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Madelaine Petsch on Riverdale Season 6, Cheryl Blossom’s Supernatural Turn, and Anxiety

Riverdale season 6 is premiering into a new world of possibility. The show where anything can happen has inevitably connected to the otherworldly—which offered a perfect crossover opportunity with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, another TV universe born from the Archie comics. The Riverdale character channeling the most of this new power is maple syrup heiress Cheryl Blossom, who has never needed literal magic to be larger than life. This makes perfect sense to the woman who plays her: Madelaine Petsch. After all, the actress also does more than any one human being should be capable of, simultaneously taking her ELLE.com phone interview while getting her nails done.

“I have no time!” she says. This is not an overstatement; besides the full-time work of embodying Cheryl, Petsch recently starred in and produced her first indie feature, Jane, “a psychological thriller that explores social media anxiety and mental health from the perspective of a high school student.” She just wrapped the new romantic comedy About Fate opposite Emma Roberts and is still making YouTube videos for her channel of 6.83 million subscribers. One of the reasons why Petsch is so well-equipped to juggle all of this is the unequivocal support of her parents, who raised her plant-based on their idyllic-sounding farm. (“I’d wake up and my dad would be feeding deer out of a can with apples he’d grown on a tree,” she jokes.) They also enrolled her in dance classes before she could even verbalize wanting to do it.

“So by age four I was like, ‘I want to do theater’ and they supported that,” the 27-year-old says. “They championed what I wanted, they supported my career, and the moment I said I wanted to move to L.A. to be an actress, it wasn’t even a question to them and I think that’s very rare and I was very lucky and they were very supportive.”

Petsch is still vegan, and produced 2021’s Meat Me Halfway for Amazon Prime, a documentary about what it takes to bring meat reduction to the average diet. She deadpans, “People always love to pull my leg and ask me if breast milk is vegan. I’m not even going to get into it,” then adds, “If you try to put yourself in any box people try to find a way to push you out of it on the Internet these days.”

Much like Cheryl, Petsch can’t be boxed into doing one thing. Here, she talks to ELLE.com about her many endeavors.

Cheryl has always been a larger-than-life character. Riverdale itself is pretty over the top and magic was the one place it hadn’t gone. How did you feel when you heard about your season 6 arc leaning towards the supernatural?

You know what’s funny? I felt like for Cheryl it totally made sense. And a lot of the things that have happened over the course of her five years on the show made a lot of sense now. And now that we’re well into season 6, it just makes so much more sense. Because there’s really nowhere we can’t go anymore. As an actor, you want that, right? I feel like I can play anything with my character.

The show took a big risk by leaping ahead in time after so many seasons. How does it feel to be playing someone closer to your real age? Does it feel more in touch with who you are now?

Not at all. First of all, I will ride that ship as long as I can. As long as I look youthful I will continue to do that because why not milk it? Enjoy it. I only take roles that feel authentic to me, so there’s nothing that feels inauthentic about playing a high school student, and I played one up until two years ago. I think it’s about how I get into the character’s bones; not how old they are. It’s their occupation, if that makes sense.

It does make sense. As I get older I wonder, “How much can I really remember about being a teen?” but I guess you’ve been living in that world for many years now so it’s not as much of a distance.

I feel like there’s something about being on a hit TV show, a teen TV show too, where I feel so in touch with teens where I kind of still feel like one. Which maybe isn’t a good thing for my mental health! But for my work it’s great.

madelaine petsch

Chelsea Lauren

You’ve said that you have experienced a “kind of trauma that basically makes you think you always have to be doing something.” I always think of Cheryl as someone who is very motivated by trauma. I wanted ask how much you think about trauma when you’re playing Cheryl? Or any other characters?

I think about trauma especially with Cheryl most days. I think about what motivates her to do a scene, and nine times out of ten it’s some trauma-based fear or trauma-based encounter she’s had that’s making her behave that way. The rest of the time, it depends on the character. So with Olivia in Jane, it’s not really trauma-based. It’s her fear of failure. Is what kind of drives her and drives her anxiety as well. And I noticed that that’s a thing I felt as a high school student; I think the pressures that we put on high school students are super unrealistic and can become very unhealthy very quickly. And that’s what I love about that movie, I feel like it’s the first time in my life where I’ve read a script and or even seen a film where I feel like anxiety was personified in a way that I understood it and it felt right to me. I’ve struggled with anxiety for a very long time, and I’ve never been able to find a piece of material that resonates with me on that level.

How does that portrayal feel more truthful to you?

I think the way that it’s all-consuming for her. Because I think you watch this character lose something very important to her and then not get a goal she’d been looking forward to her entire life. Her entire world crumbles around her. She loses her best friend at the beginning of the movie, she commits suicide. And I lost a best friend to suicide when I was quite young, so I was able to get into this character through that. I think that’s the reason I was able to connect with her was we had so much in common, and the anxiety is very easy for me to understand. I don’t know how to describe this without giving it away, but it’s almost like this monster that she can’t get rid of. And that’s kind of how anxiety feels to me sometimes. It can be very burdening. It can feel very dark and heavy if you don’t take care of it, and that’s what you watch her go through throughout the entire film. I also don’t think there are a lot of films being made about anxiety, so I don’t think there’s a lot of things to reference. The thing that’s cool about it is it’s so layered. It’s about the pressures of social media on a teenager who is trying to get into college who has gone through a huge loss. It’s kind of about how everything becomes insurmountable. It becomes too much and overwhelming.

Talking about social media anxiety, you seem very together, but it also seems overwhelming to have such a huge following. I thought about that while reading Jane‘s description, because it seems like you’re presenting yourself in this really lovely way that’s so engaging and upbeat. I wonder if that becomes overwhelming to be posting and having so much expectation on you.

Well, thank you for thinking I come off like that, that’s very kind. I think it can be stressful sometimes. Authenticity is very important to me; it’s one of my favorite words in life. When I’m having a hard day—and this is something I’ve been working on the last couple of years, really being truthful when I’m posting something, to be honest about how I’m feeling, versus just posting another happy, positive thing, because that doesn’t feel authentic to me. After five or six years of being in the public eye, I think I’ve really learned how to be grounded enough in my relationships on social media and to social media. In a way that still feels right to me. That’s a really challenging balance.

You had said that you’re not talking about future relationships. Does that mean you’ll never talk about romantic relationships again or just not on social media?

I just think I’ve realized that so much of my life, as you said, is in the public eye that having something private and to myself is really important to me and to future relationships, because I think it creates an environment where nobody who doesn’t truly know me at my core gets to have a say in what I’m doing. In my previous relationship [with musician Travis Mills], I feel like a lot of people felt like I owed them an explanation as to why we broke up. And you know what, they kind of were right, because I had put so much online. I almost felt like I should have said something, but it’s like, that’s not how I want to feel, it’s my relationship. So I felt like taking a step back from the public eye when it comes to my relationships was the right move for me. So that I can just focus on the person that I’m with.

“I felt like taking a step back from the public eye when it comes to my relationships was the right move for me.”

But you do get a lot of expectations from fans not only about your personal life but about the characters you play. You got a lot of negativity, which inspired your YouTube channel, because Cheryl seemed so awful before we really knew her background. Have you gotten a lot of blowback over the dissolution of Choni, the relationship between Cheryl and Toni?

Well, I think people know I am like the world’s biggest Choni-shipper. So I don’t think they’re really angry at me about that, because I want them back together more than anybody. Who can say they’re not already, you never know. Until you watch season 6. My little plug. I think that in season 1, we were still such a new show. We were still building a fan base, but now that we have a built-in audience they understand that we don’t write the show. My job is to bring to life what is put on the page in front of me. Now I’m lucky enough that I’m in a position where—you know when Cheryl first became a character after Season 1 I called Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, the Riverdale creator], or maybe after the pilot, and I was like, “Cheryl’s a lesbian.” He was like, “What are you talking about?” and I was like, “Cheryl’s a lesbian. I’m sorry, but Cheryl’s a lesbian. I don’t know how to describe it to you any better, I can explain it to you why I think so.” We talked it out and he agreed with me and Cheryl became a lesbian. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can have those dialogues and that’s very rare in my career, and typically it would just be [that] I bring to life what’s on the page. And I think that the audience who watches the show understands that. But I don’t get any of that [blowback]—the writers get all of that. They get a lot of it.

I never thought of Cheryl as a lesbian specifically but as bisexual. I don’t know why. Is that canon that she is a lesbian and not bisexual?

She is a lesbian. We were struggling with her sexual identity which is ironic, for a while, and we had a long conversation about it and we just agreed that she’s a lesbian. I don’t really know how to describe it to you, but after playing her for a year I know she’s a lesbian.

I believe you if you say it, absolutely. There’s a lot of bisexuality on the show and a lot of flexible identity on the show. Is that because Riverdale wants to explore more relationships or to reflect more fluid identities in young people now?

I can’t speak for the writers, but I can tell you it was very important to all of us that we created a show that tried to be representative of the real world. And I think now more than ever you see people embracing their sexuality, especially the generation that watches our show. So many of them have come out as bi, or lesbian, or gay, or queer, or LGBTQIA+. I think that was very important to us. You don’t see that very often on teen television shows, especially when we first started. So I think that’s probably why, but I can’t really speak for the writers. Also, our showrunner is gay. It was important to him, growing up to make Kevin Keller gay. So I think there were a lot of people fighting for that in the room.

madelaine petsch

Courtesy Madelaine Petsch

You’re in the movie About Fate with Emma Roberts. How was it being in a comedic romantic space rather than this torrid, dramatic romantic space with a character?

Ah! It was so fun, oh my goodness! I had the best time. And because typically I do play these more dramatic roles, it was just really nice to go in and improv was encouraged and I had a great scene partner. I worked with Thomas Mann, I was actually playing his girlfriend, and it was so fun to be able to improv and to feel completely free as an artist and say what feels natural. [Riverdale is] a word perfect show, which means whatever they put on the page we have to say exactly how it was written for the most part. So to be able to play with the words a little bit more it was a treat, truly…It was a great environment, Emma is such a rock star, truly. I’m so obsessed with her, she’s so great. It was great to go from Riverdale straight into that and then into Jane, because it felt like a breath of fresh air before the darkness of Jane. You needed a break. I think I had, on set [of Jane], like not kidding, six panic attacks. Because I’m triggering panic attacks from hyperventilating…So it was great to have this lightness and comedy [in About Fate] and it was so fun and the character is crazy and it’s great and I loved her.

This is my last and maybe a random question, but while catching up on the last few seasons, I really wanted to know: How real is Jason Blossom for you?

Oh, one hundred percent. A lot of Cheryl’s life, the driving force is Jason and the loss of Jason. Because I believe in her heart of hearts, Jason was her soul mate in a non-sexual way. He was her person, so I think losing him is a huge driving force of a lot of Cheryl’s actions and I think that’s why she makes a nursery for Toni, because deep inside she wanted Toni back and I think she feels like she didn’t appreciate it for what it was at the time and now she doesn’t want to lose somebody she loves again. I also have a brother, so it’s very helpful to have that relationship.

You kind of hinted earlier that Toni and Cheryl may get together in this upcoming season.

I did not hint at that! I did not. I said that they might, and they might not. You never know…just know that I am pushing for it. That’s all you need to know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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