With The Summer I Turned Pretty, Lola Tung Enters a New Era

by Ysenia Valdez

lola tung
Photograph by Emily Soto

Lola Tung would never choose to play any other character from The Summer I Turned Pretty than the beloved heroine Isabel “Belly” Conklin. “Belly’s got it pretty good,” the 20-year-old born-and-raised New Yorker tells W over Zoom on a recent Friday evening. For loyal fans of the hit series, this sentiment comes as no surprise; Belly does, indeed, have it pretty good.

Adapted from author Jenny Han’s best-selling book trilogy, the Amazon Prime series follows Isabel Conklin’s sixteenth summer at Cousins Beach with her mother, Laurel; brother, Steven; and the Fisher family, comprised of Susannah Fisher and her two sons, Conrad and Jeremiah. Summers past were filled with late-night beach swims, movie nights, birthdays, and an annual Fourth of July party, but the highly anticipated second season delves deeper into the characters’ respective evolutions this time around. Belly is growing up—physically, emotionally, and when it comes to her general perception of life. And the people around her are taking notice. Season one leaves Belly in a tangled love triangle between Conrad and—wait for it—the other Fisher brother, Jeremiah. In addition, the gang is dealt heartbreaking news that Susannah’s breast cancer has returned. It’s safe to say summers at Cousins will never be the same.

Over a year since the first season premiered, The Summer I Turned Pretty has racked up a devout and loyal fan base. From fan edits debating who Belly should end up with to blocks-long lines wrapped around local book fairs, the series has inarguably thrust Tung into the spotlight—and made her a star in the process. This year alone, she’s landed campaigns from American Eagle and Coach, dined with Chanel during the brand’s Tribeca Festival dinner, and attended her first Paris Fashion Week show. Currently, she and her castmates’ faces are spread across an enormous ad on 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City to promote the new season of TSITP. But Tung’s earnest and authentic nature doesn’t appear to be waived by the hype. Throughout our conversation, she speaks about her love for her castmates, the whirlwind year she’s experienced, and how she’s enjoying each opportunity as it comes.

Christopher Briney, Lola Tung, and Gavin Casalegno at the season 2 premiere of The Summer I Turned Pretty on June 29, 2023 in New York City.

Photo by Kristina Bumphrey/Variety via Getty Images

After discovering her love of theater in middle school, Tung went on to graduate from LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Art, a New York City institution whose alumni list includes Timothée Chalamet, Zazie Beetz, and Adrien Brody, to name a few. The experience at LaGuardia led her to Carnegie Mellon University in 2021—where it took less than a year for her self-tape from high school to be discovered. “My now-manager reached out to me for the first time after seeing my monologue and said, ‘I think there’s this role that you could be right for,’” she recalls. “Then I submitted the tapes and heard back a couple of days later. Jenny [Han] surprised me with the news. I was in shock. I couldn’t say anything for a second because I couldn’t believe it. I called my mom afterward and we cried together on the phone. Happy tears, obviously.”

Although short, Tung’s stint at CMU did provide her with a few tools she ended up applying to Belly. “I would write letters to specific characters in Belly’s life,” she says. “I discovered Belly would be feeling certain things deep down that were a little more hidden about the boys, or about her relationship with her mother, or just how she was feeling when it came to certain big events in her life. It’s very helpful for uncovering some of those deeper, subconscious feelings.”

The relationship Tung has with Belly is almost symbiotic. As the showrunner for the series, Han has visually molded the character and Tung into each other—infusing notes from Tung’s style, interests, and skill sets (including speaking French), into her character. Still, there are aspects of Belly that Tung has to work to get behind. “She’s very bold and definitely more of a risk-taker than I am,” the actress says. “Tapping into that side was a little difficult sometimes, but I’ve definitely learned from her. And playing her has even influenced me to be more bold. Sometimes I may not be able to stand up and say everything that I want to say; she’s helped me do that a little more.”

Lola Tung at the Chanel Tribeca Festival Artists Dinner at Balthazar Restaurant on June 12, 2023 in New York.

Photo by Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images

The sentiment of learning from Belly carries over into how Tung navigates relationships of her own—and the interpersonal complications of young love. Much of Belly’s conflict lies in the inability of TSITP characters to express their true feelings, and the terrible timing of when they finally choose to do so. “Communication is key, obviously,” Tung says. “There’s a lot of miscommunication in the show, and that’s when things tend to go wrong.” When asked what advice she would give to those in a similar situation, the actress says, “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with the people that you love. That goes along with communication—because if you don’t express your feelings, it’s only going to bubble up inside of you and result in a bad ending.”

The return to Cousins Beach was guaranteed to bring fond memories, not only for Belly, but for Tung and the rest of her costars. The cast returned to Wilmington, North Carolina this past July to start filming season two—a reunion that further bonded them through beach hangs or impromptu pillow fights. “It was a big group scene and there happened to be pillows on the set, and we all just had a big pillow fight,” Tung recalls. “Chris Briney, who plays Conrad, would bring his camera to set a lot and I think he got some great action shots from that pillow fight—which, maybe one day, will be released when the episode is out.”

Season two highlights the strong bond among these characters, and the safe spaces they’ve found that reach far beyond the confines of Cousins Beach—something Tung relates to on a personal level. “I have a lot of really, really incredible friends from my childhood and from high school,” she says. “Whenever I’m just sitting with them, whether it’s in one of our homes or at the park, and getting to just catch up with them about life, I’m in a grounded and calm state. It’s really about the people—and in a sense, it’s about the people for Belly, too.”

Tung, whose sole acting project of her career thus far is in TSITP, says she would be pleased with any new opportunities that come her way, on stage or in front of the camera. But for now, she’s enjoying her flowers from The Summer I Turned Pretty, and letting songs of Taylor Swift, whose music plays a titular role in the series, serve as the soundtrack to her journey. “Folklore is an album where [Taylor’s] doing a lot of reflection; it feels a little bit older and wiser,” she says. “I look back on the last couple of years and there’s so much to reflect on, so much that I’ve learned. I’ve grown so much in those past couple of years. I’ve moved into my Folklore era at this point in my life. That’s what is resonating most.”

This interview was conducted prior to the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike.