Lana Condor’s written her fair share of love letters. In middle school, she’d pass notes with boys she liked, complete with the classic “Do you like me? Check yes or no” boxes drawn on lined paper.
“I was all about it,” the 20-year-old actress said. She plays protagonist Lara Jean Covey, a shy, inexperienced teenager who keeps all her unsent love letters locked in a box, in the upcoming film adaptation of the hit Jenny Han novel “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” “There’s the difference of Lana and Lara Jean. Lara couldn’t even dream of sending them. But me, I’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re getting this love letter!’”
That undaunted spunk likely carried Condor through “X-Men: Apocalypse” in 2016, in which she played the energy-wielding superhero Jubilee. The film put her on the map. More remarkably, it was her first-ever acting job, and the film her first-ever set. Before that, she was a high school student mapping out her future in college.
Not many people can pinpoint the exact second irreversible change entered their lives, but Condor can. During study hall for an AP government exam in her second semester of senior year, her phone rang with a call from her agent. She’d been on edge for a few months since she’d been told that Jubilee was down to her and another actress. Each night, she’d visualized two versions of the call, one of her getting it and one of rejection. Either version made her sick to her stomach.
Her agent asked if she was alone. “I said, ‘No, I’m not alone. I’m in school! I’m surrounded by every single person I know in my life,’” she recounted. She was asked to isolate herself. She rushed outside on the phone. Then her agent broke the news: “You booked it. You booked ‘X-Men.’”
And there it was, that moment of irreversible change. Condor recognized it then. Banned from speaking about any of it until the film’s official press release, she walked back in and headed straight for the bathroom, where she could hyperventilate alone. Her high school years had been spent in school productions, from playing Amber in “Hairspray” to participating in statewide drama competitions. And in acting classes, but she’d mostly taken those for fun. “I thought I was going to go to college, become a psychologist or something. I had hoped to be an actor, but I never believed I could make a career out of it,” she said. About a month after the call, she left school to don the superhero outfit. “My life was just thrown.”
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
She’s had another life-changing moment like that one, though this one she does not remember: She was adopted. At two months old, she was the youngest baby inside her Can Tho, Vietnam, orphanage, when her American parents met her. “They had to walk through the jungle to get there, because cars couldn’t get through the mud. But my parents came and fell in love with me,” she said. “They were like, ‘She’s the one!’”
Meanwhile the Condors, who’d intended only to adopt a baby girl, also met another baby on the trip, this one a boy, and ended up bringing them both home with them.
Her parents have always been open with Lana and her non-biological brother about their roots, and supported them in connecting to their backgrounds. Every day, Condor said, she counts her blessings for her adoption. “My job is to be in movies, and I’m on multi-million-dollar sets, and it’s humbling because I always remember: Had my parents not opened the door to the one nursery that I was in, I literally would not be here.”
Condor’s own experience with adoption fuels her big-picture dream, to build up a career that enables her to support children in orphanages in Asia. She shared her aspirations with “To All the Boys” director Susan Johnson, telling her that while she would continue acting for the love of it, she eventually wanted to help others. That inspired Johnson so much that she contacted Condor’s father to figure out the ultimate wrap gift for her: A scholarship to put four girls, from Condor’s village of origin in Vietnam, through high school. “I wanted to honor the person I’d come to know doing the film,” Johnson said. “[The recipients] are in school now. It was a really neat way to connect with Lana, just learning that she saw more and wanted more out of life.”
Before the film was released, Han, who penned the “To All the Boys” series, posted a photo of Condor on her Instagram, commenting, “How adorable is @lanacondor? I’m so excited to see her in X-Men Apocalypse!!!” The many avid book fans who follow Han on social media responded enthusiastically to the photo, calling Condor the “Lara Jean of our dreams.” Condor responded with a heart emoji. Han wrote back to her, “I love to see Asian girls doing it for themselves!!”
The actress and the author had never met at that point. When Condor prepared for the audition for Lara Jean, the post was one of the first things she remembered. As soon as she was cast, Han gave her a call. They’ve since become close. “I was wanting to show my support of this young Asian American talent coming up,” Han said, of the Instagram post. “I was also hoping that people might see [Condor] and consider her for Lara Jean. Because I thought she was just perfect.”
Condor has taken on the character — whose coming-of-age story was a New York Times bestseller in young adult fiction — with equal parts zeal and thoroughness. She’s all-too conscious of the series’ enthusiastic fan base. “I read the book twice over, I read the script a billion times. I read the blogs. I get nervous, because fans know Lara Jean and her life so well, and I need to be on par,” she said. She even went as far as to start a book club with her cast mates Anna Cathcart and Madeleine Arthur, with their first selection being “To All the Boys” and their second the sequel, “P.S. I Love You.”
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
“To All the Boys” is the rare female-driven film, executive produced by Han, directed by Johnson and written by Sofia Alvarez. For Han, it was important that making this film means getting to introduce another much-needed Asian American heroine, specifically an everygirl like Lara Jean, to the screen. Condor agreed. She’s not been given reprieve from constant auditions, and it’s clearer in those spaces, more than anywhere else, that there is still not a lot of space in Hollywood for girls who look like her. Many times, she’ll walk into audition rooms and feel like she’s there to fill a quota. “You can always change their mind, but when you’re in a room and everyone is blonde and blue-eyed, you get upset,” she said.
On the flip side, she’s also watching as studio executives slowly begin to realize that all-white shows and films just do not work as well as they used to in the past. She confesses to binge-watching ABC’s “Quantico,” which stars Priyanka Chopra as the heroine who fights to keep her country safe, for 24 hours. “They could have cast a blonde girl or a brunette girl so fast,” she said. “But they cast the most stunning Indian woman you have ever seen in your life. And that’s part of the reason the show is doing so well, because it’s so diverse. You can’t ignore that anymore.”
In 2018, she’ll also appear in the James Cameron blockbuster “Alita: Battle Angel,” which stars heavyweights like Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, as well as in the Syfy series “Deadly Class,” in which she plays a Yakuza exile. Where she is now would have sent the younger Lana — the one who used to write boys letters and practice for school drama productions — reeling. Here in the present, Condor understands that it’s all about the hustle. “Everyone hopes to keep working,” she said. “That’s my hope. I’m never going to stop auditioning.”
Photos Jack Blizzard
Stylist Lo VonRumpf
Makeup Veronical Chanel
Hair Adrianne Lashley
This article appears in Kore Asian Media’s 2018 Annual Issue. For more, order a free copy today at koreasianmedia.com/subscribe!