It’s tough being a teen today. Issues such as bullying, peer pressure and classism have plagued high schools for decades, but the undying prevalence of social media in teen culture has catapulted typical “coming of age” hardships to new heights. Now, daily social exchanges aren’t limited to being physically present at a school, with most affairs occurring right in the comfort of your own bedroom.
Cult teen dramas of bygone years such as My So Called Life, Skins and Degrassi are commendable entertainment renderings of topical adolescent issues that are often glossed over or unrealistically stylized in most TV fodder that shrouds modern cable programming. But as demonstrated with the wild success of 13 Reasons Why, shows targeted towards contemporary youth are garnering considerable praise for tapping the zeitgeist while still remaining enjoyable.
Riverdale, the latest teen sensation produced by The CW, is a brilliant demonstration of fantastical realism. Based on characters featured in the beloved 1940s Archie Comics franchise, the show culls together a slick thriller narrative from hard-hitting topics (murder, rape, poverty, parental abuse, alcoholism), brooding atmosphere and seasoned character development. While more grandiose than your average teen melodrama, Riverdale triumphs in its melding of trademark Hollywood sensationalism with characters that are, in their own way, very relatable.
With the close of its first season, we caught up with one of the show’s more standout characters, Cheryl Blossom, played by newcomer Madelaine Petsch. As the show’s arch villainess, Cheryl’s complexity offers depth to the superficial allure of the typical high school mean girl, who struggles to cope with the (*spoiler alert*) death of her brother while withholding her status as the queen bee of Riverdale High.
Check out Madelaine in our exclusive in-house editorial (inspired by iconic teen villains featured in films such as Mean Girls, The Craft and Heathers) and read what she had to say about everything from bullying to social media to her newfound celebrity.
How familiar were you with the original Archie Comics?
I used to read them when I was a kid. My dad used to cut out Sunday strips for me. I mean, Cheryl, my character, wasn’t really in them. She wasn’t very prevalent. But I did read them.
In the show you pretty much play the lead villain. As an actor, what’s the most gratifying part in portraying a villainous character?
Well my character has many layers. I mean, every artist and actor wants to be challenged and variety is the spice of life, and that’s exactly what Cheryl is. She does have all the characteristics of a typical “mean girl,” but underneath it all, she’s actually a very damaged human being, what with her brother being dead and her parents being completely terrible people. There’s so much going on beneath the surface. It’s every actor’s dream to play a complex character.
What were some of the most difficult things that you had to tap when getting into character?
The parental abuse was very difficult to bring out. I come from a very supportive home, so to create this persona was very dark. Also the loss of someone very close to you. I lost a best friend a couple of years ago and that was kind of what I had to tap and think about on a daily basis. I always say actors are the people who try to feel everyone else’s suffering. I had to bring up some things that I didn’t really wanna think about, but it worked, right?
For sure. Yeah, Cheryl’s parents really suck.
So bad! The worst.
In cinema and TV history, there are certain villains who are respected and adored (The Joker, Cruella de Vil, Darth Vader) while others are pretty much hated unanimously (Joffrey Baratheon, Dolores Umbridge). What qualities make for a likable villain?
They have to be believable and I think they have to have a justifiable reason for why they do what they do. I think that’s why people love to hate Cheryl. She’s got so much going on behind the curtain, but I think people understand the façade that she puts up. It’s very important for a villain to be liked and appreciated.
In what ways has the “mean girl” in film and television evolved throughout the years?
Social media has played a huge part in that, I think. Look at Heathers versus Mean Girls. Gossip Girl as well. They’re all very much the same, if you really look at it. The fashion has evolved, but I think all mean girls have dope style and that’s very interesting. But they do all share similar characteristics no matter what genre or generation they’re placed in.
Obviously there’s a huge generational gap between the original Archie Comics, which was created in the early ’40s, and ‘Riverdale,’ which is contemporary. What would you say are the main issues that overlap with high schoolers in both eras?
It’s the classism, the society, the bullying. Regardless of the fact it’s been 70 or so years, we still have large differences between the way that men treat women in high school and the awkwardness of growing up. These are all very normal things that everyone will go through no matter what generation.
Slut shaming is a huge thing that I’m sure happened back then, and it definitely still happens now. We talk about that in the first few episodes of the first season. We talk about inner friendship and relationships, two friends wanting the same guy. These are all problems that people have had and will probably continue to have.
So the show deals with, like you said, many heavy-hitting topics that plague a lot of modern American high schools: cyberbullying, homophobia, classism, slut shaming. What influence does technology and social media have on these matters and is there any kind of solution to prevent them from growing?
I absolutely think there’s a solution. I think social media plays a huge part in it and I think a lot of it happens on social media. I genuinely think that if there was a way to control or ban people who did any of those things (slut shaming, bullying, any of that stuff) or like lock their social media accounts, that would be a great way to teach them that it’s not okay.
The problem is that the people who are doing it are getting younger and younger. It’s so easy to hide behind a screen and that’s kind of what our whole generation does. They can hide behind a screen and say these awful things to people. They don’t realize the effect they have on others.
Other than getting rid of social media, which is not gonna happen, I’m not sure how it can be stopped completely.
The complexity of Cheryl’s personality gives an in-depth exploration into a bully’s mindset. What would you say are the leading causes as to why bullies project their aggression and anger onto others?
Because they’re miserable with themselves. I never once thought that a bully actually genuinely hates the person that they’re bullying, they hate themselves. That’s the core cause of why bullies do what they do.
Clearly Riverdale is a success, it’s been picked up for a second season and all of you are turning into bona fide celebrities. What do you think warrants the success of the show and what are you looking forward to in its future?
I think we all put it to the fact that we’re passionate about what we do and we don’t get caught up in the celebrity of it. We’re in it because we love the art and we love what we do. When we’re all on set that’s all we focus on.
I think that’s why Riverdale sets itself apart from other shows; we’re all in that age where we could absolutely get caught up in celebrity, but instead we’re focusing on the work. We’re putting out good quality work and that’s all we care about, not everything else. I can’t tell you what the future holds for me or for the show, I’m just happy to be doing anything right now!
Here’s everything you need to know about I Am Heath Ledger.
- Photographer: Charles Roussel
- Fashion Editor / Stylist: Nico Amarca
- Talent: Madelaine Petsch
- Hair: Nero
- Makeup: Ayaka Nihei
- Videographer: Dana Reeves
- Brands: T by Alexander Wang, Juicy Couture x Urban Outfitters, John Hardy, Opening Ceremony, Chris Habana, M.Martin, Dr. Marten's, FENTY x Puma, Creatures of the Wind