Gavin Leatherwood and I are supposed to be talking about witches and warlocks and magic and Satan, but here we are, talking about extraterrestrials. More specifically, as he puts it, that “humans are animals with a bit of alien.”
It’s early, and loud and bright in the restaurant we’re in, and I’m thrown for a loop, not least of all because I can all but guarantee we are the only two people here talking about aliens. Gavin can tell it’s taking me a moment to wrap my head around the theory, so he elaborates a bit: that it all has to do with how we think. I believe him, I think, but I have to point out, pigs can think, too. So does that mean pigs are aliens? He laughs.
It’s rude, my mom has always told me, to play devil’s advocate, but if there was ever a moment to do so, sitting across from Gavin might be it. The 24-year-old plays Nicholas Scratch in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Netflix show based on the comic book of the same name. The Sabrina series of the TGIF-era ’90s, which emphasized a bubbliness over any toil when it came to Sabrina’s teenage troubles, but CAOS forces Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina to deal directly with Satan himself, as well as Lilith and exorcisms and demons galore. If high school is hell, just wait until you enroll in the Academy of Unseen Arts.
And if there was ever anyone to embody the phrase clever as the devil and twice as pretty, it’s Nick Scratch, the warlock boy vying for Sabrina’s heart. As Nick, Gavin broods and charms his way through the Academy; he wears dark clothing and appears suddenly from dark corners, and Sabrina is never quite sure if she can trust him. Over the course of the show’s first season, we learned that Nick has a past — namely, that he’s had a fling or two with half the school — but Season 2 quickly establishes a change of pace. Nick wants, for once in his immortal life, to be a boyfriend.
“With part one, there was a really surface level to who Nick was, but going into part two, there was just this thing within Nick that drove me to really dive into the romance,” Gavin explains. That “thing” is simple enough to follow: Because Sabrina is half-mortal, she loves in a way that her fellow witches and warlocks often don’t.
In the CAOS world, the actor adds, “Witches and warlocks are much more lust-based, and very fond of the flesh, but don’t know much of the depth of romance. So the curiosity in Nick is so piqued by Sabrina that he’s like a young boy discovering all these new feelings that have just flooded him in meeting her.”
Netflix dropped Part Two in full on April 5. The nine episodes blend noir and gore and horror to expand the world of Greendale, which supposedly exists just across the river from Archie Andrews’s Riverdale. (The show was created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also brought Riverdale to life.) For all its magic and sleights of hand, the show makes plain which real-world parables it’s addressing: In the mortal Greendale, bullies target Lachlan Watson’s Theo for transitioning; shift to the magical realm, and you’ll find Sabrina and her aunts grappling with sexism from within the Church of Night, and evangelizing angels quickly exposing their own religious intolerance.
“We’re subtly — and not so subtly — touching on all of it,” Gavin explains about the show’s messages. For one, he points out, “Spirituality is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people, that’s just kind of where we’re at in society, I guess.” He also points out how CAOS gives its female characters agency that is traditionally relegated for male characters, and especially notes the ways in which Theo navigates his identity and sense of self throughout the new episodes. “I’m just really proud to be part of a show that is talking about a lot of this stuff,” he adds.
As for Nick’s trajectory, it isn’t as simple as, warlock meets girl, warlock falls for girl. The girl, it turns out, is on a quest to stop the apocalypse, and is trying to outsmart Lucifer Morningstar, Satan himself, at every turn. There’s also the matter of Sabrina’s ex-boyfriend, Harvey, and the rest of her ex-life at Greendale’s Baxter High School, which she can’t quite quit. Through it all, Nick oscillates between helping her and giving her space, but he clearly wants to learn more; at one point, he asks her to take him to Baxter’s Valentine’s Day dance, rather than partake in the Academy’s observation of Lupercalia, which is far more carnal than your average high school extracurricular.
For his part, Gavin welcomes Nick’s evolution. “This is the longest I’ve worked on one character, and going into it, I didn’t want him to just be the bad boy,” he says. But he quickly concedes that being bad has its appeal: “It’s just fun to flirt. I’m a big flirt in my life."
The similarity to Nick, he swears, ends there. A theater kid from the age of six, Gavin got his first acting break in a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons; he later appeared as John Darling in the national tour of Peter Pan. “I grew up loving fantasy and sci-fi and magic, and when I was younger I would just play on the playground during recess, and I was always a Jedi or a wizard or an elf in Lord of the Rings,” he remembers now. “I even learned some Elvish words, to that degree of dorkdom.”
He grew up in California, but his family moved to Oregon when he was 18; it was then that the actor found himself in what he calls “a weird place for a while. I hadn’t been acting for a few years, and was just working at Urban Outfitters. I was really lost and confused.” He moved to New York ”for seven months, before it chewed me up and spit me out,” he concedes, but not before he met an actor who had recently booked a TV show. “A weird light bulb just went off,” he remembers now. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, why am I not pursuing that?’”
So he went to back to Oregon, saved some money, and moved to Los Angeles. He mentions sleeping on couches and commuting to auditions, and the hustle that so many would-be actors face. When it came time to audition for CAOS, he first went in to read for Harvey, but was drawn to Nick's darkness instead.
But Gavin wouldn’t change the struggle of those first few years for anything. “The hardest part is starting,” he says. “I just wanted to give myself 110 percent to it, and I’m still doing that.” I ask him if he’s felt the tides turn — he didn’t have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers when he was cold-calling agents — and he says he has. “But I’m still processing that, for sure.”
Part of that involves the scale at which his following is growing, which he admits is daunting, especially because platforms like Instagram have a tendency to flatten people into personas. If Gavin has one, it’s more than a little philosophical; he loves Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts, and pairs selfies with introspection more often than not.
“There’s just a desire to spread a lot of love and positivity in whatever way I can,” he says, but adds that “it’s hard to give 100 percent to a large amount of people. Whatever people are seeing in me is really what they’re already seeing in themselves. So how do you show who you are in that? I don’t know yet, and if there’s a better way, or another way, or how that will progress is still an absolute mystery to me.”
And then there’s the matter of DMs, mostly from fans who want a chance with Nick Scratch IRL. “That’s the weird thing about TV versus reality,” Gavin says with a laugh. “They think you’re the character, but you’re not. I’m a dork, truly.”
Perhaps that’s why he hopes his next role, whenever it comes his way, is the warlock’s opposite: “Insecure, shy, something along those lines.” Most actors, I point out, shoot for the moon when talking about their dream roles, like James Bond. “No,” he says. “I actually would want to play the opposite.” I have a hard time picturing him as shy, especially when it feels like we’ve been conspiring across a table for the duration of breakfast. I tell him as much, so he tries to prove it to me, by making a face. It is still a charming face.
Yet before taking on those new and nerdier roles, it’s up to Gavin to unravel the tangled web Nick has spun for himself in at the end of CAOS' latest installment. (Parts three and four will begin filming at the end of the month, though their release has yet to be announced.) Because defeating the Dark Lord would naturally require more than a little sacrifice, the warlock has offered himself up in order to stave off the apocalypse, for Sabrina’s sake. Now, he must survive the literal depths of hell, until he can either break free, or Sabrina can save him — but given what evil now lies within him, perhaps his escape isn’t the best idea.
Whatever the writers have in store for Nick, Gavin is ready. “I’m still pinching myself,” he admits, reminding me it wasn’t so long ago that he had no idea what he was doing with his life, and now we’re sitting across from each other, talking about aliens and witches and his Netflix show. “I was pushed to a point where I was so unhappy that I didn’t know what I was doing. This feels like a beautiful dream.” Some people might even call that magic.