Netflix’s first installment in its now universally adored To All the Boys franchise arrived, at first, quietly, but perfectly timed. It hit the streaming service at a time when audiences had begun to expect more movies to reflect what the world really looks like. Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is Korean-American, and the first film—To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before—works effortlessly to represent her heritage. Two days before the film’s release, Crazy Rich Asians had opened to praise and rich box office rewards. For a moment in time, it felt like Hollywood was catching up to the rest of us.
Two sequels to the film were quickly greenlit to complete the trilogy, which was adapted from Jenny Han’s popular book series. In the new To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (streaming now), we find Lara Jean coupled with the first movie’s love interest, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo)—for real this time—but our heroine begins to question the strength of her new relationship when she’s reunited with John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher), another recipient of one of her love letters. And after the leaps made by To All the Boys towards forward-thinking representation, the sequel continues to show Lara Jean engage with her Korean heritage with a wonderfully refreshing scene in which she visits her grandparents’ house dressed in a hanbok—the film no longer feels revolutionary, because its diversity comes naturally.
The word-of-mouth success of To All the Boys is unquestionably indebted to the irresistible magnetism of the actress steering its ship. Condor was relatively unknown prior to her breakout role (her first as a lead)—despite her very first screen credit in X-Men: Apocalypse—but To All the Boys cemented her place as a different kind of heroine, one that feels closer to reality: diverse and full of exciting, new stories that deserve to be told. The film, and Condor, made the rom-com feel fresh again simply by opening the tried and true genre up to new stories beyond Hollywood’s narrow worldview. (Read: white.)
Mind you: Condor, now 22, is under no illusion that To All the Boys is just another rom-com. The Vietnamese-American actress says she’s deeply mindful that her role represents something much bigger than herself. Even though Condor was catapulted out of anonymity just two short years ago, the actress doesn’t fear her newfound position at the forefront of Asian representation—she embraces it.
With P.S. I Still Love You arriving on Netflix yesterday (just in time for Valentine’s Day, friends), we caught up with the actress to talk about the film’s high expectations, the diverse cast, and feeling torn by love triangles.
GQ: It felt like To All The Boys came out of nowhere and then suddenly it was everywhere and all anyone could talk about. Did you ever expect that massive reception?
Lana Condor: No, not at all. We made the movie without even knowing if anyone was going to see it, let alone it having such an impact. I'm so beyond thrilled about how well received it was. It was something that I had hoped in my heart but never actually thought like, oh my god, people might actually watch it. It's been such a crazy, wild whirlwind.
Why do you think audiences have embraced it so much?
I think that it's kind of like chicken soup: when you watch [To All The Boys], it feels good. There's a lot of negativity right now in the world and it's really easy to be sad and unhappy, and I think the movie provided a little escape of softness and sweetness. People just need to giggle a little. We don't do enough of that.
Was there any trepidation going into the sequel because of the high expectations you’d set for yourselves?
Doing a sequel is always difficult. There's that preconceived notion that the first film is better. And we knew that going in and we had so many discussions about how we can please the fans of the first movie and do the sequel justice.
But also, the sequel is the middle part of a full story and that's where the conflict is, and toeing that line and finding that balance was tricky. But we wanted very badly to play off of things that we know that the audience loves while also showing that you can't grow without trial and error. We needed to add that to the film and have [Lara Jean] face more real problems because the first one was so much about fantasy and the fake relationship.
I had some trepidations—I wanted to be just as good, if not better than the first, because I believe in the story and I want to do a good job. I was nervous, but very quickly going back onto the sets with the cast was like coming home because we all went through such a crazy period of time. When we got all back together again, it felt light and normal and we all sunk back into our roles very easily.
The subject of Asian representation dominated the conversation around the first film. I’m not really helping because I’m still asking about it, but do you feel a pressure to be a positive role model because you’ve become a modern mouthpiece for Asian representation?
You know, I don't feel that pressure. I feel honored. It's something that I believe in and I'm so proud to have this space to continue to represent and to continue to tell diverse stories. I think that as an entertainer, no matter what shape, size, or color you are, people will always look to you to set an example. But not just entertainers—everyone, right? That's the responsibility that I felt ever since I knew I wanted to entertain people that I have to set a good, positive tone. My parents have been so positive and loving and optimistic. I grew up in that world of just trying your best. Some days it's a hit or miss. But if you just try your best to be a good person, it's honestly not that hard. I think I'm just really lucky that my parents have always been so supportive and have a really good example for me to follow.
And while we’re seeing more Asian representation on screen, I can’t help but think that we’re progressing really slowly.
It's baby steps, but I'm gonna take it because at least we're making a step. It was very crushing to see that no female directors were nominated for an Oscar. That was a great moment for me to remember that we still have a very long way to go. However, I do think that we are being taken more seriously in the room. There are more stories written and we are given more opportunities. I'm seeing an actual change in the industry—just by my experience. But there's definitely still a long way to go. It's imperative that you stay optimistic and you don't listen to the noise and you continue to just try your best and and tell the stories and represent us as well as you can. And I do think we're making change, I really do.
I really loved that scene in the sequel where Lara Jean visits her family wearing a traditional Korean dress. I think there’s this misconception that a good film is universal, but that scene was an experience unique to Lara Jean. I’m Asian myself, but I’m Filipino so that wasn’t something I could relate to, but I thought it was really great to show the diversity of being Asian. Was that something that was important to you?
Yes, it was very important to me and it was also very important to Jenny Han. She wanted to get it right to represent her Korean heritage and actually, the grandparents in that scene are her real parents, so that was also very cool. Jenny went to Koreatown in L.A., and spent hours and hours making the perfect authentic hanbok because she just wanted to do it right. That was so important for her and for the culture. I'm so happy that she spent so much time and energy and effort into every single detail of that whole family scene, because it's really important to celebrate your heritage and celebrate what she knows.
I just really wanted to do a good job for her. I wanted to be accurate for all of the incredible Korean fans of the movie and the book. That was a really important day for me.
One of your love interests, John Ambrose, was white in the first film, but then Jordan Fisher took over the role for the sequel. Were you privy to any of the conversations around the color-blind casting?
In terms of decision-making, that is definitely up to the creatives. But what I will say is: we read all shapes and sizes, all colors, and I chemistry read with a lot of people for John Ambrose. A lot of the people, interestingly enough, came at the role almost as if they were trying to play Peter Kavinsky, and that was not the right move. John Ambrose is completely different from Peter, and I think they were trying to channel Noah's raw, broader masculine energy he brings to the character—and that was wrong. Jordan was the only guy that I read with that understood that John Ambrose is soft and friendly and kind and has a good heart. At the chemistry read, he looked at me and said: "I just want to give John Ambrose a big hug." And I was like, "That's it." That's exactly how I felt when I read the book. I just want to give him a hug! Jordan brought to life what I had thought John would be, and he was the only one that did that. I didn't have full say in casting because that’s up to the producers and the director, but I had the most chemistry [with him] and loved his performance.
What scene did you read for the chemistry read?
I read the bingo scene. So it was like, “B4! N13!” I remember being like, "Oh, I hate this." I felt so bad at first. And then we did the scene at the ball at the nursing home where they're dancing, and he tells her that he wanted to ask her out but then her dad thought that he was picking up sticks and doing lawn work.
What was it like shooting that Snow Ball scene?
When [Lara Jean] walks down in that beautiful gown, that was such an important moment for me because it was like my Asian Cinderella moment. It hit me as I was about to walk down the stairs—Constance Wu had a wonderful moment in Crazy Rich Asians when she's walking at the wedding, that was her Cinderella moment—but aside from that, I was trying to remember in my childhood if I had seen a Cinderella moment for a girl who looked like me, and I couldn't think of anything.
I was so emotional doing that scene because I want to do it justice so badly because I want other girls to see this and be like, "I can have that moment as well." It doesn't just have to be for you know blonde, blue-eyed girls. I think that Cinderella moment is for everyone, not just for one specific human.
But shooting the ballroom scene was also so much fun because all of the extras had so much fun dancing, and it was just cute watching the older extras dancing and having a good time. I think they all honestly felt like they were at a ball, and it was so lovely. I love a good slow dance.
The film is still very much focused on her romantic relationships. But what I really appreciated was that there was this greater focus on who Lara Jean is as an independent person apart from her romantic relationships. Was that something that appealed to you?
Absolutely. She really comes into her own even more in the third movie. I was excited to start focusing on her as an individual. Yes, the boys are a huge part of her life but what I was really looking forward to was her as Lara Jean: Her as an individual human, and finding her voice and listening to herself and her heart.
Mending her relationship with [Lara Jean’s ex-best friend] Genevieve was one of the most meaningful scenes that we shot. It was a really impactful scene for me and taught me a lot of lessons about friendship. I think it's important to rebuild that female relationship. What's in the past is in the past. People can grow and the only way that you can find that growth is if you reach out to them. People always say that you should reach out to your friends who seem like they're fine, and you might find a completely different narrative. So that scene was really important to me and I thought it really showed a lot of growth on Lara Jean's part as well of being able to let go of the past that she had with Gen. It says in the movie about jung, and I think that that's such an imperative message: there's a bond between friends that can't be broken. So that was just really exciting for me and I was really excited to explore Lara Jean more independently from the guys.
What I liked about this film is that just because Lara Jean and Peter got together at the end of the first film, it doesn’t mean that that’s the end. I think with a lot of rom-coms, the couple kisses at the end and you think, “Great! They’re going to be together forever and live happily ever after.” But with this franchise, you know that’s not the case. There are a whole new set of realistic challenges that come with being in a relationship.
I am always all about happily ever after. But I'm also all about a real narrative. I'm sure there will be a subset of people who won't be happy with her choice, but I think that, first of all, she's really young. She knows that she's young and she's doing what's right in the moment, and it’s sometimes hard to make decisions about what's right for yourself versus what will please others. She ends up being able to find what's right for herself and listen to her heart. I always want to do a happily ever after because I'm a romantic and I love fairy tales, but in reality, love is really tricky. Love is really messy and it always will be.
But I feel like she's confident in her decision and she's doing what will help her grow and continue to find her voice as a young woman. I don't know if that answers your question, but I think that you have to toe the line of wanting a beautiful fairytale while also being realistic. Life isn't a fairytale.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ