Cole Sprouse Never Planned to Return to Acting—Then Came Riverdale

The Riverdale actor talks about growing up in the industry and what the future holds.

Photograph by Steven Klein; Styled Arianne Phillips.

Back in the early aughts, you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing Cole Sprouse. As the lead of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, alongside his twin brother Dylan, Sprouse ruled the tween set devoted to the Disney Channel alongside the likes of Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez (there was even an Avengers-style crossover between the three, a special called Wizards on Deck with Hannah Montana that aired in 2009). But while his female counterparts continued to dominate the pop culture stratosphere, Sprouse did the opposite, all but disappearing for a period of time while attending college at New York University.

Cut to 2019, however, and Sprouse is once again all over the silver screen, thanks to a starring role on The CW’s hit series Riverdale. A reimagined, dark take on the Archie comics, Sprouse stars as Jughead, the show’s omnipresent narrator alongside KJ Apa, Camila Mendes, and Lili Reinhart, with whom he posed alongside for his first W cover. Here, the 26 year old talks about growing up in the industry, taking time off for college, and his celebrity crush.

What was the first thing you auditioned for?

To be honest, I can’t remember the first thing I auditioned for. I was eight months old when I started. I’m an identical twin and so identical twins work really well in the industry when they’re babies, because of child labor laws, exploiting those child labor laws so they just switch us out, and I just kept working. My first gig was a diaper commercial. I cannot find it, which is a shame. So anyone who’s [reading] this, if you guys can find it, help me out.

Do you remember being happy on set? Do you remember liking it?

I was a baby, so I remember nothing from that age. I don’t think you’re really that conscious at eight months old. But I do remember as time went on and I continued to act, eventually some kind of self awareness kicked in and I started to question the fact that I was working. But I always, when I was quite young, had seen the entertainment industry as more of a business—a business pursuit not a passion pursuit, so it took me a while to redefine that to myself.

Did you ever pretend to switch places with Dylan?

Of course, yeah. We’ve switched places many times, but if you spend about an hour with my brother and I, it’s quite easy to tell us apart, so we don’t really get away with it too often. We actually do have identical voices, that’s probably the most identical part about us. Even the intonation with which we speak and where we place a syllabic emphasis and basically the entire way that we speak is identical, and that’s probably the most difficult, the most enigmatic part about us. But we started looking quite different probably around eight years old, and then it was too obvious when we were switching places for the same part. So then, we started playing side by side in kitschy twin roles, and then we did that until pretty much until college.

Did you decide you were tired of the industry? Was the point to go to NYU to do something different?

I decided to go to college for a couple of reasons. One of them was to prove to myself that I could study another discipline, to socialize myself because I was pretty reclusive from the industry as a child, and to give myself a break from the entertainment industry. I’d worked for all 18 years of my life, so I hadn’t really immersed myself into a greater social context and I studied archeology when I was in school and I traveled around the world for that.

Did you miss being on camera?

I think, and this is going to sound a bit more strange but, you develop a moral sickness when you’re in front of a camera for a long time. I think the cult of celebrities is where the moral sickness is. The active performance is an incredible experience and it’s really nice, but the part of the industry that’s fascinated with celebrity and idolatry, that part of the industry and the publicity and all that can be dangerously validating, especially for young men. So I found myself needing to detox from a lot of that and so I went to school.

I think when I was younger, there was a desperation to be perceived as mature, which a lot of child stars have, and many of us tried to give the audience an image of our maturity through a couple of ways, whether it’s drug use or displays of sexuality or whatever it is, we tried to show the audience that we are mature, that we’re fully realized adults, or that after puberty we’ve gone through the same blah blah blah. But I figured that going to school would be another good way of showing that, because after four years in an educational institution and a diploma, you’d done it. I truly love learning, and I loved the discipline I was studying, and I was fascinated with archeology and I traveled the world doing that and the lifestyle was beautiful and romantic.

You went on digs?

I did. I’d gone on a handful of excavations. I’d gone to Germany, France, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece, and I’d been accepted to a dig in Egypt and Mongolia but those two fell through. It was a wonderful discipline and it was competitive and it was fulfilling and I got to travel around the world and excavate real archeological treasure which was truly the most euphoric experience in my life. I didn’t really think of returning to acting, at all, and then the winds took me back.

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Lili Reinhart attends Build Series to discuss the new teen drama series “Riverdale” at Build Studio on January 26, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)

Gary Gershoff

Madelaine Petsch arrives for the 14th Annual Brass Ring Awards Dinner 2017 SESAC Latina Music Awards at Beverly Hills Hotel on June 7, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)

Gabriel Olsen

Camila Mendes attends Entertainment Weekly’s Annual Comic-Con Party 2016 at Float at Hard Rock Hotel San Diego on July 23, 2016 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/FilmMagic)

Phillip Faraone

Lili Reinhart attends ELLE’s Annual Women In Television Celebration 2017 at Chateau Marmont on January 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for ELLE)

Stefanie Keenan

Madelaine Petsch arrives to the House of CB Flagship Store Launch on June 14, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)

Jesse Grant

Camila Mendes attends the ELLE’s Annual Women In Television Celebration 2017 – Red Carpet at Chateau Marmont on January 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for ELLE)

Jonathan Leibson

Lili Reinhart attends Entertainment Weekly’s Comic-Con Bash held at Float, Hard Rock Hotel San Diego on July 23, 2016 in San Diego, California sponsored by HBO. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly)

Frazer Harrison

Madelaine Petsch attends the Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion Los Angeles fashion show at Willow Studios on August 4, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

Michael Tullberg

Camila Mendes arrives at the 2017 PaleyLive LA Spring Season “Riverdale” Screening And Conversation at The Paley Center for Media on April 27, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)

Jon Kopaloff

Lili Reinhart attends Marie Claire’s Fresh Faces event at Doheny Room on April 21, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

Jason LaVeris

Camila Mendes attends the Entertainment Weekly and PEOPLE Upfronts party presented by Netflix and Terra Chips at Second Floor on May 15, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly and PEOPLE )

Bryan Bedder

Madelaine Petsch attends the 14th Annual Global Green Pre-Oscar Gala at TAO Hollywood on February 22, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images for Fashion Media)

Allen Berezovsky

Lili Reinhart attends the Teen Choice Awards 2017 at Galen Center on August 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Frazer Harrison

Camila Mendes attends the Vulture Festival at The Standard High Line on May 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)

Andrew Toth

Madelaine Petsch attends the 2017 MTV Movie And TV Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on May 7, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Alberto E. Rodriguez

Lili Reinhart attends the Vulture Festival at The Standard High Line on May 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)

Andrew Toth

Camila Mendes attends the Teen Choice Awards 2017 at Galen Center on August 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Kevin Mazur

Madelaine Petsch attends the 27th Annual EMA Awards at Barker Hangar on September 23, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

David Livingston

How did Riverdale happen that it persuaded you to come back?

They sent me an audition. I had not really gone through the audition as much as I probably should have, but I had given my word to my manager that I would at least try out for pilot season before I decided to not give it a shot ever again. I said if I don’t book something, I’m not going to be returning, and I booked Riverdale.

Were you a fan of the Archie Comics before you started this?

I think in college, you pick one up at the grocery store when you’re drunk. I think at some point, in most people’s lives, they’ve heard the names Archie or Veronica or Betty or Jughead.

Your take on Jughead is really spectacular.

That’s the writing and how I’m able to maneuver within the writing and the direction, but I also think that was part of the challenge of making a two dimensional character, three dimensional and implanting them within a sort of realistic campy context. I think it was a lot of fun.

Did you ever go through an awkward period where you felt distance from the camera or has the camera always been your friend, so to speak?

I mean, there were plenty of awkward phases. I think I never had trouble keeping my private life private, so a lot of that awkwardness and rebellion and the strange stages of puberty, I was able to keep off the screen. But when I went to school, in university, I went through a very very strange process of acclimation, which is probably a better way of pointing it then awkward, because it was truly me reacclimatizing into a larger social context which I’d never known in my life. I was homeschooled, right, and I was not equipped with any of what we might call traditional social etiquette, so I didn’t really understand how to speak to people my own age for a very long time, and when I went to school, I learned.

Did you ever think of giving up?

No, I never thought of giving up. I was incredibly intimidating, but it was really rewarding and fulfilling. New York City has this really wonderful way of allowing you to blend in, as long as you’re walking fast enough. So I did that and I was able to take back a bit of my anonymity so to speak, which was really empowering.

When you did start Riverdale, what was your reaction to restarting your career in this regard?

It was certainly complicated. It was like returning to an old lover, but as an adult, I had much more agency. I was in control of my own career and I was able to bring a passion to it and redefine it from a business to a pursuit of passion, which was really special, and I also had no expectations. We had filmed, after the pilot had been picked up, the entire first season before it dropped. Then all of a sudden, it became this overnight success. Again, I had entered in with fresh eyes.

The nature of the industry had changed quite a bit since I was on Disney Channel because social media had become this incredibly prevalent thing for celebrity culture and there was a much closer connection between an audience and a person of recognition which was an interesting dynamic that I had never really had before. I had sort of stayed off social media for a long time.

It was a complicated return. I fell in love with it again, and I questioned the nature of celebrity a lot, the celebrity culture outside of the active performance.

I think it’s amazing that you took a break and came back.

Everyone in the industry I was working with told me it was a bad idea to leave.

Jughead is, in a weird way, the thoughtful center of the show. He’s narrating to a large degree and also observing everything. It must be interesting to play.

One of the reasons I liked Jughead’s character when I read for him is because he was the narrator and I really didn’t anticipate that he was going to be a bigger part of the show than he is now. In the pilot, he was only really in two scenes and then over time, throughout the first season, he slowly but surely became more integrated into the story. It was a comfortable thing for me to say yes to Riverdale at first because I was thinking “Oh, I’m just going to go and do some ADR and not really have to work too much.” Then, sure enough, I was pulled in.

Do you think you’ll ever give up acting and just become a photographer?

Possibly. I think the natural consequence of photography and acting is going to eventually travel into some sort of directing. I feel like I’d love it. But perhaps that’s only because I yearn for control.

Some questions about you: where was your first date?

In the back of a hearse. This is a weird story, that’s where I got my first kiss too. Charlene was her name, strange name as well. Her father was an offbeat man. He was an avid Hot Wheels collector but then he also owned a hearse and he was part of this hearse club which is probably where my dark sense of humor comes from. We sat in that area of the casket and we pulled up in the curtains and we’re making scary ghoulish faces out of the window to passing cars, which we thought was hilarious at the time and I still think it’s quite hilarious. Then, we pecked on the lips and it was just lightning in a bottle. I got the kiss of death.

What was your favorite TV show growing up?

Certainly SpongeBob, when I was a kid, there’s not a doubt in my mind. I’m hard-pressed to think too many other people my age from that generation would not say the same. I didn’t watch too much television when I was a kid. I wasn’t a sitcom guy. I was filming so much and working so much that I didn’t really have time to keep up with weekly television.

What was your favorite movie?

My favorite movie still, to this day, is a Gilliam movie called The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen. I’d seen it when I was super young and then I rediscovered it. And I think a lot of people who fall in love with film, fall in love first through some childhood movie. And then they go through this little journey where they watch so much that they develop these kind of super critical views on what a good movie is and how great a movie should be and then their ideas change about what their favorite movie is according to prestige and a bunch of other things.

Did you have a sort of professional crush growing up on any particular actor?

I often found myself head over heels with the older women I was working with, which was strange. So much so that I couldn’t look them in the eyes for certain scenes, which of course was a deeply upsetting thing to the director. But I remember falling in love with the woman who played Adam Sandler’s love interest in Big Daddy. That was the first one. I mean, in Big Daddy, I was six. But I couldn’t explain why I was just infatuated, because they were beautiful, of course but at six, I didn’t really have the greatest emotional connections, And then Jennifer Aniston on Friends, when I was working on that.

What was your favorite birthday?

22 years old, when I hired three clowns to go and drink with me and my friends around LA. Hands down. First it was just going to be one clown and then he invited his clown buddies. There was Laughy Pants, who was kind of like a Ringling Circus clown, Rex the Impossible, who was kind of a dime and penny down-on-his-luck clown, and then Golden Tulips, who was kind of a sassy, loudmouth clown. And the agreement between my friends and I was we’ll go out and drink with them but none of us can acknowledge that they are clowns or they have to pay the bill for the entire night.

So we just brought them free drinks and had fun and they were doing tricks and stuff that we couldn’t really acknowledge and we brought them to this bar. I think it was Davey Wayne’s or whatever it was in LA and we had three clowns in there and the manager came up and goes, “Hey, you guys got to go, you got to go.” We’re like, “Why? We’re not doing anything. We’re just drinking with clowns.” And he goes, “No. You guys got to go. You’re killing the vibe,” is what he told us, which is the most LA thing ever. And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “Well, we are the vibe. I brought three clowns to a bar. That’s the vibe now. That’s the vibe.” And then Golden Tulips ended up knowing the manager and she, I guess, had maybe once known him intimately. She got us another hour. But then they kicked us out. So we went to the jazz bar across the street and they loved us.

Do you have a go-to karaoke song?

I have to be quite drunk.”I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. It’s funny, I think singing and probably stand-up comedy are two things that make me incredibly intimidated. I have tremendous respect for people that can do stand-up comedy, especially in this kind of social media age where everyone can technically record all of your successes and failures. I think the people who are stand-up comedians are a confident, confident group of people.

What was your favorite Halloween costume? Did you have to coordinate with your brother or could you be different things?

When we were super young, we wore matching costumes not by choice, which is horrible. But my favorite costume, I built for myself in college. It was much more like a cosplay than it was a costume. It was Link from the Legend of Zelda. I was a Zelda fanatic. I got real chain mail. You can get anything on the internet and definitely full chain mail. But then I also thought like, “Oh, I’ll have full chain mail in case the apocalypse hits and the water wars really start coming about.” You never know.

What was the first CD you bought?

My brother would just rip into me for this. The first CD I bought was Nelly Furtado. My brother just ridiculed me about it because I fell in love with her.