Four days after Netflix released To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in 2018, someone – whose identity is still unclear – leaked its star’s phone number online. “I woke up to hundreds of phone calls and texts from random people,” says Lana Condor. She was then 20; it was her first leading role. “At that moment, I kind of realised that people were watching it.”
To All the Boys was an instant smash. Netflix described it as one of its most-watched original films to date, with – significantly – “strong repeat viewings”. A new teen power-couple were born: Lara Jean Covey (Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), whose faux-mance starts to hint at the real thing.
Condor – who already had a handful of film credits to her name, including 2016’s X Men: Apocalypse – saw her Instagram numbers jump from around 100,000 to 5 million (they are now nearly double that). Centineo, meanwhile, became a heartthrob, spoken about in the same pant as Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet. Last week in Manhattan, fans queued for five hours to see a screening of the sequel, which is out now. A third instalment has already been shot, with a more ambitious set-up taking in Vancouver, New York and Seoul.
Adapted from Jenny Han’s hit young-adult trilogy and evoking the likes of 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless, To All the Boys embraces romance and an air of mayhem, without trying too hard to dismantle the cliches. It is safe and sweet rather than energetically sassy. What might, superficially, seem like low stakes – why has my boyfriend given his ex my scrunchie? – are treated seriously. To All the Boys, says Condor, is about “good characters, who have good hearts”. The world, she says, can be “pretty dark and scary … [but] no matter how much of a cold heart you have, people still want to watch people fall in love.”
While race does not define the films, it might explain in part why To All the Boys and its sequel feel like more than the sum of their parts. Condor is Vietnamese-American and plays a character with Korean and American parentage. Born in Vietnam’s fourth-largest city, Cần Thơ, Condor was adopted by an American family – her father is a Pulitzer-prize nominated journalist – after five months in an orphanage.
Today, she sponsors a programme for Vietnamese girls’ education, which she says is the most important thing she has achieved to date. Has she ever felt pressured to represent America’s east Asian community more widely? “No, I knew what I was going into,” she says firmly. “The greatest part of this whole experience has been people coming up to me and saying that they felt represented and seen [in the films], and then sharing their own experiences and their own stories with me.” What she wants, she adds, is to be “seen and to be understood”.
As for the sequel, …PS: I Still Love You, Lara Jean and Peter’s romance is tested when her middle-school flame arrives in town. Did Condor ever worry that their unrelentingly gentle franchise could dissolve into a meninist tug of war? No, she says: rather, she was wary of her character becoming a villain.
“You see in this movie that Lara Jean is flawed; she’s trying to figure out how to communicate these intense feelings,” she explains. “I wanted it to be realistic that she had a hard time telling Peter what was going on, but I didn’t want her to be unlikable.” She wails down the phone, imitating a screaming fit: “I didn’t want her to be like that, but also I knew Jenny Han wasn’t going to write characters that were toxic.”
In fact, the franchise continues the story in a lovely, ambling fashion – with crucial scenes set in the glam retirement complex that is home to Stormy (Holland Taylor), Lara Jean’s eccentric older confidante. Stormy gives Lara Jean an eveningwear makeover and tells her: “The way you look should be against the law.” She also tells her: “Almost every one” of her own love affairs overlapped.
Any overlap in PS is a lot less torrid than one suspects Stormy’s were. The films’ careful chasteness and consent-awareness is key to their success, and Condor is an exemplary spokesperson. “Whatever you choose to do with your body and with your heart with your mind should be your choice and your choice only,” she tells her army of young fans. “You shouldn’t let anyone, or pop culture, influence you or make you do something that you don’t want to do.”
To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You is on Netflix now