Let’s get this said upfront: even before being cast as “Riverdale’s” Jughead, Cole Sprouse had serious comic book bona fides.
Sprouse, of course, is certainly best known for his childhood acting career alongside his twin brother Dylan – most notably in the big screen Adam Sandler comedy “Big Daddy” and the popular Disney Channel series “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” but that’s just one portion of the actor’s life. After a hiatus from Hollywood in which he graduated from New York University, he spent time working in one of Los Angeles’ premiere comics and pop cultural meccas, Meltdown Comics, where he cultivated a keen sense of the comic book medium, its industry and its fans.
Now, in his first role returning to acting since entering college, Sprouse is bringing a comics connoisseur’s sensibility to playing one of it’s most enduring – and iconoclastic –icons: the ever-snarky, always-hungry, Archie-faithful Jughead Jones. As he reveals to CBR, he’s done his homework – and armed himself with plenty of snacks.
CBR: Did “Archie” have a specific place in your pop culture consciousness before this came along?
Cole Sprouse: Sure. Oh yeah, definitely. I think to a greater or lesser extent, the symbolism of “Archie” and the characters of “Archie” sort of exists in this cultural memory. I never read the “Archie” comics or the digests too heavily when I was younger, but I was a comic reader. I worked at Meltdown Comics in L.A.
So when I got the role, I obviously dove into it really heavily. We were given a large package of reading materials to pull from. Many of which were the reboots of the “Archie” comics, by Mark Waid and [Chip] Zdarsky and all that. So I understood that the tone we were looking at was something more modern than the digests. But of course, I knew Jughead. We all know Archie, we all know Jughead and Betty and Veronica, and that narrative.
Jughead’s a cornerstone figure in the whole “Archie” world. What did you want to take from the traditional Jughead that’s existed for all these decades, and marry to what this version of Jughead was going to be, so you had an essence, but he also felt fresh.
A super anti-establishment, super-against the grain, kind of philosophically-driven character. Jughead, even in the digest, is super-rebellious. He’s quick, he’s really intelligent. He just doesn’t care to apply himself in certain scenarios. I think that’s really what I wanted to channel with that.
The comedy for this – Jughead’s also the comic relief in many of the digests, and the way that I’m playing that in this is that he is using comedy as a defense mechanism for otherwise showing real emotion. Where Archie has the ability to be honest with like women and people around him, Jughead is very much the opposite where he will try and defuse a situation with a joke more often than he’s able to defuse a situation by just being honest or nice, which I think is a more fun way to play comedy in this darker take. So that remains the same.
In terms of the eating stuff, I’ve tried to have little snacks and things that I’ll be munching on in almost every episode or every scene to just allude to the fact that I’m consistently eating. Did you ever read “Death Note?” L actually is very much a good character to think about when thinking about Jughead for this show, because he’s like the sleuth. The weirdo that’s always eating.
What kind of conversations happened about the traditional Jughead headgear?
We have a really cool episode coming – Episode Seven – we do…I don’t want to spoil too much, but you get to see a lot of the original stuff. But a beanie crown seemed to be a more modern, more adequate fit for the tone of this show. It’s still pronged. It’s still weird. It’s a different kind of hat. But it remains.
He uses it kind of as a source of showing that he’s maybe a special snowflake, and I think he likes that about himself. That’s kind of how he uses it. I have to tuck all my hair in, and I have hat hair at the end of every single work day, but that’s alright.
You obviously grew up around LA and the entertainment industry. Tell me about the show’s small town gothic vibe: what appeals to you about telling stories in that context?
I grew up in a sound stage, really, which is kind of like a very closed little universe. It felt like…I don’t know, the way that this is being written and the way that people describe a small town, which is something I’ve never really lived in, but describe it, is very much the way that we used to talk about our set. So in some way, I think it helps me come to terms with whatever little universe that was that happened in there.
YeahI like the small town because often times they serve as microcosms for larger social experiments, and we use them as these catalysts for deeper questioning about perhaps society in a larger scale. I think that’s how we’re looking at “Riverdale.”
In your research, what appealed to you both about the traditional, quaint “Archie” Riverdale, and what has appealed to you about the rebooted Mark Waid take?
For some reason I hadn’t thought about this too much until now: America right now, we always have this sort of fascination that exists, right now more than ever, with this once great-form of America. “Make America Great Again” is a whole campaign by [Donald] Trump to sort of play to this narrative. That life was better and easier just after the war. This is also the time period “Archie” rose out of.
So when most people think of the “Archie” property, they are also simultaneously associating it with this great America, golden age America, which in actuality is a time of social hardship and financial hardship for people who weren’t straight, and white, and male. So the more subversive take on this is, it definitely plays with this idea of a once great thing: a kind of post-9/11 golden age, whatever this town can be.
It’s more realistic, it’s more honest, it’s more contemporary. I think it’s as if the citizens within the 50s were actually speaking of themselves in a contemporary period, and not this glorious, glamorized, “Mad Men” narrative fiction that gets passed on about an age that was real, and lived, and human, and debased, and honest.
That’s what I like about the duality of the show, is that it plays with that, very much like “Twin Peaks” did. That’s really what I like about this. I hope, and I hope we explore this more, but we’re confronting that great America, golden age America: “Hey guys, this isn’t that. It wasn’t that before.” It can exist as a comic, but a comic is not an accurate representation of that. If there were actual human narratives within this comic, deep, and brooding, and understanding, and empathetic, this is how it might take place.
Tell me about your relationship with the bigger world of comics, your years at Meltdown, and what the medium means to you at this stage of your life.
It’s kind of an assisted medium, because it’s not reading, you’re not reading a book where you’re not assisted by visual representations of certain characters. So inherently, comics become a medium in which people can get really frustrated or incendiary when the visual side of that medium is broken, or is tampered with, or is reimagined.
I think, unlike a book, or unlike a less assisted medium of entertainment, people have a right to be incendiary about it, because it’s given to us. We don’t want a different costume for Wolverine. We want the same costume that we’ve always seen.
Or from the era that we grew up with.
Yeah, precisely right. We feel this profound sense of ownership for certain comic properties, which we’ve seen in this. That demands respect, and that demands investigation. But we also have to be…As fans, I’ve been incendiary about comic properties. I get it. I have to be flexible enough as a fan to go like, “Huh. If the X-Men were a theater troupe, would it be cool to see them in an ultimate form of themselves?” “Is it cool to see Hulk go to Mars? Is it cool to see a Planet Hulk?” “Is it cool to play with these ideas and toy with these ideas?”
And the good thing about the “Archie” universe is that it’s big, and open, and fluid enough for something like this to take place now. But it took “Afterlife with Archie.” It took Zdarsky’s “Jughead.” It took the Predator coming. It took all of these weird little off-brand preparations for something like “Riverdale” to exist.
Tell me about, because you’re familiar with fandom, you got insta-fans the minute you were cast before they saw a minute of your performance. They’re like, “Yes! Jughead, I love him!”
Sure, and it’s not right, inherently, because you don’t know if I’m good or bad for the part!
What’s been interesting about your fan interaction up until now as it gets closer to the show coming out?
You have the good and the bad. You have the people who dislike you as the role, and like you as the role, but they’re both uninformed. So it doesn’t really feel like, as of now, they’re only really informed by the digest and the comics. They’re only really informed by the previous version of this property that they knew. So inherently, it’s not that they’re uninformed, it’s just that they don’t have the comparison to make yet.
I just hope people don’t watch the show mindlessly. Even if they don't like it, I’m fine with that. It’s bringing out a reaction from them, and that’s ultimately your goal as a character, is to say like, or as a character actor, to have people react and respond to the work in a good or bad way, but at least in an emotional way.
That’s what I hope doesn’t come from fandom, is that we’re 12 seasons in, and people are watching poorly written something just because it’s the property they love. We shouldn’t readily ingest something because of fanaticism. That’s dogma at that point. I don’t want people to be dogmatic about liking “Archie” or not responding to “Riverdale.”
Have you prepped your co-stars, given how you have some insight?
A little bit.
Have you given them some notions of what they should expect?
No, and that’s probably because I don’t know how this is going to differ from like Disney’s process. They’re also not children. I was a child. I understand the fame part of it, but this is kind of new for me too, because I’m coming back into this for the first time since college. I don’t know if I have all the answers to this yet, and it feels wrong to be like, “Don’t worry buddy, I’m here for you. Look up to me for advice.”
To be honest, I’m dealing with it actively. Yes, I’m still very much currently trying to decide if this is still right for me. I think people should always deal with that in different ways. If they want advice, and it’s an answer that I can possibly give them, of course I’m going to be there to help them in any way I can to help prepare them for that. But I’m still dealing with it too.
Is your brother Dylan thinking about coming back to Hollywood at all?
I think he is. But his pet project since we graduated has been a large meadery. It’s a brewery and bar over in Brooklyn, which is great. It’s called All-Wise, and he signed the lease for that about two weeks ago. So that’s getting off the ground, and once that’s off the ground and running, and it’s being managed correctly, who knows? He might come back. But we wanted something more permanent, something like a home base. We’re playing it smart.
After that long break from acting, that first day back in action for you, what was that like?
Weird. Really weird. It felt kind of like “The Truman Show.” I don’t know. I realize now that I’m ten episodes in, a lot of my acting now has been me actively trying to unpack what it meant to act on Disney, and act on like a real, real project. Because Disney acting is child’s theater. It’s super-loud and boisterous, and you’re trying to capture the attention of children. It’s almost like theater. It’s very dramatic. It’s, “NO!” Easy-to-read punchlines, and so on and so forth.
It’s funny because Jughead is kind of a calm character, but he’s supposed to also have this very real side of himself. It’s interesting as an actor right now, learning what parts to keep from that old part of acting, and what parts to completely do away with.
Your take on the character is the most surprising – and welcome – to me. I thought you brought an interesting new quality to it.
Oh wow, thank you. Now that I’m watching the show, I think Jughead is the most different character out of all of them from the comics, which is going to, like I said, piss people off. And some like yourself are going to be like, “This is interesting and welcome.” Hopefully I have more people saying what you’re saying. He’s definitely the most different character from the comics so far.