It’s barely October and Madelaine Petsch has already “done five Halloween things.” A fall fanatic, she declares Halloween “everything” before rattling off a list of pumpkin-flavored food items. Yes, she loves pumpkin bread — but only if, like her, it’s vegan — and no, she doesn’t drink “PSLs” — or pumpkin spice lattes, for those not up on their beverage-related abbreviations.
“From October to Jan. 1 is, like, the best time of the year for me,” says Petsch, the words pouring out of her like, well, a PSL out of a Starbucks coffee machine. “I love Halloween, I love Thanksgiving, I love Christmas, I love New Year’s. It’s like, what more could you want in life?”
Petsch, 23, seems to be in a great space emotionally and professionally. She plays Cheryl Blossom on “Riverdale,” The CW network’s adaptation of the Archie Comics series that follows a group of high schoolers. The show — which stars K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse — has become wildly popular among the Internet-savvy teenage set, spawning endless Reddit threads on topics like which character viewers relate to the most and which leading male — Archie (Apa) or Jughead (Sprouse) — is the “hottest.”
Jughead — the brooding writer-type who narrates the show — is the foil to Archie — the sprightly, popular football player who’s good at everything he tries. The same can be said of Cheryl Blossom and Betty Cooper (Reinhart): the glamorous, rich, self-isolating mean girl vs. the peppy, all-American girl next door. Petsch actually read for both characters, but unlike the rumors online, she didn’t “almost play” Betty Cooper.
“I came in for ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ for a guest star and then they said, ‘We’ve got a great project for you. We don’t have sides for the character we want you for. Can you read for Betty?’” Petsch explains. “They wanted to introduce me to Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa], our showrunner, and the director and get me in the room with the right people. So I went to producers for Betty, yes, but they never had me in mind for Betty. I watched my Betty audition the other day and I was like, ‘This is so crazy.’ It’s wild to think about.”
Three months after reading for Betty, Petsch went back in to read for Cheryl. “The waiting game was hard,” she says, adding that she was excited to have finally found a role written for a redhead. “I was always battling the ‘there’s a brunette and there’s a blonde for this role, which is kinda what we wanted and we like Madelaine, so what do we do?’ I was not willing to dye my hair — I’m a natural redhead. If it’s the right role, yes, of course, I would shave my head, but I don’t know what role that would be. I’m still very attached to the hair.”
Hair color aside, Petsch was drawn to Cheryl’s complexities and “biting wit.” The character’s snippy one-liners, reminiscent of Chanel Oberlin’s in “Scream Queens,” are the perfect fodder for Internet memes. “It’s very obvious that [Cheryl is] a broken little girl who just needs love,” says Petsch. “Who hasn’t been in that part of their life, trying to figure out who they are? She fulfills the artist inside of me. I’ve got so many different emotions underneath the surface at any given moment as her.”
Petsch hails from Tacoma, Wash., and has dual citizenship in South Africa, where her parents are from and her extended family lives. She has “always been a performer”; she and her brother used to put on shows for their parents when they were little. “That’s how my mom realized that I really wanted to do acting,” she says. “She got me into singing classes, I did piano and guitar. My mom put me into my first play at five at a local theater and the next day after my first practice, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’”
A few months after her 18th birthday, Petsch moved to Los Angeles on Christmas Day. Her parents paid her rent for a year — their Christmas gift to her — while she auditioned and worked as both a personal assistant to a headshot photographer and a promotional model. Upon landing the part in “Riverdale,” she relocated to Vancouver, where the show films, but she often flies back to L.A. to see her boyfriend, singer Travis Mills.
Social media posts and interviews make it seem like the “Riverdale” cast has genuine chemistry off set. Petsch confirms that the friendships are real, not just for show. “We love each other. There’s no hierarchy, even with guest stars. Even if we’re working 17-hour days, we’re doing it with people that we love, so it makes it all worth it.”
Her mention of the 17-hour work days brings to mind a recent incident involving castmate Apa. In September, the actor reportedly fell asleep while driving home from a long day on set. Though he reportedly hit a lamp post, Apa was uninjured, and the accident sparked safety concerns for the rest of the cast. When asked about it, Petsch says nothing — just closes her eyes and shakes her head.
“Riverdale’s” second season, airing Oct. 11, picks up “12 or 13 minutes” after season one, which ended in Cheryl burning down her parents’ house. “People are reading the burning the house down as her being upset and that’s actually her allowing herself to be a phoenix reborn from the ashes,” Petsch explains. “She’s basically saying, ‘F you, Mom. Where you gonna live? Figure it out.’”
Petsch doesn’t give specifics about the upcoming season, but she does offer this: “There is an undercurrent of a mystery for the first half of the season that may or may not involve blood being shed — may or may not. Cheryl gets an unexpected love interest in season two, and Cheryl’s undercurrent for the season is needing love. The dynamic shifts between her and her mother — she’s standing up to the abuse. Cheryl does go through a couple dark things towards the beginning of the season and she does get a little colder and a little meaner from those things.”
With “Riverdale”‘s fan base following her and her castmates’ every move, Petsch reveals it’s hard for people to separate her from her character. “My boyfriend will attest to this: People will always scream ‘Cheryl Blossom’ at me, which is totally fine,” she says. She started a YouTube channel to allow fans to see what she’s really like — and combat online hate.
“I would read photos I was tagged in and people would be like, ‘She’s pretty, but she looks like a bitch,’” she says. “In the beginning, I was like, ‘It’s a couple people, whatever,’ but it became the popular thought and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to nip this in the bud right now and I’m going to start a YouTube channel so people can get to know that I’m a weirdo.’ Sometimes people have a hard time separating the actor from the character and that’s totally understandable, but my job is to show them that I’m not that person. That’s what the YouTube is all about. And that’s what good writing is, too. Obviously, I’m doing my job right if people actually believe it.”
So what does Madelaine Petsch the “weirdo” do for fun? Spend time with her boyfriend, work out, cook, bake, drink lots of tea and read. She also, as she’s said, obsesses over Halloween. Last year’s costume was Jessica Rabbit. What’s in store for this year?
“Poison Ivy’s a bit too on the nose,” she says. “There was one really good one somebody reminded me of that I just forgot, but I’m thinking Daphne [from ‘Scooby-Doo’] is the way to go.”
Trick or treat.
Hair by Marc Mena for Exclusive Artists Management.
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