KJ APA: What’s Kiwi for Limitless?

by Charlie Wiebe


“So, we have this thing called tall poppy syndrome in New Zealand, where if you stand out, or try to be different, or try to do something new, people will just push you back down so you can be like everyone else.”

KJ Apa’s voice rings clearly and confidently across the line, traversing the thousand miles between us effortlessly. From the moment he picks up the phone, I feel that he’s speaking the truth—or at least what he knows to be the truth—in all that he says, as perhaps only the young and eager are able to. He was there (Vancouver, where he’s been subject to 16- hour days on set for Riverdale, making it a miracle that we have even this hour to speak), but it felt like he was here (the coffee shop down the block from my apartment in San Francisco). 

The Auckland native has recently become a sensation thanks to his lead role as Archie Andrews
in the CW’s Riverdale. With season three now running, Apa continues to expand upon the strong and dynamic character he worked hard to build in seasons one and two. In each episode Apa, almost effortlessly, spans a breadth of emotions with Archie, masterly pivoting from rage to love and back again as the fast-paced drama unfolds. 

In addition to acting, he continues to pursue music (guitar, specifically) in his spare time. Riverdale’s producers are no strangers to his musical abilities, as his strumming (and singing, too!) are often featured on the show. After only a brief introduction, I had already started to wonder if there was anything Apa didn’t do. 

Now, back to tall poppy syndrome, because I’m sure you’re as curious about what the hell he’s talking about as I was. 

GUESS     jacket and jeans.

GUESS jacket and jeans.

Apa continues: “Everyone wants to be normal, no one wants to stand out. Creativity and absurdity in New Zealand are almost not accepted. Everyone in New Zealand just wants to get by...like, if everything is going well the way we’re doing it, let’s just keep doing it that way, ya know what I mean? So as soon as you kind of break that consistency, people are like ‘what are you doing!?’” 

I tell him I think we all probably experience this repressed and repressive sensation in different ways throughout our lives, but I also feel that I am missing the true weight of his experience, that there is something powerful about growing up on an island where the limit of possibility does exist. Where it’s in front of you and it’s all around you and you can stare at it and see it and know it. It is the ocean, it is the sky, and it is the sun setting without pause for you, stuck on an island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

And what does this stark understanding breed? What does the absolute knowledge that there are a finite number of courses your life can take? Acceptance for many, unrest for others. Apa is clearly an Other. And one of the lucky ones too— he made it to a place where Hopes and Dreams Come True: La-La Land, The City of Sunshine and Flowers, Los Angeles. A place where non-native species are the norm; where instead of poppies, you have palm trees, themselves transplants, craning insolently upwards to absurd heights. 

“I ended up joining a talent agency in New Zealand when I was thirteen and I never worked, never got any auditions or anything, and then one day, when I was sixteen, they asked me to audition for this soap opera. I was like, Okay, I’ll give this a go. To this day I still don’t actually know why I did that, because I was so uncomfortable going in, but I still did it...I forced myself to just go and do it. Which is kind of crazy, because that decision is the reason why I’m here.” 

He got the gig, and after a few years on one of the soapier soap operas you’ve ever seen (it’s called Shortland Street, there are 6,000 episodes, and I highly encourage you to watch it), the opportunity to fly to America to audition for a part arose. And with that, Apa had left the island. Kind of. 

“I got to LA and I was like, Holy shit, I’m in a city where I can do whatever I want, dress however I want, be whoever I want to be, and no one is going to judge me. That really opened my eyes, and when I was there, I knew I wanted to stay there. LA is the city—it’s the city for me. I love LA so much.” 

We continue to talk about the opportunities Apa has had since arriving in the States; as he rattles them off, I am quietly searching for a connection between them all. Perhaps sensing my racing thoughts, or perhaps because this was a common line of question for the young actor, Apa gladly makes the connection for me: “Being from New Zealand and playing an American character is pretty much what I’ve been doing since I came to the States.” 

Upon further discussion, “pretty much” is an underestimation: Apa has actually been cast as an American high schooler in every major project he’s booked so far in the US. His first-ever audition in Los Angeles was for A Dog’s Purpose (a DreamWorks picture where Apa played
a young, small-town boy who loves his dog), and after finishing that, “I came back and immediately auditioned for Riverdale”—where Apa stars as hometown hero and jock, Archie AndrewsMost recently, Apa appears as Chris, the high school boyfriend of Starr, the heroine in George Tillman Jr.’s film adaptation of Angie Thomas’ book, The Hate U Give. Netflix’s The Last Summer will be the next opportunity for his fans to see his smile flash across the silver screen and honestly, we can’t wait. The role marks a graduation of sorts— this time around, he’ll be playing someone who navigates the tricky territory between high school and college with a group of friends. 

For a guy who tells me: “I never saw myself being an actor, I always saw myself being more of a musician, I wanted to actually play music or play rugby,” Apa sure has mastered the craft quickly, and continues to grow as new roles open up to him—this (and perhaps his looks, and charm) is precisely why he’s beloved by millions. As someone who’s followed the show since
its premiere, I feel like I’m growing and learning right alongside Apa. But is he done growing? In his position, it might be easy to settle into things, stick with what works. Is there room for this poppy to grow yet higher? 

We arrive at the time in our conversation when all writers writing about actors must ask the obligatory question: So, how do you prepare for your roles? What’s your technique? Given what I had learned of Apa thus far, I was expecting him to be a method actor through and through. He had gone beyond the limits of what he thought his life would be, saw how far that horizon stretches, and he was ready to pour his new creative energy and emotion into the work in front of him, pushing ever further. That’s why I miss a beat when he proffers his answer. 

“I think my approach to acting was always: ‘I’m only acting’. It was never fully investing emotionally... my personal life and stuff, I keep that separate to what you see on screen. But every now and then—you can’t really control it—sometimes you slip into yourself in a scene and you end up ruining it, or you end up just feeling all kinds of things...it’s hard to explain.” 

LOUIS VUITTON     windbreaker, jacket, sweater.

LOUIS VUITTON windbreaker, jacket, sweater.

Apa professes that his choice to see his work as “only acting” isn’t really a choice at all, rather a natural default setting—this is where I choose not to believe him. Not because I think he’s lying, but because he simply can’t see over the horizon to experiences unexperienced. He may be out of New Zealand, but he is still stuck on an island, somewhere. He is still a poppy being told he’s growing too tall. 

So, when Apa talks about “seeing guys who are on set who put themselves into a place emotionally where it’s like...geez man, why do you do this to yourself? Why don’t you just act? Can’t you just act?” I want to tell him maybe he just hasn’t found the right role yet, that there’s still so much room to grow, that he needn’t rule anything out. But he presses on. “I haven’t been in a position where I’ve gotten that into it. I don’t feel like I need to in order to do the story or the character justice.” I believe him when he says this. But what I also believe is that he’s been cast in roles he doesn’t feel the need to throw himself into. 

“It’s not like I was researching how to be an All-American kid...because you’re surrounded by American content in New Zealand… and that’s why the acting comes easier to Australians and New Zealanders, because the content over there is predominantly American content. We’re always listening to American music— all the hit songs are American, all the best movies are always American, the radio stations are sometimes even American...I’ve got mates who have American accents just from watching so much TV when they were little.”

For Apa, playing an American high-school football star is not the most resonant experience. Simply because he gets it. He knows how to put on the accent, play the trope, and play it well. He’s known how to do it before he ever set foot in Los Angeles. As our time together draws to a close, he recognizes this with me, acknowledging that, “I just don’t think that as an actor— who hasn’t been acting very long, who never really wanted to act—I don’t think I’m at a place where I’m ready to pour my life into a character. There will be a time and a place and a character for that, but it’s not now.” 

I have an immense amount of hope for, and confidence in, Apa as he continues to land parts and grow his career. For he is at the beginning, not the end of his journey. Rather than slipping comfortably into a role he knows he can play, he will, moment by moment, continue to grow as tall as he’s dreamed he could, without fear of being cut down. 

Photographed by Justin Campbell

Styled by Monty Jackson

Groomed by Win Liu at Lizbell Agency

Location: The Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver