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Arts and Entertainment

Q&A: Lana Condor talks understanding identity

On the surface, Lana Condor is like any 21-year-old. She’s learning how Twitter works (does anyone know how it really works?), obsessing over coffee and noodles, and trying to figure out the whole adult thing with the unknown prospect of what tomorrow brings. She’s just like any 21-year-old, when she’s not appearing in blockbuster films…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/kellithnguyen/" target="_self">Kelly Nguyen</a>

Kelly Nguyen

August 23, 2018

On the surface, Lana Condor is like any 21-year-old. She’s learning how Twitter works (does anyone know how it really works?), obsessing over coffee and noodles, and trying to figure out the whole adult thing with the unknown prospect of what tomorrow brings. She’s just like any 21-year-old, when she’s not appearing in blockbuster films like “X-Men: Apocalypse,” or starring in Netflix’s hit rom-com “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” of course.

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” has garnered critical acclaim. With its success came a celebration of Asian American representation in mainstream media. Released in the summer of successful, Asian-led films, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” marked a pivotal turn in Condor’s career. With her role in the film, Condor hopes to change the conversation regarding perceptions of Asian American women.

“Lara Jean is Asian, but that (does) not defines her,” Condor said.

When Asians are limited to stereotypical roles, Condor’s character Lara Jean is someone who is refreshingly “normal.”

“She’s 100% an American, and 100% Asian, and her story is very universal. I keep saying, ‘To All the Boys [I’ve Loved Before]’ is not an Asian rom-com, it’s a rom-com that happens to have the lead as an Asian girl, which is very important to understand, because that’s how it should be,” Condor said.

The “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” star is popping up everywhere, in every type of role you could imagine. From a mutant, to just a normal teen faking a relationship, she’s on her way to becoming Hollywood’s next leading lady.

Condor talked to L.A. Times HS Insider about her blessed chaos of a life, the philosophical meaning behind Jack-Jack in “Incredibles 2,” and how ridiculous it is that people feel like they have the right to carve out your identity for you.

Q: Imagine there was a movie being made about your life, and there’s three parts. The first part is your childhood. The first scene is your childhood home. What are some of the things we’re hearing and seeing?

A: Oh my goodness. This is real life?

Q: Yes, real life.

A: I grew up on an [island] north of Seattle about 30 miles on the Puget Sound. It’s like a farm island; there’s llamas, pigs, and horses, it’s very different from Los Angeles. And I suppose you would see my house, on top of the hill. I’d probably be whacking metals — I used to do that when I was little girl. I would go out to the forest and literally just whack metals down, all day long. I’d play out in the forest so much. You’d see my house, on top of a hill, and me, playing in the forest with my brother, whacking metals, and climbing trees.

Q: For the next part of the film, what would a typical day in the high school life of Lana Condor have been like?

A: I went to two different high schools, because I lived in New York from 7th (grade) to freshman year, and I went to a performing arts high school there. My performing arts high school — the first half of the day was academics, and then the next six hours of the day was doing your major, and my major was dance. Then, I moved to L.A. I went an all girls Catholic, private high school. An average day at an all girls high school is me, running in always at the bell. I’m that girl that is—I don’t know why—always right on time. Or, I’m late. It would probably be me running, and I’d be late because I got Starbucks. I can’t live without coffee.

Q: So the last part of the movie is the present, what would the scene depicting your life now look like?

A: Well currently right now, me just running all over the place, doing all these things that I never thought in my life I’d be given the opportunity to do, such as talking with you. The scene would just be very, like blessed chaos. Every day is different, you know? Now that I’m an adult and I have a job, I think every day is different and in the industry you never know what tomorrow could bring. It’s just blessed chaos. It’d be like Jack-Jack. Did you watch “Incredibles 2”?

Q: I just saw it!

A: You know how Jack-Jack is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And just doing all this crazy (things). And it’s like awesome, but it’s chaotic. That’s what it is. I’m Jack-Jack.

Q: What would the name of your biopic be?

A: I don’t know. I think it’d be like “Blessed Chaos.” I’m gonna stick with that, because I like the ring to that.

Q: Nice.

A: Yeah, or “Just a Girl Trying to Get Some Noodles.”

Q: Do you remember what inspired you to say “this is what I want to do, this is what I want to pursue” with acting and being in the entertainment industry?

A: I was a dancer [during] my childhood, and I think I always wanted to be an entertainer, but I just didn’t know in what capacity. My dad put me into a high school drama class, and I realized I could entertain people with my speech, and not just as a dancer — dancers don’t speak, they show. I just realized that, I could entertain people with my words as well as my presence. I remember in drama class, we did sketch comedy things. I loved making people laugh. If there’s a world in which I could do this professionally, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I guess in high school drama class, it made me realize I wanted to be an actor and entertainer, and then I just got really lucky.

Q: I remembered being so excited when I heard about Jubilee and Asian American representation in such a major film franchise. For X-Men, you appeared in a lot of promotions as Jubilee but fans, including myself, were pretty disappointed in the actual screen time you got. Have you ever felt films were casting you and other actors of color for diversity’s sake?

A: In terms of “X-Men,” I shot a lot more what actually made the cut. At that time, they did a lot of promotion on Jubilee, and it was this big thing. And when we actually saw it, she was barely in it. I think I was so new I was just happy to get a tiny bit of screen time. It was my first project. Of course, I was very disappointed because so many people were excited to see this representation on screen, and we didn’t necessarily get what we wanted. It was kind of crushing, but I think now, in terms of diversity, I truly believe studios are casting with purpose. I think, it’s still very fresh.

This year is kind of the beginning of that, but I do believe studios are casting diversity because they have to. Because they’re realizing, we’re not stupid. We’re in a time now, where people can’t believe where a movie is all white. Audiences just don’t believe that anymore. We’re in such a awesome time, where we’re not stupid. Studios are recognizing that, and really seeing that, and now they’re casting with purpose, and they know they have to cast diversity. Of course, we have a lot more way to go. Again, I’m so new in this industry, I’ve only been working for three and a half years, so I got very lucky coming into the industry when there was a shift happening, but I am sure that the actresses, the Asian American actresses and actors before me, and actors of all colors before me, I’m sure had a lot harder time than I do currently, because this is just my reality, and the time that I’m in. I do think we’re making baby steps. Eventually, they’ll be leaps and bounds, but I choose to see it on the positive side, and I do see the change.  

Q: A lot of the times, Asian characters aren’t afforded the same complexity that many white ones are. I read you just wanted to play “the girl next door, not the Asian girl next door.” Has it been difficult, finding roles where the characters are than just being Asian?

A: Yeah, I think, that is what we really need to focus on. Writing diverse, complex characters for men and women of color, not just feeding into their stereotypes, because there’s a lot of stereotypical roles out there. So I think that’s definitely something that we need to work on, writing just awesome characters, not focusing on what they look like, but their heart.

For me, I sometimes get frustrated when I get auditions, that say “open-ethnicity,” they’re open to see characters with any ethnicity, nothing specific. But, when you read it, you can always tell, it’s for a white person, you can tell from the paper that they’re looking for Asians, because there’s some stupid joke in there. 

Doing “To All the Boys [I’ve Loved Before],” was such a dream, because Lara Jean is Asian, but that (does) not defines her. She’s one hundred percent an American, and one hundred percent Asian, and her story is very universal. I keep saying, “To All the Boys [I’ve Loved Before]” is not an Asian rom-com, it’s a rom-com that happens to have the lead as an Asian girl, which is very important to understand, because that’s how it should be. People don’t realize if we [keep] focusing on what we all look like, we inadvertently are keeping ourselves in a box. That’s why it’s so important to me, like what you said, I just want to play “the girl next door,” that happens to be Asian. That’s not about it, there’s so much more to story telling than just what everyone looks like.

Q: I love “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” because first of all, I love rom-coms, and Lara Jean’s freakouts just pretty much emulated everyday life, I feel that on another level. It’s never really about her being Asian, just her having her teen romance. I love it.

A: It’s her living her life, and then you realize, “Oh my god, she’s Asian!” Jenny [Han] said it perfectly, “Asian girls can fall in love, too!” So, this is not some crazy thing.

Q: It’s not a new concept!

A: Exactly. It’s normal, and not a new concept.

Q: Can you take us through your creative process in encapsulating Lara Jean? Was it difficult to have to really portray intricate detail of a character from a book and bring them to life?

A: The book is written so well, and it’s so descriptive, that half of the work had been done for me. Because Jenny is such a great writer, just from reading the book you know exactly, at least you think you know exactly how Lara Jean should be portrayed. So in preparation for the movie, I just read the book a bunch of times. That was pretty much it. It’s such a good book, (Jenny Han) is great at simplifying complex human emotions, and then I just tried my best. For prep, I really just read the book a bunch of times, to understand how Lara Jean thinks, and what drives her, and I hoped for the best.

Q: I heard that you used write love letters to your crushes, would 16-year-old Lana have the same intense reaction Lara Jean had if the letters got out?

A: Yes, I did! 16 year old Lana would have just bailed, and just have denied until her death. Just deny everything. I kept a journal all the time, I left my journal one time recently at my girlfriend’s house, and she called me and said, “Hey girl, I have your Moleskin,” and my heart dropped to the ground. I was like, “Please, dear God, do not read it!” And she was like “No no no, that’s girl code: never read someone else’s journal.” That was the closest I’ve gotten to a real exposure, similar to Lara Jean. 16-year-old Lana would have just denied, bailed, like ‘“Nope! That’s not me, that’s not my signature!”

Q: As a fellow Vietnamese American, just from personal experience, I know it’s difficult experiencing life through both cultures. Was it ever difficult for you to find your identity amongst the balancing act of fitting in with American culture and connecting to Vietnamese culture?

A: I’m adopted from Vietnam; my mom is Irish, and my dad is Hungarian. Growing up, I never — my family’s my family, you know? I didn’t realize I was different from them until about 6th grade, when kids are mean. I truly, did not have a clue that I was different from them.

Then, I came to LA, and I never have been more aware of my Asianness or my femaleness in my life.

When you come out here, especially in this industry, you are constantly reminded, of what you look like. My parents have always wanted me to learn about my culture in Vietnam, and have been so open with me coming to L.A., I started more actively to connect with the Asian American Pacific Islander community, because that’s a community that I didn’t really have growing up. Simply because of my parents, my family; they’re not Asian.

I get nervous, that other members of our communities think I can’t relate to what it’s like to be Asian American, because I didn’t grow up in a family that was Asian American. I have a huge fear about that, because yes, I didn’t grow up in an Asian family. But, as an Asian woman, an independent Asian woman, I can completely relate to what it’s like to be an Asian American. I get very nervous. Trying to balance both worlds and be an active participant can sometimes be hard and difficult for me because that’s just not how I grew up.

Q: Has any Asian person ever come up to you and say that you’re not really Asian?

A: Not to my face. Sometimes people on social media, they’ll say “You cast a half Asian person to play an Asian role.” I’m 100 percent Vietnamese, I’m 100 percent American. It drives me crazy when people assume that I’m not. That you’re a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. You don’t know what you’re talking about. No one has come up to my face, and said that, but I see a little bit of it online, and that’s just ignorance.

Q: I grew up in a predominantly white area, so I get called “banana” too.

A: Right!

Q: It’s just frustrating how people try to carve out your identity for you.

A: That is so perfect — that is so well said. That’s it exactly, people just try carving out your identity for you, based on their preconceived notions of you, and you don’t know me? Back off!

Q: [Laughs]

A: I get so heated about this!

Q: You sound like you’re going to fight someone.

A: I know! Now, I’m happy because I’m going to boxing after this, so I’m ready. I’m all jazzed up.

Q: What’s your favorite Vietnamese food?

A: Phở. Really any noodle. Any noodle is where I find my home. What’s yours?

Q: I think, probably bún bò huế, or bánh canh.

A: Oh my gosh. Oh gosh. Should we go get some Vietnamese food?

Q: Yeah, I think we should set something up, get some noodles together.

A: Yes!

Q: Is there a role you haven’t played yet that you would love to play?

A: There’s so many. I’m doing a television show. I’m shooting season one of a new television show next month, in Vancouver. I get to play an assassin, so I’m very excited about that. After that, I told my agent the other day, I’d love to be in a horse movie.

Q: A horse movie?

A: You know, those really sweet horse movies, how could you not love horses? My agents were like, “I don’t know how that’s going to work, but we’ll try.” I’d love to be in a horse movie because I ride horses competitively, and then I would love to be in a dancing movie.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m doing a TV show called “Deadly Class” on Syfy, and shooting that in August through January, and it should premiere in 2019. That’s what’s next for me, currently. I’m hoping there’s going to be a second movie for “To All the Boys (I’ve Loved Before),” but that all depends on a lot things. Then I have a movie coming out in December called “Alita: Battle Angel.”

Q: Do you want there to be three movies for all the books in the “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” series?

A: I would love that! I think realistically we’d get two, I don’t know if we’d get three because there’s a world where we could combine, for the sake of practicality. I would love there to be a second and third movie. I think it all depends on how many viewers for the first movie, and the reaction online. If the reaction is positive, and there’s a lot of viewers, and it’s awesome, then filmmakers can’t ignore that, because it will show the demand for another one. I know the whole cast would love to do a second one, as well.

Q: You’re one of the hottest stars right now, a lot of people look up to you. What advice would you give to anybody that is wanting to go down a similar path, where people have said it’s not possible?

A: I would say if you want it really bad, kind of brainwash yourself into thinking there is no other option but success. Don’t listen to the noise. The noise will get you every time, I’m telling you. Work really hard, and don’t think failure is an option. Just brainwash yourself into thinking that.

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