, sadly. Cheryl gets to a point to the end of the season where it’s her tipping point. It sets up season two very well. She can either become an angel or a demon.
Do you have a favorite zinger from the season so far? I nearly lost it when you said Luke Perry’s character was “looking extremely DILF-y today.”
My usual favorite is “butt out, closet monster!” She said that to Veronica. But now that we’ve aired that particular episode, it’s absolutely “Mr. Andrews! Looking extremely DILF-y today.” I love it.
My lady friends and I thank you immensely for it.
[Laughs.] I did it on behalf of the entire woman population.
With Riverdale renewed for a second season, it seems on track to become the next Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl. What do you hope for the future of the show?
Wow, what actor wouldn’t want a path like that? If someone said they didn’t, they’d be lying. It’s a dream come true. That being said, I try not to focus too much on the future. We’re all so proud of the work we’re doing and we’d be so grateful if it went in the direction of Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl, but we’re not focusing on that. We’re focusing on making every episode amazing and phenomenal and hoping people see that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.