When Cole Sprouse left Hollywood, he didn’t think he’d ever come back. He was 18, and he’d been acting alongside his identical twin brother since they were in diapers. The choice to work as a kid had not been his own: His single mother wanted to be around for the boys and have a steady career, and putting her twins in the entertainment industry seemed like a “lucrative alternative,” he says now.
But then Sprouse and his brother, Dylan, landed their own Disney Channel show, “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.” By 13 they’d signed a licensing agreement with Dualstar Entertainment Group, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s company, to develop their own quarterly lifestyle magazine, ringtones and cologne. They were full-blown teen heartthrobs.
And yet when it came time to apply for college, the twins decided — unlike fellow Disney stars Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez or the Jonas Brothers — that they wanted to pursue higher education and enrolled at NYU.
“My brother and I were getting recognized a lot. It became one of those things that we realized we had just sort of taken as gospel since we were little kids, and that there was another path through life,” Sprouse, now 26, recalls. “I was completely content, at the time, to let the Disney shows exist within this little nostalgic bubble and I was ready to move on.”
But somehow here he is now, sitting on the balcony of a ritzy hotel smoking Marlboros, promoting his first leading role in a movie, “Five Feet Apart.” And the film, a romantic drama about two young lovers with cystic fibrosis, is not the only project he’s taken on since graduating with honors from NYU in 2015. For the past two years he’s starred as Jughead on the CW series “Riverdale,” a teen drama based on the Archie comics.
The program, which has already been renewed for a fourth season, has reignited Sprouse’s popularity. On Instagram, he has nearly 24 million followers, many of whom are obsessed with tracking his real-life relationship with his on-screen love interest, Lili Reinhart.
“Riverdale” also rekindled Sprouse’s love for acting. During college he did none of it, opting to study something completely different: archaeology, geographic information systems and satellite imaging. He became interested in the field because his grandfather was a geologist and “it seemed like an academic discipline that was really competitive and challenging. I fancied testing if I could do something like that.”
He traveled to Germany, France and Bulgaria for excavations, and on one dig, after spending six weeks hunched over a 1-by-1-foot trench of dirt with a toothpick, he pulled a 35,000-year-old Aurignacian stone blade out of the ground. Following graduation, he began working in cultural resource management as an archaeological assistant in a Brooklyn artifact laboratory. He was thinking about going into academia: studying at graduate school, researching a specific time period or peoples and becoming a professor.
But then he heard from his acting manager, who, per Sprouse’s request, had left him alone during his four years at NYU.
“He asked me to come back for a single pilot season. I was on this path, but I said ‘OK, if I don’t book anything, I don’t think I want to do acting anymore,’” he says. He did book something — “Riverdale” — and soon began to realize it wasn’t acting itself he had an issue with.
“From a very young age, the industry had been defined as a business,” he continues, “and it took me going away to school for a while and redefining that to find [performing] as a passion again.”
On “Riverdale,” Sprouse’s Jughead is a something of an outsider — an artsy writer with a signature beanie and leather jacket. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the show’s creator, initially thought the actor might be a better fit for Archie, the lovable jock. But after reading the pilot script, Sprouse expressed interest in Jughead — even though the character only had one scene in the episode.
“It was already kind of a sign that he viewed himself differently,” says the showrunner. “I think Cole is an old soul. He’s done a lot, and he’s seen a lot, and I think that gives him a little bit of wisdom that other actors his age might not have. When he smiles, he looks like a true 15-year-old kid. But when he furrows his brow, he looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
When it came to tackling his first adult movie part — he and his brother were in Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy” as boys — Sprouse didn’t want to stray too far outside of his comfort zone. Recognizing the persona he’d established on “Riverdale,” he chose to play a similar archetype in “Five Feet Apart”: Will, a brooding teenager whose rebellious spirit attracts his romantic interest, played by Haley Lu Richardson of “Split” and “Support the Girls.”
“This role was interesting in a larger business sense, because a return to film also meant a question of how much of [the ‘Riverdale’] audience would turn out,” says Sprouse. “I didn’t want it to feel so incredibly distinct.”
The CBS Films production, out Friday, follows two CF patients as they fall in love but are unable to physically touch due to risk of cross infection. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic, progressive disease that affects lung function, making it difficult to breathe; the average life expectancy for the 30,000 afflicted in the U.S. is 37.5 years.
Justin Baldoni, who makes his directorial debut on “Five Feet Apart,” is also an actor on a CW series: “Jane the Virgin.” But he and Sprouse never crossed paths at network affairs. Instead, Baldoni began thinking of him for the role after catching some of his interviews on morning talk shows.
“Cole’s a great actor, but I was actually more interested in who he was off-screen,” explains Baldoni. “Cole had to grow up a lot faster than the normal kid. He was surrounded by adults: directors and producers and writers and people that were basically employing him. … When you grow up with cystic fibrosis, you grow up with doctors and nurses. Those are your friends. You learn medical terminology. You have to understand regimens and taking care of yourself in a way that regular kids don’t. You’re forced to grow up a lot faster. So there was an interesting parallel between Cole’s life and Will’s life.”
Baldoni came to “Five Feet Apart” having steeped himself in the world of CF. He had the idea for the film while working on a web series about those with terminal illnesses, “My Last Days.” One of the episodes focused on an 18-year-old girl named Claire Wineland, a CF patient whom Baldoni became so close to that he ultimately hired her to serve as a consultant on “Five Feet Apart.”
Sprouse spent a lot of time with Wineland, who died last September three months after filming was completed, talking about how CF affects both the mind and the body, including how the disease makes it difficult to gain or maintain weight. Together, he says, they came to the conclusion that it would be “a really powerful choice to embody that physicality,” and so with the aid of a nutritionist, Sprouse lost 25 pounds over the course of five weeks.
Sprouse initially told Baldoni he was somewhat hesitant to sign onto “Five Feet Apart” because he knows the scrutiny that films in this genre — “The Fault in Our Stars,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Me Before You” — can face for romanticizing illness.
“But I’m a believer that even if it might feel like the volume is a little bit too high within that genre, it still serves as an amazing platform to discuss something like cystic fibrosis,” says Sprouse. “And the star-crossed lover narrative — this is something that has existed before Shakespeare to Ovid and Pyramus and Thisbe. It’s part of our cultural memory bank. It’s one of those motifs that we just understand so well.”
Sprouse, who has the kind of poster-boy mane that’s perfect for brushing out of his eyes, frequently peppers his speech with these kind of literary references. He and his brother were the first ones on their father’s side of the family to go to college, which is “positive upward momentum” he’s proud of. Someday he hopes to spark a larger conversation about the California High School Proficiency Examination, a test that many young actors take at 16 so they can receive the legal equivalent of a high school diploma and no longer be considered minors.
“It basically cripples young academics who are working children from feeling capable to take the SAT and the ACT,” Sprouse says. “So many of us don’t go to college because our skill sets are not defined enough to be able to take those tests that would eventually allow us to apply. And kids are encouraged to do it because if you’re 18, you can work more hours and hypothetically make more money — and also because as a kid, you always want to sit back in your high chair and go ‘Yeah, I’m an adult.’”
On set, his collaborators have come to value his intelligence. Aguirre-Sacasa says that Sprouse “does a ton of work” on the “Riverdale” scripts, asking questions about the scenes and offering different points of view.
“A lot of times our episodes are homages to different films,” the executive says. “So Cole asked: ‘Can you send me a list of the movies you’re referencing in any given episode?’ And I’m that exact same way.”
While Sprouse no longer dreams of leading excavations in far-off lands, he’s found another non-acting passion that fulfills the “desire for learning and otherness” that archaeology did: photography. A few years ago, he walked into One World Trade Center in New York wearing a button-up T-shirt and asked the receptionist at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, “Hey, can anyone give me a job?”
He was pointed in the direction of former creative director Yolanda Edwards, who was willing to toss him a few unpaid assignments. Since then he’s landed a handful of high-profile gigs for Elle, W Magazine, Adidas and J Brand. He’s planning to spend the majority of his upcoming hiatus from “Riverdale” working as a fashion photographer.
Sprouse showcases some of his work on his Instagram account, which he admits is “very curated.” He’ll often delete old photos of himself, and he’s careful not to post too many photos of his girlfriend, Reinhart.
“I’ve girded my private life very intentionally,” he says. “It’s one of those things that I still sort of grapple with, and Lili and I grapple with.”
Asked if he thought about how much attention dating his costar might garner, he says he had no choice in the matter: “We legitimately could not stay away from one another.”
Beyond Reinhart, he and his cast mates — who film in Vancouver — are exceptionally close, especially of late, as they grapple with the loss of “Riverdale” costar Luke Perry.
“It’s been very, very hard this week,” he acknowledges, referring to juggling his film press responsibilities with his grief. “But the family has asked us all to keep it as private as possible, and I respect them tremendously through this time, so I continue to do so. We go back tomorrow, and it’ll be nice to be together. We all got together and talked it out a couple days ago, and then they gave us a couple of days off of production to acclimate, which was really wonderful.”
As for his future as an actor, Sprouse says he doesn’t expect to leave Hollywood again any time soon.