Why ‘Riverdale’ heartthrob KJ Apa embraced the Christian themes of ‘I Still Believe’

KJ Apa
KJ Apa is the latest “Riverdale” star to try his hand at movie stardom.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When KJ Apa receives movie scripts from his agents, he assesses the screenplays with the following questions in mind:

1) Will this role allow me to keep my shirt on?

2) Can this film be shot in my two-month hiatus from “Riverdale”?

Usually, the answers to these queries are negative. Ever since he started playing all-American jock Archie Andrews on the CW teen drama three years ago, Apa said he’s mostly been offered roles that require him to show off his body. Or if they don’t, the projects are set to film while the 22-year-old is contracted to be in Vancouver, where his television show is produced.


“I Still Believe,” however, was the rare movie that would allow him to remain fully clothed and adhere to his strict work schedule. Yet he turned down the film — which opened Friday — twice.

“I didn’t really back myself, to be honest,” said Apa, a native Kiwi who masks his New Zealand accent on “Riverdale.” “I saw some of the emotional scenes and I was like, ‘Guys, I don’t know if I have the ability to do this.’ I saw how sensitive the story was, and I didn’t want to have that responsibility. If I messed it up, it would have been all on me.”

The film is, in a word, heavy. It’s based on the true story of Jeremy Camp, a Christian singer-songwriter who married his college sweetheart only to find out after their honeymoon that her ovarian cancer was terminal. The directors, Jon and Andy Erwin, are brothers who have made a handful of faith-based films — most notably 2018’s low-budget “I Can Only Imagine,” which became a surprise mainstream hit, grossing $86 million worldwide.

While no one involved could have predicted the movie’s release would be tested by the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak (and these interviews were conducted before the crisis was declared a pandemic), “I Still Believe” remains on track to be the weekend’s biggest new opening, with more than $10 million in ticket sales expected.

Apa is not outwardly religious. On “Riverdale,” his character has premarital sex, gets into fistfights and, yes, is frequently shirtless. But the actor was raised in a Christian household, attending church with his family. That wasn’t something the Erwins were aware of when they thought of Apa for the role.

“We don’t generally require people who work with us — either in front of the camera or behind it — to share our worldview,” Jon Erwin said. “All we care about is that you buy into the story and give it your all. But we came to find out KJ does have an incredible faith background from his childhood, and he drew on that in a very powerful way. I think there’s an added authenticity because he is close to the source material.”


Andy Erwin acknowledged that after casting Apa he heard from many industry colleagues who were shocked the film had landed one of the hottest stars in young Hollywood.

“When KJ signed on, people were amazed, like, ‘Oh my God, they got KJ Apa?’” he recalled. “But I think the stigma toward faith-based films is really loosening. The success of other films in the genre has been opening up the doors for agents to realize this is a viable audience. A lot of young actors gravitate towards the inspirational tones of our storytelling.”

Apa said he viewed the film more as a love story than a faith-based tale. But “I Still Believe” does not stray from religious messaging. During his concerts, Apa’s character asks his fans to pray over his ailing fiancée (played by Britt Robertson), and the end of the film points viewers toward a website where they can have “a conversation about hope and faith.”

“God created you to be in perfect relationship with Him, but our sins fracture that relationship and separate us from Him,” reads the message on the homepage of “We can only be forgiven and reconciled back to God through a relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ. We want to help you learn more about what He has done for you and how He wants to be part of your life.”

KJ Apa at Comic Con in 2019.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Camp, who spent the majority of the eight-week shoot on set in Alabama, said he hopes the movie will lead nonbelievers toward Christianity.

“I’m not gonna be shy in that at all,” said the Grammy-nominated musician, who has had four RIAA-certified gold records. “I went through a really hard time, and how I got through it was my faith in Jesus. So if someone is going through a rough time and sees how I did it — if I can encourage someone to find the hope of Jesus in that? Absolutely. That’s not a question. If you want to know my goal, I want people to say: ‘I want to know more about what he ran to.’”

On set, Apa said, he relied on faith to get him through moments of self-doubt. Before filming would begin most days, Andy Erwin would come into his trailer to pray for him.

“Just pray for strength and to thank God for the opportunity,” Apa said, fumbling with a box of American Spirits. “Do you mind if I have a cig?”

He was sitting outside at the Bourgeois Pig coffee shop last weekend, having flown to Los Angeles for a whirlwind visit to promote the movie in his limited time off from “Riverdale.” Just a few days later, production on the CW show would be shut down due to coronavirus. But on this Sunday, Apa was relishing what he imagined would be only a precious few hours in town. He moved to L.A. when he was 18 but only recently put down roots here, purchasing a home in Nichols Canyon.

“I came right to this shop after putting the offer down on the house to meet up with Cole,” he said, referring to costar Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead on “Riverdale.” “I was like, ‘Bro, I’m super pumped. I just put an offer in on a house.’ And he’s like, ‘Really? No way, me too.’ I’m like, ‘Sick, where’s yours?’ He says Nichols Canyon. And I’m like, ‘Me too. Let me see your house.’ We put the same offer in on the same house on the same day. And we couldn’t believe it. And then he was like, ‘Take it, bro. Take it.’ Cole’s a legend.”

Like Apa, Sprouse has tried his hand at movie stardom. Last year, he starred in a non-religious movie about two teen lovers torn apart by illness, “Five Feet Apart.” That movie collected $91 million worldwide, far more than the paltry $6.7 million gross of “The Sun Is Also a Star,” the 2019 young adult romance starring “Riverdale’s” Charles Melton. The show’s female stars, Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes, are also trying to make the jump to film, though so far they have had only supporting roles on the big screen.

“All of us want to shoot movies,” said Apa, who said he began receiving movie offers after the second season of the show. “I think we’re all, in a way, craving to work on other things because we’re stuck in Vancouver on the show. Which is great — we all love working on the show. But we’re all craving something else to bite into. It’s awesome that we can do that too, because I don’t know if that’s common that a lot of TV actors can funnel into film that easily. I was always kind of scared of that, like, ‘Man, I hope I can shoot movies, because I don’t want to be pegged as Archie for the rest of my life.’”

Though he wouldn’t get into the specifics of his contract — which he said is the same for all of the show’s leads — Apa said he’ll be on “Riverdale” for the next three years. Because the job takes up 10 months of his time, he feels pressure to work on outside projects during his hiatus. Last Sunday, he said he had 24 more hours to decide whether or not to sign on to a movie role opposite a “really cool person” in his off time.

“The opportunity would be cool, but I’m also like, ‘Is it worth it? Should I just chill for two months?’” he wondered aloud. “I feel like I just need to chill. I feel so burnt out. I feel so tired. But there’s also that thing of like, I need to keep working. I’m young. This is my prime time. This is what everyone’s telling me, at least, that this is my prime time and I need to keep working. They don’t tell me that I have to work, but I can hear it in their voices when they’re like, ‘This is a great opportunity.’ I mean, they always want me to work, because they’re earning money off me too.”

As if on cue, a SUV pulled off the road and parked in front of the cafe. A tiny girl and her mother emerged, hesitantly approaching Apa’s table.

“I’m shaking,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Riverdale.’ Oh, my gosh. Can we take a picture with you?”

Apa happily obliged, asking the girl her name and age.

“Nine?” he said, as she ran back to her car. “Nine-year-olds shouldn’t be watching ‘Riverdale.’ I wasn’t allowed to watch that kind of [crap] when I was 9. I wasn’t even allowed to watch ‘The Simpsons’ when I was a kid because it was rude.”

Apa has his biggest film role to date in "I Still Believe," playing a Christian singer-songwriter who falls in love with a woman with terminal cancer.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Apa grew up in Auckland, where he began playing guitar when he was 11. He got a music scholarship to a private high school and spent his spare time performing in jazz and reggae bands. As a teenager, his mom suggested he go out for a few modeling gigs, and the agency ended up sending him on an audition for New Zealand’s most popular soap opera, “Shortland Street.” In 2013, he landed a part on the show, where he stayed for two years until decamping for Hollywood.

“I always knew I was going to leave New Zealand, even as a kid,” Apa said, lighting another cigarette. “It was just a feeling. I don’t want to sound cocky by saying, ‘I knew I was going to be a star,’ because it’s not like that, but I knew I was going to do something big. I knew I wasn’t going to do anything normal.”

Apa is optimistic that “I Still Believe” will show his acting range — that he “can be more than just the pretty boy.”

“I’m hoping this movie is gonna change that,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of.”

When he envisions his career, he said he’d like to emulate Brad Pitt — someone who started out primarily recognized for being handsome but quickly proved his legitimate acting chops. Unlike Pitt, however — who last month picked up the supporting actor Oscar — he has never dreamed of winning an Academy Award.

“I don’t even think I’m capable of that. I don’t see myself on that level even close yet. Yet. But I started this movie being terrified — almost not gonna do it — and coming out the other side being so proud and happy with myself of the work that I did. As an actor, I haven’t felt that proud of myself, ever.”