Cole Sprouse on why he chose to work with a Filipino clothing brand

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The "Riverdale" star talks about how the show tackles privilege, his dream of shooting Tilda Swinton, and why Bench is his favorite Philippine brand. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Are you the biggest fan here?” I ask Gelo De Vera, 19 years old, who has been waiting for Cole Sprouse in the Makati Shangri-La Hotel for 24 hours now.

“Probably,” he says. “But I believe we’re all equal here,” he adds, in a stroke of diplomacy.

“We” refers to the many packs of teenagers outside, at the entrance of, and inside the Makati Shangri-La, who have been waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the 25-year-old actor, in town to promote his endorsement of the local retail brand Bench.

When the brand announced Sprouse as its latest international endorser — or #GlobalBenchsetter, as Bench calls them — at last season’s Bench Fashion Week, early online buzz, as well as the reception at the fashion show itself, made it clear that the brand had scored a real coup. As a former child star who’s managed to reinvent himself into both a T.V. heartthrob as well as a multi-disciplinary creative, Sprouse leads a life that Generation Z, and the youngest crop of millennials, have enthusiastically responded to.

Sprouse joins a stellar lineup of Bench endorsers that includes Brit pop culture royalty Brooklyn Beckham and Korean superstar Park Shin-hye.

So how does a young actor inspire both tenacity and diplomacy in a teenager? “He has been my source of entertainment since I was a kid, on the Disney Channel, and now ‘Riverdale,’” De Vera says. “I started waiting for him at 10:30 a.m. yesterday and then I left and then I came back. I saw him once very quickly because he was mobbed last night … I hope this is the time I finally see him.”

Cole Sprouse initially came to prominence as a child star, as one half of the Sprouse twins with his older twin brother Dylan. Together, Cole and Dylan appeared in hits like the Adam Sandler blockbuster “Big Daddy,” the Johnny Depp-starrer “The Astronaut’s Wife,” and the zeitgeist-defining sitcom “Friends.”

The twins had perhaps their biggest break as child stars when they starred in the hit Disney Channel Original Series “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” from 2005 to 2008, and “The Suite Life on Deck” from 2008 to 2011. For “Suite Life,” Cole was nominated for Favorite Television Actor at the Kids’ Choice Awards from 2007 to 2011.

"I think everything you do informs your ability to perform. It’s not just photography, everything you choose to do in your waking life has the ability to inform something in the performance. Acting, in very many ways, is the ability to breathe reality and empathy into a character," says Cole Sprouse when asked about how life outside being an actor informs his acting. Photo by JL JAVIER

After taking a step back from the spotlight — pursuing a degree in the humanities at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, briefly working in the field of archaeology, and exploring photography (he’s shot for Teen Vogue and W Magazine) — Cole Sprouse once again returned to T.V. screens last year, reinventing the Archie Comics’ ludicrous, burger-munching Jughead into a jaded, moody outsider with an interest in investigative journalism for CW’s “Riverdale.”

While “Riverdale” sports the same soap opera theatrics and sometimes absurd plot twists that teen shows have always been known for, it has distinguished itself from its contemporaries and its forebears by reflecting its times and its generation. Privilege, racism, sexual harassment, and LGBTQ rights are issues “Riverdale” doesn’t shy away from. And in a show full of hunky quarterbacks and curvy cheerleaders, Sprouse’s narrator — always with the weight of the world on his shoulders — is proving a relatable point of view to the show’s sizeable viewership.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Cole Sprouse before he met fans in SM Mall of Asia and Glorietta 5, and talked about “Riverdale,” loyalty, and why Bench is the Philippine brand he wanted to work with. Wearing a classic denim jacket, white t-shirt, and well-fitting jeans, he said he was wearing his favorite Bench pieces. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

I was reading an interview you did that touched on the idea of privilege. What I find interesting is the generation that’s taken to “Riverdale” so much is one that’s famously aware of — or ‘woke’ to — this. Why do you think this show has connected with this generation?

I think because it does acknowledge those themes. I think the nature of something like social media, the internet age, and our ability to connect with a more global audience and see different ways of life has sort of broadened our eyes and our horizons — all of us, as a younger generation — to what we may have that we take for granted, that other people might not have. I think the show remains current or grounds itself in the time period by using themes like that but I think to try to codify the success of the show to a single political reason would be difficult.

I’ve been following your photography work for a while. I was wondering, how does doing things outside of the life of being an actor or a celebrity inform your acting work? Most actors, I gather, the work is generally you act, you do endorsements — that kind of thing.

I think everything you do informs your ability to perform. It’s not just photography, everything you choose to do in your waking life has the ability to inform something in the performance. Acting, in very many ways, is the ability to breathe reality and empathy into a character. So when you live life, sit at a bar and hear someone else’s story and how it makes them feel, and register how those emotions play on their face, or any experience in your life where you feel real fear or shame or guilt or any of those things, you’re able to use that.

Photography for me, specifically for that discipline, knowing what I wanted from a subject is informed by knowing what a subject would look like in front of [a camera]. That informs my performances tremendously but I also think in terms of artistic discipline, the two are quite separate. Photography, for me, I’m in so much more of a power position than I am acting.

You’ve done work for a lot of publications like W Magazine or Teen Vogue. Is there a dream shoot for you, as a photographer?

I’d love to shoot Tilda Swinton, to be quite honest. She’s kind of been this artistic figure, at least in my younger years, that’s had this body of work that kind of took me into photography. I think to be able to say that I was able to shoot her in an editorial context would be wonderful.

But I’m grateful to be able to exercise any artistic influence when given the opportunity. I very much balance commercial work — like the Adidas campaign I did — with editorial work for W and stuff like that. And every time I work, I work with an amazing team and get to travel to interesting places and meet interesting people — it really is enjoyable every time I work, so every chance I get to do that is awesome.

So what’s your favorite Tilda Swinton movie?

It sounds a little silly but I like this movie “Constantine.” I don’t actually love the movie that much but I love her character because I think she plays the Archangel Gabriel and it’s this very androgynous role and of course she’s fantastic. The movie itself is okay but her character is the one that stands out. [Laughs] I don’t know why that’s the first one I thought of.

No, I get it. I love it when my favorite actors do movies like that, not necessarily Oscar-winning, but they bring something entirely different to it and elevate.

Yes, of course.

Earlier, at the press conference, you mentioned that loyalty is something very important to you and how one of the reasons why you worked with Bench is you saw that in the brand. How does this — loyalty being important to you — manifest in your work life? How do you see that in Bench?

I think the ability to surround yourself with good hardworking people and the very familial setting of Bench is comforting to me. As an entertainer that was raised kind of within celebrity and stardom, friends can be hard to come by, so loyalty becomes the currency of people you want to stick around with. For me, it informs everything. I meet very many people who most of the time want something, whether a commercial aspect or some sort of commodifiable aspect, that you may have. So when you find people who are good, honest people, who are honest for honesty’s sake, it’s very reassuring. In terms of loyalty, that’s the kind of business and work life I want to stick around with.

"I think most companies that have a belief in who you are and are willing to ask the question first are the ones that I enjoy and work with," says Sprouse of retail brand Bench. He joins a stellar lineup of Bench endorsers that includes Brit pop culture royalty Brooklyn Beckham and Korean superstar Park Shin-hye. Photo by JL JAVIER

We’re obviously excited that you’re working with Bench, because in the Philippines, Bench is kind of a national brand. What were your initial impressions of the brand and the products when you first encountered it?

It seemed to me the kind of thing I usually go for, which is casual, street, working class kind of style. I was able to fit into the brand quite well. My initial impression was, oh, I’ve never been reached out to by a company in the Philippines. To me, it’s flattering because it says we want to work with you in a way that acknowledges who you are and acknowledges the brand. It also allowed me to finally be able to travel here and say hi to the audience that I know exists here.

In terms of loyalty and loyalty to working with people, it’s one of those things where the first person to reach out is usually the one that’s taking the biggest risk. And I think most companies that have a belief in who you are and are willing to ask the question first are the ones that I enjoy and work with.

I found it interesting earlier when you were talking about workwear and working class style. Bench is very much a brand of the working class. It’s a great match.

I think it’s why it feels comfortable to wear what I’m wearing. I’m not reaching outside of myself. I think it’s an important quality of choosing what you want to do, seeing how much it resonates with you.

This is something I only found out while doing research for this interview — that you got a degree in the humanities and worked in archaeology for a while. Coming from a childhood doing things like “Big Daddy” to “Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” what did working in a radically different field tell you about yourself?

I learned how competitive I was and I also learned how interested I was in proving to myself and my colleagues that I had what it took to compete in this kind of academic discipline, that I could do it — which says a lot about my own personal journey and proving to myself something. That was kind of the narrative of my college life, finding out where I sat and what I felt about myself through certain disciplines. I learned so much about myself through archaeology and I learned a lot about human history.

Acting is something that’s so interdisciplinary so something like archeology taught me so much about performance. That might sound strange but it really did. It taught me so much about performance, narrative, storytelling — it was a completely humbling experience.

Last question. I heard you ate through the city yesterday, that you went from Poblacion to Divisoria to a seafood market. Any standout dishes?

Is it so Western to say balut? [Laughs] Dude, it’s at the [hotel] buffet.

It’s hard for me to say just one because I tried so much and I don’t even know the names of everything but it’s all been incredibly delicious. I’m actually supposed to be physically training for a different kind of role next month. I’m not supposed to be gluttonizing myself but I’ve been so entranced by all the food here that I’ve just been eating my way through Manila.