From child star to cult icon, HUNGER unpicks identity and nostalgia with the 'Riverdale' actor...
The following feature was originally published in 2017 in HUNGER 13, the Mad World issue.
“I’m on my fifteenth cup of coffee already, but I am a New Yorker after all!” jokes Cole Sprouse. It’s just gone 10am in LA and the actor is wide awake, squeezing in our interview on his last free day before flying back to Vancouver to continue filming season two of Riverdale, the drama series that has been described as this generation’s Twin Peaks. Based on the Archie comic books, the first season tells the dark tale of the fallout following the murder of a teen from the town’s most prominent family. Each episode is narrated by Cole’s character Jughead, the socially awkward loner who wants to be the next Truman Capote.
The show has been a ratings hit, its second season (which starts this month) is the most anticipated on the CW network and its young protagonists have all been thrust into the limelight, clocking up millions of followers each. But this is nothing new for Cole. The 25-year-old has been acting, along with his twin brother Dylan, since he was eight months old. Despite a brooding new look, fans (or anyone who was a young teen circa 2005) will recognise him as one half of the Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, which catapulted the pair to Olsen twin levels of fame in the late noughties. And, fun fact for anyone older than that – way back when he was Ross’ son Ben in Friends.
But whereas so many child stars fall into the traps of excess, suffering identity crises as soon as they hit their teenage years, Cole managed to slip – somewhat at least – under the radar. How? He chose New York University over nightclubs and opted for a major in archaeology, wanting to regain authority over his decisions, broaden his horizons and only return to acting if he actually chose to. Luckily for Riverdale fans, he did.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit intimidating,” he says of the decision. “My background with acting is deeply interwoven in my family life and my childhood, it’s a Peter Pan-like narrative, something that was golden but could also be a bit dubious. To return to a position of privilege within the entertainment industry to most people would feel like a no-brainer and, after I unpacked all of that, I saw how lucky I am to be included in a percentile of actors that are able to do that. Then the decision made a lot more sense.”
Was there pressure, I ask. “Sure, but I think a lot of that pressure was through my own over-thinking,” he says. “At the point that I decided to return, my brother and I were still being recognised quite often so it wasn’t like we had faded out totally as we had anticipated. I never could have foreseen the staying power of social media and I had gone to college in an attempt to pull away, but by the end of our five years there, in terms of recognition, nothing had really changed. I suppose really the only thing that was keeping me back was wondering if I’d lived enough life to come to terms with an empathy that is the currency of acting.”
Growing up under a microscope and living out your formative years as a commodity in front of millions can take its toll on your identity – something that numerous other Disney darlings can attest to, but Cole is eloquent, intelligent and has a sagacity that belies his age. He’s certainly no stereotype.
“It’s interesting. I escaped a lot of what tormented my peers. My brother and I don’t come from much wealth and a lot of our work since we were eight months old has been us slowly but surely climbing through the hoops financially that allowed us a bit more freedom,” he says. “I don’t regret anything about my younger career, mainly because we were children and we didn’t have too much power, but also because it gave us the privilege to be where we are now. It put us through college and it eased a lot of the burdens that people live with day-to-day.”
“I think a lot of my peers came from tremendous wealth so they’re only seeing the social detriments that come from fame, celebrity and child stardom and that’s an inappropriate way of looking at it,” he adds. “Sure, when you’re a child star you’re being sold as an immature object and when you start to grow and you go through puberty and get these complicated sexually mature thoughts you can have an identity crisis because the public can’t see you as anything but a child, and that can cause a bit of cognitive dissonance between yourself and your own identity, but I think grow the fuck up! Stop being a whiny little bastard about it! To even be a working entertainer in Hollywood is such a rare privilege. And I know I keep dropping the ‘privilege’ word but thousands and thousands of people work jobs they do not fucking want and in their off time study and audition to try and get a role that they do not resonate with, and I’m very thankful for what I have.”
While Riverdale on the surface is a show dealing with murder, relationships and small town dynamics, the subtle politics hasn’t been lost on viewers – or Cole – either. An idyllic, utopian Americana with the rug pulled from under it and thrown into chaos sounds chillingly familiar right about now.
“It’s funny, I was having this conversation when the show first started,” says Cole. “Riverdale was an interesting timepiece because when it first arose it came from a comic that was based on the Golden America narrative – the perfect [idea] of America that has been historically proven to be untrue, very complicated and socially terrifying for anyone that isn’t a white man. And it was the unpacking of that nostalgia and Golden Age narrative that was also the language used by Trump on the campaign trail.”
“When the show itself was contrasted against that language it became an interesting little piece to watch. It was a coincidence, but I think the writers themselves recognised the parallels between our view of nostalgia as a society and our view of the past, and breaking that down has been a conversation that I know they have had as a team. I think that as long as the creative team on this show can do that comprehensively with depth and realism then it’s something that’s really intriguing and quite fun to poke around with.”
Speaking of poking fun, Cole takes a similar approach to social media, referring to his Twitter account as a “joke toilet”, where instead of gushy tweets about loving fans and #goals, he posts irreverent and subversive comments about himself and society, with quips such as, “They say you are what you eat, but I don’t remember eating a jaded, anxious human being.” He reasons that people are sick of advertising or seeing models on yachts and are looking for some semblance of realism. If his near 15million followers are anything to go by, he’s right. And while more followers equates to more social sway, Cole doesn’t think that celebrities should be expected to have a social conscience just because they have a platform. “That’s kind of a silly idea,” he says. “It also gets a lot of celebrities who, in my opinion, are severely under qualified for political statement, confusing their audience and stepping into territory where they’re very uninformed. It only ends up doing more damage.”
Thankfully Cole isn’t among the ranks of those spewing out ignorant views and, whether he agreed to it or not, seems a pretty solid role model for his generation. When discussing politics, social change and the enormous burden left on a generation by its elders it’s clear that he empathises with, and shares the disenfranchisement of, his millennial peers. “We’re at a point now, politically, environmentally, educationally and intellectually, where our generation is not really going to have a choice but to get involved and be active,” he says. “I think there is a feeling of serious dissatisfaction with the older generation that have not had the same level of responsibility because they’ve taken it quite easy, they’re still passing criticism on a disenfranchised generation of youths that really are stepping up to the plate because they have to. Even the name millennial is kind of spit upon. We’re called an entitled, lazy group of people, which is exhausting to hear because we’re bombarded by narratives in media that the end is nigh thanks to the older generation!”
“Nowadays you can have a PhD and a trade skill and still be asked to do free intern work, which is another exhausting fucking idea. I think truthfully a lot of us feel disenfranchised by the older generation and that might give us an air of pretension but we’re at a point now where we have to act on many modern world issues, and it’s not what we’ve necessarily chosen but it’s a hand that we’ve been dealt, so we have to figure out a way to do it with grace, confidence and, mainly, success.”
When the pressure is mounting, Cole, unlike other actors, finds his escape behind the camera, not in front of it. For the past year he has also been working as a professional photographer, shooting campaigns and editorials and keeping an expertly curated Instagram account of his work, much of which focuses on melancholic models juxtaposed with lush, vivid landscapes. “There is something profoundly escapist about taking a subject into the woods, off the grid, staying behind the camera and making something beautiful out of it and then giving it to an audience who are also hungry for that same escapism,” he says. “Having them appreciate the same kind of narrative that you do is a wonderful thing. For me it’s also a very rewarding pursuit artistically because you’re in control of the vision that gets put out, whereas as an actor you are a cipher for other people’s narratives.
“We also live in an age now where the image has become the single most important and common form of information digestion and so to be a photographer in the modern day is a very validating thing. It’s empowering.”
Cole’s love of photography is deep-rooted, and a quick look at his portfolio confirms that he’s no hobby photographer. Growing up he was fascinated with adventure photography and megalithic landscapes, falling in love with the epic works of the likes of Steve McCurry and Sebastião Salgado, which pushed him to study archaeology at NYU. “Now I take inspiration from any photographer that has a clear unique vision of the world around them – no matter what age they are,” he says.
So as the next phase of his life kicks into gear, what’s next? “I’ve been acting since I was eight months old. It’s been my life for 25 years, but I’ve never felt as appreciated in acting as I do in photography. As long as acting or photography is a fulfilling pursuit then I’ll continue to do it, which is the only way that I think you should treat your profession. I’ll go artistically wherever I feel appreciated. I really think that’s the key.”
Riverdale is on Netflix now.
17 December 2019