When Woman’s Day catches up with former Shortland Street star KJ Apa over the phone from Los Angeles, he’s excited to hear a Kiwi accent on the other end of the line. “I’ve been talking to Americans for the last two years!” he laughs.
Indeed, the 19-year-old star has been in the thick of the bright lights of Hollywood since moving from his hometown of Auckland in 2015.
His first audition led to a big part in the new film A Dog’s Purpose – and this year, he made his US television debut in the lead role of Archie in the wildly popular Netflix series Riverdale, based on the characters from Archie comics.
He’s on the verge of becoming a household name, but KJ admits moving to another country to pursue his career has been hard.
He confesses, “I always hear so many actors who come over here from New Zealand and they just hate it because they’re lonely. I went through that exact same thing when I first arrived. But now I love living here and I probably will love living here for a long time.”
The people he has met in LA have slowly made it feel more like home. His Instagram account – which now boasts more than 1.4 million followers (and got him in a spot of bother last week for liking a fat-shaming comment) – is flooded with fun photos of his new adventures, many of them featuring his famous friends, including Riverdale co-star Cole Sprouse and Peaky Blinders actor Finn Cole.
And then there’s his on-screen father in Riverdale, former Beverly Hills 90210 star Luke Perry, with whom he sang the Van Halen classic "Panama" at the show’s wrap party.
KJ tells, “Me and Luke were singing with no rehearsal or anything. We just turned up on the day and did it. It’s my favourite song and we ripped it! Now Luke and my dad text every day. He talks to my dad more than me. It’s kinda weird.”
Bizarrely, KJ tells, when he was growing up acting “just wasn’t really part of the plan. My dad wanted me to play rugby and I wanted to play rugby, too. Acting took us all by surprise. I started auditioning and it happened from there. I was lucky that my parents were supportive.”
His first big role was as troubled teen Kane Jenkins on Shorty, a job that taught KJ “everything about acting”. He recalls, “That was the foundation of my career.
If I could go back and do it again, I would treat it with a bit more respect. I was young and I didn’t really understand what it was. Now I’m thankful for Shortland Street and everything that it taught me.”
KJ was “gutted” he had to stop playing rugby when he moved to LA, but learning to play American football with a professional NFL quarterback for his role as high-school athlete Ethan in the canine comedy-drama A Dog’s Purpose was the next best thing.
“The best part of doing this film was all the football scenes,” he tells. “It’s as close as I can get to the physicality of rugby. I’m going to remember shooting this movie for the rest of my life.”
Another great moment was meeting his co-star Dennis Quaid, famous for films such as Postcards from The Edge and Far from Heaven.
KJ remembers, “I was sleeping in my dressing room and I heard a knock on my door. I looked through the peephole and Dennis Quaid was standing outside! I had to wake up really fast.”
Dennis, 63, and the young Kiwi ended up spending that evening chatting and playing KJ’s guitar in the room. “He was smoking an e-cigarette in my place, which was just so cool. I was watching him like, ‘Wow! You just emanate everything that it is to be a movie star!’”
KJ can now also call himself a film star, although he reckons that’s “weird”.
Of his growing fame, he says, “I don’t think it’s ever something that you can fully get used to.” And while he does get a lot of female attention, he reveals there’s no-one special in the picture right now. “As of yet, no girl has stolen my heart away!” he laughs.
KJ intends to return home at least once a year to see his whanau, including his dog, a papillon toy spaniel called Ferby. His family, he says, are what’s most important to him – and they’re his most important critics.
“They’ve known about A Dog’s Purpose for ages, so they’re dying to see it. They’ve literally been waiting for two years. They definitely can’t wait.”