Bestselling author Jenny Han had just flown cross-country from New York to meet up with Lana Condor, the star of her hit “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” movies, when the actress turned to her with an urgent query: “Do you think I’m like Kitty or Lara Jean or Margot in real life?”
Han took the serious question under serious consideration. After all, Condor skyrocketed to fame overnight playing bookish teen heroine Lara Jean Song Covey, the romance-obsessed protagonist of the 2018 film adapted from Han’s bestselling novel and its new sequel, “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” (now streaming on Netflix).
And as fans know, Lara Jean and her sisters Kitty (Anna Cathcart) and Margot (Janel Parrish) are as different from one another as Condor’s onscreen beaus: Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), the jock Lara Jean fell for at the end of the first movie, and sensitive musician John Ambrose McClaren (Jordan Fisher), the old flame who complicates Lara Jean’s love life as the second film picks up.
“That’s tricky,” Han said after a beat. “I’d put you as more of a ... Chris,” naming Lara Jean’s unconventional but loyal best friend. “Yes!” screamed Condor, and they both burst out laughing.
After making “To All the Boys” and two back-to-back sequels together — becoming close friends over long conversations, foodie obsessions and spa days — the pair share not just their cinematic vision of Lara Jean, the character at the heart of one of Netflix’s most-talked-about rom-coms and a rare Asian American heroine, but a sisterly bond.
Han, 39, lives in New York City and Condor, 22, recently moved to Seattle. Cozying up in a conference room inside the Netflix headquarters in Hollywood they instantly began catching up, chattering a mile a minute. Often the two just end up talking. “We FaceTimed the other night for 4 1/2 hours!” said Han.
But there’s more to their friendship than simpatico personalities. “I’m very protective of the character, the world and also over Lana, honestly,” said Han, who first noticed Condor when she was cast in a small role in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and advocated early for her to play Lara Jean.
“There is no movie without Lana,” she said of Condor, who was 19 when she was cast. “It all hinges on her shoulders — and that’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of attention. I wanted to keep checking in to make sure she was OK.”
Following Han’s 2014 N.Y. Times bestselling YA novel, the first film’s cutesy premise finds introverted Lara Jean forced out of her shell after her old love letters are mailed out to five former crushes. Agreeing to pose with the outgoing Peter as a couple to make his ex jealous, she accidentally falls in love.
The film turned Condor and Centineo into stars, boosting her social media following to 7 million fans virtually overnight. Condor remembered how different life was just a few years ago when, during the audition process for the first “To All the Boys,” she gave herself a stern pep talk.
“I remember sitting in my car and I said to myself: ‘You cannot let anyone take this away from you,” said Condor, a trained ballerina who was born in Vietnam and grew up in Chicago, Washington state and New York. “‘You have to do this role. You were meant to do this.’”
She learned she won the part at home in a shoe-box-sized studio apartment in Torrance. “I didn’t have any A/C,” said Condor. “My fridge was a mini fridge, and I was sitting in the opening of the door, which was wide open. I kept saying, ‘Wait — say that again!’ I just didn’t believe that I had been cast. It was like a dream come true.”
I said to myself: ‘You cannot let anyone take this away from you ... You were meant to do this.’
Then came her first message from Han, the bestselling author who unbeknownst to her had been following her career. They bonded as she prepared for chemistry reads with potential Kavinskys and Han sent over care packages of trinkets Lara Jean would love: face masks, skincare, stationery, candy, pens.
Han laughed. “It’s funny because there’s so much that’s personal, that’s of me, in the character. The things she likes, I also like. There’s a lot of Jenny in Lara Jean.”
In “P.S. I Still Love You,” on which Han is an executive producer, Lara Jean and Peter have officially become boyfriend and girlfriend, but her insecurities and unrealistic expectations start to get in the way. Poring over romance novels and ‘80s teen movies has made Lara Jean, the daydreaming middle daughter of a widowed dad, emotionally unprepared for her first relationship.
She stress-bakes — a personal touch taken straight out of Han’s life, which is also how Han says she got through the writing of her books. Missing her late mother and her older sister Margot, Lara Jean turns to new and old female friendships as she begins to wonder if she’s really meant for someone more like her. Enter John Ambrose McClaren.
It was a twist Condor didn’t see coming. She hadn’t picked up the second novel until she finished filming the first movie, and when she read it she texted Han immediately. “I was like, ‘Jenny, why would you do this to me! He’s so perfect!’ ”
John Ambrose is the male version of Lara Jean, said Condor. “He’s soft and charming, and he too has a lot going on in his head that he might not say out loud.” That also made it a challenge to cast. Singer, actor and Broadway star Jordan Fisher won the role by making it his own, say Han and Condor, unlike others who came imitating big Centineo energy.
“I am very similar to John Ambrose in many ways in how we think, how we process,” said Fisher, who brings a gentle poise and charm to the character. “John Ambrose is not your stereotypical teenage love interest: He’s sophisticated and intentional, super kind and warm and thoughtful — and a person of color.”
One quality that Han and Condor share, Fisher says, is the mutual desire to “eradicate stigmas and certain kinds of archetypes and stereotypes,” not just through Lara Jean but across the diverse ensemble cast of characters helping her sort through her complex emotions.
John Ambrose is, in many ways, Lara Jean’s perfect match. And that prompts her to look inward and ask herself what she really wants. “What I love about these stories and about romantic comedies in general is that it’s through the woman’s point of view,” said Han. “John Ambrose McCLaren speaks to her on a different level than Peter does.”
The teenaged romantic dilemma consumes much of Lara Jean’s life, but it’s not all she’s concerned with in “P.S. I Still Love You,” which was directed by Michael Fimognari and written by Sofia Alvarez and J. Mills Goodloe.
Family is important to the character, and the sequel sees Lara Jean and her sister, Kitty, who are Korean American on their mother’s side, don traditional hanbok to visit their relatives for Lunar New Year.
It’s a subtle but meaningful depiction of normalized onscreen Asian American life to Han, who had to fight to keep her heroine from being whitewashed when fielding initial movie offers. She was overwhelmed when a similar nod to growing up Korean in the first film went viral.
One of the more surprising indications that viewers were tuning in and connecting with “To All the Boys” came when the film led to a boom in sales of Yakult, a Japanese fermented yogurt drink that was part of Han’s childhood.
“Bringing it to school as a kid, people were like, ‘What’s that?,’ ” she explained. “Being able to really own that, and seeing people discover the greatness of Yakult … hopefully for kids to take that to school now and no one is embarrassing them or making them feel bad, that to me was a big moment.”
In the new film, Lara Jean’s Korean heritage is again just a casual part of her life — by design. (The third installment, “To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean,” was partly filmed in South Korea and is adapted from Han’s third novel, in which Lara Jean ponders her future.)
“That’s the thing about it,” said Han. “It’s not the point of it. The whole story is not centered around her Asian American identity, but it’s a piece of it — and I think that’s just real life.”
“Nobody’s whole existence is just that,” she continued. “What I hope is an outcome from the film’s success is that we’ll get more [stories]. Yes, show the stories about pain and struggle. But can we also have the stories of everyday slices of life, of romance and family, of domestic lives, to see the full breadth of humanity?”
The whole story is not centered around her Asian American identity, but it’s a piece of it — and I think that’s just real life.
Lara Jean’s family and Han’s own even intertwine in the new film. In the New Year scene, the author’s own parents play Lara Jean’s grandparents. On set she and her mother taught Condor, Cathcart and John Corbett, who plays their dad, how to properly greet their relatives.
Han personally visited hanbok shops in L.A.’s Koreatown for the custom dresses the Song Covey girls would wear onscreen. “We went to Meehee Hanbok, which is sort of the hanbok maker to the stars who did Sandra Oh’s for the Golden Globes,” she said. “I wanted to make sure it was right. I wanted it to be authentic.”
“I really admire being so specific and wanting to do it justice, to do it right,” said Condor. “It was amazing to be a part of.”
“My mom said to me, ‘I think I want to get into acting now,’ ” said Han. “I was like, ‘Mom, calm down.’ ”
Much of what Lara Jean is dealing with in the second film, they hope, will be relatable to young people who don’t typically see themselves onscreen. “I think we often see in media teenagers going out to parties and having sex and having these fun teen years, and that’s great and valid to do all those things,” she said. “But I think it’s also completely valid and normal to want to stay home on Friday night and bake brownies.”
Condor laughed. “Literally the only people that I hung out with in high school were my parents and my one friend,” she said. “Every Friday I knew that my friends were going out and partying and going to football games and meeting boys, but I only wanted to be with my parents and go to see movies on [Santa Monica’s] Third Street Promenade.”
“I was at Bible study on Saturday night,” said Han. “I was not partying!”
Lara Jean and John Ambrose aren’t the “American Pie” type of teens; they’d get along better with the heroines of “Booksmart,” mused the pair. A continuing theme through the second film is communication and self-knowledge, and one of Lara Jean and Peter’s biggest scenes involves their first conversation about sex and how she’s not ready to have it.
“I want young people to know that it is your choice and your decision about what you want to do with your partner,” said Condor. “It’s up to you, and communication is key. You only get one body so you need to do what’s right for yourself and your mind and your heart.
“When Jenny says she puts so much care and attention into Lara Jean and also to me as Lana, that’s very true. I could always know that Lara Jean’s wellbeing, as well as mine, is being protected by her. And that’s awesome, because sometimes it’s not like that.”
Taking on greater creative involvement as an executive producer on the second and third films, Han says, has opened new avenues for her. But her hopes for what it does for Condor remain the same as when they first met.
“All I wanted for Lana was for her to have a big, long career,” said Han of the actress, whose credits include “Alita: Battle Angel” and the SyFy series “Deadly Class.” “I felt like I’d seen so many great young white actresses have YA book adaptations and then explode, then be able to do whatever they want.”
“Jennifer Lawrence does ‘Hunger Games’ and millions of people are seeing those movies because they love those books — and then she gets to go do whatever she wants,” she said. “I want Lana to have those same opportunities.”