Words by Max Gao
The actress on going back to the beach for season two of The Summer I Turned Pretty
Lola Tung wants to make one thing abundantly clear: She will always be Team Belly. Tung has given new life to Isabel “Belly” Conklin, the teenage heroine who finds herself entangled in a messy love triangle with the sons of her mother’s best friend, in Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, which returns Friday for its sophomore season on Prime Video. It’s a breakout role that has transformed the acting newcomer from wide-eyed college freshman into bona fide leading lady.
“I remember when we were filming last year, someone was like, ‘Are you guys ready for your lives to change?’ And we were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And it did happen, but there is no way to prepare for it,” Tung tells Bazaar.com on a recent video call from her home in New York, exuding much of the same poise and bubbly charm as her onscreen counterpart. “I feel very lucky that most of the reception has been so positive. I got really sweet messages from so many different girls, and I was just so happy that they were able to see themselves [in Belly] and that they felt that way about the show.”
Born and raised in New York City to a Chinese-Swedish American mother and an Eastern European American father, Tung first got the itch to act when she played the Tin Man in a middle-school production of The Wizard of Oz. After studying drama at LaGuardia, the prestigious performing arts high school in Manhattan, she was in the middle of her first year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when her current manager, who had seen her perform a monologue in a virtual senior showcase, sent her the audition for The Summer I Turned Pretty in early 2021. With the help of her college roommates, Tung—who had not read Han’s trilogy of Summer novels, the basis for the streaming series, but was “very familiar” with the author’s To All the Boys series—put herself on tape. After a month of callbacks, she landed the role that would shoot her to Gen Z fame.
Christopher Briney, who plays the brooding Conrad Fisher, recalls feeling “really nervous” for his Zoom chemistry read with Tung. “I read with three actors as Belly, but it was pretty clear who was right for it right away,” Briney tells Bazaar.com. “She had all the qualities that make Belly ‘Belly’ and still finds a way to always stay grounded and honest in her work, and there’s a lot to learn from her. She works with the kindness and empathy and humility of somebody who has been doing it their whole life.”
That Tung has been able to lead such a high-profile project in her professional debut—and in her first years of adulthood—is a testament to her raw talent. The actress was a few months away from her 19th birthday when she began production on the show’s first season, making her only about two and a half years older than Belly and allowing her to have a kind of parallel coming-of-age experience with the character. “I could relate to a lot of the things she was going through or just a lot of the things she was feeling,” Tung says, describing the exhilarating—and slightly terrifying—freedom that emerges during adolescence. “I was out of high school, so I was out of that mindset at that point, but I understood the perspective of being 15 and feeling like everything at that moment—those relationships and whatever was going on—was the most important thing in the world.”
Tung completed her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon’s school of drama in the spring of 2021, but chose to hit pause on her studies to fully commit herself to Summer. Stepping onto her first professional set in Wilmington, North Carolina, has proven to be the ultimate training ground for Tung, who has learned about not only the technical aspects of making television but also the importance of taking care of herself to produce her best work day in, day out.
Sean Kaufman, who plays Belly’s older brother, Steven, says he can probably count on one hand the number of days off Tung has taken in the last two seasons combined. “She works tirelessly every day, constantly going back and forth, time-jumping with her character, doing emotionally draining scene after emotionally draining scene, all while never complaining because inherently she knows what a leader acts like,” says the actor, who takes on less of a protective-sibling role in Tung’s real life but remains one of her closest confidantes.
Belly wasn’t written as Asian-American in Han’s Summer novels, the first of which debuted in 2009. “I think the beautiful thing about the book was that it’s not specified what Belly’s race is, so you can sort of see yourself in her no matter who you are,” Tung says. But following the success of the To All the Boys films, which recently launched a Netflix spin-off series and helped redefine what a female romantic lead could look like in Hollywood, Han was adamant about finding another young Asian-American woman to lead her next franchise, as well.
Although she admits she wasn’t fully aware of the significance of her casting until after filming the first season, Tung insists that Belly’s race ultimately has little bearing on the story being told on the show. “I think it was really special and magical to get to play this character that was just a teenage girl going through all of these emotions, dealing with issues with her family [and] with these boys—and she just happens to be Asian-American,” says the actress.
The first season, which premiered to critical acclaim last summer and ignited a Twilight and Vampire Diaries–esque online debate about its central love triangle, followed a blossoming Belly navigating her growing attraction to Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno), the flirty and outgoing younger brother, while trying (and failing) to get over her not-so-secret childhood crush on Briney’s Conrad, the introverted older brother, at the Fishers’ Massachusetts beach house. The new season technically picks up at the start of the following summer, while flashing back to the aftermath of Belly and Conrad’s long-awaited first kiss on the beach after the Fisher boys’ mother, Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), agreed to undergo a clinical trial to treat a recurrence of breast cancer.
When viewers catch up with Belly in the present, they’ll realize that “she’s at a very different place” and “in a completely different headspace” than she was last summer, Tung teases, gingerly sidestepping any potential spoilers for fans who haven’t read the books. “I don’t think something of this weight has happened to her in her life before, and she doesn’t necessarily have the support that she needs or wants. A lot of the people in her life who she would go to for that support, who she would lean on, are not really as much in her life.” A recent event affecting both the Fishers and the Conklins has forced all of the teens to mature a little bit as they enter new stages of their lives. “I think [Belly] is really letting [her own feelings] take over at the beginning of the season, and I think it’s really beautiful to see her try to rekindle her friendships that were lost and fix a lot of the damage that’s been done. I think Susannah is a guiding light for her throughout the season.”
The interwoven structure of the latest season presented a unique challenge for Tung, who wanted to ensure that key moments from the second book, It’s Not Summer Without You, carried the same weight and resonance when adapted for the screen. Some instances in the sophomore season do depart from the original novels, however. “For Jenny, it felt right for the show just because of where these characters were in the story,” Tung explains of changes fan can expect to see soon.
Tung’s playlist tends to change every year, but fervent fans won’t be surprised to discover that her latest compilation for Belly includes a few of the actress’s personal staples: Lizzy McAlpine, Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, and, of course, Taylor Swift. “The playlists are like my version of what’s going on in Belly’s head, because I know that everybody has their own idea of what her playlist might look like. It’s sort of like ‘Belly’s Playlist (Lola’s Version),’” Tung laughs. “That was just something that was able to get me into a scene really quickly if I had to.”
Tung recently attended her first Swift concert with Han, who listened to a lot of the singer’s early music while writing the trilogy. “There’s a very whimsical, magical feeling with a lot of Taylor’s songs, which just so perfectly matches with what Belly is feeling and going through,” Tung says. “I saw the teaser [for the new season] and heard it with the song [Swift’s ‘August’] for the first time, and Jenny was like, ‘It’s right there in the lyrics: I can see us lost in a memory. August slipped away into a moment in time.’” (Han has confirmed that the second season will feature nine Swift songs, not including “August” and “Back to December” which were used in promotional materials.)
Since landing the role nearly two and a half years ago, Tung’s life has completely changed—she’s amassed over 2.4 million followers on Instagram, been invited to her first fashion events, and modeled a new Summer clothing line with Briney and Casalegno. The result has been a dizzying amount of attention, especially from younger fans, for Tung, who remains adamant about “using my platform to talk about issues that are important to me,” but admits she still gets anxious whenever she has to post or read comments.
“I feel like when you are a public figure, and people get to see you in interviews or in a show, there is a little bit of a sense that they think they know you completely and understand who you are, and it’s easy to feel like you have this connection,” Tung says. “It’s a lovely thing, but it’s also a little bit scary to feel like, Oh, do I have to be this person that people think I am? I do think I am a positive, happy person. ”
As for what’s next, Tung has taken a page out of Belly’s book, noting that the future is unclear, but still hers to discover. “I started in theater and that’s a big love of mine, and there’s so many different things I want to do,” she says. “I’m grateful that Belly was the first of those amazing things, and I hope for many, many more.”
This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com