“Now, I put my hand here,” Noah Centineo instructs as he slides his hand in the back pocket of my jeans. “And then we walk a little, like this.” He leads me around the Coney Island Aquarium like that: hip to hip, smiling at each other, his hand, to reiterate, in the back pocket of my jeans. I’ve just shamelessly asked him to re-create his signature move from Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel, in which he plays Peter Kavinsky, the high-school jock at the center of the film’s romantic plotline. I watched the movie and mentally flagged this scene — where he’s trying to convince a cafeteria full of students he’s dating the protagonist, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) — as the one that made me wonder, Who is that guy? It’s a moment that belongs in a clip reel of classic, chemistry-laden movie moments, and I, a journalist, wondered if it could inspire the same feelings when executed in real life.
Centineo tells me how he totally improvised the move during filming. It was a thing he used to do with his ex-girlfriend. They’d be walking around, like we are now, and he’d realized he could sort of dance her around by the pocket and turn her, “just like this,” and boom, propelled by just a tug on my pocket, I’m suddenly facing him. We’re pelvis to pelvis. He’s smiling, comfortably, and I’m confronted with his hazel eyes, the scent of clean laundry, and pure pheromones. I sort of squeal, I think? Who can say, because I definitely black out for a second.
If I seem thirsty, well, isn’t that the point? At 22, Centineo is the most effective, addictive sort of heartthrob: the kind who absolutely loves being one, the kind who does everything in his power to make us thirst harder than we’ve ever thirsted before — and, yeah, it works. When the movie came out in August, Noah Centineo was immediately, breathlessly given the title of Internet’s Boyfriend. Now, with his second Netflix rom-com, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, in which he plays yet another lovable, evolved jock, Centineo has graduated to full-on cultural obsession.
In less than a month his Instagram followers went from just under 800,000 to 9.5 million. In the movie, his character drives crosstown to buy his love interest her favorite Korean yogurt drinks — and no joke — Yakult stock has been going up. This man’s floppy hair is actually driving the market. He’s been stalked by fans and now employs an omnipresent security guard named Dave. He’s been the subject of a leaked nude scandal (“I understand why you have to ask that question,” he demurred when I asked him about a certain video that’s been making the rounds. “I just hope you understand why I’m not gonna answer it.”). His Twitter mentions are an anthology of fantasies — some chaste and some really not — written by women of all ages. “Tell them all to hit my line,” he says with a laugh.
In the spirit of rom-coms adapted from YA novels, I’ve planned a perfect “teen movie date” with Centineo — a trip to Coney Island on a hot September Thursday. However, I arrive at the boardwalk only to discover most of Coney Island’s attractions close immediately after Labor Day. Yes, I’ve tried to orchestrate a perfect date with the cinematic ideal of a boyfriend, only to realize I’m a few days too late to ride the Wonder Wheel.
We decide to tour the aquarium, where I’m idly waiting for him in the lobby when he walks in shirtless. Shirtless. Without a shirt. Holding his black T-shirt in his hand, instead of wearing it on his torso, which I can see right now. With my eyes. He has a real reason. He’s just been outside, taking pictures on a boardwalk in nearly 100-degree weather. But even with a rational explanation as to why he has no shirt on, the entrance is so on the nose it’s almost ridiculous: a smoking-hot leading man, walking into a room sweaty and half-naked. It’s like there should be a slowed-down frame rate, a treacly indie-pop song playing, a zoom-in of my pupils turning into those hunga hunga hearts. He hands his ticket to the woman at the front desk and apologizes, for some reason, for his bare chest. She makes him put his shirt back on, and greets me with a smile so huge, I can assure you he has zero cavities.
Even offscreen, Centineo, I observe immediately, has that whole thing. It wasn’t just good directing or the right song cued at the right moment that created the effect. He has all the qualities deemed necessary by early-in-life fans of Teen Bop and Devon Sawa at the end of Casper: white sneakers (Vans, of course), an easy charm, and a tendency to play it fast and loose with knowing, meaningful eye contact that says “I see you.” He knows the right way to lean against a wall, how to twirl a specific clump of hair so it slouches over one eye. He’s even got an imperfection you can moon over: this tiny scar on his chin from where his dog tried to rip his face off when he was a kid. When he greets me with a hug, it’s the kind of genuine, intentional, full-body contact that makes me feel like he’d write me a letter every day and build me a house.
“I’ve always played the love interest,” Centineo says. “I’ve trained for it for a while. These roles are just molds I can pour myself into.” He grew up in Miami, with a few years’ interlude in Park City, which he hated because he never felt like he fit in. He started acting as a preteen when he attended a general casting call sort of on a lark, but he enjoyed it so much he eventually dropped out of his Boca Raton high school sophomore year and moved to Los Angeles with his mom to pursue it full-time. Since then Centineo’s been playing graduating levels of “crush”: first on a tween-friendly Disney show Austin & Ally, then on a teen-friendly Freeform show, The Fosters, and now for admiring audiences of all ages on Netflix rom-coms (To All the Boys, Sierra Burgess, and one deep cut for the algorithm-determined real fans, SPF 18.)
“I like this rowboat. Do you want to sit in this rowboat,” he asks, upon discovering a fake rowboat stuck in the corner of an exhibition about ponds. (Fake rowboat, a move.) Ever the leading man, he gets in first to steady the fake boat, and helps me in. Then, he directs yet another adorable moment for us, and starts rocking the boat back and forth, like we’re on a real pond, laughing this huge, full-throated laugh like the only thing he’s ever wanted to do was crouch in a plastic rowboat with me. And even though we both know the answer to the question, I ask, “Why do you think everyone is going nuts over you right now?”
“People love love,” he says, and begins to explain how both of his recent movies “empower” people. “I think these are just great examples of feel-good films, how could you not like something that makes you feel good?”
He stops talking and looks at me, a little concerned. “If you’re still warm, we should move,” he suggests, perhaps noticing the sweat pouring from my forehead and rolling down to my chin. It’s such a hot day, even the AC inside has given up. “I just want you to feel comfortable,” he says thoughtfully, adding, “Don’t worry, I also sweat like a motherfucker.”
It’s now his mission to find the coolest spot in the aquarium. He leads me down some stairs, back up the same stairs once he realizes they lead to a bathroom. We go around all the exhibits, while he looks up at the ceiling, in the corners, searching for an air vent, determined to find the perfect spot to get the full blast. We finally do. “Can you feel it?” he asks, one last time, before he seems satisfied, parked in front of a manmade reef. It’s a specific sort of gallantry I recognize from his roles, the ones he describes as manly and masculine, but also “sensitive, emotionally intelligent, loving, nurturing, and protective.”
“That’s just what a great man is in life and in general,” he shrugs. In his two most well-known parts (both of which occurred in the past month) he plays an updated version of a familiar type of crush. In To All the Boys, a lacrosse player who loves Fight Club but drinks kombucha and falls for the film’s Korean-American protagonist. In the other, Sierra Burgess, a quarterback who thinks the cheerleader is way hot, but instead falls for the brainy girl who catfishes him. In both, he displays a preference for the unexpected love interest. In both, he drives a Jeep Wrangler, the preeminent car of teen crushes. He’s not the mysterious, brooding type à la Robert Pattinson in Twilight, he doesn’t have the cold, intellectual appeal of Timothée Chalamet’s character in Lady Bird. He’s not pure Zac Efron dumb-hot-frat boy or even the misunderstood, sexually experienced bad boy like the ones Adam Driver plays. What Centineo does well — and what nobody has really done with such conviction since Freddie Prinze Jr. — is play a simple, suburban-mall kind of crush with Stanislavski dedication. That’s it. He’s just fully nice and hot at a time that feels like “nice and hot” is a rare resource. He’s a throwback to a more classic sort of wish fulfillment.
In fact, Centineo can see a whole career based around this: being good at love. He imagines all the potential types of roles he can explore: romantic dramas, other types of rom-coms, action romantic comedies, edgier, more toxic and dangerous types of love. “There’s so many degrees to love. I think I have a lot more to offer the space,” he says. He’s got a few projects lined up already, most notably a movie coming out in 2019 called The Stand-In. He plays a post-grad who launches a start-up, which requires him to loan himself out as a fake boyfriend.
“Whoa whoa! That motherfucker just came through so quick! He ran up on us with his boy.”
Centineo jumps back and marvels at some large fish that just came swimming right at his head. He makes a kissy-fish face back at the fish. What a lovely time we’re having. Looking at fish! Then he points to a placard and carefully reads out the description for Slippery Dick, a type of fish native to this particular tank, and chuckles. Then I read one about the French Grunt. I have no idea what’s going on. I point to a particularly fascinating fish, and he leans in to see, angling his head so his hair brushes my hand. Our arms accidentally touch.
“How’d you get so good at flirting,” I’m compelled to ask.
“Am I flirting?” he laughs and leans and looks down at the floor. “I don’t know — I’m fucking so romantic. Like, such a romantic — it’s not even funny. I can’t help it. I swear to God, like, every day, the majority of my day is sentimental. You know, I’m thinking about past relationships I’ve been in, how I miss them so much or what I would do different, or why I wanna be with them again, or just moments I’d like to go back to or I know why I shouldn’t go back, and then you know, it’s just constantly love, love, love.”
He’s a Taurus, ruled by Venus, he offers by way of explanation. “That means a couple things: one, like I need a lot of nurturing, and two, Venus is love, I’m ruled by love.” His favorite movie is Gaspar Noe’s Love, his favorite feeling is being in love (which he has been, twice). I bet if you could cook Love and serve it over pasta, it would be his favorite meal. He lives, breathes, and expels love. His Instagram is a steady stream of soul-baring, puppy-dog-eyed selfies — “I’m pretty vain,” he jokes. His Twitter alternates between sort of yoga studio platitudes and vague flirtations like “Fuck…you’re so cute,” or, more in line with my personal interests, “THE BLACKER THE BERRY.” The messages are to nobody specific, he says — he’s single right now — they could be to somebody he just met, or he met before, or he saw across the room, or just to everybody.
Dating is going to be hard for him from now on, he suspects, even though he really doesn’t want to change how he pursues someone he likes (open-heartedly, passionately, purely) but he’s started worrying about the reasons people want to date him. Is it just because he’s more famous now? Do they just want to date Peter Kavinksy? But are Kavinsky and Centineo really so different? “I’m definitely not as innocent—” he says, with a gaze, because why say anything if you aren’t going to commit.
Centineo continues to list the differences, both philosophical and material: He’s more apt to jump out of a plane or just sit in nature than his characters. He doesn’t live in the suburbs, he lives in Los Angeles with his older sister and her boyfriend. He likes yoga and martial arts. He parties with friends. He starts every day at 6 a.m. with oatmeal, the recipe for which he begins detail, slowly: “I do Irish steel-cut oats, I do almond butter, coconut butter uh, coconut oil, honey, uh, chopped bananas, and, and, uh, like, hemp granola,” and I’m struck with this familiar feeling of being completely entranced by a man saying absolutely nothing interesting to me, which, oh right, yes, is infatuation.