Cole Sprouse isn't new to the public eye, though this is his first lead role in a feature film. His most dedicated fans may remember his rise to fame as one of the twins on Suite Life of Zack and Cody. But he wasn't sure he would return to performing—he took a hiatus from his acting career to attend NYU before ultimately returning to television as Jughead Jones on Netflix's popular drama, Riverdale.
In Five Feet Apart, Sprouse plays Will, a young cystic fibrosis (CF) patient who has contracted burkholderia cepacia—a particularly aggressive and lethal bacterial infection. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that impacts the lungs and pancreas, affecting 30,000 people in the United States. While in the hospital, Will falls in love with Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), a fellow CFer. In order to avoid contracting one another's lung infections, the two must remain six feet apart at all times, and don protective gloves and face masks. On the phone, Sprouse opens up about his preparation for the role, and his friendships with the cystic fibrosis patients and activists who helped make the film:
VICE: Why was this film important to you, and what inspired you to take this role?
Cole Sprouse: I don’t think it was a difficult choice. I liked the script, I thought it would be a really good opportunity to bring representation to a community. And really it was the director—he is so familiar with cystic fibrosis, and had a web of connections that he was going to put us in touch with. Really the most important factor to me was making cystic fibrosis something much more prevalent and in the forefront of public discussion.
VICE: How did you prepare? Justin has spoken at length about working with the cystic fibrosis community, including the late activist Claire Wineland to whom the film is dedicated.
Sprouse: We had a medical professional—a CF nurse for over 10 years—who was present on set with us every day to make sure that everything, in terms of the treatment we were recreating on set, was as accurate and up to date as possible. And thanks to Justin's connections to patients—people living with cystic fibrosis, like Claire. Once Haley and I got to sit down and talk to patients, that was the next step. [We asked] a series of questions about how it affects someone psychologically, how it affects how patients with cystic fibrosis might form friendships or romantic relationships, what it’s like to grapple with one’s own mortality, even during youth. What it’s like to be consistently responsible for your own treatment and care. We really dissected everything. Really, the first five weeks of pre-production were spent diving in headfirst and asking questions, and getting on a nutritional regimen.
VICE: I happened to be sitting next to someone with cystic fibrosis during the film screening, and afterwards he told me me the movie made him feel seen thanks to its accurate portrayal of medical details like the Afflovest [a vest that encourages the lungs to expel mucus].
Sprouse: Oh, wow. Thank you for telling me that. Honestly the YA genre in general can be oversaturated, especially right now, and it can also be an incendiary place to host this kind of discussion.
VICE: Definitely. And there was also mixed reception of the Five Feet Apart trailer—people were worried it might romanticize chronic illness, like other YA films.
Sprouse: Of course, and that’s being informed by films like The Fault in Our Stars. So, really, our job was to try and create as accurately as possible, a sensitive dialogue around the subject without over-romanticizing the nature of cystic fibrosis. I think, you know, this is still Hollywood. At the end of the day as actors we don’t really have as much control as other facets of the studio or post production cycle. But really, the acceptance of cystic fibrosis patients is what we were looking for—or at least what I was looking for. Because it means that we’re reaching the audience that I wanted to reach. Justin, Haley, and I, our mission statement from the beginning was to bring light to cystic fibrosis and represent it with accuracy and passion and care.
VICE: In the film, Will uses cartooning and drawing as a huge outlet. I know Caesar Meadows was the cartoonist you all worked with, and I was wondering if you personally had input in those drawings.
Sprouse: Yeah, actually. We’d gone through a couple artist ideas and Caesar was the one that we landed on. Caesar’s work kind of felt—or at least the portfolio that he had sent—it felt very much like political commentary. It had these beautiful borders and it seemed like if Will were a kind of cynical CF patient in his hospital room all day, that he would be reading and researching everything on the internet, and he’d have the free time to sort of draw. And one of the lines in the movie is that he takes cartooning seriously, and that it can be a wonderful outlet for social criticism. So it seemed like an appropriate aisle of comic book artistry to match with where Will was at.
VICE: Not to take us too far from this film—I noticed you had a piece of bread in your pocket during the red carpet premier. And you've been caught with bread in your pocket before. Do you always have bread in your pocket when you’re on the red carpet?
Sprouse: [Laughing] You know, I was on James Corden last night, and he had brought up a photo of me when I had bread in my pocket and a fan had photographed it in the past. But he dared me to put bread in my pocket, and I’m not really one to shy away from a dare. For Corden’s sake I took the fall and put some bread in my pocket.
VICE: What were the most challenging parts of playing Will?
Sprouse: I think the cystic fibrosis patients that we worked with, like Claire, who are no longer with us. It was certainly something we all took really hard, but it was thanks to people like herself, and some other friends of ours that the movie could even happen. There is a heavy adoption of mortality that comes alongside becoming good friends with people with cystic fibrosis, because the average lifespan is quite young. It means making friends and working alongside people that, in Claire’s case, may not ever see the end of the movie. Just learning how a cystic fibrosis patient approaches mortality as a concept is really heavy. Especially during these quintessential youthful years, which oftentimes in most cases, outside of cystic fibrosis, translate to a kind of immortal youthfulness that we all feel, like, "yeah, yeah I can do anything."
Listening to the psychology behind it, and the dark humor, and grappling with that—and the social formations that came with that was challenging. It’s challenging to try to maintain levity on a set of this kind. One, because you must consistently have respect for the nature of what you’re trying to recreate, and two, because the content is heavy. Emotionally heavy. That was still probably the most challenging part about it, and something that changed my life—changed all of our lives. Getting to know people like Claire and knowing, hearing, that the end was near. And knowing that they were responsible for all this work that they may never see.
VICE: I remember reading Haley's interviews where she describes Claire's perspective of either being a person who "lives for treatments" or being someone who "does treatments in order to live." And this became such a pivotal part of the film.
Sprouse: Yeah, that’s actually Claire’s line. Claire had said that to us and it was so powerful, I think that line alone is the question that the movie asks. It became the centerpiece.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Nicole Clark on Twitter.