It’s a dark, foggy night in a forest on the outskirts of Riverdale and Kevin Keller is cruising. Chiseled men wander through the woods on the hunt for anonymous, small-town sex.
Just as Keller’s sex life seems poised to move from The CW into premium cable territory, he hears gunshots and quickly comes across a gruesome crime scene. “It was full-on Carrie,” Keller tells his classmates the next day at school. “Midge covered in Moose’s blood. It was insane.” But when his friend Betty finds out just why Keller was in the woods, she scolds him for venturing out alone. “Why can’t you just use GrindEm like everybody in the world?”
Kevin Keller, played by the equally alliteratively-named Casey Cott, 26, can’t use GrindEm (a just-different-enough version of a familiar hookup app you apparently have to use in teen soaps) like everybody else because he isn’t like everybody else. When we first meet him, Keller — the son of the town sheriff — is the only out gay guy in his school. Because of that, he often finds himself on the sidelines — which is perhaps a good thing, as Riverdale’s main action tends to include murder, family feuds, and various other permutations of noirish intrigue.
“I think our show is an extremely dark place, and I think Kevin is an extremely vibrant light within that dark place because he knows who he is,” says Cott.
Cott, whose clean-cut looks live up to Keller’s self-description (“devastatingly handsome in that pre-accident Montgomery Clift kind of way”), was cast on Riverdale almost by accident. Just after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, he took part in a talent showcase in Los Angeles, where he was spotted by Warner Brothers executives racing to finish casting their dark, gritty Archie Comics adaptation. He auditioned and was cast the same day. “I am either the luckiest actor in the world, or maybe they really just had no other actor to cast,” Cott deadpans. He flew to Vancouver, where the show is filmed, the next morning — his first time in first class — and was at the table read the following day.
“I remember sitting there, knowing I’m going to be there for six months and thinking, like, Holy smokes, I have a job and it’s going to be on TV and I’m working with these actors that are really good,” says Cott. “Just that I have a job in acting is super cool, and to be on a job that millions and millions and millions of people are watching — I geek out about it.” Cott found acting at his Columbus, Ohio high school, joining the school play junior year, after attempts at other extracurricular activities went nowhere. “I always wanted to be good at sports but I just wasn’t — my dad always says I’m a late bloomer.”
Keller started the series as your standard gay best friend (New York transplant Veronica Lodge’s first words to him are “Gay. Thank God. Let’s be best friends”). But the show subverts that trope pretty quickly, showing how lonely it is to be the only out guy at school.
That guy who got shot, Moose? He’s a closeted jock who Keller nearly hooked up with in the show’s pilot. (“Everything but kissing,” Moose insists.) But that was yet another rendezvous disrupted by tragedy: As Keller and Moose start to get it on down by Sweetwater River, the pair find the washed-up body of classmate Jason Blossom, whose murder is the main plot for Riverdale’s first season. Kevin and Moose try to make it work, but soon enough straight-acting Moose is back with girls. Kevin’s love life doesn’t get much better in season one: For a couple episodes he dates Joaquin, a gang member from the wrong side of town, who eventually leaves Riverdale on a bus to San Junipero (viewers of Black Mirror will catch the reference).
This past season, as the show’s core four classmates Archie, Veronica, Betty, and Jughead dealt with problems like serial killers, secret siblings, and parents at war over the town’s future, Keller’s storylines were more grounded. There was the cruising incident, sure, but also the potential for a new family as his dad and the mother of classmate Josie (of “and the Pussycats” fame) admitted they were having an affair. And like any good TV gay, Keller also directed the school musical (the bonkers and bloody Carrie, naturally), which, to make sure he had at least some share of Riverdale’s depravity, included the on-stage death of a classmate at the hands of a serial killer called the “Black Hood.”
Keller is a high-stakes update to the broader Archie universe, added to the comics in 2010 as the series’ first openly gay character. It was a major move to modernize the decades-old franchise, bringing the old-fashioned series closer to the America of today. Cott, who’s straight, says he turns to Riverdale’s writers — and especially the series’ gay showrunner, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — to best portray Keller. “At the end of the day I want it to be the best version of Kevin,” he says.
Season three, which premieres Oct. 10, will feature Keller and Moose together at last (it turns out there are some perks to your crush’s girlfriend getting murdered). “It gets a little complicated because Moose is still somewhat closeted, especially to his family.” And while his classmates have the higher-stakes plotlines — Archie’s on trial for murder, Veronica’s opening a speakeasy — Keller is joining Riverdale High’s branch of ROTC. Because — and it’d be really easy to forget this — Riverdale remains a show about high school.
Photography by John Russo. Styling by Nicolas Klam.