Cole Sprouse by Ellen Von Unwerth
Ellen Von Unwerth/2B Management
For those of us that grew up consuming the Disney Channel during its Golden Age, Cole Sprouse and his identical twin, Dylan, were demigods to legions of prepubescent kids around the world. They started their brand of adorable and almost prodigious comedic timing in 1999’s Big Daddy, which led to their Disney stardom on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Suite Life on Deck.
Like most child star narratives that play out in the public eye, too much fame and success, at too impressionable of an age, typically results in negative press in adulthood. Though Cole managed to dodge that trajectory—unlike some of his tween star counterparts—he still had to take a hard look at where he stood with the profession. After nearly a decade-long Disney Channel run, it would almost be odd if Cole didn’t have a stormy relationship with acting; was it a career he could be passionate about, or just a job that he’s had since he was eight months old? After all, acting did take up much of what he and the public claimed was his identity.
So, against a lot of advice from people in the industry, he enrolled at NYU with the intent of never returning to acting again. Many saw this as a rebellious move by Disney’s darling, questioning why he would leave his career behind to study archaeology.
But his subversive nature is the very thing that has cemented him in the cultural lexicon of today, fully eclipsing any remnants of the Suite Life heyday. Take, for example, his instagram account @camera_duels. This account is entirely dedicated to undermining the bizarre, overexposed nature of celebrity and social media by posting photos of people trying to take photos of him in the public. What started as his way to cope with his anger at the never-ending surveillance of his life now has a cool five million followers. It seems like whatever Cole is doing, people respond to in droves.
He’s returned to the screen since graduating college and has picked up his fourth season as the brooding narrator Jughead in CW’s Archie Comics adaptation, Riverdale. So it’s safe to say that Cole Sprouse has returned, but this time it’s on his own terms. Though it wasn’t an easy road for him travel back into acting again, he’s emerged as a renegade voice for this generation; in this day and age of the distracted, click-bait, intellectual abyss, we clearly missed—and let’s face it, desperately needed—having a singular, no holds barred voice like his. This following conversation is a peek into his contemplative mind, as he speaks about his approach to acting, his complicated yet pragmatic stance on social media, and what’s next for him in the coming years.
What is your relationship with your brother like? And do you have that telepathic connection that some twins claim that they have?
No, there’s no telepathic connection, but we’re still very, very close. We try to talk every day and see each other if we’re in the same city. But the way that I try to explain the telepathic connection in the way that I think it makes the most sense to people is that it’s kind of like a bible of inside jokes. Imagine if you had been raised with your best friend, and you guys had seen all the same experiences your entire youth. Anytime a new experience crossed your path, it reminded both of you of something that happened to you a while back, you guys could turn to that bible and have this shared sense of consciousness, so to speak, through an inside joke that would remind you both of an experience that you guys had shared. So that’s the closest way I can sort of liken the kitschy sort of idea of telepathy.
Do you ever wonder what your life would’ve looked like if you didn’t amass such a huge acting resume before you turned 18? And what do you think you would be doing instead?
I’ve thought about it a little bit. My mother’s side of the family was deeply interested in the arts, and my father’s side of the family is the blue-collar, hard-working type. It’s kind of hard to play out completely because I started when I was eight months old. So I haven’t known anything other than that sort of work ethic. My dad and mom are from humble paths, so I can’t imagine I would’ve had the same influences that I do now or the same web of connections or privileges that I would’ve been given access to if I hadn’t worked since I was a small kid. I was also living in California at the time, and so much of the economy of southern California is based around the entertainment industry, so it’d be kind of hard to imagine I wouldn’t have ever at least taken a stab at it.
“I would say that truly, the most medicinal approach to the kind of plagues that come alongside child acting or entertainment when you’re a kid is temperance, and trying to remind yourself to be humble. Also, surrounding yourself and establishing yourself a solid group of friends that are there for honest reasons and have the ability to tell you that you’re being a piece of shit if need be. But one of the greatest boons that I had, truly, was my brother. That and a deep rooted cynicism about the industry as something more than just a job.”
So you’ve also talked a lot about these sort of isolation, anxiety, and the identity upheaval that usually plagues a lot of child actors. And in addition, you’ve also talked about how you kind of went on that journey to unpack your early rise to fame, and all the heavy expectations that came with it. So how did you navigate that chapter of your life? And where and who did you seek wisdom from during that time?
I think when it came to seeking wisdom, that it was really difficult. Because there’s an incredibly small percentage of people in my position, and my brother’s position, so it’s hard to seek advice or even be given access to successful cases of people who end up rising out of it.
I would say that truly, the most medicinal approach to the kind of plagues that come alongside child acting or entertainment when you’re a kid is temperance, and trying to remind yourself to be humble. Also, surrounding yourself and establishing yourself a solid group of friends that are there for honest reasons and have the ability to tell you that you’re being a piece of shit if need be. But one of the greatest boons that I had, truly, was my brother. That and a deep-rooted cynicism about the industry as something more than just a job.
I think when you look at the arts and the entertainment industry, it’s important that we remind ourselves that it’s an industry and leave it at that. When you see it as something to elevate your own social prestige or to make you famous, or to give you a kind of upward momentum, and superficial capacities, I think it has the ability to truly undo you.
One of the greatest benefits that I’ve had is that I had been working for so long that in very many ways, I could not see it as anything other than a job, for a very long time. I think that kept my head screwed on correctly until I was able to process it in a healthy way when I became an adult.
So you kind of took time away from acting to process it, and you went to NYU. But when you were approached by your manager for the role of Archie, initially, in Riverdale, what about the script drew you in? And why were you so drawn to Jughead instead?
I think Jughead’s character, at least from the pilot that I had read, didn’t have a prevalent part in the show. I had imagined that he was just the narrator, so when my manager had asked me to read for Archie, it seemed a little high profile for someone who didn’t at the time even know if he wanted to return to acting or not. As the show sort of went on, the character sort of ended up revealing himself to a part quite a bit larger than I had initially anticipated, and that was sort of part of the narrative. At least in this instance, I was older, so I was able to say through my own volition that I had wanted to take a stab at acting again.
“I literally doubt myself all the time, every day. I probably do it three times a day. I think that’s just the nature of anxiety and the world we live in. I think it’s totally natural to doubt yourself. I think it’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s not necessarily some sort of mythical, completely individual problem that’s happening just to me. No, doubting yourself is not a special concept. Everyone legitimately doubts themselves. There’s not a doubt in my mind that every person that you idolize, or that someone has fashioned into a hero has had incredibly long portions of their life where they have doubted themselves severely.”
For any role in general, I guess, is there a specific way you approach the preparation for it? And do you have any methods that you stick to or live by?
To be honest, It really depends on the medium. For example, if you’re going to be approaching a role in a film, where you’re given months and months and months of preparation with the script in its full completion, then you totally have enough time to dive deep into a methodological approach and really sort of put your own phenomenological experience into the character and the role.
But that sort of time is nonexistent in what we’re doing on network television, where we’re cranking out 22 episodes a season. So it requires you to be a bit more versatile, and not have the kind of preparation that an actor would normally want.
I think there is certainly a different approach to every kind of medium within acting. Whether it’s a TV series, a big blockbuster film, or even an Indie project, the amount of preparation you’re going to be given is incredibly different. So my approach as a versatile actor has got to adapt to that sort of confine as well.
So I kind of want to take this back to your college years, since you were on a hiatus, and went off the grid for a little bit. You graduated from NYU in 2015 with a degree that’s specialized in archeology. Out of all the subjects you could’ve chosen, why was archeology the one?
I’ve just always had a fascination with geology and earth sciences when I was a kid. My grandfather was a geologist. I also over-romanticized the narrative of travel, treasure, and a lot of these other common narratives that get associated with disciplines like archeology.
At the time, it was a discipline that allowed me to feel satisfied in that I was pushing human knowledge forward in a way. I had this really complicated relationship to the arts; I saw the arts as something of a luxury rather than a necessity, and history or the sciences as something truly groundbreaking in the larger scope of human history. I wanted to try my hand at that. I think I was also testing myself a little bit—to see how soft I had become within the arts, to see if I could truly challenge myself in academia.
It’s just an incredibly romantic discipline, and I became addicted to the travel, the fieldwork, and the physical labor associated with it.
“I think when you look at the arts and the entertainment industry, it’s important that we remind ourselves that it’s an industry and leave it at that. When you see it as something to elevate your own social prestige, or to make you famous, or to give you a kind of upward momentum, and superficial capacities, I think it has the ability to truly undo you.”
So you’ve picked up archaeology in college and went on excavations all around the world. You’re also an accomplished photographer, shooting covers for magazines (The NYT Style Magazine among others). Archaeology, photography, acting… have you always been drawn to more tactile, visual modes of discovery and expressing your creativity? Is there a connection or am I just trying to make up stuff here?
No, no, you’re totally right. I had a really hard time when I was younger with anything other than visual learning. I had a perfect sense of color and I also had a really, really short attention span. So I had a very hard time focusing in public school settings until I got homeschooled, and then I had the sort of one on one attention that allowed me to study correctly. But I ended up finding passions in individual arts through that process. It’s the same with archeology—which to me, is still very much fueled by travel, artifacts, and other different visually stimulating subjects.
You grew up and started acting in a time where social media wasn’t the beast that it is today. So now that you’re acting again, in a world that’s like hyper-connected, how has the experience been different for you, if at all? And what are your thoughts on the role of social media in your career or life?
Where I’m at right now, it’s kind of conflicted with the narrative socially. I acknowledge that social media has a huge role to play in my personal success. Whether that’s for acting or photography, I had utilized a fan base that I knew existed within Instagram in order to fuel and push out high-quality imagery that I wanted people to see. So I look at it as a very sort of effective business model.
I think it’s great for photography because it allows you to have your own virtual gallery space. But I think it’s really poisonous for acting. Because I’m of a personal mind that the more you give, you as a person to your audience, the harder it is for them to suspend their disbelief and see you as a character.
So the people or the actors that really, really show up on social media and are posting themselves all the time, and it’s all about them, and it’s all about some quick little caption. I think in a long term sense, it can actually be detrimental, but I think we’re just addicted to consuming anything we can about people within a celebrity position, that we don’t even realize that it’s not really a great marketing strategy for long term artistic interests.
Think about older generations of actors. There’s this mythos that surrounded the absence of their presence in certain events, and you only got to see them in these rare sightings or their personal lives were these mythical sorts of strange things. I think that sort of dark space was incredibly alluring. But now, it’s just oversaturated, and it can be dangerous to over saturate an audience with yourself. I try to keep a lot of myself off of that.
And I think socially, whether you’re in an entertainment profession or not, I think it can be incredibly dangerous. I think it’s incredibly addicting, it’s really easy to gossip about, it’s really easy to involve yourself in some externalized drama. And I don’t know. I don’t really like it, if I’m being honest, it causes me a lot of anxiety and I deleted all of my social media off of my phone, so I only have a couple hours a day with it in certain places. Make sure that it’s away from me.
“I think I’m learning that the concept of momentum is kind of nonexistent. There’s actually an external pressure that I don’t know really exists. When I went away to college after Disney, everyone had told me, “It’s a horrible idea. You’re stopping your professional momentum completely. You should just keep working, just keep working.” I think when I have the chance to sit myself down and zoom out and see myself from a higher vantage point, I’m a lot more content than what I think I tell myself day to day.”
So then, speaking of Instagram, could you please tell us in detail your motivation for creating the utter genius and gift to the world that is Camera Duels?
Oh man, the inspiration for that was just anger and annoyance. It’s really no deeper emotion than that. My brother and I were maybe 14 or 15 then and having these sneaky photos of taken when we were doing normal kid things with our friends, and I remember being deeply unsettled by the kind of Orwellian dystopia of being watched everywhere I was going. It’s obviously not that grave, but it definitely bred a paranoia within me that I kind of internalized, until I decided to vomit it onto this Instagram page where I was satirically poking fun at the people who were doing the same thing.
Actually, when I first dropped it, I got a lot of hate for it. Because people were going, “That’s just a part of your industry, dude. What are you doing, man? You can’t take a joke?” But I don’t think people understood the thing that they’ve sort of accepted as normal is actually incredibly invasive. So I decided to turn it around and sort of make them look like jokes, too.
It’s nice now that people like the account and hopefully, when they see it they think twice and they go, “Yeah, this is actually a really strange thing to do to someone.” On that, inversely, it has caused a lot of people trying to get onto the account. I’ve had people try to take secret photos of me way more often now, especially with Riverdale and just in much greater volume now that the account is so popular. So I really kind of shot myself in the foot.
Well, so then where do you usually find your best content? And do you have a method for winning these duels? Or is it just like, you’re just out and people just do it all the time now?
It’s honestly a mood. The mood determines whether I want to do the camera duel now. There’s this cynical, satirical, and sort of weird part of me that just goes, like, “Yeah I can roast this person right now.”
But I have so much content that I don’t post on that account. Because a lot of it ends up looking the same. Take into account, it’s basically the same joke over and over again. So really, the only thing that’s going to spice it up is kind of an interesting looking duel. And those ones are sort of fewer and far between.
Thankfully, after I started doing it, it became therapeutic for me, and I didn’t really feel the need to do it anymore. A lot of people have noticed I don’t really update it as much as I used to, and that’s because I kind of came to terms with what it was; it ended up sort of putting the ball in my court and turning it into something fun, while healing a lot of that annoyance and rage.
“I’ve had a very complicated relationship with acting, I’d say probably more complicated than 90% of the other actors my age within this industry, simply because I’ve worked since I was eight months old. So I think I’m learning to find the passion in it again and redefining it as not so much a job, but much more a career that can be filled with passion, joy, and art.”
Carissa Ferreri/The Wall Group
I will say that, though, other than the images, it’s your captions that have people cracking up. I think people are drawn to @camera_duels because what you write with the images is hilarious.
I just think people are interested in a voice. I think people are desperate for a voice. I truly believe that we’ve reached a time in kind of media or entertainment in general where the voices are kind of monotonous right now. You can go on Twitter and flush out pretty effectively how every single actor or entertainer is going to react to the question, “What’s your political stance?” “What are your views on XYZ?” You know what I’m saying? We have such a solid understanding of how people are coded to react right now, that any kind of voice, whether it’s through social media or otherwise, it’s being a little bit offbeat, is incredibly appealing. It’s incredibly alluring.
I think it’s those kinds of unique voices that are going to last a lot longer than the bin, this thunderous, loud noise of normalcy within that bell curve that everyone feels super comfortable with.
But when was the last time, or when have you ever doubted yourself or felt like giving up and what is the one thought that kept you going?
I literally doubt myself all the time, every day. I probably do it three times a day. I think that’s just the nature of anxiety and the world we live in. I think it’s totally natural to doubt yourself. I think it’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s not necessarily some sort of mythical, completely individual problem that’s happening just to me. No, doubting yourself is not a special concept. Everyone legitimately doubts themselves. There’s not a doubt in my mind that every person that you idolize, or that someone has fashioned into a hero has had incredibly long portions of their life where they have doubted themselves severely.
I often find myself filled with doubt when I’m comparing myself to the successful careers of other people alongside me. In doing so, I’ve realized that that’s the fundamental philosophical problem with the way we orient ourselves in terms of reaching our goals—we’d rather pursue careers and paths that have already been cut into the brush.
If instead, we were to chase a lifestyle and find our own personal path based on the big imprint of our lives and our history, there’s no way that our careers can look anything like anyone else. When I realized that rather than chasing a career that someone has already made, I should be chasing a lifestyle instead. And that healed a lot of my doubts, a lot of my doubts.
If you take a look back at your life and the long run you’ve had with acting thus far—what have you’ve learned or are you still learning about what it means to be an actor and person?
I think I’m learning that the concept of momentum is kind of nonexistent. There’s actually an external pressure that I don’t know really exists. When I went away to college after Disney, everyone had told me, “It’s a horrible idea. You’re stopping professional momentum completely. You should just keep working, just keep working.” I think when I have the chance to sit myself down and zoom out and see myself from a higher vantage point, I’m a lot more content than what I think I tell myself day to day.
I’ve had a very complicated relationship with acting, I’d say probably more complicated than 90% of the other actors my age within this industry, simply because I’ve worked since I was eight months old. So I think I’m learning to find the passion in it again and redefining it as not so much a job, but much more a career that can be filled with passion, joy, and art.
I’m learning that the passion that you can bring into the arts is kind of the currency of people’s interest in you. That passion is kind of the godliness that really magnetizes you to an audience, and to people who are interested in seeing what you do. But I’m fucking 26, you know? So to say that I’m anywhere near a conclusion for where this long run that I’ve had already is far from the truth because I’m still learning so much every single day. So much.