KJ Apa has kissed a girl with her face smeared in chicken fat. It’s not what it sounds like.
The girl was actress Britt Robertson, and they were filming a scene for feature A Dog’s Purpose. Their characters, teenagers Ethan and Hannah, share a kiss in the back of a car. Ethan’s dog Bailey decides to get in on the action, running his slobbery tongue up the side of Hannah’s face. When filming, the only way to convince canine actor Trip to do his part was to wipe chicken fat on half of Robertson’s face. Apa concedes it was “not very romantic at all”.
Apa has had to quickly get used to situations like this. Within just over a year the 19-year-old has gone from Shortland Street to A Dog’s Purpose to US teen drama Riverdale. He seems to be cruising down the road to genuine stardom. Like many Kiwi actors who have gone on to experience overseas success, for Apa it all started at Shortland Street. He played Kane Jenkins on the show from 2013 to 2015, his first acting experience.
Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, Apa says he has nothing but good memories of his time on the soap – he just wishes he took it a little more seriously. “I didn’t really treat it with that much respect, if I could go back in time I would for sure put a lot more effort into it. I was new to acting, I had no idea what I was doing, and I was just having fun.”
Towards the end of Apa’s time on the show, he began sending self-takes to audition for overseas productions. While the tapes didn’t score him any acting gigs, they did help him make connections in the industry. He mined those connections on a subsequent trip across the Pacific, where he auditioned for a range of projects including A Dog’s Purpose.
Apa talks about his success with a typical Kiwi humbleness: “I ended up just kind of getting lucky, and I booked it, came home for a bit and then flew out to Canada to shoot for three months.”
He was more nervous than excited to be starting his first international production. “I overwhelmed myself, for sure, when I really did not need to,” he says. “I was almost like, ‘S…, maybe I’m not right for this’. But then I just thought, ‘Nah, it’s no different to being on anything else’.
“We look at these American projects, these massive studios like Universal and Dreamworks and stuff, and we see them as things that aren’t of this world, you know what I mean? They’re out of reach. But really it’s like any other set. People make mistakes, they’re just human, and it’s really not that different to being on Shortland Street.”
In the end, the three months Apa spent on A Dog’s Purpose were a time he volunteers as his favourite filming experience to date. Part of that was down to director Lasse Hallstrom, a veteran of family-friendly animal flicks, who created a “really loving vibe” on set. “He is a very, very patient guy, and the kindest man as well,” Apa says.
Hallstrom encouraged the cast to film an improvised version of their scenes alongside the scripted one – a new challenge for Apa, who had no previous improvisation experience. Not only was he coming up with lines on the spot, he was speaking in a midwestern American accent and trying to adapt to a whole new frame of cultural references.
Co-star Robertson, who at 27 has more than 40 credits under her belt, helped Apa adapt to the production’s demands. “She was amazing. She was great. She knew that it was my first film as well, so she was helping me out a bit. And obviously you’re there for three months, and you don’t really have anyone else to hang with, so we were hanging out a lot. And that’s kind of the other thing I learned, you’re on these projects and you meet these people and you get really close with them and then you never really see them probably for the rest of your life.”
He also had to spend time bonding with his other co-star – Trip, the dog who plays his on-screen pet, Bailey. It was important for Trip to bond with Apa so their relationship would appear natural on camera. They both had to learn Bailey’s signature trick, which involves jumping off Ethan’s back to catch a ball.
Apa, a self-confessed dog lover, says Trip was the “literally the most intelligent dog I have ever seen in my whole life”. As Apa’s career has gained traction across the Pacific, he’s had to get used to working on American sets. He says he has experienced more “drama” on overseas productions. “Being from New Zealand, we don’t really like that kind of stuff, you know what I mean? That’s a pretty general statement, but … I’ve found that there’s a lot of unnecessary drama.”
“That could be just working in tight proximity to these people for long periods of time. But there’s definitely something different about the way things are in New Zealand and the way things are over here. Working on Shorty was so, so chill, you know what I mean? We were able to get all this work done but have a laugh every single minute of the day.”
He has also had to come to terms with having a fan base. The role on Riverdale, in particular, has turned Apa into something of a teen heart-throb. Apa’s Shortland Street performances drew the attention of some female fans, but the scale of Riverdale is completely different. “It seems the American fans are a lot more intense, you know what I mean? They kind of become almost obsessed. It’s kind of scary.
“It gets gnarly at times, but I think you can’t pay too much attention to the social media stuff, it can become dangerous if you’re reading too much, because there’s always bad stuff. There’s good stuff but there’s always going to be bad stuff. You do get gutted.”
Apa was “gutted” during backlash over the perceived maltreatment of one of the animal actors on A Dog’s Purpose. Footage leaked from the set and shared by animal rights group PETA appeared to show Hercules, a German shepherd, being forced to jump into a pool of water. American media pounced on the story and despite sharing no screen time with the animal in question, Apa was subject to online abuse, including death threats.
He turned to Riverdale co-star Luke Perry, who plays his character’s father on the show, for advice. Perry, who had a similar taste of stardom on 90s teen drama Beverly Hills 90210, told him not to worry. “He said, ‘Y’know, this kind of thing happens all the time, it’s nothing to do with you.’ But I went to him and I spoke to him and he helped me.”
“He’s the biggest legend, and obviously he went through the whole thing on a way bigger scale than even Riverdale, you know Beverly Hills 90210 was massive, so I think he is the best guy to talk to, and I’m really close with him.”
A subsequent investigation concluded that safety measures on the set of the film were in place and the video had been deliberately edited to mislead the public. If Apa career continues its upwards trajectory, it’s probably not the last time he’ll have to deal with controversy around a project he’s involved in, so he’s glad the A Dog’s Purpose furore provided him an opportunity to learn how to deal with the perils of the film industry.
In the meantime, Apa seems remarkably unaltered by his success. He answers his phone with a typically Kiwi, “Hey, mate,” and signs off: “Okay, bro. Talk to you soon.”