A love triangle made Lana Condor famous. The 22-year-old actress played dreamy teen Lara Jean Covey in Netflix’s coming-of-age romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before—a girl so purely herself that the world seems to peel back its sharp edges around her. Somebody finds five love letters she had written, one for every boy she’s ever had feelings for, and Lara Jean faces a quintessential dilemma: the school heartthrob or her sister’s boyfriend? Based on Jenny Han’s bestselling young adult novel of the same name, the charmingly executed film became one of the streaming service’s most-viewed original films. As a result, Condor did that fabled thing: She became a star overnight.
Her Instagram following exploded (from 100,000 followers to 5.5 million). Hundreds of people turned up in Lara Jean’s pink cardigan and plaid skirt, or her Pink Ladies–esque satin bomber, for Halloween. Gossip mounted about whether the chemistry between Condor and Noah Centineo, who played Lara Jean’s sensitive-jock love interest, Peter Kavinsky, originated from a real-life romance. (It didn’t; Condor’s been with her boyfriend, Anthony De La Torre, for four years.) One fan paid $7,000 to stay on the same floor of a hotel where Condor was staying; another fan once tried to get into Condor’s actual room. “No one can prepare you for that. There’s no manual,” Condor—sweetly perky, an Oh my gosh brought to life—said in last month. “You’re like, what the heck is happening right now?”
The sequel, P.S. I Still Love You, dropped on Netflix in February; it makes heartening, gentle viewing in our present moment of change and uncertainty. It was hard to believe anything could match the swoonworthy first act—only another high-stakes romantic dilemma could hope to compete. “A lot of people are very invested in Lara Jean and Peter,” says Condor. “When we were making the movie, we had a joke. The director and I were basically like, ‘Let’s just break everyone’s hearts.’” In the sequel, Lara Jean volunteers at a retirement home, and who should be there but her erstwhile Model U.N. buddy, the sensitive, piano-playing John Ambrose McClaren, also a recipient of one of those pesky love letters. Soon, Lara Jean is writing him love notes again, this time in her head.
With their perfect chemistry and tender rapport, Condor and Centineo were both immediately embraced by viewers as Hollywood’s new It Teens. A love story so far from norms of teen romances past—an Asian-American lead, a jock who wasn’t a jerk—To All the Boys signaled a new direction for the genre, and viewers swarmed to it. So how to convince an audience who swooned over Lara Jean and Peter that this interloper was worth entertaining? The answer is Jordan Fisher, possessed of a smile seemingly designed to make teenage girls feel reckless, and the irresistible appeal and softness of, say, a puppy’s folded ear. His careful forays into Lara Jean’s confidences make Peter’s goofy adoration seem positively Joey Tribbiani–esque. From the beginning, Condor says Fisher was the one. “I just loved to watch him,” says Condor. “I mean, you could mute it and it would still be the most charming thing you’ve seen.”
Watching the film, it’s impossible to disagree. Condor laughs, recalling a friend’s reaction to a cliffhanger scene in the teen romance. “I brought one of my friends to the premiere with me. He’s in his mid-thirties, on a television show that’s really macho—you know, guns and fighting, all that stuff. He’s watching the movie, and he turns to me screaming. He’s the last person that you would think would be vocally invested in our movies.” She drops her voice an octave, evoking all the recalcitrant men who have confessed to her how much they enjoyed the films. “I’m, like, not your demographic, but uh, it’s really cute,” she rasps.
A furor over Fisher duly ignited. For her part, Condor always knew it was going to happen—look how her own life changed after the first film. “I don’t really think he knows,” she says mischievously. “He just doesn’t even know what’s about to happen.” Global adoration, yes, but also a life changed, forever. “It’s been such a short period of time. But I also feel like I’ve lived 97 years in two years,” Condor says of her post–To All the Boys fame. “If I didn’t genuinely love the story and genuinely believe in Lara Jean’s heart, this would be a nightmare, you know?”
There are ways to stabilize oneself, even while on such a hurtling trajectory. Condor credits “an amazing family and amazing friends” for supporting her. “The core people that I surround myself with are really good and have been really nurturing.” It could be Lara Jean herself speaking—nobody can avoid the pangs of romantic endeavor, but to the extent that a person can be armored up and cushioned for the blows, Lara Jean has it all. Two appealing suitors, yes. But also a loving family (John Corbett plays her enthused, though slightly at-sea father), a best friend, and a new confidante, the wry and knowing Stormy, played by Holland Taylor. All this scaffolding around Lara Jean is part of what makes her such a winning heroine: She tries things and often blunders, but you know that despite any heartbreak, she’ll take it to heart, yet stay safe.
Amid all these stratospheric changes, Condor, who was adopted when she was four months old, often thinks about how different her life could have been. Recently, she took a trip with her family to her native Vietnam, with the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance. (Michelle Obama and Julia Roberts were in attendance too.) The orphanage where Condor first met her adoptive family is now a nursing home, but a security guard allowed them to take a look around. “It was just so beautiful,” Condor says, and brought her a sense of completeness. “I think it’s rare to have a full-circle experience, and I think it’s rare for human beings to feel completely still and whole.”
After she wrapped To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Condor started sponsoring a scholarship for high school girls from her hometown with the Asia Foundation; she says it gives her a purpose in life, something solid to set against the superficiality and glamour of Hollywood. It’s also personal. When she met some of the recipients, it was like looking in a mirror: “I was looking at them, and watching them, and talking to them,” she says, “and being like, This could have been me.”
Condor is passionate about young women—their strengths, potential, and stories. Despite the fact that a young woman is the focus of the To All the Boys films, the boys have tended to grab the lion’s share of attention. “I think what needs to be more of a conversation, to be completely frank, is the women in the movie,” Condor says. “They don’t get celebrated nearly as much as they should.” From Lara Jean’s bickering but supportive sisters to her best friend Christine, the fabulous Stormy, and even her high-school nemesis Gen, a wealth of complicated and stalwart women populate the world of the films. “I know it’s called To All the Boys, but it’s not just about them. I sometimes feel like we should be talking a little bit more about Lara Jean being a young woman growing up. We’re watching her overthink, we’re watching her make mistakes.” Girls don’t always get to do that onscreen with impunity.
The team behind the film, at least, take young women seriously; it’s clear in every element. Take Lara Jean’s Cinderella moment, a deeply satisfying staircase descent in a seafoam green J. Mendel dress. The gown had to make a huge visual impact—it’s basically a plot point in itself—but it was also destined to be replicated by admiring fans. “We realized that girls went out and bought the same outfits Lara Jean wore. So that’s a responsibility for us, to create beautiful things that are also accessible to the masses. I was in fittings every single day, for hours,” Condor recalls. And there’s another reason she wanted to get it right: “We tried so many dresses, because you don’t see a lot of Asian American women getting a Cinderella moment.” With all this this dedication and care, it’s no surprise the films and books have such a devoted following.
The final chapter of Lara Jean’s story is still coming. To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean has already been filmed, though there’s no premiere date yet. “I got so lucky to be able to do a full story, with a beginning, middle, and end. You can watch this girl grow up,” says Condor. But Lara Jean isn’t the only one who’s come a long way. “Even though it’s only been a couple of years, I’ve grown so much as a human being,” Condor says. She has fame and fans. She has new, anchoring friendships in the wild world of Hollywood (she and Centineo were FaceTiming the other day; he explained the full plot of both The Matrix and its sequel, though not The Matrix 3—“I shut that down so fast”). She has a platform and a voice (having called out Donald Trump this week on Twitter for his harmful comments about the new coronavirus). She has a career, a purpose. It’s like Condor herself says: “You open a door for a young girl, and you’ll be shocked—because they will kick it down.”