In the comics, Cheryl Blossom is a redheaded siren with often devilish charms who frequently threatens to tempt Archie Andrews away from his usual back-and-forth with Betty and Veronica.
On The CW’s “Riverdale,” however, Cheryl’s a full-fledged, queen bee mean girl, lashing out in every direction since the death of her beloved brother Jason -- and actress Madelaine Petsch tells CBR she’s loving dishing out Cheryl’s disses.
CBR: Given your generation, did you know anything about Archie Comics, other than it was a thing that existed somehow?
Madelaine Petsch: Do you remember the Sunday strips? My dad used to pull those out for me every single morning. That was my relationship to “Archie” for the most part, just the Sunday strips. I had no idea who Cheryl was. She wasn’t really that prevalent in the comics, and then I read the script and I was like, “Whoa. She’s a big character. I need to get to know her.” So I made my own Cheryl. Not a lot to work with, so I made my own.
Did you try to do a little more research once you knew that that was your role?
I didn’t. Comics are so one-dimensional, especially “Archie.” The old “Archie” girls are all about boys, and laughing, and whatever, and that’s not what this show is about. It’s about so much more than that.
I wanted to bring a realness to her and make her three dimensional. I didn’t really want to make her anything like the comics, other than in the respect that I look like her, yes, and she is the mean girl, yes, and she’s rich, yes. But those are all things that are brought to me by the writers. I got to do all these other things and make her a real person.
What were the little touches that you wanted to contribute to her?
The most important thing that I needed to do after reading the script was make her human. She’s very witty and quick and sharp, and mean, and she drives the knife in. I really wanted to make people see the other side of that coin, how she’s actually really broken, and the loss of her brother and how it affects her.
So yeah, she can be driving a knife into your stomach, but she’s actually extremely emotional and hurt in this moment, and the anger comes from a place of hurt, not a place of anger. That was really important to me from the very, very beginning.
Most actors would say that this is the role you want with material like this. This is the lady you want to play.
Tell me about having fun with the “mean girl” aspect of Cheryl.
They make is so easy because the writing is so witty and so funny, that when I read a script, I’m dying of laughter the whole time. I get the best lines! It is a lot of fun, but I love everybody who I’m mean to. So after we’re done with a take, I’m like, “I love you guys!”
But it is really fun to go from here to here, to here. I’m always changing levels. I’m always changing where I’m at in the world that we live in. I almost feel like she’s got a little like mental imbalance, or something. She’s always going from different levels of happy to sad to angry to mad to mean. It’s really fun.
Tell me about peeling back the layers and figuring out where you were starting, as far as who you were presenting her as, and who she is as we learn more about her and start to feel a little more empathy for her – even though she’s pretty wicked.
Wicked is the perfect word for her. I started with the family, because the first episode she loses Jason. I started with that relationship and I moved forward from there. I learned a lot about her in the pilot. She might put on the facade during all of her speeches about him or whatever that he was the love of her life, or her soulmate of whatever, but that’s really true. He was the only person who unconditionally loved her, the only person who cared about her, who showed her any sort of empathy or love.
Her parents are terrible to her. Her relationship with her parents is awful, so she lost that buffer. Then, I moved into my relationship with my parents -- Nathalie and Barclay, who play my mom and dad -- and I sat there and I’m like, “What is it like in our family and our house? What is a dinner like?” Quiet. You can hear a pin drop at our dinners. We don’t have communication. I wasn’t the golden child – Jason was. My parents always hated me from the get-go. My parents have a company that Jason was going to take over.
It was all about building the family, and then from there, I totally understood why she was the way she was to other people because if you don’t have that home base, if you don’t have that love and the functionality of a home base, you’re not able to go out in the world and have a functional relationship with another human. I totally understood it from there.
Let’s talk about the physical transformation and trying to get where she is in the show, but also approximate the Cheryl Blossom that the fans are looking for.
She’s definitely like the babe on the show, right? Padded bras, heels, tight skirts, tight outfits. Everything’s very tight and fitted, very sexy, and it’s all bright red. Always this color nails, always the toenails, everything’s bright red. Her wardrobe is phenomenal. I would die for her wardrobe.
Did you take to it right away? Or did you like, “Is this me that I’m looking at in the mirror?”
Oh, I loved it. I get to wear the best designers. I love her wardrobe. I never wore red before this show. In fact, when they called me when I booked the show they’re like, “Any colors you don’t like on yourself?” I was like, “Orange and red.” They’re like, “You’re referred to as the Red Queen on the show, so red’s kind of a theme you’re going to have to go with.” I was like, ‘Guess I’m doing it!”
Now, I love red on myself. It’s always been really fun. We dress so differently and we are so different, that the minute I put on her outfit and I get my hair done and I get my heels on, I’m Cheryl. There’s no doubting it.
Did you have much familiarity with that sort of small town Americana with its darker corners?
I’m from a small town with not a lot of dark corners, but I’m from a small town in Washington State. I dealt with it in different ways. The kind of darkness that I saw was like dance moms being nice to your face and then talking crap behind your back kind of stuff.
I was in more of the dance world, and I felt that from a young age, the darkness. And then I had a very difficult time integrating into public school. I was a vegan, I was raised agnostic, I was a redhead. So it’s like, I didn’t really get along with a lot of people, so there was darkness in that.
It was a lot of just trying to figure out how I fit in, and then realizing that I don’t. So that was kind of the darkness that I’ve dealt with. Then I went to an arts high school and had the best time of my life.
When did you know that acting was something you really wanted to pursue?
When I was three years old. My mom says I’ve known since the minute I was born. I was like three. My parents put me in dancing when I was like two years old, and I was like, mommy and me or whatever. I love being on stage. I went into theater at five. I realized I really had something here.
I think the first role I ever played was the Magic Carpet in “Aladdin Jr.” I did a lot of tap dancing and not a lot of dialogue. But I loved it so much, and I loved the way people responded to the characters. I kept going and going up the social ladder of not being just like a carpet, but being an actual person in a show. And then, I went to an arts high school and did every production we had there. Moved to LA right when I graduated, and have been doing it ever since.
The first audition I ever had, I got up and I was supposed to sit back down, but I miscalculated where the seat was, and I sat on the floor instead. And that was the moment I was like, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I know that’s a really weird thing to say, but the fact that I wasn’t mortified, I’m just like, “I’m good. This is what I want to do.” It’s such a weird moment to have had that. It was for like a student film too, and I got up and I was like, “Alright. I’ll be in this for the long haul now.”
Do you get to bring more and more of those dance skills to the show, beyond the cheerleading we see early on?
I don’t know how much I’m allowed to give away, but I do dance. I just finished doing a lot of dancing for the show, where I got bruises on my knees that are covered up by makeup. So yes, yes we do.
The minute you became attached to an Archie adaptation, you had insta-fans that hadn’t seen a second of your work yet but started following you because of their interest in Archie, in Cheryl. Tell me what that experience has been like for you.
It’s just nice having so much support. It’s everyone’s dream to walk into something that has a built-in fanbase. We got that. They’re all very supportive – all the “Archie” fans are extremely supportive of what we’re doing. I thought there was going to be a lot more backlash than there is. They’re very great.
It’s crazy having fans before they’ve even seen you do anything. So the most exciting part for me is for them to actually be a fan of something and see it. I know I’m very proud of the work we’re doing. I know everyone’s going to love it as much as I do. There’s a lot of really good people in this group of people we’ve got. Everyone’s passionate. Everyone’s so happy to be there every single day at work, whether it’s 4 a.m., in the pouring down snow and we’re all shivering, we want to be there. I know that will amount on screen. I know it will.
Who has become your partner in crime at work? Is there somebody in the cast?
I live with Lili Reinhart [who plays Betty Cooper]. She’s great. It’s crazy, because we’re all so close. I don’t even look who’s on the call sheet, because I can show up any day and all my best friends are at work. So it just depends on who, if I’m in a scene with Veronica, that day we’re together all day, and it’s always fun. There’s never a dull moment on set.
Is it exciting to think that you’re not just the current custodian of this character on this show, but the character might move more toward your portrayal as new comics are made, and she’ll evolve in the direction that you get to set for her.
I would love that! Cheryl’s not really that prevalent, like we talked about. I’ve noticed her physicalities have changed a lot, just in the new “Archie.” I saw the new “Archie” edition cover: they actually look a lot more like me. I don’t know if that’s on purpose, or if that’s just an illustrator doing that. I’m excited to see how they evolve. I wonder if that will be the case. I have no idea.
What are you as passionate about as Archie fans are passionate about Archie?
“Harry Potter.” My parents used to read it to me as a kid. I had all the books, every edition. The hardbacks, paperbacks, everything. I had the little tapes that you could listen to cassettes – they were the readers reading it. I have every DVD. I have every t-shirt. I’m such a “Harry Potter” fan.
What’s your most ambitious “Harry Potter” dream?
I want to be in “Fantastic Beasts!” I want to be in one of the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. That’s my most ambitious “Harry Potter” dream, is to put me in that world. Please, somebody do it!
As you’ve gotten into this show, what do you like about that shadowy vibe that has been layered into the Archie world?
The darkness? I like it because it feels more real. “Archie” was always kind of like hunky-dory. Like, “Gee willikers, are we going to be going to the beach today?” That was his biggest problem – or Betty or Veronica. Now it’s like so much more real and so much more relatable, I think, but also so much more fun to be. How could you not want to do that?
It’s very dark. I love the mystery. I love that I’m such a big part of the mystery. Yeah, it’s so fun. It’s so fun to be in that world. Except for the fog! The fog gets a little bit too much.
Is there an Archie fan in your life that was especially stoked that you got this gig?
My dad. Yeah. He brought out a bunch of comics when I booked it, and he sent me this photo of all these comics and he was like, “Madelaine, I’m so excited!” Then he came to set in the last episode, and he was, like, blown away. He was like, “All the characters are in real life!” It’s nice that we have a connection to it in our own way.
Let’s talk about this very interesting time to be exploring these issues of how young women treat each other. Betty and Veronica and the frenemy element of them as they meet, and then Cheryl – she’s got some issues with other women. Tell me about what it means to you to be able to talk about these things in the show right now?
I definitely wasn’t the Cheryl in high school, and I feel like I kind of encountered the Cheryl a lot. So I know the backlash that you get from that character. I think it’s really important that we bring this to light, because bullying, cyberbullying, school bullying, it’s such a real thing that people deal with on the daily. It’s so important that people really see that. It’s very common, and high school shows have that bullying kind of idea. I fully understand that.
I think it’s really important that we bring these kinds of things to light. People need to know that this is how it really is in high school. It is pretty cutthroat. Nobody really understands that until they go through it. The beautiful thing about the way that we do it is that, we also show young women that it’s okay to be single. It’s okay to not have a man.
Actually, it’s probably better when you’re young to like figure out what you want to do with your life, and if you can be strong when you’re independent and you’re alone, and that’s so rare on TV shows. Every girl has a man in every TV show, and every guy has a girl, or every guy has a guy. Whoever it is, they always have a partner. I feel like the majority of the strong women on our show do not have partners. I think that’s really, really great.
Did you ever have to stand up to a mean girl yourself?
I did. I did. I remember, I was in junior high, and this girl told me she was going to fight me, because her boyfriend added me on Facebook, or maybe it was Myspace. She pulls her earrings out and was ready to fight me, ad I was like, “Hit me.” It was my moment of, like, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was like a couple days before ninth grade was over. I was like, ‘Hit me, fine, whatever. I’m not going to hit you back, so you can hit me, but what is that going to do for you?”
She got all riled up, and all her friends were behind her, and I was kind of just like, “I’m over this. I don’t need this negative energy in my life. I’m going to walk away from this, you’re welcome to follow me and hit me outside if you want, but I don’t want to be a part of any of this.” And I walked away, and she didn’t say anything.
And I bet she never bothered you again?
Never bothered me again!
Starring K.J. Apa as Archie Andrews, “Riverdale” airs Thursdays at 9 pm on The CW. The series also stars Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, Ross Butler as Reggie Mantle and more. “Breakfast Club” alum Molly Ringwald will also recur as Archie’s mother Mary.