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“A Dog’s Purpose” Kiwi star KJ Apa on the weirdness of working in America

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.”
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Everything’s Archie for “Riverdale” Star KJ Apa

In real life, native New Zealander KJ Apa (pictured above) couldn’t be further removed from all-American teenager Archie Andrews, the iconic character he plays in The CW’s upcoming dark drama series Riverdale.  Unlike the sun-splashed, idyllic small-town setting of the original radio drama, newspaper comic strip, comic books and 1970’s cartoon series that presented light-hearted stories about Archie and his pals ‘n’ gals, Riverdale immerses its teen inhabitants in a murky world of sex, murder, mystery and madness. Call it Dawson’s Peaks.

“I think that’s a pretty good comparison,” KJ told me during The CW’s day at TCA, where he joined his fellow castmates and the show’s producers in promoting the show (see photo below).  “I didn’t go back and watch [the cartoon series],” he said.  “I did do some research about it and learned the basics, but I didn’t draw too much from the comics, either.  This is very different and when you watch the whole series you will see that.  If we had the same situations from the comics nobody would watch.”

Everything from teacher/student relationships to mental illness to homelessness gets the Riverdale treatment providing some juicy fodder for KJ and the others to work with. But who is this guy we are supposed to accept as our new Archie?  Where did he come from?  And what will he be hiding from viewers?  I went in search of answers to these questions and others after the Riverdale session.

Archie was always somewhat of a scrawny nerd, but in Riverdale he’s quite buff.  Did you have to change your physique for the role?

KJ:  I’ve exercised my whole life.  My dad got me into it when I was young, so I’ve been training for a long time.  It was something I didn’t have to think about going in [to the show], which was good.
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