Madelaine Petsch Stops For No One
Madelaine Petsch’s Sweetgreen order is the first thing I learn about her: kale and arugula with red onions, carrots, cucumbers, local apples, lemon, and olive oil. I know this because at 8 a.m. on the day I am supposed to interview her, I am sent to get it. “Will, I need a favor,” Guillermo, our bookings manager, texts. No problem. The interview is at noon. There is plenty of time. I can do this. Everything is fine.
Immediately, there are obstacles: Sweetgreen doesn’t open for another hour, and the store closest to our destination is out of fruit. I resort to gently knocking on the storefront window, asking if it would be possible to open at an earlier time just this once, please. When no one responds, I knock harder. “Pleease!!!” The salad people ultimately feel bad for me, so the order gets made, but there is no fruit in the place. By the time I am at Whole Foods, procuring local apples and slicing them with a plastic knife on a napkin on a bench, I have left my body the way you do when something that cannot possibly be happening is happening.
The salad isn’t for just anyone, it is for Cheryl Blossom, or the woman who plays her on Riverdale, the CW’s mega-hit teen drama based on the characters from Archie Comics. Cheryl is that one girl in high school who, just for fun, makes everyone’s life nearly unlivable — the girl you could see sending you on the quest for an impossible salad with the promise of a few minutes in her good graces, if you deliver.
Petsch is not Cheryl Blossom, obviously. I review my notes on my phone as the Uber races along the Pacific Coast Highway toward the site of the shoot that will accompany this profile: Petsch is a 24-year-old actor from Portland Orchard, Washington. She was working as a barista, a waiter, and an assistant until she landed the Riverdale gig, which was her first major TV role. She once said that she got the part after 247 auditions and rejections (she counted). And now, a text bubble informs me, she would like her salad an hour earlier than planned.
“We will rush, but the mountains are hard,” I text Guillermo, holding the food steady on my lap.
“Don’t crash,” he texts back. “Lol.”
The shoot is happening at a late hippie compound in the hills of Topanga Canyon, and I can already see the flames of Petsch’s hair through the window of the yurt where she’s being styled. You cannot talk about Madelaine Petsch without talking about her hair. It is naturally red — not Bonnie Wright ginger, not Lindsay Lohan strawberry, not Isla Fischer auburn — Madelaine red, and by the time I get into the yurt, Petsch has decided she wants more of it. Extensions are sourced while she chooses looks. First she will wear the floral power suit by Veronica Beard. Next she wants to put on the red linen Zimmermann suit with the tiny sunglasses from her own collab, and then she wants to do the lilac floral Altuzarra dress. She’s not imperious, just clear. Yes, she’s been a star for just two years, but in that time she has acquired over 14 million followers on Instagram and 4 million on her YouTube channel, Madelaine Petsch, and in key ways, she is already a different person. For one thing, she’s not stressed about making rent. “I separate myself from Madelaine who worked as an assistant to a photographer to Madelaine who's now financially independent.”
I was a lonely 15-year-old girl who had no idea who she was.
In some ways, it’s been an easy transition for Madelaine (pronounced Mad-eh-LANE, not Mad-uh-LIN), who slips into the third person when she gets reflective. It seems like she was born ready for this — the cameras, the clothes, the fans, the schedule. Downtime is not something that Madelaine enjoys. “I don't know why just innately I love to be busy, even as a kid. I would go to school, then I would come back from school, go straight to dance class, and then get back from dance class, eat, then do homework, then go to bed, then do it all over again.” During even the quickest breaks on set, she reaches for her tripod to make new content for YouTube, and once the photographer is shooting again, she moves through the space like a graceful perpetual motion machine, one that has learned its angles. How does she know to “steer” the vintage car with only her left hand? To hang by both arms from the ceiling of the treehouse so the lapels of the Zimmermann jacket fan out just right? I suddenly know more clearly than I have ever known anything that the way she leans her body back but never quite lets her torso collapse into the chair is the exact difference between a 24-year-old you can’t look away from and the 24-year-old slicing apples on a bench, hoping people look away.
All of the Riverdale cast have been through a Hollywood accelerator program of sorts: mostly plucked from the unknown and catapulted to fame in a way teen stars pre-social media just weren’t. After that fateful 248th audition in late 2015, Madelaine was being flown to Vancouver to shoot the Riverdale pilot. When the show aired in an entertainment landscape already more than a little obsessed with screen adaptations of comics (see: Marvel), it was a smash hit. “We aired in late January and then in July we went to Comic Con. I'd never really been to a place where a large amount of fans were, and so when people were like screaming our names and our panel was sold out, it was like, ‘Holy crap.’"
In Madelaine’s case, the attention was even more intense: her complicated character appealed to anyone who has ever been pushed around by a gorgeous mean girl (or wanted to be), and then Cheryl came out and fell in love with classmate Toni Topaz (played by Petsch’s off-screen best friend, Vanessa Morgan), ensuring the collective swoon of every queer and questioning viewer who had ever seen the show.
Throughout the series, Cheryl deals with a variety of hardships: the death of her brother, queer heartbreak, a demoralizing and toxic relationship with her mother, and a well of internalized homophobia that belies a deep self-hatred. “Cheryl is a very challenging character to play. [She] hates herself because she isn't open with who she is,” Madelaine says. This, believe it or not, she relates to. “I was a lonely 15-year-old girl who had no idea who she was."
Madelaine's character has also taught her something important: “When people show hatred towards other people, typically they just don't like who they are.”
When Cheryl finally falls for Toni, the relationship — which fans refer to as “Choni” — pushes her to work through the internalized homophobia that is too often part of queer love stories IRL. It was also the key to fans being able to relate to her. “I feel like for the whole first season, nobody really understood her,” Madelaine says. “Her being in love allowed other people to understand her, but also for her to learn about herself.” It doesn’t hurt that Madelaine and Vanessa Morgan, who met at a network test for Riverdale, are so close off-screen. “Vanessa's been my best friend for so long, we have natural chemistry.” Through her out, interracial, and LGBTQ+ relationship, the source of Cheryl’s self-worth shifts from putting others down to owning her identity. “I love her being in love,” Madelaine says.
I've played Cheryl, I love her, I'm very excited to continue playing her — but also to do other things and for people to see me in different lights.
Madelaine is aware that this isn’t just a love story. Representation is a huge part of Riverdale’s mission and one of her character’s reasons for being. With that reality comes responsibility. “To see two teenagers in a [LGBTQ+] relationship on television is now becoming more normal, but when I was a kid, I can't think of one. To me, it's a really great thing that they have the ability to see representation on television, and that there are people out there who also appreciate and support it.” Especially given that less than half of Gen Z identifies as “exclusively heterosexual” — in a political climate that has consistently supported anti-LGBTQ+ measures — positive LGBTQ+ representation is even more necessary. Cheryl’s situation has led Petsch to think a lot about family, too — specifically, the role parents play in your trajectory and how comfortable you are with yourself. “I had a really lovely and supportive environment to grow up in. I had two beautiful parents, and they took me to dance classes every day after school, and they put me through theater," she recalls. “Such a supportive environment created a world for me to be as creatively fulfilled and as creatively open as I wanted to be."
Cheryl, of course, didn’t have that, and it plays out in every area of her life. “Cheryl's mother, even to this day, has never actually accepted who Cheryl is, especially her sexuality, and I want people to understand that if they are lucky enough to have a family that supports them and loves them, to really appreciate it.”
For Madelaine, one interesting part of Choni’s relationship is how it will withstand typical high school challenges. One popular fan theory is that Heather, Cheryl’s first love from junior high, is going to come back. “I want that to happen,” Petsch says. “I think it would create an interesting dynamic for the two of them.” Madelaine hints that Choni, like all deep and meaningful relationships, will have to learn how to maturely communicate, especially as they fall even deeper in love. When I wonder out loud if Cheryl will ever have to get over Toni, Madelaine will only say, “I think that's going to be their biggest hurdle, Cheryl's jealousy.”
Now that shooting has ended for Season 3, Madelaine doesn’t have to think about Cheryl for at least a little while. Except that Riverdale has pervaded almost every area of her life. She spends a lot of time communicating with fans on social media, and then there are her castmates. As casts go, it would be hard to find a tighter knit one to smooth your transition to Hollywood. The story that the Riverdale kids are besties is one various publicists push hard, but Madelaine assures me it’s absolutely 100% true. “We’re actually best friends” she says. “They all know everything about me.” They do, in fact, have a group text called “Berlanti’s Angels,” named after Riverdale executive producer Greg Berlanti. “They’ll all be at my wedding,” Madelaine says.
I thought people would support Madelaine as an actress being other people, but people support Madelaine as Madelaine.
“So what’s next?” I ask, casual, when we sit down to speak. The conversation is being recorded on video, and she is sitting so the floral suit pops against the cloudless blue sky in a way that does not feel like an accident. “I know that the arts are where I need to be for the rest of my life,” Madelaine says. She takes her role on Riverdale seriously, but also wants to be known for more than that. “I've played Cheryl, I love her, I'm very excited to continue playing her, it's very cool that we're going into a fourth season, but also to do other things and for people to see me in different lights.”
For instance, she loves self-producing videos for her YouTube channel. “I like YouTube because it's a platform for me to just be myself, and people actually support that, which I never thought they would,” she says. “I thought people would support Madelaine as an actress being other people, but people support Madelaine as Madelaine, which is cool.”
There are breaks in the poise. She frequently looks off into the canyon beyond me while we’re talking. Her vocal range varies remarkably in regular conversation, and I can’t tell if she knows her exhales are as audible as they are, or if she wants you to hear them. It is not clear that she so much plans to yodel the phrase “myy suUUUUngLAAAAasses” when talking about her new “M3” collaboration with Prive Revaux — a pair with tiny lenses available with blue lenses and two that are bigger and higher drama — but it’s definitely a yodel. It’s like she was trying out a bit, the way a comedian does. (“I love comedy! Nobody knows that! I’m kind of funny! Can you believe it?” She claps her hands, then lists out what else is still unknown about her.) And then there is the moment where, without warning of any kind and so quickly I have to go back and watch the footage to make sure it happened, she executes a rapid, perfect, sky-high kick to underscore her excitement about the sunglasses, a kick she does not acknowledge at all. She is literally mesmerizing.
The only time I see the spectacle of Madelaine falter is when she tries to tone it down. She says her plan for the next few months is to “get into a good workout routine, eat really healthy, drink my celery juice, be in LA, and [practice] a little self-care before Season 4,” which sounds way too basic and too laid back for the Madelaine I know. There are spurts of self-deprecation that don’t ring true, either. “I don't really know anything,” she says. “OK,” I say.
But if she did know something — what would that be? She looks me dead in the eye. “That this is what I want to do,” she says. Then Madelaine picks up her uneaten salad and walks into the sun.
Main image: Dress: Oscar de la Renta. Shoes: Cult Gaia.
Photographer: Eric Ray Davidson
Stylist: James Worthington DeMolet
Hair: Marc Mena for Exclusive Artists
Makeup: Elie Maalouf using NARS cosmetics @ TMG-LA
Video Editor: Ben Hype