summer of love

Don’t Tell Lana Condor Who She Can Love

Lana Condor. Photo: Masha_Weisberg/Awesomeness Films/Courtesy of Netflix

The fans waiting for 21-year-old actress Lana Condor outside her press event are 50/50 split between middle-aged men and young girls. The men know her as Jubilee from Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and they want want her to sign memorabilia (which she does, because “You can’t forget where you came from,” she jokes).

But the girls — some with gifts of dainty Etsy jewelry for Condor — are waiting for Lara Jean Covey. Condor plays the lead role in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Netflix’s biggest romantic comedy of the summer, based on author Jenny Han’s New York Times best-selling YA series. Lara Jean is a 16-year-old nerd who loves baking, staying in with her sisters (there are two: the older Margot and the younger Kitty), and writing confessional love notes in beautiful handwritten cursive to crushes she is too shy to approach in person. One day, the notes get out and Lara Jean has to confront all her crushes. At an early press screening, my Instagram and Twitter were flooded with people gushing about the movie’s sweetness and warmth. The Cut talked to Condor about how she accidentally dissed her love interest the first time they met, how the film normalizes being a woman of color in a positive way, and her thoughts on Asian representation.

What was the audition process like for this movie?
They were really thorough. I went to pre-reads — it’s the audition to see if you’re worthy enough to get the real audition. You read sides. I wanted this part so bad, I literally told myself before going in, “You can’t let anyone take this away from you.” It’s not often I get an opportunity like that.

At the pre-read, I met Noah [Centineo] for the first time. I sat down, I was focused, and then this beautiful, tall, stupidly charming boy walks through the door into the waiting room. I was like, No, Lana. Not today! He sits down next to me and asks, “Do you want to read lines with me?” I’m like, No, I’m sorry but I really need to focus. Later, we were chemistry reading with potential Peter [Kavinsky]. At the very bottom was Noah’s name. I thought he was going to hate me!

Noah did his audition. The moment he closed the door, the producers, everyone was like, That’s him. It’s rare that people are that definitive, but everyone just knew. I read the diner scene with Peter for my audition and a scene with the sisters. I read with a lot of Kittys too.

You said this acting opportunity was rare — why?
I’ve never been given the opportunity to be the lead in a rom com — for loads of reasons but including the way I look. People in Hollywood defer to what they know, which is a white lead, particularly in romantic comedies. When I got the audition description and it said that they were specifically looking for an Asian actress, I was like, I actually have a chance at getting this?

Casting directors will often say that they are open to any ethnicity, but they’re not. They’re covering their asses and meeting their quota, so they can say they read everyone.Then you get to the casting room and everyone is blonde and blue-eyed.

When they say they want someone Asian, you actually know you have a chance. The playing field is level. I didn’t think I would ever get this opportunity because it was rare. Hopefully, that won’t always be the case.

Can you tell when you get into a room that isn’t actually open?
I can feel it. People will say, “Lana, you’re there to change their minds.” That’s great. But sometimes, it seems like their minds are pretty made up when you look nothing like the others. I’ve told my agents that I don’t want to go into certain casting rooms anymore.

They’ll say, “She just wasn’t right for the role.” Then I watch the movie and I see everyone was white. There’s evidence that you weren’t actually open! It hurts me. I’ve never been more aware of my Asianness and femaleness than working in Hollywood.

With To All the Boys, it’s not an Asian rom-com. We tried to tell the coming-of-age story of a 16-year-old girl who just happens to be Asian. It was important to me that people see that women of color are just normal fucking people. Jenny Han says it perfectly, “For some reason, people don’t think Asians can fall in love!” The things I went through, everyone goes through!

This week is a big one for Asian representation.
This summer, we have some awesome movies like Crazy Rich Asians coming out, but they shouldn’t be groundbreaking. We should be way past that. I hope this summer goes into fall, winter, spring, and the next summer. I don’t want it to be like, We smushed it all into one season and didn’t get any change. That would be really frustrating.

I’ve had a little bit of a hard time doing press and answering questions about what it’s like to be an Asian-American in Hollywood. I was adopted. My mom is Irish and my dad is Hungarian. My childhood wasn’t a typical Asian household. I didn’t even know I was different until the seventh grade when someone called me a chink. My growing-up experience was fully American but my parents always wanted to educate me about where I came from.

I never walked around aware of the way that I looked until I grew up and was forced to. I have lived the Asian-American experience, but in a very different way. I mean, my mom read the book about how to be a tiger mom! She wanted so badly to have me grow up in my community. But I am 100 percent American and Vietnamese. No stories are the same — and hopefully, To All the Boys shows that. I’m trying to tell my truth because of how I was raised. But I want to stay true to people’s different experiences. It’s hard — I have to be really aware.

When it comes to casting for Asian roles, some people get upset when the ethnic make-up of the casting doesn’t 100 percent match up to a the original source material.
Lara Jean is Korean American and I am Vietnamese. Jenny knew that question was going to come up. She nipped it in the bud immediately. We have representation for the first time in 25 years! Let’s all remember this is a huge stepping stone. When Jenny was first shopping the story around, studios were like, That’s great, that’s awesome. But what if [Lara Jean] was white? I was like, Okay, y’all are just dumb.

If you’re going to ask this question, ask an Australian playing a American or a Brit playing an American. Half of our American superheroes are British. I understand your question and concern. But there’s a double standard here. If we’re going to be race specific — are you asking Nicole Kidman or Margot Robbie? If the world had a baby, it would look like Oscar Isaac. He can play any ethnicity, it’s not even an issue for him.

Lana Condor and Noah Centineo Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

On a side note, you and your sisters have amazing hair in the movie. Anna [Cathcart, who plays Kitty] has amazing hair. She’s a natural redhead. When we were casting, they asked her mom, “Would you mind dying it?” so it could fit in better with Janelle’s and mine. Her mom was like, No. You don’t come across that hair often. She has orange hair and it’s beautiful and special. I’m so happy she said no.

As for me, I don’t really do anything special with my hair. But watching the movie back, I was like, Wow, it’s really long. It’s actually very damaged if you see it up close, but it’s not dyed — my mom would kill me. I just put some argan oil on the ends.

The movie also made me want a scrunchie.
It’s funny you say that. The women working with Netflix — they all started wearing scrunchies to work. I just said an hour ago that I should buy a bunch and give them out to fans.

What did you do to prepare for the role?
You get really lucky if you get to be part of a movie that already has preexisting source material because half the work is done for you. I read the book a million times. I’m a horrible actor’s actor. Some people make a moodboard, do the journaling, and sit in a dark room and figure it out. I don’t do that, I wish I did.

I felt lucky because in high school, I was similar to Lara Jean. Now I’m more of an extrovert, but that’s a learned personality trait. I have never played a normal girl before. As an actor, if you’re in an action movie, you can hide behind the hair, makeup, and production. When you’re playing a normal girl, it’s you. You’re a lot more exposed.

It’s only a few people — but I did see some people online seemed dismayed that none of Lara Jean’s crushes were Asian. What are your thoughts on that?
We tried to stay really close to the book and they weren’t written that way. If Jenny was telling a different story, we would tell it. But I will say this: My boyfriend in real life is Cuban but he is very light-skinned. There are times when people online will say, “Of course she’s with a white guy.” Oh, so Asian people can only love Asian people? I can only be with my race?

You are being racist unknowingly and continuing to put us in a box that we don’t need to be in. It’s really unfair. People should be able to love who they want to love. It’s offensive to me — you’re continuing to promote tribalism. So I can’t be with who I want to be with? These are probably the same people who have an issue with the LGBT community. It’s the same thing — you telling me who I can love is unfair.

I’ve also heard that a small group have said they’re going to “boycott” the film for this reason. No. 1 — you probably weren’t the audience anyway. No. 2 — it doesn’t matter if you boycott, it’s on Netflix. It’s going to be out there! I don’t really pay any mind to it, but I think it has been affecting Jenny. It’s making what should be an exciting time an anxious and fearful one. I’m so angry at people for making her feel that way.

In my experience, I’ve loved all races. It’s not like I can only be with my people. I don’t think we should be stuck to only loving people based on what they look like. For the most part, the fans are really excited and happy. Noah is everything they thought Peter Kavinsky would be. That’s who we are trying to please at the end of the day.

I think it would also have been strange if they just randomly made one of the characters Asian just because.
Hollywood screwed up in the past. They made Asians the other — a separate group that could only hang out with each other. Of course, there’s a demand for Asian male romantic leads. And Jenny says it too. There are so many stories to tell and we are just scratching the surface. We’re proud of our story and the movie we made. All of us feel like we’re a part of something really special. I’m not going to let anyone ruin that. It’s baby steps.

Don’t Tell Lana Condor Who She Can Love