When Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) marches down a lacrosse field to confront hot jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) in Netflix’s new To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it’s impossible to stifle a grin: It’s that gloriously staged romantic-comedy shot, the stuff that teen dreams are made of. Lara Jean and Peter are an odd couple — he’s popular and gregarious, she’s a dreamy introvert — each seeking, for their own reasons, an arranged fake relationship. He wants to make the popular girl jealous; Lara Jean can avoid confronting her feelings for her older sister’s ex-boyfriend. It’s a romantic comedy in the tradition of She’s All That or Clueless: a little outlandish, totally lovable, and presents a couple you can’t help but root for. But this rom-com has something we’ve never seen before: Jenny Han, author of the YA series the movie is adapted from, insisted that Lara Jean remain Asian-American in the adaption. “I never saw an Asian-American girl be the lead in a teen movie before,” Han says. “So for me, that is significant.” Han talked to Vulture about Lara Jean and Peter, filming her cameo in the movie, wearing shoes in the bed, and why she doesn’t play matchmaker anymore.
To All the Boys might be my favorite movie of the year so far; it’s certainly my favorite of the summer. What did you think when you first saw it?
I think I got a huge sense of relief because throughout [this process], my main priority was to feel like I was being the spokesperson for the fans. I was worried. I just wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to feel like the feel of the book was still in the movie. I was really overjoyed when I saw the cut. The spirit of the book was in the movie.
Were there aspects of the story that resonated with you differently when you saw the adaptation?
I thought that John Corbett brought a nuanced take to being a dad. I found him really tender, which is like the book. But I teared up a little bit in the scene with him and Lana in the diner. That’s not a scene that’s in the book, but I thought it really represented how he saw the dad as being a very sensitive, tender kind of father.
I love the scene where he’s in the background as Lara Jean and Chris are talking about Peter. He’s just drinking this white wine and getting so emotional.
[Laughs.] Yeah, and I think that raising three kids by yourself — three daughters — takes a certain kind of sensitivity. I thought that John did a great job displaying that.
I’m pretty sure I spotted you in the background of a flashback to Lara Jean and Lucas at a school dance — can you tell me about filming that cameo?
I’ve been very coy about it, but everyone knows me, so people keep asking, “Is that you in the background?” I’m like, Maybe … But yes, that is me.
What was it like being on set that day?
It’s a flashback scene at the school dance, and I’m playing a chaperone. I was sort of joking around but not really joking, asking the director what my motivation was. I was like, “I wanna go kind of meta, where I’m giving an approving smile at Lana [Condor] and Trezzo [Mahoro], who plays Lucas.” To me, it felt a bit meta, as the author to be smiling at the actors.
I’d never been an extra in a movie before, and I didn’t realize how long it takes to get a small, simple take, especially when they’re dealing with a ton of middle-school-aged kids who are supposed to be dancing wildly at a dance. They kept going, “Guys, come on, more energy.” [Laughs.] “You’re happy. You’re enjoying yourself. This is fun, right?” And everyone was so self-conscious to really go all out dancing. I was like the mom coaching them, because I was standing with them the whole time.
Did you have a lot of input in the script?
I didn’t really have input on the script as it was being written, but I gave notes after it was already done.
What were your notes?
There were little things here and there where I wanted to be sure it felt like an authentic Asian-American family. I would say things like, “Can we make sure there’s a rice cooker in the kitchen in the background?” or “Lara Jean wouldn’t be wearing her shoes in the house.” I happened to be on set on the day that we were filming one of the opening scenes, and Lana was lying in bed with her tennis shoes on and her feet are against the wall. I was like “Can you please?” [Laughs.] “Can you please take her shoes off because I don’t think that would fly.”
Oh my God — I always freak out when people wear their shoes in bed in movies, but somehow my white friends never notice it!
I know! Wearing your shoes in bed, especially up against a wall, to me, is a bit much. I even notice when people put a suitcase that they’ve been traveling with and they just put it right on your comforter. I’m like, “You just dragged these suitcases through these streets and now on your bed?” It’s a cleanliness thing. I also don’t like getting into bed when I’ve been on the subway all day, wearing clothes I’ve been wearing out in the street.
This is so affirming, because I keep the same rules at home. But back to To All the Boys — the first book’s dedication is to your sister. Can you tell me more about your relationship?
My sister and I are really close. She’s my little sister. Sometimes you don’t know what a book is about until you are finished with it and you’re talking about it. In the case of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I was writing it while we were in the midst of planning her wedding. A lot of things and emotions came from that: families changing, with a sense of sadness but also joy. Lara Jean’s sister is going to college, and she’s dealing with the fact that her family’s not going to look the same as it used to look, and how she feels a little bit like the ground beneath her feet has shifted.
Once the book came out and I was on tour talking about it, I realized that I had had a similar feeling as I was writing the book, thinking about, My sister is now gonna be married, and so maybe now the holidays aren’t gonna be the same. I’d always sleep in her bed on Christmas Eve, and now her husband’s gonna be there ... I was just with her this weekend for her son’s first birthday, actually, and the house was full. My sister gave her husband the couch, so could I sleep in the bed her. He’s actually very accommodating to our sisterly traditions. Also, Kitty [Lara Jean’s rambunctious younger sister] is inspired by my sister in many ways.
Has your sister seen the movie? What did she think?
She has seen the movie, yes. She loved it.
Kitty mails Lara Jean’s letters in an attempt to set her up. Have you ever played matchmaker?
Me? Oh my gosh. No, but that’s so weird to hear, because I dreamt I did last night …
Oooh, tell me about that.
In this dream, I was trying to set somebody up with somebody else. It was bizarre. It was two different people in this dream, and I was trying to matchmake. I don’t do that in real life anymore! Most people I know are either couples, or married, or happily doing their thing single.
I read that the book’s plot was inspired by you writing these very emotional love letters yourself. I’m really interested in this idea of writing for the public versus writing privately.
When you write something by hand, there’s a sort of intimacy that is just intrinsic to that act. You don’t get to delete something in the same way, where it’s like it was never there. When you handwrite something, you’re writing your most raw, pure thoughts. If you want to change it, then you have to mark it out, and people can see you laboring over that thought. I think even the act of hand, pen, and paper is much more intimate than with a computer screen.
It’s funny, because when the book first came out, I thought it would be really fun to bring one of my letters on tour with me, and read it out loud. People were loving it, and laughing, but then I could feel my face was so hot. I didn’t realize until I was up there reading it that I was actually really embarrassed. It was as if the emotions were as fresh in that moment as they were when I wrote them. For me, embarrassment or humiliation is maybe one of the only emotions that you experience in the moment as if you were experiencing it all over again. It’s always fresh. Love can fade, and hate, but embarrassment — you lie in bed and you still remember a horrible thing you said to somebody, or something that made you feel ashamed. I never brought the letter out again. I was just done with that.
Why do you think it’s easier for Lara Jean to articulate her feelings in letters?
I think that she is an introverted character. Her inner life is really rich, but she doesn’t necessarily express herself the way that someone who is less introverted would do. But she does express herself via her clothes, and her baking, and the way that she decorates her room, and all those ways that feel comfortable to her.
What is stopping Lara Jean from telling Peter how she feels, even as they’ve built this deep and rich friendship?
I think that that is a pretty normal emotion, how she doesn’t necessarily feel ready for certain things. When I conceived of the Lara Jean character, I was thinking a lot about Little Women, and sisters, and being around the hearth. I was specifically thinking about Beth, and how that character is one that most people don’t really relate to. People consider her to be the boring March sister. I think people were really drawn to Jo, or even Amy, because they’re so spirited. But I think Beth is spirited in her own way. I was wondering, with a girl like that, what’s going on in her head? I consider Lara Jean to be in that tradition. Someone who’s not quite ready to be out in the world just yet. And at the same time, she’s also really content with where she is in her own life.
I’d also like to talk about Lara Jean being Asian-American. Lana told me that she liked that this character’s identity went kind of unremarked upon, and it made me glad — as people of color, not always spending time thinking about or explaining how it feels to not be white.
I’m so glad. Being Asian-American is obviously a part of my identity, but it doesn’t encapsulate Lara Jean’s whole identity. I think oftentimes, when you see a story about a person of color, it ends up being about that person’s struggle with being a person of color. I wanted that to not be the point of her story.
Peter has this line where he makes fun of her for having the references of an 80-year-old woman: She likes Sixteen Candles and James Dean. Those felt like intentional details, like she’s staking a claim to pieces of pop culture that weren’t made with her in mind.
I think that she’s a throwback kind of a girl, and when you have all these old-fashioned reference points, there is not much Asian-American representation to consider. To me, it makes sense that, yes, she’s looking at actresses in the ’40s, and the ’50s, and that’s what she’s seeing and thinking about.
What did you think of Noah and Lana’s chemistry?
I thought it was really sparkling. That’s the right word. I was on set for all the house scenes, where it was mainly all family shots. I came back because I really wanted to see Lana and Noah in a scene together, to see what that chemistry was gonna look like. I’d seen them interact just hanging out, but I didn’t know how it might be different in the movie. I was there for the scene on the racetrack, which is the kiss scene. I felt like the chemistry that we see in them is really genuine.
Last question: What’s your favorite romantic comedy?
Bridget Jones’s Diary is probably my number-one romantic comedy. I think it really does that balancing act where it’s funny and romantic, but it’s also really real. There’s a scene where she’s crying in the bathtub taking off her eyelashes, and I think that any woman watching that would feel they could relate to that moment. Bridget Jones is not a joke. She’s a real person. Feeling like there is real weight to the story is important to me, that the stakes are high, as high as they would be for any other kind of movie. Bridget Jones is my top one, Clueless is up there for me, and Love and Basketball is in my top three as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.