If you haven’t heard of Lana Condor yet, you’re about to see her everywhere. The 21-year-old actress is the star of Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, directed by Susan Johnson and based on the classic YA novel by Jenny Han. Condor plays Lara Jean Covey, a half-Korean teenager juggling boys, family and her sense of self—struggles all catalyzed by the love letters she wrote to five of her ex-crushes, which get sent out without her knowing.
Before her turn in To All the Boys, Condor could be seen as Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse, though many of her scenes were cut from the final film (something she hints at in this interview). It’s clear, however, that Condor’s future is where we should all be looking: her fantastic portrayal of Lara Jean is sure to cement her as a leading lady. Condor spoke with Her Campus about what it was like to go back to high school for the film, her thoughts on the movement to create more leading roles for Asian Americans and the power of giving back.
Her Campus: I wanted to start off by talking about your character Lara Jean, because I found her so instantly likable and I feel like everyone who watches the film will, too. What aspects of Lara Jean’s character really made you gravitate toward this role?
Lana Condor: To start with, she just has such a good heart and it’s really refreshing to play a character that has a good heart. But right off the bat, when I got the audition and it said, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, feature film, auditioning for the lead,” I was like, “What?! I’m auditioning for the lead in a rom-com?!” I flipped out! So initially, that opportunity in itself [was amazing].
And then when I got to know Lara Jean, she has a beautiful heart. I love that she kind of lives in her own world, I love how awkward she is, but I don’t really think she cares. I think she owns herself being awkward, and if anything, she thinks it’s a little funny, probably. She has a good heart. She’s a good person. She owns who she is. She’s unapologetic and I really do love that about her. And then, it’s just attractive to play a character that’s just trying to figure life out, because we’re all trying to do that in real life.
HC: Has playing Lara Jean brought back any nostalgia or cringey memories from high school? Because that is when you’re trying to figure out who you are and you’re navigating all these different things.
LC: Yes! Absolutely. Just walking the set hallways immediately brings you back, and that scene where she’s trying to find a place to sit in the lunchroom, and she just kind of gives up and leaves—that totally brought me back in a way that was slightly uncomfortable. [laughs] When I was in high school, I did go to an all-girls’ high school, so that was a major difference in my life and hers. But her feeling of not really fitting in brought me right back to high school, because every day, I was like, “Who am I? What am I? Where am I?”
High school’s weird, man. [laughs]
HC: You mentioned that Lara Jean is awkward, but she’s also very unapologetic about that. We see her grow a lot throughout the film—she comes out of her shell, and it’s really nice to watch that. Is there any piece of advice that you’d think Lara Jean would give you or any young woman that you would undertake in your own life? What can people learn from her?
LC: This is going to sound so cliche, but I believe this through and through: Don’t be afraid to be yourself. And there’s a line in the movie like that. You can’t hide yourself away from the world, and she actually taught me that.
There were days on set where I was self-conscious, or scared and nervous, and then I get to play this character that’s going through the same things, and she comes out the other side realizing that people will love her just the way that she is. That was a learning experience for me as well, and I took that from set and have applied that to my real life. I suppose I would love if people took that away from the movie, and younger girls as well. I hope my little cousins take that away from the movie, that would be great.
HC: Of course, we can’t do an interview with you and not ask about Asian representation.
LC: Of course.
HC: Because there are so few leading roles for Asian-American actresses, especially in romantic movies—right now, people are pointing to To All the Boys and Crazy Rich Asians as gamechangers in that sense—did you feel any pressure while you were filming, knowing that you could have this impact on the industry in that way?
LC: When I was filming, no. The pressure that I felt was getting Lara Jean right for Jenny Han. That’s the pressure that I felt. Leaving the film and taking a step back and then going through all the press, I definitely now feel a pressure more than I did when I started. Because when I started to film, I felt like I was just playing a great character in a great rom-com with great people. I just wanted to do a good job.
But now I do feel—I don’t think pressure’s the right word. I’ve had people ask, “Oh, do you feel like you’re spearheading a movement?” And I don’t. I feel that it’s not just my responsibility to spearhead a whole movement, I feel like it’s everyone’s responsibility. If we want to see a change, we can’t just put it on a couple people. It’s great to have faces, but if we really want to see a change, the audience needs to get behind it, people out in the real world need to get behind it as well. I don’t feel a pressure as an individual, because I know that it’s not just a one-person fight. I believe that it’s the responsibility of everyone.
Tom Cruise says he hates when people call it “his” movie. Because he’s like, “No, no, it’s not my movie. It’s our movie. That means we all have to take responsibility. You can’t just put it on one person.” And I feel that way about making changes in representation, for Asian Americans, especially, in Hollywood. It can’t just be on one person or a couple people. We all have to take responsibility and do it together.
HC: Right! And I think it’s not just down to the actors, either. I think screenwriters need to be writing more stories for these people.
LC: Oh, absolutely! I think screenwriters, I think editors in the cutting room—they have a lot of responsibility that we don’t think about, but they could cut the coverage of an Asian person to focus on a white person because, unknowingly, they think that white person has more to say or is more interesting. So I think it goes, like you said, down to screenwriters, down to editors, down to everyone. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make a conscious change.
HC: You recently created a scholarship program through the Asia Foundation for girls in Vietnam. Can you tell us more about this and why you wanted to create this scholarship?
LC: Susan [Johnson], our director, was the one who got me into it because she has such a big heart and she’s so thoughtful. So as a wrap gift, she proposed this idea to me. Now, myself and my family fund six girls in Vietnam—and it’s so sad, because it’s actually so cheap to do that, to fund their education. Education there is so, so cheap, and I wish more people would do it.
We pay for their education for four years, we pay for their bike to get to school, we pay for their stipend for lunch, we pay for their books and their uniforms, and they write us—it’s kind of a penpal situation.
It’s been so incredible because I believe education is power, and education is one of the few things that can get you out of a situation that maybe isn’t the best, and so these girls are getting this education that they wouldn’t have gotten without the foundation, which is so beautiful. It’s also so humbling, because I was adopted from Vietnam, so I very easily could have still been there, if my parents hadn’t found me, so it’s been a very humbling experience. I sure hope that as my platform grows, I can let more people know about the Asia Foundation because it really is so cheap to sponsor these kids. You might feel the loss of the money in your pocket for a couple days, but you’re giving these kids a four-year education, instantly. It’s amazing.