Cole Sprouse and I were smoking cigarettes on the roof-deck of the Hollywood apartment building where he was then living with Lili Reinhart, his costar girlfriend both in real life and on Riverdale, the teen soap that reimagines the wholesome Archie Comics characters in an alternate universe of noir camp. It was an evening in late May. The sun was setting, throwing across the hills the Technicolor golds and pinks that can make Los Angeles feel more like a colossal soundstage than an actual city. While these sorts of encounters invariably have the whiff of a production in themselves, this one felt particularly curious, since I’d been tasked with profiling Sprouse and Reinhart under peculiar conditions. At the time they made no secret of their romantic relationship—they peppered their Instagram feeds with affectionate paeans to each other, and they posed together on this cover of W, albeit playing a dystopian couple in the name of fashion. But they did not want to be interviewed together as, well, an actual couple. If this seems a bit calculated, that’s because it was. But to what end?
“I’m so glad we’re making your job more difficult,” Sprouse said, laughing, when I broached the subject. Two months later the two would part ways romantically, lending credence to my suspicions that the separate interviews might have been connected to the two of them being uncertain about their future together. But when we met, Sprouse, an affable 27-year-old who carries himself with a kind of beatnik swagger, he explained the choice with the same nonchalant diplomacy that Reinhart had exhibited when I had met her a few days earlier at a nearby coffee shop. “We’re not fighting with the idea that people group us together, but we are paired up a lot,” she had told me, meaning both as the celebrity couple that had spawned an awkward hashtag (#sprousehart) and as Riverdale’s Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones, or “Bughead,” in fan parlance, an avenging duo that has become the dominant romance on a show with no shortage of dewy entanglements. “We’re acknowledging that we’re in a relationship, but it’s a small part of who we are as people. We want our own separate identities.” On the roof, Sprouse offered up a similarly polished nugget of discretion. “Lili is an incredibly talented individual who speaks for herself and deserves her own voice box in every single way,” he said. “That alone is justification enough for me to do it like this. I don’t think we’re weaving two different narratives here.”
If the actual narrative being woven was that of two famous people in an awkward position—appearing together in a magazine when they were, in reality, uncoupling—the whole thing had some parallels with what makes Riverdale compelling as both pop entertainment and a pop-cultural phenomenon. A lurid mash-up of Gossip Girl and Twin Peaks, the show mines the hypermeta ethos and unquenchable thirst of the Instagram era with winking dexterity, rendering its saucy ridiculousness almost grave by pretending it isn’t ridiculous. It dissolves the lines separating reality from fantasy—and adults from adolescents—into highly addictive deliciousness that its fans consume like Jingle Jangle, the Pixy Stix–like drug of choice in the teens’ fictional universe. The show feels as though it’s made to be watched as much as commented on, hashtagged, meme-ified, and GIF-ed on social media, where, in 2018, #Riverdale became the third most followed hashtag globally. Sprouse and Reinhart seemed to be doing something similar by meeting me separately, calling attention to the state of their relationship by keeping it tantalizingly obscure, like an Instagram post that makes you wonder more about who took the photo than about the actual photo (while feeling a little gross for even caring). Much like when I watch Riverdale, a show I devour with unapologetic fangirl fervor, I had no choice but to be manipulated into sugary submission.
It was hard to be bothered, even once I learned that the couple I was profiling was maybe no longer a couple. Romance is a weird business for us all, and even weirder for those in show business. Besides, in person they were both highly likable people, preternaturally self-aware but not cloyingly self-conscious. Reinhart arrived at the coffee shop looking very much like she does to her 19 million followers on Instagram, which is to say, like the reserved, no-nonsense 22-year-old from Ohio that she is. “We should both just drop acid in here and we won’t have to worry about anything,” she quipped as we sat down, noting the coffee shop’s bizarre interior: pitch-black catacomb-like rooms, walls covered in graffiti. She was not dressed up or made up. She ate a chocolate chip cookie for lunch. She spoke fondly of her car, a beat-up Hyundai, which she’d bought at 18 and now keeps in Vancouver, where Riverdale shoots nine months of the year. “Cole always laughs about it,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Reinhart was refreshingly frank in discussing how the past few years have been, basically, an ever-unspooling string of brain-explosion emojis. “Only three years ago, I was eating $2 hot dogs from 7-Eleven every day,” she said, explaining that she’d been crashing on a friend’s air mattress when she first auditioned. “I applied to Urban Outfitters and a tanning salon before I booked Riverdale. It’s not like I’m used to this life.” She’s been open about her struggles with social anxiety, a condition that has not been eased by her becoming a social-media sensation in a borderless nation-state populated mainly by teens. “I don’t handle it super well,” she said of the scrutiny. “I am a very paranoid person now because of it. I watch people watching me. I look at their faces to see if they’re looking at me, if they know who I am. It’s not because I want to be recognized; I’m just trying to prepare myself. It can be startling when they come up to you when you’re not expecting it.”
Sprouse’s path to Riverdale is diametrically opposed to Reinhart’s. A Los Angeles native, he started acting when he was 8 months old, and, alongside his twin brother, Dylan, spent seven years as a Disney child star on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and its spin-off, The Suite Life on Deck. He took what he thought would be a permanent break from the industry that reared him when he went off to NYU, where he lived in the dorms, studied archaeology and anthropology, and started experimenting with photography. Then, a year after graduating, he got the call for Riverdale. He became very famous again, but this time on his own terms. “When I was younger, I was always attempting to create a semblance of home or confidence or validation or whatever it was through work,” he told me. “Now I’m in a place where I’m chasing a lifestyle.” He talked a lot about “work-life balance,” about finding meaning not through his 27 million Instagram followers but through personal endeavors, like riding his Ducati motorcycle, saving to buy a home, and continuing to pursue photography as a hobby and ancillary career.
Prone to sounding like the anthropology student he was not long ago, Sprouse spoke with wry, clinical detachment about adjusting to the vertiginous ways in which the industry changed during his absence. “Now people are concerned about how many eyes and butts in seats they can get, according to some illusory extrapolation gleaned from your social-media numbers,” he said, pulling on a Marlboro. “It’s complicated. Reinforcing the myth of yourself can be detrimental for actors. I think it destroys the mystery of you as a chameleon. Our show really capitalizes on that, but I’m conflicted about it.” He’s found a way to make that conflict part of his own digital footprint; aside from a personal Instagram page, he keeps a second account, called @camera_duels, where he sneakily photographs people sneakily photographing him. “That was just a joke poking fun at celebrity culture in general and also a genuine therapy,” he said. “I’m excited that people enjoy it”—some 5.5 million, to be exact—“but it actually did the opposite of what I wanted. It encouraged more people to want to take photos of me, creating its own Wild West duel and showdown.”
Listening to them each riff about the petri dish that is their lives, it was understandable that they’d both want to protect their formative connection from being fodder to fans, as well as keep me from having a front row seat to its bittersweet unraveling. Though Reinhart is the less sociable of the two, she said it was Sprouse who pushed for harder boundaries between their public and private lives early on. “At first, I didn’t want things private,” Reinhart said, referring to their relationship. “Now that I’m X amount of years in, I do appreciate the privacy we have, that he’s encouraged me to take. No one knows how long we’ve been together, and no one will until we’re ready to say it. No one knows how we fell in love, except for our close friends and us. It’s really special.” She alluded, briefly, to the potential logistical dilemma of them parting ways, though in the context of their fictional romance. “If and when we break up on the show, I don’t know,” she said, trailing off. “It’s weird being with an actor. You deal with shit no one has to deal with.”
For Sprouse, who had grown up in the industry, his approach to the relationship was simply a way to ensure that artifice did not eclipse what was organic. “Until you go through the paces and the dating stages and know that something is right for you, I don’t think it’s appropriate to bring others in,” he said, while also acknowledging that he fully understood how their relationship adds a shake of spice to Riverdale. “I think part of the fun that the audience had, and still has, is going: What’s up with them right now? It’s interesting!” He laughed to himself, as he often does. “But in all honesty, my own happiness and her happiness come before caring about what people are saying.”
They were in the middle of their hiatus from Riverdale when I met them, a month away from heading back to Vancouver to shoot the fourth season, where much of the online chatter will now invariably be around their real-life split as they continue to play a couple onscreen. They had also been laying the foundation for avoiding being pigeonholed as #bughead4eva, a hashtag that, yes, very much exists, if now in memoriam. Sprouse was set to film a supporting role in Silk Road, a true-crime thriller. Reinhart had just wrapped Hustlers, a stripper heist film starring Jennifer Lopez, and was soon to shoot another project, Chemical Hearts, a coming-of-age drama for Amazon that she was producing as well. They’d taken a vacation together to Mexico, and were cherishing the aimlessness of a few days in L.A.: beach time, meandering drives, nesting.
“I’d love to tell you we’re going out drinking with a bunch of clowns every night, but that’s not us,” Sprouse said, describing time off as essential for actors. For Reinhart, the brief window for recharging was critical, as the grueling schedule of television has run her a bit ragged. “I won’t lie, I am exhausted by it,” she told me. “Luckily, I love the people I work with. I can’t imagine how miserable I’d be if I hated them.” Maybe I was reading between the lines—and, who knows, maybe Reinhart wanted me to—but I couldn’t help but think she was talking about one person in particular. Wink, wink. All good.