In literature and on screen, Jenny Han has captured the hearts of audiences with palpable tales of teen girls and first love. Up next is The Summer I Turned Pretty, the next of Han’s books that have been adapted for television.
Out June 17, the Amazon Studios series scopes in on the life of Isabel “Belly” Conklin, a 15-going-on-16 girl caught in the middle of her love for brothers Jeremiah and Conrad. As Belly learns to navigate her feelings, she learns hard truths and the real meaning of love, friendship and the magic of summer.
The Summer I Turned Pretty has already been renewed for a second season, meaning this one is a definite weekend binge. Ahead of its premiere, LA Confidential spoke with star Lola Tung, who was enrolled in Carnegie Melon’s drama program when she booked her TV debut.
You've been studying the arts since at least high school. Even before that, do you remember what first sparked your interest to be an actor?
I grew up in New York City, and I was always surrounded by a lot of art and artists. When I was in middle school, I auditioned for my school musical in sixth grade. It was the Wizard of Oz and I auditioned for fun, and I got cast as The Tin Man. It was one of the most fun experiences that I had— that whole rehearsal process and during the show. I absolutely fell in love with performing, I think, at that moment, and was kind of like, “Wow, nothing else makes me feel the way that this does.”
How did it make you feel?
I think I was really happy, I guess, and alive. Art is such a beautiful form of expression and I think I was more introverted and shy as a kid, so, to get on stage and step into another character's shoes and perform gave me a confidence that I maybe hadn't felt as much before.
Being able to have an impact on an audience and leave them thinking after a show, even if it was a show like the Wizard of Oz and it’s a bunch of middle schoolers doing it. And also just leaving them feeling joyful and happy, whatever it was— leaving the audience feeling something.
What's it like to have an already beloved character like Belly be your TV debut role?
It's really incredible. I mean, it's a little bit intimidating and I'm a little nervous about it because there are so many people who have an attachment to this character and this series. And, of course, I want to do it justice and I want to make fans of the book happy. But I think it's really exciting because she is such a beloved character and so special and getting to bring that to life and in this magical world that that Jenny Han created is just unbelievably special.
It's really cool whenever a book is adapted for the screen and the author is actually super involved, as Jenny Han is with The Summer I Turned Pretty. What were your conversations like before filming began?
Having her there was so wonderful and having her there every single day because she was a showrunner. Even little questions we had about anything or about certain moments or if we were filming out of order and filmed a scene that happened later before we saw film that scene that happened earlier, to be able to talk to her and revisit how characters were feeling earlier and really be able to get a sense of the moment before before filming scenes out of order was really, really helpful. And then, I think, just getting advice from her not even just about books, just about life in general and about work and everything was really incredible because she's such a wonderful person and author and showrunner and writer.
What did you enjoy most about playing Belly?
I loved how familiar it felt. Not necessarily that Belly and I are the same person, but I'm only a few years older than she is. So I think I was able to revisit some of those feelings that I was feeling just a few years ago and really understand them and get to bring some of myself to the character too because we are so close in age and because we both understand teenage girlhood.
Do you love summer as much as she does?
I do. And I think I realized that during filming too, especially after winters of being inside, especially during the pandemic. It was so, so amazing to be filming over the summer and to be having fun on set with everyone.
Obviously Belly has crazy chemistry with Conrad and Jeremiah, so what was it like establishing relationships with Christopher and Gavin to meet that level of connection for the camera?
We went down to Wilmington, North Carolina a few weeks early before we started filming to form those bonds, I guess, because all of the chemistry reads had been done over Zoom, so you don't really get a sense of who the person is that you're working with. So I'm really grateful that we had those few weeks because I really got to know both of them. And they're both so kind and so cool. And they both had done some more film or TV acting, so they had some pieces of advice for me too whenever I had questions about things and they really just became good friends of mine. I'm very grateful to have that actual relationship with them because it just made loving them on screen so much easier.
How did it feel to have the series you’re starring in debut This Love (Taylor’s Version)?
The day that they posted the teaser and Taylor Swift posted it on her Instagram, that was a complete surprise to all of us in the cast because it was so top secret that this collaboration was happening. That was so wild and so unbelievable and unbelievably amazing because it’s Taylor Swift.
The show has a lot of fantastic Taylor Swift needle drops. Do you have a favorite?
I think I do. I don't know if I'm allowed to say what it is because it's later in the show…It's a big moment at the end.
Is it The Way I Loved You?
It's just such a beautiful song that so perfectly I think describes Belly’s situation and the love triangle situation.
Why do you think her music fits Belly’s story?
Her lyrics are so beautiful and when you listen to them, especially The Way I Loved You, having this guy or even two guys who are so perfect, but then you have this other situation where you really can't love someone else the way you love that one person because you just can't force yourself to love someone that way. It just naturally happens and there's no way to prevent it. Her lyrics are just beautiful and so lovely. I just thought they just fit so perfectly.
Teen romance and coming-of-age stories really vary depending on the person and genre. What do you think makes Belly’s story important? It’s about a love triangle, but it’s also so much more than that.
It is really special because she has these really special connections with the boys and everything. But I think the story and the fact that like it's so much more than just a relationship with with the boys, it's also about her relationship with her mother and her relationship with Conrad and Jeremiah’s mother too and her relationship with her best friend and with her brother and about not just romantic love, but love for your family and for your friends. I think that's a really, really special, unique thing about the story.
Did you have any conversations with Jenny about the changes between the books and script, particularly about Belly becoming a debutante?
I know she cares so much about making her readers happy because that's her original audience. But I think she thought so much about how she wanted this to be brought to life and about how to convey that sense of growing up. She really talked about how the debutante ball is essentially an actual representation of growing up, like something that you can actually see as opposed to just being in Belly’s head and hearing her thoughts in the book. We can see her stepping out into society and just really growing up and becoming her own person and starting this next chapter of her life.
What experience do you hope audiences have watching The Summer I Turned Pretty, especially fans of the books?
I just hope they feel a lot of love and understand why the changes were made because I think they make it so special. I hope they connect with the characters and love all of the relationships and really take away from it to cherish those people in your life who you love as much as Belly loves all of these people in her life. There are so many special relationships and so many people that are so important to her. There's just a lot of love and I hope that everyone can feel it from watching the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Photo by Grant Legan