The star of Riverdale and the upcoming The Sun Is Also a Star opens up.
“It’s weird when I fall asleep on a flight and wake up tagged in a bunch of videos on social media of me sleeping with my mouth wide open!” says Charles Melton, laughing. We’re on the phone as he makes his way to work on a December morning in Vancouver, and while reflecting on the complete 180 that his life has taken in the last two years, it’s clear that the 28-year-old actor should probably start getting used to the constant attention that comes with starring in one of the biggest TV phenomenons of recent years. Replacing Ross Butler as high school jock Reggie Mantle on season two of Riverdale (the comic book adaptation now in its third season and consistently among the highest rated shows on its network), Charles went from a jobbing actor playing small parts on the likes of Glee (“model”) and American Horror Story (“murder victim Mr Wu”) to bona fide teen heartthrob in what seemed like the blink of an eye. And the numbers don’t lie either – such was the intensity of his popularity that his Instagram following rocketed from around 20,000 to now almost four million. Get used to his name, because Charles Melton is becoming Hollywood hot property.
But while he may have landed on his feet with Riverdale, it wasn’t just down to luck. Seven years ago, when a football career didn’t work out, Charles moved to LA from Kansas with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, a thick skin and a determination not to take no for an answer. “I believe that you have to work harder than anybody else because there will also be somebody that’s better than you,” he says. “That motivated me through the ups and downs of navigating this industry.”
“Being a former athlete, I grew up playing sports, so for the first 16 years of my life I was dedicated to that, and trust me you need to be tough. Obviously, no one wants to be rejected in anything – you want validation – but as I get older, I’ve learnt to let things go. I accept the things that I can do and I don’t dwell on what I can’t.”
Throwing himself into Los Angeles life amongst the thousands of others on the audition circuit, looking for that one elusive break, Charles turned to modelling to pay the bills and by all accounts was pretty successful, but there was one aspect of LA living that took some getting used to: the vegan food trend. “Oh man, I didn’t know what vegan food was,” he remembers, laughing. “I grew up with like, Chili’s and Olive Garden and my mom’s home-cooked Korean food. On my first day here, my dad and I went to this vegan place near where we were staying, he got a vegan burger and I got vegan enchiladas, and my dad threw up! We ended up ordering a large Domino’s pizza and sitting on the beach watching the sunset.”
Charles started attending auditions between modelling gigs and, after a series of small parts, landed the role that changed his life in 2017. “I think that people connect so strongly with Riverdale because, through the Archie comic series, these characters have been ingrained in American culture for the last 75 years, so it means something to a lot of different people,” Charles says. So much so, in fact, that he frequently gets people shouting “Reggie!” at him on the street. “It’s so humbling to be on this show, but it’s also kind of nuts!”
Charles credits working so intensely with a host of talented cast mates and different directors for almost every episode of the show as a major learning curve too, pointing out that the short amount of takes that the actors complete scenes in means that there is no time for down days. It’s hardly surprising then that the long hours and enforced closeness has led to a number of tight relationships on set. But there’s one in particular that has been making his teen fan base near hysterical in recent months – his coupling with co-star Camila Mendes. Announced via Instagram late last year, ‘Charmila’ set the Internet ablaze with heart-eye emojis and the obligatory ‘ship’ comments, though the pair have had to learn to deal with a new level of scrutiny that comes with being young and in love in the public eye. Fans have always felt a certain ownership over their idols but social media has only exacerbated these feelings through the illusion of proximity and perceived familiarity. It isn’t an access all areas pass though, and the volume of uninformed opinions is something that Charles admits he’s still learning how to deal with.
“People need to mind their own fucking business, honestly,” he says. “I don’t have Twitter and it’s one of the reasons why I don’t read through all my comments on social media, because people are always going to talk,” he continues. “No matter what, people have always talked, even before this age of Instagram, but back then you were less inclined to hear about someone talking about you, and honestly it’s not their place to have any authority over my relationships. Not everyone is going to be a supporter or a fan of your relationship and people need to remember that opinions aren’t facts.”
“I think in a sense I’m a little more cognisant about what I say or do now, but as far as what I decide to post on my social media, it’s my choice to show these parts of my life, and if people want to spend their time going out of their way to find out something else about me that maybe I didn’t want to share, then that’s on you – go work for the FBI. It can get crazy though – there have been times when a notification will pop up on my phone, or one of my cast mate’s phones, saying that someone from a random part of the world has tried to hack into my account.”
Invasive as it may be, it’s par for the course when you’re in the public eye, but Charles has plenty on the horizon to keep people’s attention focussed on his craft. Next up is his first lead role in The Sun is Also a Star, opposite Yara Shahidi, and a few days after our interview he’s announced in Bad Boys for Life, the sequel to the seminal 90s blockbuster starring Will Smith. It’s The Sun is Also a Star though, that looks set to add new levels of legitimacy to Charles’ acting career. A love story based on a book by the same name, the film takes place in just 24 hours and follows Shahidi, as Natasha Kingsley, and her family as they face deportation to Jamaica from America. Charles plays Daniel Bae, son of Korean immigrants, who Natasha meets and falls in love with. On hearing that the book was being adapted, Charles bought it and read it in a day, then continuously phoned his agents until he got an audition. “I knew this was important,” he says. “It’s not often that you see a mainstream movie with an Asian-American male lead opposite an African-American female lead – in fact I’ve never seen a movie like that. It’s so important for the time that we live in that stories like this are being told. This is a story that humanises immigration and shows the realities of living in America and being raised by a family of immigrants,” he says. “It’s about joint identity and culture, where your parents are from versus where you grew up, and on top of this there are ideas around love, hope and faith – which everyone can connect with no matter where they’re from.”
“Growing up, when I was going to the movies, I never saw the Asian guy getting the girl at the end. I watched a lot of Jackie Chan and I watched Asian people kick ass but that was about it!” he laughs. “We’re living in a very progressive time where more people’s stories are being represented whether that be Asian, Latino or Black, and I’m so grateful for it. We’re heading in the right direction but we need more stories that show what is happening today from all perspectives – the human perspective.”
In recent years the entertainment industry has been through its own reckoning – forced to hold a mirror to itself and address its many shortcomings, lack of representation being just one of the heads of the demon to slay. And it’s a matter that Charles is all too familiar with. “I never saw me being Asian-American as a disadvantage, so to speak, in terms of acting,” he says, “and I’ve always read for hugely varied roles which is something that I take pride in. But a few years ago I went into a casting office with a casting director who suggested that I change my last name to Yu so people could spot me easier for Asian roles. How fucking crazy is that – pure tokenism that had nothing to do with me as an actor! Obviously, I was livid and said some things then that I’m not going to repeat over the phone but thankfully that’s not something that I have to deal with now.”
As our interview starts to wind down, Charles notes that every role he’s had has changed him in some way, with The Sun is Also a Star opening up a new romantic side. “Daniel is a hopeless romantic,” he says. “I have a fraction of who he is inside of me but when you get a role like this you have to be completely vulnerable, and that kind of took over me I guess.”
“People always say that falling in love is not like in the movies and in a movie you can watch someone’s love story over the space of years but what’s so unique about this is that it takes place in literally 24 hours. I think in society we have these [convictions] about a relationship is supposed to be like – you’re supposed to do this on the first date, this on the second date, this on the third date – but it’s the passion and the love that matters and that allows you to be whoever you want. Life’s too short to not be a hopeless romantic. If you can believe in anything right now, believe in love.”
To see more of Charles’ shoot pick up your copy of Hunger issue 16, Speak Your Truth, out now
15 March 2019