Editor’s note: Interviews for this story took place prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
The first time Lola Tung realized anyone was watching “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” really watching it, was last year at a Yankees game with her cast mates. The stars of Jenny Han‘s coming-of-age YA romance adaptation were recognized by strangers who professed their love for the show, which had barely been out a week. The series was soon to be a hit, heading toward a No. 1 debut on Prime Video.
“It’s been a wild ride, in the best way,” Tung told the Times. (For the record, added the native New Yorker, she’s a Mets fan.) She was 18 when she landed the breakout role — her first professional acting gig — of Isabel “Belly” Conklin, a teenage girl coming into her own one fateful summer, and she reprises it for Season 2, which was adapted from Han’s sequel novel “It’s Not Summer Without You.”
Fueled by viral online reactions and the popularity of Han’s bestselling novels, “Summer” was renewed even before the series premiered last June, skyrocketing Tung and her co-stars, Christopher Briney and Gavin Casalegno, who play brothers and romantic rivals Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher, to social media fame virtually overnight. “Summer” fever has only grown since; following the release of the first three episodes of Season 2 last week, Amazon announced that the series had more than doubled its worldwide audience since the first season, and the hashtag #thesummeriturnedpretty has reached more than 8 billion views on TikTok. New episodes are being released weekly on Fridays.
This season, the characters “are not the same people they were a year ago,” said Han, who is also the series creator and co-showrunner. “Every single one has lost something and also gained something.”
Season 1 ended on a bittersweet but hopeful note as Belly and longtime crush Conrad finally shared a kiss on the beach after his mother Susannah’s (Rachel Blanchard) cancer diagnosis came to light. Season 2, set a summer later with flashbacks to the intervening months, reveals that Belly and Conrad are no longer together, Susannah has died and their families are reeling from the loss. Her death, and how it has impacted both families, is a focal point of the season.
Jackie Chung plays Laurel — Belly’s mom and Susannah’s best friend — an author who has written her grief into her latest memoir. “When someone so important in everyone’s lives is ill or struggling as Susannah is, it’s going to affect everyone and change their relationships with each other in the aftermath,” she said of the character and what’s to come this season.
In Season 1 we see Belly experience longing and her first love, and in the new season, you can expect deeper complications as she navigates heartache and second chances against the sonic backdrop of Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo tracks, as well as the throwback ‘90s cuts that bring a frisson of “My So-Called Life” angst to fictional Cousins Beach. Han curated more of the beloved book moments, Easter eggs and pop music needle drops that hooked fans in the first season.
And with new characters and expanded storylines, she’s taken creative detours big and small from the book trilogy, which was published between 2009 and 2011, that the series is based on.
“Fifteen years later, the world looks different, and I’m different,” Han told The Times last year on the “Summer” set. “What would I do now if I was telling the story in 2022? I don’t shy away from taking a different turn as long as the core is still intact. I never want people to feel like they aren’t given what they hope to see, but I also want to surprise them.”
Tung admits that she was nervous going into the debut season, especially with ardent fans of the books sending her messages like, “You’d better do Belly justice, or else!” But after returning to Wilmington, N.C., to film Season 2 last year she and her cast mates felt a renewed confidence about bringing their characters to life, with Han on hand to guide them through important scenes and character backstories.
“The character and the books have existed for so long, and so many people love them and already have a vision of who this character is,” Tung said. “Belly is probably different to every person; you imagine yourself in her shoes when you read the book. But I was never going to try to be whatever version of Belly one specific person had in mind, other than the version that me and Jenny were learning about together while we were filming. She really let me trust my instincts.”
Belly appeared as a white character on the original book covers although her race was not specified in the novels. Tung‘s portrayal makes her canonically Asian American onscreen, and the distinction has prompted gratifying responses from viewers. “I’ve received some of the sweetest messages ever from people talking about how much they love the show and the characters and how they relate to Belly and love seeing an Asian American family on-screen in this way,” said Tung.
This season finds Belly unexpectedly back at the summer house with Conrad and Jeremiah, but her world has shifted. “She’s figuring out who she is and what her different relationships mean in her life,” said Tung. “And it’s been really cool to also have grown over this past year and learned a lot and to bring that to the character.”
Han has a gift for tapping into the emotional lives of young people, said Casalegno, who saw his younger self in the outwardly sunny Jeremiah. “And that’s a hard thing to do because so many teenagers feel so misunderstood,” he said.
For Jeremiah, Susannah’s illness, glimpsed in flashbacks this season, is a catalyst for growth. “Tragedies like that, and even losing the girl he loves to his brother — those can be big grown-up moments of having to mature,” said Casalegno. “It’s not just about having fun and being goofy. He still is those things, but there’s real life to take care of and people to worry about.”
This season gave Briney the chance to find new dimensions in Conrad, now a freshman in college. Still experiencing panic attacks, his sudden disappearance from school leads to a reunion with Belly and Jeremiah that sets the season in motion.
“As much as you can be like, wow, he made some breakthroughs in the first season and he found someone who he could talk to and confide in, he’s still f— up,” said Briney. “He’s still learning. It’s not like he’s been fixed. I don’t think any of us ever are, but I appreciate Jenny giving him the space to be like that.”
In Season 2, the actors build out their sibling relationship further on-screen, exploring more of the home life and history they share outside of Belly’s perspective. “They’re brothers. They care about each other. That was something that we [wanted] to really expand on. And we have some beautiful scenes towards the end of the season that are some of my favorites,” said Casalegno.
New (and familiar) faces in Cousins Beach
On-screen, “Summer” expands from Belly’s perspective in the books as a multigenerational drama around not only Belly and the Fisher brothers, but also Belly’s brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), her mother Laurel and best friend Taylor (Rain Spencer). Fan favorite Cam (David Iacono) also returns, and we get to meet some new characters this season, including Conrad and Jeremiah’s Aunt Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) and cousin Skye (Elsie Fisher), characters who are not in the books, who arrive and throw the fate of the beloved summer house into question.
Julia is Susannah’s estranged sister, who brings her own baggage to the summer house in Cousins, which she’s inherited and is eager to sell. “To me what was important about this character was that [Han] did not shy away from the fact that she’s complicated and difficult, to trust that you will get to see that she had a hard time, and see why she is that person who just can’t be generous,” Sedgwick said.
Julia also serves as a mirror to Conrad and Jeremiah’s own fraught relationship, co-showrunner Sarah Kucserka said. “So much of Julia feels similar to Conrad in a lot of ways,” she said. “That older sibling weight that you carry on your shoulders, trying to protect the people around you and how you’re contributing to their rose-colored glasses. It was a great way to keep [Susannah’s] story alive and keep learning about everybody in this show.”
Fisher is the socially awkward but self-possessed Skye, who gets caught in the middle of the family drama. The actor worked closely with Han to develop the original character.
“I found this a really fun opportunity to [play] a character that could so easily fall into many conventions because Skye on paper could be a total stereotypical nerd, and there’s also the fact that they’re nonbinary and I think it would be really easy for that to become tokenization,” said Fisher.
But like every character in “Summer,” Skye is navigating their own relationship with love and connection. “For me, Skye being nonbinary felt important because I think trans people in general, but specifically people who don’t fit into ‘male’ or ‘female,’ can be portrayed as very ‘other than’ and don’t always have those happy endings or any sort of connection to others,” said Fisher. “It felt important to tell a story that didn’t feel forced and, I think, feels very true to how life works out.”
How the series differs from the books
“There are nice moments from the books that you expect, whether they play out the way you think they will,” said Briney. He leaned on Han’s novels as a resource to understand Conrad’s inner life and where he ends up. “But there’s also a lot that, reading the script I was like — ‘What?!’”
In Episode 3, which was directed by Isabel Sandoval, Briney and Tung deliver some of the more brutal scenes of the second novel, namely Belly’s prom, where Conrad’s distance leads to a tearful goodbye, and Susannah’s funeral, where their fight is punctuated by Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs.”
“I had to put my trust in Jenny for those moments because she knows what she wants them to feel like,” said Briney. “Some of it was harsh, and I loved doing it and I hope it comes across that way. If we’ve succeeded … prepare for some brutality.”
Filming iconic book scenes like those, as well as a flashback to Belly and Conrad’s Christmas in Cousins, had Tung so nervous that she spent extra time annotating her scripts, journaling and listening to music to prepare.
Expanding on the “hot cocoa” scene, a pivotal moment in Belly and Conrad’s relationship that’s depicted in “It’s Not Summer Without You,” Belly’s choice to have sex also marked one of the series’ biggest departures from the books. “I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Tung of the emotional scenes she shares with both Casalegno and Briney in the second episode. “When you’re in the moment you just have to be present and trust your scene partner. And I was very lucky to have such wonderful scene partners who I could just play in the scene with and let it all go.”
Some of the show’s music was cleared ahead of time so that actors could hear it during filming, including Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You” from Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” heard in Episode 2 when Belly loses her virginity to Conrad, and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” which plays during Belly’s tearful drive home in the Season 2 opener.
“They let me play ‘Drivers License’ over and over,” said Tung, who pays homage to Rodrigo’s music video in the scene. “It was 4 a.m. and it was the last scene we had to film. I put the song on in the car and they just let me drive and cry.”
Music also helped Kaufman better understand his character. At first, he didn’t understand why Steven would choose “Hey, Stephen,” one of the Swift tunes heard in Season 2, as his ringtone.
“I thought of him as a kid who really wants to be popular, who listens to these mainstream artists,” he said. Han convinced him otherwise. “I realized she was saying the same thing I was saying — he tries really hard to fit in. But what is he listening to in the shower, or in his headphones when he’s just taking a walk? It hit me that he is this big gooey nerd and he loves Taylor Swift.”
Creating high stakes romance for fans
“To me the biggest challenge of writing contemporary romantic stories is creating stakes that feel big enough for young people, that still feel realistic but should have a certain weight to it,” said Han. “It’s a story about a love triangle and there are different ebbs and flows to it as to which way your heart is turning.”
Filming in Wilmington, N.C., where teen dramas “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” were also shot, added another layer to how the showrunners plotted out the season. “The touchstone I kept going back to was the Dawson-Pacey-Joey love triangle,” said Kucserka, who is Team Pacey. “I was like, what is our ‘I bought you a wall!’ moment?,” referencing a memorable scene from “Dawson’s Creek.”
As for the show’s central romantic rivalry, “Summer’s” producers are well aware of how invested their fans are in the great debate: Team Conrad, Team Jeremiah or Team Belly? The fun is in seeing if they can get viewers to change their minds.
“In the Season 2 romance, there is a lot of, who feels like the soul mate versus who feels like the surprising option?” said Kucserka. “I think it’s always nice to twist the audience on its head and maybe win some folks from one side to the other.”
As fans find their loyalties tested or confirmed, Han is focused on how Belly learns from her mistakes and grows into who she’s meant to be. Another season has yet to be greenlighted, although Belly’s fate has already been written in Han’s final novel of the trilogy. How it may evolve for the screen remains to be seen. “I like the idea of it being ultimately what makes her happy,” Han said, “and how you grow as you get older and your ideas change about love.”