Riverdale creator and stars put new twists on teen mayhem and rivalries

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Riverdale creator and stars put new twists on teen mayhem and rivalries

From left to right: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, KJ Apa, Camila Mendes (Graphic: Nick Wanserski)
From left to right: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, KJ Apa, Camila Mendes (Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

Even if you’re not an avid Archie follower, there’s no denying that the comics are practically Americana. So when The CW released the first trailer for Riverdale, the teen-drama adaptation from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, it looked like the Archie Comics’ chief creative officer had lost his damn mind. The extent of the sacrilege went beyond tarnishing the town’s idyllic image to sexing up the most famous, unaccountably lovable dork. It seemed this purportedly gritty reboot of John L. Goldwater and Bob Montana’s creation could, at best, be a poor imitation of Twin Peaks.

But it turns out Aguirre-Sacasa knows what he’s doing, putting a new twist on adolescence. And cast members KJ Apa and Camila Mendes—who play Archie and Veronica, respectively—are game for all the subversion. The A.V. Club spoke with Aguirre-Sacasa, Apa, and Mendes at the Television Critics Association winter press tour about the dark side of small towns and a history of kids behaving badly.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

The A.V. Club: The first Riverdale trailer definitely has a “The O.C. meets Twin Peaks” vibe, a combination that [The CW president] Mark Pedowitz also used to describe the show. But was either series an inspiration, or are you just steering into the skid?

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: When we originally developed the show, the show was a much more straightforward coming-of-age slice-of-life drama. It didn’t have the genre element, the mystery, the crime, the noir of it. When Fox bought it, it was that—it was just a high school show, and in the developing of it, they really pushed us to figure out how its voice would be different from Saved By The Bell or O.C. or Dawson’s Creek or things like that. One real touchstone for me and a couple of the other producers was Twin Peaks. What made it particularly germane to Archie was that the central mystery of Twin Peaks is what happens when a high school homecoming queen is murdered. That was like, “Wow, what would happen if one of the Riverdale kids had been murdered?” And rather than follow an F.B.I. detective through the investigation, you follow the ramifications of that through the points of view of the students.

Another big influence was—there was a great movie called Brick with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which was a suburban noir. That was, I think, an early influence as well. The two other big touchstones for me were movies that I loved when I was a kid and that were coming-of-age movies. One was Stand By Me, which is, of course, about four friends who go on a journey to see a dead body, and River’s Edge, the Keanu Reeves movie, which is about these high school misfits that know one of their friends killed one of their other friends, and the body’s by the river’s edge. When the idea to make Archie more like River’s Edge or more like Stand By Me or more like Twin Peaks—really even more than Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, which is one of my favorite movies—it framed every story we wanted to tell, but gave it a genre element, a genre twist to it. It really became a guiding principle, which was, every story we’ll tell on the show has to work as an Archie story, a high school story, but then also has to work as—there has to be some David Lynch element to it. So in episode three, there’s a slut-shaming story, but there’s a much darker solution to that story that’s almost like something out of a Brian De Palma movie. That’s why the episode is called “Body Double.” It became a way for us to be different from other shows. But you know, every show has a shorthand, and O.C. meets Twin Peaks is a great shorthand.

AVC: Besides, the “gritty” tag people slapped onto the show doesn’t really apply. I’ve watched the first four episodes; the show’s definitely subversive, it’s a bit noir, but there’s a lot of humor to it.

RA: It’s funny, I go around to conventions and stuff, because I do a lot of stuff with Archie. People are like, “I can’t believe you turned Archie into a dark, gritty show.” It’s like, “That’s not true. The show is a mix of dark stuff with light stuff.” Like I said, there is definitely a noir mystery element to the show, which we love. I love those stories. But there’s also my first kiss, all those kinds of things. So it’s not really a dark, gritty reboot. The sweet spot of the show for me exists in the tension between the subversive and the dark and the more grown-up, and the more sexualized stuff. The milkshakes in Pop’s, who’s going with whom to the dance, football versus music. The show exists in between that. And it’s funny, Superman in those movies kind of became an antihero. Archie is not an antihero. He is still trying to be the best version of himself that he can. It’s not Archie breaking bad. It’s Archie. In a way, it’s funny. Betty and Veronica can even be a little more compromised and darker than Archie can. Just because, who knows why? It’s just the way the characters shake out. Though, I think Archie does get a little more—as we go deeper into the series—he is a little bit more compromised. We go a little bit deeper in surprising directions with him. But yes, you are 100 percent right. It’s not a dark, gritty reboot of Archie.

AVC: Archie’s this all-American teen in the comics, and he remains that way. You guys could have turned him into some kind of EDM DJ. Instead, he’s still a guy with a guitar; he’s into sports. He has a lot of the same interests, but not to put too fine a point on it, he’s a lot hotter in this show than he ever was in the comics. Was that a conscious decision?

RA: Well, one kind of mystery, and again, I’m asked this every time I go to a comic book convention, which is, why do Betty and Veronica? Why Archie? He’s kind of dull, he’s not super smart, he’s not great at anything, he’s okay at a lot of things. And very early on we thought that the best time to capture Archie is—and if Riverdale is sort of an origin story, where we know Archie to be a major player who can get every woman to fall in love with him—to capture him right at that moment where he’s transitioning from being a boy to being a man, a young man. The idea that Archie had a big growth spurt over summer, it happens. I had a big growth spurt over one summer, and I think it might have been—mine was actually between freshman and sophomore year, like Archie’s.

AVC: He does say in the first episode that he was working construction and stuff.

RA: And he was working construction and stuff. But yeah, listen, it’s great. It’s great to have a hot Archie. In the comic book, the reboot that we did, Fiona Staples designed him as a good-looking kid.

AVC: This is Afterlife With Archie?

RA: No, there’s a regular Archie comic book that Mark Wade is writing, that Fiona Staples who draws Saga, she drew our first three issues to kind of redesign the characters. What’s so weird is we hadn’t yet cast KJ when Fiona drew Archie, and I was like, “We’re never going to find that guy.” And then KJ walks in, and I was like, “He’s sort of like Fiona drew him.” So it’s just interesting.

AVC: You mentioned during your panel that you can easily see moving past Archie, while treating Riverdale like the mothership show, to touch on other characters. You brought up putting a Rosemary’s Baby twist on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. Is that the Afterlife With Archie story, where theres some kind of arc about her being sacrificed?

RA: So, in the afterlife, she is a witch, and she becomes the bride of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s dark god. We actually publish a Sabrina comic book that I write as well that is not in the universe. It’s not in the afterlife universe—it’s set in the 60s—and it’s Sabrina’s origin story, and it is very much like a ’60s horror, like The Omen, like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, but with Sabrina. That’s different from the Sabrina that’s in the afterlife, but it is all about witches and sexuality and dark sexuality and cultism and occultism. I’d love to do a version of Sabrina that’s like that.

AVC: Your work on Archie comics has laid a lot of the groundwork for Riverdale, but you also told The New York Times about an Archie play you’d written, for which you received a cease-and-desist letter. And you mentioned that the story of Leopold and Loeb gave you the idea for an Archie murder-mystery a long time ago.

RA: That’s so true. But it’s funny, when I was working on the pilot, I wasn’t thinking that. One of my friends read the pilot script and was like, “Wow, you’ve been writing about this since that play.” I was like, “Oh, my god, it’s so true.” The high concept of that play was to juxtapose the Leopold and Loeb murder, which I’m obsessed with, with the Archie characters. How’d these teenagers—one was completely benign and vanilla and never swore, never had sex, never drank, always wore the seatbelt. And then you had these two almost amoral, Nietzschean vicious [murderers], and what would happen when you threw them together. So you’re a hundred percent right, and of course looking back on it, I’m like, “Duh, that was always it.” But it took someone pointing it out to me. Yeah, it’s been a journey since then.

AVC: So, really, kids have been “going bad” for a very long time, but the other notion you’re upending is of the idyllic small town. You’re exposing the underbelly.

RA: Absolutely. I think it’s also, like, secrets of a small town has been happening. One of my favorite works of literature ever, I reread it about once a year, is the play Our Town, which is, on one level, people remember as a really sweet, wholesome portrait of this town, but it is in fact much, much darker than that. It’s really about death, and it’s really about sadness and alienation, and then about all the other things, like George and Emily getting strawberry phosphates. But it’s a profound work. That’s been a little bit of a touchstone as well. There’s also a very early Alfred Hitchcock movie called Shadow Of A Doubt, which was written by Thornton Wilder, who wrote Our Town. It is basically Our Town with a killer. I’ve always thought that Archie was like Our Town and that Archie and Betty were like George and Emily. To think of, well, oh, it’s like Shadow Of A Doubt, where it’s this wholesome small town but there’s this darkness alive, and it’s a great metaphor for everything.

KJ Apa

KJ Apa and Luke Perry (Photo: Karen Yu/The CW)

The A.V. Club: You’re playing a very different kind of Archie than most people are used to, and not because he’s the kind of guy that would have an affair with his teacher. You didn’t grow up with the comics, so how did you go about piecing the character together?

KJ Apa: I think first and foremost, it’s a responsibility to play such an iconic character, and stepping into it, I knew it would be a big responsibility, and I treat it with a lot of respect. Coming from New Zealand, I was kind of nervous stepping into it, just because there are a lot of fans who are very protective of it and maybe don’t want a foreigner playing an iconic American character. But I think because I’ve treated it the way that it should be, with respect, it’s such a nurtured character already, I think it was easier for me to do it. I want to make this the best Archie of 2017.

AVC: He might be cooler now and a football player, but this is still a guy who plays guitar and who helps his dad.

KJA: Our Archie is similar to the Archie in the comics, and people are saying it’s not similar enough, and a lot of people are saying it’s too similar. But I think we’re right smack bang in the middle. If it was exactly like the comics, if Archie was the same Archie from the comics, it wouldn’t appeal to a lot of people, but because we’re a lot edgier and that subversiveness and that darkness to each of the characters, it’s a lot more appealing and a lot more attractive to more people.

AVC: If stepping into an iconic role like this is the most challenging thing, what is the most enjoyable thing?

KJA: Probably the most enjoyable part of stepping into the character was being able to explore the musical side of it. The musical side of it to me is really awesome. I was on scholarship for music at school, so that kind of came naturally to me, the music side of it. The singing part is not really my—I get really uncomfortable when I sing. So it’s good for me to be doing this, because I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a lot. I get to explore that, which is really cool. I feel lucky to be able to do the music stuff.

AVC: What do you think about the way that they’ve downplayed the love triangle? Because that was a huge part of the comics, but it’s not the big storyline yet.

KJA: I think it still plays a big part. It certainly doesn’t play a major part, because we have the murder of Jason Blossom and stuff. But it’s still incorporated, I think, a lot on the side, as we progress as well, because of this relationship with Ms. Grundy as well. That kind of complicates things with him and Betty and Veronica. I also think it’s early, and as we conclude the season, Archie makes the decision between Betty and Veronica.

Camila Mendes, KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart (Screenshot: YouTube)

AVC: Speaking of love triangles, the show is actually very soapy, in addition to being a teenage noir. You have a background in that back in New Zealand. You played one of three different characters named Kane on a show called Shortland Street, where you also had this inappropriate relationship with the teacher.

KJA: I did. I played a character called Kane, and he was a foster child to a family—probably some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. A soap opera is one of the fastest turnarounds in Australasia. They shoot 25 scenes a day. So that created a good foundation for my acting. There was a storyline where he found himself in a relationship with his P.E. teacher. It’s funny to be exploring that again with another character that’s completely different.

AVC: In the comics, Reggie Mantle is Archie’s rival, but that hasn’t really been developed yet on screen. Will we see more of that?

KJA: I hope so. I’m not too sure about that, but I really do hope that we get to explore that more, because that’s a really big iconic part of it as well. If anything, it’s good. It gives us something else to do in season two if we get another season.

AVC: What story from the comics world would you like to see in an upcoming episode?

KJA: I did read some of the Afterlife With Archie. I know Archie dies in that comic, but I would love to—not replicate to that extent. If we have a Halloween episode or something, I think that would be a cool thing to do. None of that supernatural stuff [though]. I don’t think that would work.

Camila Mendes

KJ Apa, Camila Mendes, and Lili Reinhart (Photo: Karen Yu/The CW)

The A.V. Club: Your character, Veronica, has been tweaked from the original, but you’re coming into this with no real preconceptions about her. Was that more challenging, or would it have been easier if you had a longer history with the character?

Camila Mendes: I find it to be a huge responsibility. But I don’t think it’s necessarily challenging. Once you start diving into the Archie comics world, it’s in your face. These characters are on the surface. They’re very easy to understand immediately. I feel like within the first five pages, I was like, “I get who Veronica is.” Once you get the gist of it, then you’re like, “Okay, what other variations of her have we seen? What other moments?” And then you see her in the more recent comics and all the spin-offs that they’ve done, and that’s important to absorb as well. But I think at the end of the day, we know we’re making a new show—we’re making something new. All we can really do is take the essence of who those characters were back in the day and bring them to life in this modern world.

AVC: Are there any other queen bee teenager roles that you drew inspiration from for this? Were you able to draw on your own high school experiences?

CM: I had a lot of influences. One of them was Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. Even when I auditioned, I remember when I first went in, I was dressed really dark, more like an edgy rocker girl from New York. They’re like, “No, no, no, this girl is preppy.” So the next day at the audition, I went with the little skirt thing, and they’re like, “Wherever you can wear pearls, wear them.” I was like, “Oh, I see.” They’re like, “Think Blair Waldorf.” So then I came up the next day looking more like Blair Waldorf. And I was like, “Okay, now I understand who she is and in the context of the characters we’ve already grown up with.” But I also, I was a big O.C. fan myself, and Rachel Bilson was one of my idols. I loved her character of Summer Roberts. In terms of Veronica’s humor, I channel Summer Roberts a lot.

AVC: Your Veronica is very different for so many reasons, one of them being that she’s not necessarily relying on money. In the comic books, you’ve got someone throwing money at all her problems, but that’s not who you play here.

CM: She’s definitely being challenged to own her strengths as a person rather than her assets, her wealth. The whole experience with Veronica having to adjust to a new life is huge. That’s how we can get away with making her a humbler character and making her more grounded in real life, more driven in that way, because she wants to prove everyone wrong about who she is, that she’s not just the spoiled girl from New York. She’s a smart girl. She’s constantly making literary references and impressing people with her wit. In that way, she’s still the same Veronica. But now she’s humble.

Marisol Nichols and Camila Mendes (Photo: Karen Yu/The CW)

AVC: In the comics, Betty and Veronica are supposed to represent two very different kinds of women. Early on, those niches were reductive, but that’s not what’s going on here. Was that change important to you when signing on?

CM: Throughout all of time, people have always asked questions of, are you Blair or Serena? Are you Charlotte or Samantha? You never do that to men. Are you a Jackie or Marilyn? There’s this instinct our society has to categorize women as certain things. “Oh, tonight your look is bad girl.” There’s only so many. There’s bad girl, good girl, what else? Where do the other ones exist? I think we’re blurring those lines a little bit. Veronica’s trying to be a good girl, Betty’s not necessarily trying to be a bad girl, but she has this urge to let loose and break away from the perfect mold. We’re taking the parts that the other one has; we’re complementing each other. I’m taking from Betty what I don’t have myself, and she’s doing the same to me.

AVC: Lili Reinhart [who plays Betty Cooper] touched on that during the panel, that the friendship is way more developed in this show than the rivalry.

CM: Oh, of course. The rivalry, it never necessarily becomes a rivalry. In the beginning, it’s like this hesitance to get to know each other because of Archie, but as soon as that’s out of the way, as soon as I’m like, “Oh, she’s end game with Archie, okay, that’s not my deal.” And again, I make that mistake at the end.

AVC: But you’re teenagers, after all.

CM: But I’m a teenager. By the end of that, in episode two, it’s all about making up. It’s all about us bringing that friendship back to life and me needing to prove to her that I am a good friend. I think that’s where the friendship can really be a friendship. It’s not a rivalry. It’s like, “You hurt me.” That’s not what rivalry is. Rivalry is two people hating each other. That moment occurred, Betty was upset with Veronica because she cares about—she was starting to care about Veronica, and was starting to enjoy her company, and then Veronica did that to her. They actually want to be friends in this one. In any other relationship where you’re trying to be friends with someone but there’s conflict, at least you both know that you want the same thing. And I think that’s what is prioritized in this season.

AVC: An upcoming episode is about slut-shaming. There’s no avoiding those kinds of timely references on a teen drama, but is that important to you? Will you guys be addressing other issues?

CM: Yes, 100 percent. Just the fact that it happens is addressing it to an extent. I grew up with that stuff, too. I’ve seen those things happen firsthand. High school wasn’t that long ago for me. I remember how awful the things that happen were, the things that girls would get shamed for. It’s humiliating. Especially in a high school world, even when those things happen, it’s not like the girls all stick together and they’re like, “Oh, you shouldn’t say that about other women.” Some girls will get down on the other girl, too: “Yeah, she’s such a slut!” People in high school are so young, and they all just want to be accepted, so they all run with whatever’s going on—the common opinion. I think what was important about this episode is that instead of the high school jumping on board with it, Betty and I gather a bunch of girls, and we’re like, “Let’s get back at them. They shouldn’t do this to us.” We’re teaming together, not just me and Betty, but all of the girls. We all have a common goal.

AVC: So does The CW feel like the right place for Riverdale?

CM: This definitely feels like the right place for it, 100 percent. It’s really funny, because in college, my people would always say—people who didn’t even know each other—separately would be like, “I can just see you on the CW.” People would say that to me. In college, me and one of my good friends had an inside joke where I’m like, “You’re the HBO to my CW.” We would always say that to each other. And eventually, I booked a CW show not too long after that, and everyone died, because they were like, “We literally have been telling you all year that you belong on The CW. We could see you playing the popular pretty girl on a CW show.” And then I’m playing Veronica.

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