Updated July 19, 1999 12:00 PM

Cole and Dylan Sprouse may not have spent much time waiting tables or slogging through Off-Off-Broadway productions, but they’ve already got the hang of this Method acting thing. “I’m the best crier. Watch,” Dylan says, turning on the waterworks like a pro. How’d he do it? “I think that I am a baby.” For his part, Cole can instantly imagine himself as an ill-mannered little scamp, giving an unsolicited demonstration of his spitting technique.

Those tears and loogies are on display as the 6-year-old Sprouse twins play Adam Sandler’s would-be adopted son Julian in the smash Big Daddy (twin children often play one kid character in the movies to divide the grueling shooting schedule). Grown-up critics may have dumped on Daddy (“sociopathic humor,” pronounced TIME), but it got two small thumbs up from the Sprouses. “Excellent,” says Dylan (the one with light freckles on his nose). “Awesome,” raves Cole (the one with a small mole on the left side of his chin), agreeing that the film has rocketed past The Rugrats Movie to claim the title of All-Time Greatest, Ever. The Sprouse sprouts’ review also mirrors the country’s: Big Daddy’s grosses totaled $41 million in its debut weekend.

Cole (named for the songwriter Porter) and Dylan (named for the poet Thomas) made their screen debut on a sonogram that their manager mother, Melanie, 32, had taken six weeks into her pregnancy. She and then-husband Matt were teaching at an American school in Tuscany, Italy, when the boys arrived on Aug. 4, 1992. (Dylan was first by 15 minutes and has been the more outgoing twin ever since.) Four months later, Melanie and the boys moved back to her family’s home in Long Beach, Calif. Matt followed later, but the pair divorced in 1997. (Today, Matt sees Cole and Dylan often—he lives five minutes from the four-bedroom Woodland Hills, Calif., house they share with their mother and her boyfriend, Spike Silver, 46, a movie stuntman.) Encouraged by Melanie’s mother, Jonine Booth Wright, a drama teacher, the boys landed a toilet-paper commercial at 6 months, and by 12 months were regulars on ABC’s Grace Under Fire, where they played Brett Butler’s son Patrick for five years. Cole was the first of thousands of kids to audition for Big Daddy, but director Dennis Dugan was enchanted and soon hired Dylan in the bargain. “You can speak to them just like you’d speak to any other actor,” says Dugan.

During the shoot, the film’s star,” Adam Sandler, got right down on the kids’ level, although by all accounts he didn’t have far to travel. “He’s a really fun guy,” Dylan said of his movie dad. “I played football with him.” Sandler and costars Rob Schneider and Jon Stewart “were playing pinball with them,” says Melanie. The New York City shoot also brought milestones: “They learned to read,” says Melanie, “and they know how to hail a cab.” Sandler—who told Melanie the twins’ acting was “so good it makes me sick to my stomach”—calls the boys often and “sings them little limericks,” she says. After Cole was momentarily knocked out in a fall from a swing, Sandler sent the pair baseball helmets. “He’s like a kid,” says Dylan, “because he acts like one.”

Dylan and Cole may be famous (“everywhere I drive now,” says Melanie, “I see my kids on a bus stop”), but offscreen their mom puts up with none of the shenanigans (such as the peeing-on-a-wall scene, which was faked with pocket-sized pumps) Sandler nurtures in the movie. The boys “sir” and “ma’am” grown-ups, do chores like walking their Boston terrier Olive, dress themselves and say their prayers at night. “I’m trying to teach them responsibility,” says Melanie. “Homework is a must.” She also encourages them to be different (Cole, a budding geologist, likes cheese and Neil Young; Dylan, who wants to be a stuntman like Spike, prefers chocolate and the Beastie Boys). But what do they like best about each other? “He’s a nut,” says Dylan. “Nothing,” retorts Cole. “Except he’s really nice.”

Kyle Smith

Maria Speidel in Woodland Hills