You might think you know Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead from their 75-year-old comic book history, but the CW’s new drama Riverdale is exploring a much different side to these classic characters.
While the new show is set in and around the lives of the four famous characters, beginning in high school, this first season revolves mainly around a murder mystery plot. There is plenty of “normal” high school drama and teenage angst, but this modern interpretation of the comics also covers topics like social justice issues, sexuality and feminism — a story arc the young cast members couldn’t wait to dive into and of which they’re all proud to be a part.
In celebration of tonight’s (Jan. 26) series premiere, here are five things to know about the show’s stars: KJ Apa (Archie), Lili Reinhart (Betty), Cole Sprouse (Jughead), Camila Mendes (Veronica) and Madeline Petsch (Cheryl Blossom).
1.KJ Apa is a real-life musician
The New Zealand-born Apa, 19, knew there were a lot of actors vying for the Archie role (this new Archie is an aspiring musician), so he pulled out all the stops during the audition process.
“I started learning the guitar when I was 11 and that became a really big part of my life,” Apa tells PEOPLE. “I went to my screen test and took my electric guitar and an amp and it was a big theater full of producers and executives and I played them Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and I sang as well.”
Apa wasn’t told specifically that it helped him clinch the role, but he says he thinks his performance “locked it in.”
2. The cast gets along so well some of them are roommates
“I can’t even describe how lucky we are,” says Lili Reinhart of the real-life friendship among the cast members. “I feel like this is rare, what we have with each other is rare. I live with Madeline, that’s proof!”
Ohio native Reinhart, 20, who considers wearing Betty’s iconic blonde ponytail as “a badge of honor,” says she and Petsch are a roommate match made in heaven.
“After we were done filming the pilot, we both live in L.A. and we realized we live a mile away from each other,” she recalls. “We started hanging out over the summer and were like ‘let’s live together in Vancouver,’ and the rest is history. And Camila, I’m so happy she’s my partner in crime in all of this. We’re really — she’s wonderful. I’m very glad to have her as my other half.”
3. Former child actor Cole Sprouse was working in archaeology before Jughead came along
Sprouse, 24, who many will remember as one of the stars of Disney’s TV series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, took a much-needed break from acting to go to college. Sprouse attended NYU and graduated with a degree in geographic information systems and satellite imaging.
“I had a job right after college,” he says. “I put it all to use for archaeology, I was doing cultural resource management for awhile, essentially bagging and tagging artifacts we had found for collections at museums.”
Sprouse’s job took him all over the world and would have kept him away from acting if Riverdale had not come along.
“I [traveled] to Germany, France, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece,” he says. “I was supposed to go to Egypt and Mongolia, but they both fell apart for political reasons and it was what I needed. I would be doing that right now if I hadn’t got the show.”
The actor says Jughead appealed to him because he’s so damaged and a loner. He’s also the narrator of the show.
“He’s a Holden Caulfield-type for sure,” Sprouse says. “He just wants to be loved really bad, like honest real care and tenderness. I think that part of Jughead exists within all of us and it’s nice to channel that. Jughead is very different from something I’ve played before, he’s interesting and he’s just a lot of fun to play.”
4. Landing the role of Veronica is Camila Mendes’ first professional acting gig
Though she’s brand new to Hollywood, the Miami-based Mendes, 22, says she grew up acting.
“As a kid, I put on plays for my parents. My sister would write them and I would be in them. I was a very performative child,” Mendes says. “My mom started to notice that I was participating in a lot of plays in elementary school. I went to a high school that wasn’t a performing arts high school, but it valued the arts very much and they put a lot of money in it and brought people in for scholarships to go there, so I was surrounded by all these talented young actors and that really inspired me and made me think of it as a profession.”
Mendes attended and recently graduated from NYU, where she studied theater and occasionally crossed paths with her future costar.
“I’ve seen [Sprouse] at parties,” she says. “We never really spoke, he was the weird dude with long hair, he had like a ponytail down to his butt, I always make fun of him for it. Like, ‘Cole I’d see you around on campus and thought you were really weird.’ He’s like ‘Yeah, you and everyone else.’ “
Mendes admits that she’s “the greenest” of her costars when it comes to acting experience and had to go undergo months of auditions.
“I was auditioning for this while I was still in school,” says Mendes. “It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but so worth it.”
5. No, the new Archie is not a natural redhead (but Cheryl is!)
While Apa’s natural hair color is dark brown, he’s enjoying his ginger existence, save for the hours spent at the beauty salon.
“I am enjoying it!” Apa says of his dyed red hair and eyebrows. “Only 2 percent of the population has red hair so I feel special. I’m so used to it now. I usually have dark brown hair so I can’t even remember what I looked like before. But I swear to you, sitting in that salon for two and a half hours every two weeks is not fun. [They use] bleach as well. I’m probably going to be bald by the end of the series.”
Apa hopes the series’ powers that be will let him wear a wig if they get a second season. “I don’t want to go bald,” he jokes.
Riverdale premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CW.