It’s oddly perfect that Cole Sprouse is one of the leads on Riverdale. The prime-time CW drama is based on the gleefully shallow teens of Archie Comics, which indirectly begat the bouncy antics seen on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, the Disney Channel vehicle that made Sprouse and his twin brother Dylan into child stars. Much as the Archie mythos has grown up into something shadowy and unsettling in Riverdale, the 24-year-old Sprouse is trying to grow up into an actor worth taking seriously.
He plays Jughead in Riverdale — not as a hamburger-eating goofball, but rather as a cynical outsider and ominous narrator. Sprouse is one of the standout performers in the series, eternally dour yet endearingly vulnerable. He also happens to be smart as a whip. Vulture caught up with Sprouse inside the full-scale diner set constructed for the show in a Vancouver suburb, where he discussed the show’s similarities to Rian Johnson’s 2005 indie hit Brick, what Riverdale means in the age of Trump, and why he’s such a fan of the comics’ recent decision to make Jughead asexual.
I have to say, this is a very convincing diner.
It was, brick for brick, wall for wall, taken from a diner that we shot in for the pilot. This is a functioning diner. If we wanted to turn it around off-season and make a little cash, we could! We actually had an 18-wheeler pull in, thinking this was a legit diner.
Yeah, recently! That’s how you know you’ve built a convincing set.
Better than an Emmy.
How did you get a handle on Riverdale’s weird tonal mashup of Archie Comics and sinister small-town drama?
By the time the audition process had ended, I was already pretty firm on what the show was going for. I talked to Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, the showrunner] about it in the very first audition. I was in a weird place and I had come off a binge of The Twilight Zone, so I had just come off this Rod Serling narration every episode. I walked in and, at first, you’re like, Okay, so how much of this “Goll-ee, Arch!” stuff is this gonna be? When I asked Roberto if I could read it like Rod Serling, he was like, “Uh, yeah, of course!” I got a good idea of where we stood then. But when we shot the pilot, I really knew where we stood, in terms of the film noir elements and the darker tone. That’s when I knew this was a show I was really excited to do. Because I had just come off a Disney background.
The stuff you were doing is, actually, closer in tone to the classic Archie style.
Precisely right. And that’s an interesting parallel: The classic, sitcom, goofy-hijinks stuff that my brother and I were doing in The Suite Life is what I wanted to stay away from, frankly, when I was reading for this part. And Roberto wants to, as well. What we’ve got now is something that’s not that. It manages to still be relevant and manages to still harken back to this beloved kind of Archie. I think those were really my only two worries: that it was gonna be a Scooby-Doo movie, or it was gonna do too much damage to the characters. Once those two were crossed off the list, I knew, Okay, this sounds like a fun project.
Did your experience on on The Suite Life inform how you approached this Archie story?
Oh, of course. Especially when it comes to acting or professionalism or artistry or anything like that. In terms of how much of that I take to this in terms of tone? Very, very little. In terms of working for my whole life and the professionalism demanded on a stage and so on and so forth? All of that stays with me. All the technical stuff stays, but the tone stuff is really not here.
Who is Jughead? I didn’t read these comics growing up, but in doing so now, I’m struck by how unique of a fictional character he is.
He’s a bit creepy in the comics. I’m sure some people would take offense to that, but he’s this sardonic, sarcastic, oftentimes cynical character who, if it wasn’t obviously stated that he was a real member of the town, you would probably think was fashioned by Archie in his imagination. He’s almost an imaginary friend, not like a real character. But in this, we still very much try to deal with Jughead as this cynical, sardonic, objective character. He’s very much on the outside. And, much like real comedians or real jokesters or real cynics, Jughead has a troubled past. But we still keep the fundamental basis of Jughead strong. He’s a very nonsensical character and he has a unique philosophical take.
How can you make him nonsensical while also being a cynical outsider?
Y’know, it’s funny: You oftentimes think of joking around as a very loose, comical thing, but the way I originally saw him, and the way I think we’re taking it now, is that comedy is a shell he’s using to approach the world. He’s using this lighthearted joviality as an attempt to either gain information or defuse situations, and I think it’s still coming from a place of hurt. Which is interesting.
How would you characterize the Archie/Jughead relationship?
Much more sibling than friend. The way Jughead talks to Archie and vice versa is very much the way I would talk to my twin. It’s one of those things where, if someone is doing something wrong and they’re your close friend, you’re close enough to them to be like, “Cut it the hell out. You’re really being destructive.” But they’re also childhood friends who have carried childhood understandings of morality into this darker period of their lives. They’re trying to accept this fluctuating version of their friendship while simultaneously retaining those strong morals of childhood.
Much like a sibling, Jughead would defend Archie from others, even if the two of them were on the outs.
I think that’s the important distinction: The fights that they’re having or the tension they are having is more temporary than it seems, but still legitimate. They are consistently trying to define their place in the world based on how their moralities and their biases are changing.
Why is Jughead the narrator?
He’s more objective than the rest of the town. He is now, especially within this universe, a character that fits on the outside of his society, and I think that gives him an interesting perspective on the inner workings of it. It gives him the perfect point of view to say, “This person’s crazy, this person’s not crazy.” But I also think he’s the narrator because it flatters him. I think Jughead’s a selfish character. I think he really is. I really do feel like Jughead tries to influence people based on his own understanding of what they should be and his own understanding of himself. It’s quite vain to think, I’m so cool and on the outside of society that I can write about everybody. That’s not common at all among teenagers. [Laughs.]
No, not common at all.
I think he’s the narrator for those reasons, but mainly because he’s on the outside. The primary cast of Archie, to me, has always been Betty, Veronica, Archie, and Jughead. It’s the core four. I think the way the show was originally written was very much the love triangle between the three, and Jughead needed a place. That also satisfies that requirement for Jughead, but I really think it’s because he’s an outsider and it gives him interesting perspective.
When we spoke at San Diego Comic-Con, you compared the show to Rian Johnson’s indie-noir movie Brick and Charles Burns’s surreal horror comic Black Hole. What do you see in those works that’s echoed in Riverdale?
I think Brick is a more obvious one than Black Hole, especially because Black Hole is not as widely known. Brick is this otherwise-teen drama in a local setting that, all of a sudden, reveals itself to be quite a heavy and dangerous situation. Through style and tone and genre elements, you’re able to tease out this really fun, enjoyable watch. But Black Hole is another example of a hyperstylized narrative that takes place within a teenage setting and dramatizes an otherwise-recognizable teenage experience — a super-relatable teenage experience — into something that can be more dastardly and dangerous and scary and frightening.
Y’know, I think, inherently, when you hear something like a teenage narrative come into play, even the idea that it’s being called “teenage” is a notion that it’s being reduced to a problem that’s not quite adult. That’s a problematic thing to say about a narrative that could actually be dangerous, could be hurtful, could be upsetting. Things could go wrong. That’s what we’re going for: this small-town feeling of claustrophobia and relatable issues that we all grow up with. We want to tease out the elements of fear within those things and have people relate to them.
Since you’re a comics geek, have you reached out to any of the Archie Comics creators?
Not so much with the comics creators. Now there’s a Riverdale universe that’s gonna take off in print form now, too. Roberto has talked to me about writing a couple of those, which would be awesome. I’d love to try my hand at that.
What did you think of the choice to have Jughead be asexual in the comics?
I think it’s great, personally. I wasn’t hyperfamiliar with Archie Comics before the show, and I started my research just after Jughead had been announced as asexual. Now, Jughead’s asexuality is very recent. And it’s only been announced within one comic of [writer Chip] Zdarsky’s Jughead, which is not the digests. If it’s announced in the digest, to me, then it’s etched in stone. But clearly, there’s a group of people who really resonated with Jughead’s asexuality, and that alone begs an interest in that representation and a demand for that representation.
In this universe, we’re all aware now that Jughead’s not asexual. Or, at least, that narrative has not been explored. But that doesn’t reduce the importance of that happening in Zdarsky’s universe, at all. That kind of representation is more needed now than ever. I hope the comments upon Jughead’s sexuality, which is a question I receive all the time, display an interest in that kind of representation — enough for it to reach a more mainstream platform.
Not to get too political, but it’s interesting that Riverdale came out right after a presidential campaign that won with this idea of, “We’re going back to a different kind of America.” Archie Comics have historically been an idyllic look at an American consensus that never really existed.
I was just thinking about this.
What were you thinking?
Well, I was thinking about what it means to be representing such a fundamental, all-American kind of narrative with this platform of Donald Trump being a return to an all-American understanding. I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what it means, but the timing could not be more uncanny. Whenever someone says, or whenever someone harkens back to, a golden age of the U.S. — usually the ‘40s or ‘50s — 90 percent of the time, they’re a straight white man.
I think Archie fits within this very interesting place, where the first iteration of those comics came out of that same exact time period. That also puts us in a perfect position to try and show the reality of that narrative. Archie holds a responsibility upon itself as a product of this “golden age,” which is something I think we need to recognize and accept and confront. Is it my job as an actor? Probably not as much as it is the writers’ and some of those other guys’, but I still think it’s an important conversation piece. Hopefully we can find a place within that conversation and sit at one end of that table, and whoever else is sitting at that table, we can reach some consensus about how we deal with the past and how we deal with this image of an older version of ourselves, which Archie very much informs. I would be honored to be a part of that conversation.