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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Noah Centineo on Playing a Vulnerable Jock

Noah Centineo. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

As our heroine in the Netflix rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) is a winning collection of one-liners and neuroses. But the most surprising performance comes from Noah Centineo, who plays Peter Kavinsky, a lacrosse-playing, Jeep-driving bro. When a handful of Lara Jean’s love letters are accidentally mailed out to their intended-but-unintended recipients, she agrees to fake-date Peter to cover up her crush on her sister’s ex-boyfriend (one of the letter recipients). He convinces her a temporary relationship is the answer to both of their problems: She won’t have to confront her feelings about her sister’s ex, and he can make the popular mean girl that dumped him jealous.

Peter is a jock who makes decidedly anti-jock moves: He writes Lara Jean love notes, wins over her family, and drives to the Korean grocery store to pick up the yogurt snacks she likes. “Teenage fantasy is To All the Boys’ vibranium, the inexhaustible resource that fuels all manner of cute hijinks,” Vulture’s critic Emily Yoshida wrote in her review. “And yet, it has the nerve to go and deliver a romantic interest (two, if you’re feeling generous) that in every way lives up to the burning ball of emotion that is Lara Jean Covey.” Centineo also looks — and, eerily, sounds — just like another certified romantic-comedy leading man: Mark Ruffalo.

Centineo knows he has an ineffable Ruffalo-ness, that kind of easy geniality and “aw shucks” demeanor. The Ruffalo comparisons, though, he’s been hearing since he was 15, and even more since he dropped out of school and started going on auditions. Does it ever get old? “No,” he laughs. “Oh my God, my dream would be doing a film with him as his son or something.” The All the Boys star talked to Vulture about crushes, high school, and of course, Mark Ruffalo.

I love the name Peter Kavinsky. It just rolls off the tongue.
Peter Kavinsky!

So you hear about this project and then what happened? As someone who didn’t read the books, what made you want to be involved?
I remember going into the auditions and loving the character of Peter. He’s this, like, jock, a prototypical guy. I thought the story was really endearing, this idea of not being afraid to love in the first place or love again. If we learn how to love again after having your heart broken, it’s one of the greatest lessons on earth. And then I met Lana and it was sealed! I had to be a part of it.

Can you tell me about your first meeting?
We were both auditioning for it. Neither one of us were attached yet, and I remember sitting in the audition room. I wanted to run lines with someone because I hadn’t run it yet. So I was like, “Hey, do you want to run lines?” to Lana. It was just us two in the waiting room, and she was like, “No, no thanks!”

She turned you down?
At this point we didn’t know that either one of us were going to be in it. And then chemistry reads came around a couple weeks later and I walked in said hi and she was like, “Oh my God, hi,” and we finally got to do our run together.

How were those chemistry reads? You both fit so well together as Peter and Lara Jean.
It was pretty fun. It just flowed. It felt very natural. Lana does these reactions throughout the movie, like little facial expressions, and I think they are so hilarious. I remember seeing her face and poking fun at that and being like, “What is that!” Like, “What is this face you are doing?” The judgy-face line in the film, that was improv-ed from the chemistry read.

This is random, but: Peter drives an Audi in the book, but a Jeep in the movie. That’s such a specific and funny detail to me. It’s definitely part of some “hot jock in high school” starter pack.
They were like, This is your car, and it was a lifted silver sick Jeep. And it’s funny, too, because in [my other movie] Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, I drive a red Jeep.

Okay, that’s what I’m saying! All the cool high-school boys have Jeeps.
I guess so! My sister drove a Jeep. She was a pretty cool high-school girl. I drive a Mini Cooper.

Were you cool in high school?
Nah, not really.

It’s okay if you were — you can admit it.
I don’t think so. Like, I was like this tiny little kid that was goofy and would always crack jokes or sit in the back of class and not listen to anything that the teacher was saying. I didn’t do well in school, and I didn’t really care to cater to certain social structures that were in place to be cool.

So, like a rebel?
It was like neither a rebel nor a conformist. It was like, I’m here and I’m going to do my thing, and then Oh I want to act, I’m not going to stay in school. So I dropped out — halfway through sophomore year I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting, and I did one semester to finish my sophomore year. I was working a good amount so I couldn’t balance school.

Have you written love letters? What did they say?
Oh man, hundreds of different things. Some of them are like one-liners like, “I love you endlessly.” And I’d leave it in her room to find. We were dating at this point — I’ve never sat down and written a love letter confessing my love to someone to then send.

Have you ever played matchmaker, like Kitty?
Not like Kitty. I got in a lot of trouble with my sister once in elementary school because her crush walked into the front office of our school and I said, “Oh Taylor, is that your crush,” and she slapped the shit out of me. I stayed out of people’s love lives after that.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was how much you remind me of Mark Ruffalo. It’s uncanny, and I’m not the only one who’s pointed it out. Have you heard that before?
It’s not conscious! But I get it all the time.

People are just like, Oh my God, dude, you remind me of the Hulk?
[Laughs.] Like before Hulk even. Ever since I can really remember auditioning in L.A., people — even if I was too inexperienced — they’d be like Yeah, he’s a little green, but you remind us of Mark Ruffalo. And I think it’s great. I guess it’s just my mannerisms, like the way I talk, the way my eyes move around maybe when I’m thinking …? I don’t know!

There was a time when he did a lot of romantic comedies, and I think he’s so great in them. But a lot of young actors — men and women — reject romantic comedies, or feel like the genre is beneath them. Did you ever feel that way?
It’s hard to do a romantic comedy that’s not, like, bad. And maybe part of it is doing them at our age, too. At least when it comes to young men doing romantic comedies, you have to have a certain level of openness and vulnerability, while also being that “male lead” type. Finding the balance and being able to play comedic moments, play a brutish male, but also have sensitivity — and make it all very authentic and natural — you just have to be the type of person to do that, and some actors don’t want to be that type of person.

Here’s a totally unrelated question: How did you end up in that Camila Cabello music video?
Oh, that was so cool! My manager calls me one day, like, “Hey man, we’ve got this opportunity for you to be in a music video. I don’t know if you’re going to want to do it …” I’m like, Well who is the artist? He said Camila Cabello, “Havana.” I was like, Dude you don’t even know. My sister just showed me this song like a week ago, I love this song, I am in 100 percent.

So I get there and they put me in this incredible suit. They give me gold rings and necklaces, my hair is slicked back, and I look all Cubano. And then they take me to set and Camila is there, and she is, like, the kindest, smallest, most loving creature ever. She had so much energy.

Since you were in that video, what do you think the song of the summer is?
“This Is America.” Childish is using music as a vehicle to discuss injustices in the world right now. For me, that makes it the song of the summer. Drake drops an album and you are like, This is incredible. Jay-Z and Beyoncé did the music video for “Apeshit” at the Louvre, and it was great but nobody really talks about it anymore.

“This Is America” was insane and created tsunami waves. It had a message behind it that he doesn’t comment on. He’s like, “That’s not for me to tell you what it is.” [Laughs.] He’s so cool. Things get lost in translation. To me, words convey feelings and feelings are just vibrations that we feel, so words are never as authentic as what feelings are and what intentions are.

Since we’re talking about feelings and intentions, Lara Jean has a hard time talking about her feelings and owning her emotions. Do you think you’re the same way?
It’s funny. That’s the impetus for the entire film: She’s afraid to share her feelings or to even involve herself with anyone else, so she writes love letters and puts them away until her sister releases them. No, I think I used to. I used to have a big issue, one, identifying how I feel and being like, I feel this way. Over the years, I’ve tried to work on that.

Tried how?
Just to be more open, to be more conscious. In relationships sometimes I would just shut down. I wouldn’t explain why. It was actually mirrored in my partners at the time, and I would have to pull out of them what I did to piss them off or hurt their feelings. By that process of unraveling someone else, I actually got better at understanding why I started feeling certain ways. That’s the cool thing about relationships. You’re relating to someone else. It’s another thing to balance who you are off of.

Can you tell me about your most devastating crush?
A crush or love?

If you wanna talk about love, that’s fine, too.
I mean, they’re different. To me, a crush … like this girl Carly when I was like 10 years old. I had a huge crush on her, and then I found out she didn’t like me, and I was like, Argh! But that was like a three-minute thing. I remember sitting thinking, Dang, she doesn’t like me … Okay, yeah, I’m over it. And that was that.

But first love, the first time I ever was leveled by a human being and was like, “Yo, you have me; I surrender,” I think I was 18. It was the most incredible relationship ever. It was like super positive, super toxic, all over the place, passionate. It’s that 18-, 19-year-old young love: You’re no one else’s; we’re just for each other, which is cool but …

Yeah, very draining. That almost kills you to go through something like that.

Let’s end on a happier note. After making these great romantic comedies, what do you want to do next?
This romantic-comedy genre has been really great thus far. I’ve always wanted to hit that like “13 Going on 30; Failure to Launch, Matthew McConaughey; What Happens in Vegas, Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher” wave. I love that whole world and I see myself continuing this. But at the same time, I’d really like to branch out and do some more auteur filmmaking like Gaspar Noé, the Nolan brothers, the Coen brothers, these very existential, philosophical, visceral films.

Peter’s favorite movie is Fight Club and Lara Jean loves Sixteen Candles. What’s your favorite movie?
Honestly, Love by Gaspar Noé, and then my second one is The Matrix.

To All the Boys’ Noah Centineo on Playing a Vulnerable Jock