Riverdale premiered in 2017 with a simple premise: What if Archie Comics, those hokey all-American checkout-aisle stalwarts, were dark? The CW show began as a moody small-town teen mystery centered on a “Who killed Laura Palmer?”–style murder. In this world, adapted by showrunner and executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) fucked — and he wasn’t just in a love triangle with Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes); he was being groomed by Miss Grundy. Betty had a sadistic alter ego. Veronica’s “Daddykins” was in prison for financial crimes and possible drug-trade connections.
And then came the Gargoyle King. And the Serpent Queen. And musical numbers, so many musical numbers. The show was weird from the start, but around season three, the writers upped the ante with an organ-harvesting cult and evil nuns and an alien abduction and superpowers. Riverdale took tropes from gothic horror, fantasy, telenovelas, soap operas, comic books, gay art-house films, dark high-school comedies, musicals, and mafia movies and smushed them together into a pop-culture polycule — while the ensemble held it all together, putting it on like some sort of weekly vaudeville act.
The show ends August 23 as one of the last of its kind: the 22-episodes-a-season teen soap. The gang’s now back in the 1950s, and the characters have reverted to teenagers — even though the main cast, which also includes Madelaine Petsch (Cheryl Blossom), Cole Sprouse (Jughead Jones), Casey Cott (Kevin Keller), Charles Melton (Reggie Mantle), Vanessa Morgan (Toni Topaz), and Drew Ray Tanner (Fangs Fogarty), are all in their 20s and 30s. They gathered in June, soon after filming their last scene at Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe and a few weeks before the SAG strike began, buzzing with last-day-of-school energy.
Behind the Scenes on Riverdale
As the series shot its final episodes in June, New York sent disposable cameras to each of the actors featured here so they could take pictures of their last days on set. See all the photographs here.
You’ve all spent the majority of your adult life on this show. How does it feel for it to be ending?
KJ Apa: I have a lot to learn about myself. I spent so many pivotal years on it and had to navigate through lots of big changes while the show was the only really consistent thing in my life. I mean, I’ve walked around with red hair for the past seven years —
Madelaine Petsch: What’s wrong with that?
Apa: There’s a part of my identity that I want to get back that I don’t really feel connected to.
Petsch: We’re the only people who understand what we’re going through. Last night, Casey looked at me in a booth and grabbed my hands and said, “I love you,” and I literally started crying.
Riverdale has gone in so many directions since it started. What did you think it was going to be?
Petsch: A way to get me out of my restaurant hosting job.
Charles Melton: I was a dog walker and working a Chinese takeout when I did my chemistry read with KJ and Cole for season two.
Lili Reinhart: I had just signed a lease by myself in L.A., and I was terrified because I couldn’t afford it. This was my second time moving there to try and make it work, and I had no money and no job. I remember after my final audition, I was on the phone with my mom and told her it was the first time ever in an audition process that I felt like I truly was okay and at peace with whatever the outcome was: “I gave them my version of what this character is, take it or leave it.” That night, I found out I got it.
How much overlap has there been between you and the characters?
Apa: I reckon for me, this last season has been the clearest depiction of myself. Archie started off very pure-hearted, then all of this crazy stuff started happening. I think when it really began was when Luke Perry passed away in 2019. It was a huge turning point for my character. He started going down this darker path. I remember talking to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and he thought I was this dark, brooding person in real life, which is why he was writing it like that.
Drew Ray Tanner: In our first scene together, you pulled a gun on me. It was my first time meeting you. I started when the show was in its second season, and it was massive. Cole came to me on the first day, when I had one line, and included me in the rehearsal process. Like, “Come on, let’s go run some lines.” That was the sweetest gesture. I waited in the wings. I was patient. I was selling cars at the time; people were like, “You’re on this Riverdale show,” and I was like, I think it’s time to quit.
Apa: You should tell the story of Charles coming in for that first audition.
Cole Sprouse: They called KJ and me down to Los Angeles to chemistry read with a bunch of people who could possibly be playing Reggie. Charles came in, and I was like, Damn, that guy’s handsome. He did a really good job. I walked out, and he looks at me from down the hall. And he goes, “It was really nice meeting you, Zack.” I was like, This guy has been going Method.
Breaking out into song is a huge part of the show, especially for characters like Archie who were musicians from the beginning. But you’ve all had to sing. Was that part of the audition process?
Petsch, Camila Mendes, and Reinhart: No.
Apa: Absolutely not.
Mendes: They didn’t even ask.
Petsch: They didn’t even care if I could dance, and I play a cheerleader!
Reinhart: They just put songs in there and were like, “You guys are singing, whether you suck or not.”
Sprouse: They tried with me.
Reinhart: They tried.
Sprouse: It did not work.
Reinhart: It didn’t.
So what was your reaction when you opened those scripts and saw musical numbers?
Casey Cott: I don’t think people understand how Riverdale works. Very quickly, before you start shooting an episode — we’re talking two days — you get the script. And sometimes you don’t even have a script. You just get an email that says, “You have a recording session.” And if you’re really lucky, you get a text from Roberto that says, “Hey, we should sing this song.”
Mendes: If there’s one thing that show taught us, it’s how to wing it.
Cott: There’s no conversation.
Petsch: There’s no time for conversation!
Mendes: I sang “Ladies Who Lunch” before I even knew what the scene was. Oftentimes, the poor music producer is the one having to tell me, like, “Yeah, I think you’re walking around and you’re kind of upset?”
Sprouse: When you’re dealing with this many episodes on a big network, building a world from words on a page, there’s a huge chance that it can go wrong. Sometimes it fails, and sometimes it turns out great. The beauty of a show like this is just how much of a roll of the dice every single episode is.
There was literally an entire season about rolling dice.
Reinhart: I think it’s important to acknowledge that our show is made fun of a lot. People see clips taken out of context and are like, What? I thought this was about teenagers. And we thought so as well—in season one. But it’s really not been easy to feel that you’re the butt of a joke. We all want to be actors; we’re passionate about what we do. So when the absurdity of our show became a talking point, it was difficult. It is What the fuck? That’s the whole point. When we’re doing our table reads and something ridiculous happens, Roberto is laughing because he understands the absurdity and the campiness.
Cott: It only works if we lean in.
Mendes: Superhero movies are the main thing at the box office these days, and those are the most absurd stories you could imagine! You’ve got a fucking talking raccoon fighting aliens in space! No one’s like, “This makes no sense.” We’re a comic book; it’s supposed to be fun and fictional and weird. If you want to watch a teen show where there’s just a bunch of kids in a high school dealing with relationship drama, there’s a lot out there.
Sprouse: Go watch Euphoria.
Mendes: But Roberto didn’t want to do that. I think he wanted something that was more outlandish.
Sprouse: That’s the natural life cycle of a cult program. North America is the only part of the world that raises vocal opposition to the absurdity of the show. England, which has a more dry, sort of crass, sarcastic sense of humor, loves it and gets it. We find a huge audience in France that has a fascination with classic Americana.
Mendes: And don’t forget Brazil! All the show’s fan accounts. We’ve done so much that anytime we get a new script or go into a new project, it’s like, I’ve done a version of this on Riverdale.
Sprouse: This used to be how every actor got their start. You think about 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp. You think about Clooney. These shows used to be that proving ground. And now they’re not really going to exist.
Were there moments when your character had to do something so off the wall that you were scared to do it?
Petsch: When I flew through the sky shooting lasers out of my hands at a comet. I was terrified to go on wires, and I was horrified that people could take this thing that I was doing and —
Mendes: Make a meme out of it?
Petsch: And rightfully so. But we often pay homage, and this is an homage to Scarlet Witch.
Vanessa Morgan: My moment was when I was eight months pregnant. I have a major fear of snakes, and I had to do a dance routine onstage where they wanted to put these big snakes on me. Instead, they were on the dancers beside me. I’m literally dancing with these snakes beside me, having major anxiety.
Petsch: I had to work with my brother’s corpse for an entire season. And that, I thought, was amazing. I was taking photos with him, I was sitting on his lap, I was having a great time. I’m so thankful that TikTok wasn’t very big because my posts would have been horrendous.
How do you feel about the very intense investment that the online fandom has in these characters’ relationships? The shipping is a lot.
Sprouse: I get a lot of stuff sent to my house or my loved ones’ houses. Death threats, really nasty, honestly criminal stuff. And I do think it’s because at least four of us at this table have dated our co-workers. Is that just a consequence of an incredible love? Or is that what fanaticism looks like? Perhaps because those lines were blurred to our audience, it’s hard to break those things up when life moves on.
Cott: There’s sometimes a failure to differentiate the characters from the humans. You can go down an extreme hole if you’re looking at that. Someone got my mom’s phone number and started leaving voice-mails saying that they were going to come get her.
Petsch: On the other side, Vanessa and I have a very specific relationship, Choni, and we get a lot of support.
Morgan: I’ve been grateful for it.
Riverdale, As Seen by Its Locals
We gave the cast disposable cameras. Here's what they captured on set.
Riverdale has taken this artifact of straight white Americana — Archie Comics — and made it very diverse, very queer, in this deliberate way.
Melton: The cool thing about Reggie is he’s the captain of the football team, and I had that experience growing up, but I never saw it when I watched Friday Night Lights or any sports films. Once, I was at the airport going through TSA, and this guy in his 50s was like, “Hey, you’re that guy from Riverdale.” He was Caucasian, and his wife was Chinese, and their son was mixed like me. I remember introducing myself to him and his mom saying, “See, he looks like you! He’s an actor.” That was a good feeling.
Tanner: When I started acting in Vancouver around 2010 to 2016, to be racially ambiguous was the thing because you could read for any type of character that they couldn’t find. But I think right around when the show started airing, it moved away from “Let’s find racially ambiguous people” to “Let’s actually find people that have roots in these cultures and these ethnicities.” I’ve never really publicly come out and said what my ethnicity is, so there was a fear there for me. I don’t want to be defined by my ethnicity. So then to be brought onto a show like Riverdale that says, “We’re not going to define you by your ethnicity,” but where we also had an episode where we touched on sundown towns and I was able to embrace that part of my background and tell that story, meant a lot to me.
This is also a show where every young character is sexualized. It’s a given for the genre, but it’s transgressive because of the source material.
Petsch: Being in a female-female relationship on the show was interesting because Vanessa and I were the biggest supporters of having more sexual encounters on the show. And I feel like some people were scared of that. In season three, she and I just decided with a director to put in this sex scene that wasn’t there. And that, I think, broke the barrier of allowing us to be more like the other couples on the show. I felt it was really important for our particular relationship.
And Riverdale has an equal-opportunity gaze. The sexualization doesn’t just affect the women.
Apa: I’ve been through a lot of shit with that. It can mess with your head a little bit. At first, as a young child, which is what I was, I thought it was cool — you almost want the opportunity to be shirtless. I was like, “Yeah, let me take my shirt off. Boom!” And then you gotta consistently stay in incredible shape. It takes a toll. Even saying that I didn’t feel comfortable I had a hard time with. I thought people would be like, “Why not? Just fucking do it, bro.”
Petsch: The other day, I had to do a lingerie shoot and I felt so shitty about my body I cried. I tried on six different outfits and eventually found something that made me feel remotely okay.
Reinhart: It’s been trippy to grow up on this show and constantly see images of myself from when I was 19, 20, 21. My body does not look like that anymore. And suddenly this season we’re 17 again. I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and laughed at myself a couple of times. I don’t look like I’m 17, and I’m okay with that! But it’s this weird feeling, like you have to fit yourself back into this box that you presented to the world when we first stepped into these characters. Just being an actor in general, you feel like you’re holding yourself to a consistent standard of I must not age, and I must continue to look like I did.
Mendes: We need to say Roberto is always very understanding of us, and there’s nobody forcing us to do anything. It’s just the nature of being on a teen show.
In season five, you were able to play your characters in their 20s. How does it feel to be sent back in time to play teenagers again?
Apa: I love it. I think it’s kinky.
Sprouse: I didn’t like playing my age.
Mendes: It was cool to play my own age. But we all had our individual story lines, and the only reason we could ever all get together in a scene was for a town hall. I honestly think the reason we had to go back in time and be 17 again was that we could enjoy the last season all together in the most wholesome, Archie Comics way possible. I know Roberto was like, “Do we really want to end with Betty as an FBI agent and Veronica selling jewelry?”
No matter how old they’re supposed to be, your characters speak in really dense, distinctive, baroque dialogue, full of references and outdated slang. What are some of the most Riverdale-ian lines you’ve had to deliver?
Melton: Season three, Reggie walks into the locker room. Archie’s shirtless, and Reggie goes, “You got some pretty big coconuts pulling that kind of stunt last night!” And Archie turns around and he’s got bear-claw marks on his chest. By the end of the scene, Reggie is also shirtless.
Apa: It reminds me of those scenes from Top Gun in the locker room, you know? Just so—
Petsch: Does anyone remember when I had my whole-ass own church in season five? I think my favorite line is “I am Cheryl Blossom, queen of the bees!” And by “favorite,” I mean that’s the only time I ever texted Roberto and said, “Please, please, please, don’t make me say this.” I had to shake honeycombs at my mother to banish her.
Cott: In the pilot, I looked at Betty and said, “His name may be Moose, but I’d describe a certain appendage of his as horselike.”
Mendes: I had this long line, and I remember I was like, “I fucking hate this!” I couldn’t get it, and it was so complicated, but now it’s my little party trick.
Sprouse: Say it, Cami.
Petsch: Say it, girl.
Mendes: “Word of my exploits serving Nick his comeuppance has seeped into the demimonde of mobsters and molls my father used to associate with.”
[Everyone cheers and applauds.]
Petsch: I don’t even know what you just said.
Reinhart: I was thinking of when I had to say “the Spear of Longinus.”
Mendes: “The Daggers of Megiddo.”
It’s like anime.
Sprouse: If you watched our show like you watch an anime, a lot of it would make more sense.
What are your thoughts on the future of the teen-show genre — and on the legacy of this show in particular?
Reinhart: We can all be happy that we had a fucking consistent job for seven years. I could speak for probably all of us: We will never again do something that’s 100-plus episodes.
Petsch: I had a long conversation with Luke Perry about this at Comic-Con when we first booked the show because he was on 90210. I asked him, “What is this ride gonna be like?” And he said, “Nothing like you’ve ever imagined, but I promise you, it will be the last of its kind.” Luke was an oracle for me and for a lot of the people on the show, especially in guiding us during those first two years of chaos and confusion and the rise to success. I think he’s a huge reason why the show is where it is today.
Sprouse: I think he knew everything we were all going to be going through. And I often think about how he would be sitting answering these questions if he were still with us.
Petsch: He’d wear his little glasses.
Sprouse: He had this way of speaking where he got super-close to your face that was really beautiful and passionate.
Mendes: We were lucky to work with him.
What are you most looking forward to post-Riverdale?
Apa: Not having red hair.
Petsch: I’m literally going to throw my phone.
Sprouse: This show has created—
Sprouse: Tremendous opportunities for every single one of us.
Apa: But only one of us will make it!
Cott: I’m just really excited to hang out with my superhot wife.
Sprouse: I’m excited to hang out with Casey’s superhot wife.