KJ Apa beelines for the coffee as soon as he walks into our interview room at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. Minutes before, someone came into the room to make sure there was coffee in the pot; minutes after, Apa is spilling milk and apologizing profusely. He just landed in Los Angeles from Vancouver, Canada, where Riverdale films nearly year-round. (Of course, this meetup is happening a week prior to the CW pausing production over COVID-19 concerns.)
“Great start to the day, isn't it?” he jokes. It’s actually 12:30 in the afternoon, but you know how weird time can feel on travel days. Apa can be clumsy and his timing can be wonky; these quirks only add to his charm.
Any fan of the actor is familiar with his brand of charisma, highly visible in his portrayal of Archie Andrews, the amateur vigilante always trying to make his community better. It’s an earnest, do-good appeal, where sometimes he makes mistakes, but his heart is always in the right place. Apa has perfected the persona, even if he insists he can’t see it. He is “extremely critical” of himself, as many actors are. “It's not like I'm sitting there watching, going, man, I'm charming,” Apa tells MTV News.
KJ Apa and Britt Robertson as Jeremy Camp and Melissa Henning.
It makes perfect sense — we are all our own worst critics — but at the same time, it is a little hard to understand how anyone, Apa included, can avoid staring at the screen, mesmerized by his sweet sincerity. This is apparent in his latest movie, I Still Believe. In the tragic love story, Apa stars as singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp opposite Britt Robertson’s Melissa Henning, who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer shortly after their courtship begins. It's based on the true story of the Grammy-nominated artist and his late first wife, who, on screen, channels her faith to guide her through the crisis, inspiring Jeremy to do the same.
“There were moments where I saw that situation and I asked myself, damn, what would I do in that situation? How would I react?” Apa says. “Jeremy is just... He truly is a one-of-a-kind human being. When you meet him, you understand it.”
Although he aspires to love intensely and unconditionally, the way his character does throughout the film — “The purest form of love is giving yourself to someone or something and not expecting anything in return,” he says — Apa still has trouble seeing it in himself. He initially turned down the role. It took some coaxing to build his confidence.
His hesitation cropped up in a few places. He worried about the responsibility of telling a true story, and telling it well. “I didn't want to be the guy at the end of the day, if it all turned bad, then I'm the guy. It's my face all over it,” he says. And then there was the musicality of the role.
KJ Apa takes the stage as Jeremy Camp.
I know what you’re thinking, because I had the same thought: Apa is a musician — what does he have to be afraid of? He grew up playing the guitar, and he’s been showcasing his talent on Riverdale since Season 1.
“Riverdale is a perfect example of 'I'm a musician,'” Apa says. “But am I particularly enjoying the musical aspects of the project that I'm doing? Not really. I have to do it.”
Apa hadn’t dug into Camp’s discography until after he read the script, but now, he’s a fan. As a songwriter and an artist, he calls Camp “amazing,” so in this case, style was less of an issue. Apa just isn’t a singer — definitely not publicly, and not privately, either. “People just … keep forcing me to sing in all these projects.” He’d really rather just play his guitar.
Shania Twain, music legend who plays mom to Apa’s Camp, begs to differ. “He has a natural communication to the audience, to the guitar, so I thought he was amazing,” she told MTV News. And Twain has multiple Diamond-certified albums, dozens of BMI Awards, 5 Grammys, and a slew of other accolades, so that is very high praise.
Still, despite the fact that he’s been acting since he was a teen, stars in the biggest show on the CW, and leads a film of his own, Apa moves to put air quotes around the word “success” when he speaks it, changing course midway through his sentence to instead call them “achievements.”
Shania Twain and KJ Apa share a mother-son moment.
He doesn’t take any of it too seriously. Sometimes he makes up answers on the spot during interviews, especially those rapid-fire questions. (But, he assures me, he never exaggerates when he talks about the importance of moisturizing.) He feels his best when he’s just acting like a normal person: eating healthy, exercising, playing music, and looking after his friends. He holds a certain disdain for the highlight reel that Instagram has become and the comparisons it often encourages. “That’s not the shit that I care about,” he says. And even though he very much could be one of those people with the ultimate highlight reel, he’s not interested. “At the end of the day, to me, I'm living my life. You're living your life. We're all living our lives. We're all humans.”
Apa surrounds himself with people who feel the same way. It helps him stay grounded, and helps him to genuinely enjoy life — and more specifically, his life.
“The real world is right in front of me right now, with you, right now. Present,” he emphasizes. “The real world is not on our phone. It's what's going on right in front of you.”
The passion with which he says this — while maintaining perfect eye contact, no less — is exactly what makes Apa so damn charming. “I think it’s the truth,” he says. Then, after a brief pause, “But yeah,” he adds, mockingly swapping his native New Zealand accent for an American one. “I guess it's charming.”