In a different life, KJ Apa might have been an All Black. It’s every young Kiwi boy’s dream, right? But while it was mostly schoolboy, pie-in-the-sky musing, Apa was perhaps a little more equipped than most to imagine himself in a vein-bulging lather, bellowing out the haka before a Test at Eden Park.
He had pedigree – his uncle was an All Black. And thanks to his dad, a fitness nut, he’d been taught the discipline and dedication he would require if he was to make it in elite sport. Most importantly, Apa had the confidence to believe he could do anything. Which is a good thing, because that’s exactly what he proceeded to do.
“That was the first goal, to play rugby,” says Apa, who instead of rampaging toward the try line in a Bledisloe Cup decider, is talking to MH on a snowy afternoon in Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park. “I wanted to follow in my uncle’s footsteps.”
Apa is sitting on a stool nursing a coffee in front of an old blue house, looking down through the tumbling snow to where the sea would be if he could see it. It’s a rare day off from shooting on his hit show Riverdale, a soapy, subversive update of the classic Archie Comics series, in which he plays the titular character Archie Andrews.
Archie is one of the reasons Apa isn’t chasing his boyhood dreams, though the levers of fate creaked particularly hard on this one. Apa blew his first audition for the sought-after role. He was tired and jet lagged after flying in from NZ. Fortunately, the show’s creator, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, decided to give him another shot. This time he brought out his guitar and nailed it. But he’s often wondered what would have happened if he didn’t get the gig.
“I like to think I would have booked something else but maybe I would have been back on the next plane to New Zealand after a couple of weeks and back to playing rugby, trying to make that happen for myself,” says Apa, whose abbreviated nickname KJ – short for Keneti James – has the ring of stardom, whatever the field. “It was pretty much next on my list.”
Instead of 130kg props, Apa would face an equally imposing psychological foe in overnight fame and its stacked front row: money, girls, media. It can easily swallow a kid up. Heck, it almost did. Apa admits he got caught up in it all for a while there. Got caught up in himself.
“When this show first took off, being so young and getting success like that isn’t a natural thing for a human to deal with,” says Apa. “That amount of fame in such a short time. It’s easy to get distracted and get carried away. I experienced that and I’ve learned from those experiences.”
To be calling yourself out at 23 gives you an indication of Apa’s maturity. That could be due to where he came from: the suburbs of Auckland, descended from Samoa, where his dad was a ‘matei’ or village chief. They’re places most Hollywood casting agents regard as nowhere. “Nobody even knows what Samoa is over here,” he says.
The ambition and drive Apa once poured into rugby are now channelled toward another dream, one even more rarefied, possibly more cutthroat. One where he’s needed the values impressed upon him by his parents to survive the parts of the dream no one tells you about.
How the glare of the public eye can create a suffocating sense of loneliness. How the pursuit of success is inherently solitary. How much you’ll have to sacrifice. And, perhaps most importantly of all, just how easy it is to forget where you came from.
“I think you come to the realisation that things are getting out of hand when you lose gratitude,” Apa says quietly. “Whenever I’m at a point where I’m not stepping into gratitude every day is when I know that I’m getting carried away.”
It’s a pretty handy way to stay in possession of yourself, whether you’re 23 or 93, a somebody or a nobody, or even, as Apa once was, you’re a nobody from nowhere, who dreams of going somewhere.
From the cold dark winter of Vancouver, where Apa works 13-hour shifts that often run through the night, his childhood back in NZ seems impossibly idyllic and carefree. “Growing up in New Zealand was the best, man,” he says eagerly. He remembers playing rugby on the beach at lunchtimes with his mates. “It really brings up a lot of emotion.”
He lived in a suburb outside of Auckland and caught a train and a bus to attend a high school that was all boys until Year 11. “I remember sitting in class with girls for the first time and being like, ‘Oh, my God. This is crazy’.”
Things were about to get crazier. Apa’s sister was on the books in a modelling agency. Her agent saw him and asked if he’d be interested in auditioning for a TV show because he looked like one of the show’s female characters and the producers were looking to cast her brother.
“I’d never done an audition in my life and never even really thought about acting,” Apa says. “I thought, ‘Fuck it, why not?’” He got his lines while on a camping trip with his mates and woke up at 2am to rehearse them in peace.
The show was Shortland Street, NZ’s answer to Home and Away. It was a life-changing opportunity – just how so, Apa would only appreciate later. Everything that came after started then. His fame in NZ grew quickly. “It’s not the same as over here but it’s still something as a 16-year-old,” he says. Suddenly he was a somebody.
From there he landed a role in a film called A Dog’s Purpose and headed to LA, where he began doing rounds of auditions, a prospect few actors enjoy. Apa saw them as a challenge.
“I fucking loved it, bro, even as a grom in LA. I loved how nervous I got because I was excited to go in there and I knew I had what it takes. I was fearful but it almost made it more exciting to me. Not being cocky, but I knew I was capable of doing whatever anyone needed of me. I backed myself.”
The fearlessness of youth. The fact that he had nothing really to lose yet. He took rejections on the chin. Moved on to the next one. Wasn’t meant to be.
“The only way I know how to take that is, ‘I’m just not the right person for the role’,” he says. “It could have been because I wasn’t good enough. It could have been because I didn’t look right for the part.”
The irony: he got his break on Shortland Street, precisely because he ‘looked right for the part’.
Swings and roundabouts. The levers of fate. In a further irony, the part he ended up getting was one he didn’t actually look right for; Apa has to dye his naturally dark hair every two weeks to achieve Archie’s iconic copper mane.
But if he hadn’t landed Riverdale, chances are it would have been something else. There’s an irrepressible quality to Apa. Sooner or later, you think, he would have been the ‘right person’.
Riverdale would make Apa a teen heart-throb. It would create opportunities he’d only dreamed about. He’d never be nobody from nowhere again.
“I’m extremely competitive. In my head I’m always trying to be the best”
APA-TITE FOR COMPETITION
Five-and-half seasons in, Apa and the rest of the Riverdale cast are best mates. They’d want to be, working in close quarters 10 months a year. It’s both a whirlwind and a grind, a period they already know they'll look back on fondly, like their ‘uni days’.
“We talk about that all the time because it has been a hell of a ride,” he says. “Don’t get it twisted, though. The show is gruelling. It’s like a machine.”
Just how demanding that workload can be was highlighted in 2017 when Apa was lucky to escape serious injury after he fell asleep at the wheel on his way home from a long day on set. At the time he said he made a mistake in attempting to drive home and should have pulled over to sleep. Another lesson, perhaps, from this deeply formative period.
Apa can sound conflicted about the Riverdale experience. It both confines him and provides the platform that allows him to pursue more creatively meaningful projects. “As soon as the season’s over it makes me hungry to sink my teeth into something more meaty and just different, honestly,” he says.
Last year he appeared in I Still Believe, a romantic drama about contemporary Christian music singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp. It was the moment he realised what he was capable of as an actor.
“Just feeling true emotions directly drawn from the story and not my own experience was a new thing for me,” he says. It was also an opportunity to develop a character and realise a full narrative arc, one of the reasons he likes movies more than TV. Given how wildly unpredictable the plot lines on Riverdale can be you can hardly blame him.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he laughs. “I got attacked by a fucking bear in one scene that I had no idea was going to fucking happen to me.”
Also last year, in the middle of the pandemic, he made Songbird (in cinemas later this year), a sci-fi thriller based on COVID-19, in which the virus has mutated into COVID-23. The experience whet his appetite for action – Lord knows he’s got the rig for it. “Just the physicality of that movie and the physicality of the character were really, really fun,” he says.
As well as scratching his creative itch, these off-season gigs give Apa fodder to banter with his Riverdale mates, particularly Charles Melton, who plays Reggie Mantle in the show.
“I’m extremely competitive, but not in a loud way,” he says. “In my head I’m always trying to be the best. I’ve always been like that. And it’s funny, because Charles and I are best friends, but we are so fucking competitive with each other. He’ll be like, ‘Oh, I see you’re meeting for that movie’, and I’m like, ‘Yeah’, and I can tell when I’m looking in his eyes what he’s thinking. I’m the same way with him. It’s just the nature of this industry that you have to compete against your friends.”
Confidence and competitiveness. They’re powerful traits, but ones it can often feel uncomfortable to acknowledge. The truth? You aren’t getting out of nowhere without them.
A STAR IS TORN
Apa’s abdominal section is the subject of considerable interest among his young fans online, his Insta account a place those with particularly parched eyeballs like to congregate. Apa can probably thank his dad, not only for the genetic royal flush, but also for instilling an appreciation for the value of shifting iron.
“My dad worked out like a madman,” he says. “He’s a big boy, too”. At 11 years old, Apa began a gruelling daily regimen in the family’s backyard gym, recalling with fondness the rigour of the sessions and the rudimentary nature of the set-up. “It’s this garage with no walls,” he says. “A lot of the metal is rusted. At nights we had to cover everything with a tarp because the tin roof leaked when it rained.”
His dad also made him knock out a five-kay run every day, riding alongside him on a bike. It paid off: Apa won his school cross country eight years in a row. While he often chafed against the relentlessness of the regimen, he’s grateful now for what it built within him.
“That’s how I got that level of motivation and commitment when it comes to working out,” he says. And in the crucible of the spotlight, it’s provided him with an outlet to escape the stress of his work and the heat of his burgeoning fame. “It’s become one of the biggest parts of my life in staying grounded in this industry,” he says. “I’m so thankful for my desire to be physical and train my body. It’s something I need at the end of a hard day.”
There’s unlikely to be any Christian Bale-type body transformations popping up on Apa’s IMDB. If not a temple, he regards his body as a fortress that needs protecting. “I think I value the health of my body over my career,” he says. “Health is a long game and I’m trying to live long.” What about stacking on muscle for an action flick? “That I would enjoy,” he says. “I would do that in a heartbeat.”
As it is, right now he favours high-intensity training in which he keeps his heart rate up, with minimal rest (see box, “Abs, Pecs, Arms”). “Just because it completely fucks me up,” he explains. He and Melton often work out together after a day of shooting, pushing each other to exhaustion. “We’re so competitive that we’re almost vomiting after every workout. It’s so good.”
You hear that and you think maybe Apa really could have been an All Black. That he would have relished the intensity, thrived under discipline. The thing is, though, if top-level rugby truly had been an option, he might have preferred to pull on the Royal blue jersey of Manu Samoa. Certainly, whenever Samoa played the All Blacks, there was no doubt who Apa was cheering for.
It raises the question of identity, often a shapeshifting, elusive concept for someone of mixed race (Apa’s mother is of European ancestry). In North America, everyone regards Apa as a Kiwi. Yet he himself has always identified as Samoan. He has Samoan tribal tattoos (along with a bee in tribute to his grandmother and a Van Halen logo).
“i’ve never been so sure of anything in my life... I want to be a father”
And he used to visit the country regularly. “Growing up I saw myself as Samoan,” he says simply. “That was it. Period. Because the majority of my family were Samoan. People were speaking Samoan around me all the time. But since I left I really miss that side of me. It almost seems foreign to me now because I haven’t been surrounded by the culture anymore. I miss it so much and I worry that I’ll lose that part of me if I don’t get back in touch with it soon.”
If Dwayne Johnson’s career is anything to go by, guys with Samoan heritage have a pretty good track record in Hollywood. And while Apa probably wouldn’t mind emulating The Rock’s career path, particularly his action blockbusters, there’s something else he would elevate even above that. “I really admire actors who are able to have families while travelling the world, making amazing movies and doing what they love,” he says. “That’s something I really respect.”
The loneliness of his journey is something Apa returns to throughout our discussion. It’s something he’s felt even more keenly in the past year due to COVID. But it’s been gnawing away inside him since the first season of Riverdale, when he began to realise just how much he’d have to sacrifice in order to pursue his career. “That was the first inkling I had of having to let go of time with my family,” he says. “That’s when it became real to me.”
Apa’s lived away from home for over six years now. He feels that time and distance like a constant ache. But it’s that ache that ultimately grounds him. Lose it and he loses everything. “It’s weird when I go back now,” he says. “I feel like I don’t fit in as much because I’ve been gone for so long. It’s a really worrying feeling to me for the first couple of days, because I’m like, ‘Fuck, I’m not the same as these people anymore’. I’ve been through so many different experiences to the people who grew up with me.”
Which is perhaps why he’s been feeling the desire to start a family so acutely. In fact, it was his original dream, before rugby, before acting and before music, his other great love. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life, other than the fact that I want to be a father,” he says. That desire is only heightened by the often superficial nature of life in the spotlight. “It’s a lonely place, this industry,” he says. “Human interactions are no longer the same for me. I’m searching. I’m searching for genuine relationships with people who genuinely care about me and who I care about, not because of who I am or who they are.”
He pauses for a long time before returning to the subject of family. “I don’t want to be lonely for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m looking around me at people doing what I’m doing, putting everything into their careers and into fame and into themselves. I’m guilty of the same thing but I look around and I’m like, ‘Wait, what’s the point of all this if you can’t share it with anyone other than yourself and your friends?’ It becomes meaningless. I’d be willing to drop acting and all of this if I had a beautiful family. If I had to do it, I would do it.”
That’s right; he’d go back to being nobody from nowhere... and he’d have, if not everything, enough.