From the moment Josephine Langford was announced as the actor who would bring Tessa Young to life, fans of Anna Todd’s After series have welcomed her with open arms. “When I was cast, so many people told me that I looked more like Tessa than Tessa,” the actor told MTV News.
It is striking to actually talk to Langford after having been introduced to her on screen as the 18-year-old small-town girl she plays. In some ways, they’re distinct (Langford’s Australian accent is the dead giveaway) and in others, they’re exactly the same.
“I would like to think we’re both smart. We’re both driven. I think that when we get passionate about something, we get absorbed in it,” she suggested. But there’s something more innate that makes it feel like Tessa and Jo reside on the same plane — a deep, confident, comfortable sense of self — which is exactly the quality that made millions of fans fall for Tessa in the first place.
What started as Harry Styles fanfiction quickly took on a life of its own as more readers found After on the self-publishing platform WattPad. The story inspired spin-off fanfic, with a community of fans fueling new stories, artwork, and roleplay Twitter accounts. Before long, Todd had sold the rights to the movie adaptation and snagged a book deal, which transformed the story she wrote largely on her phone into a five-book series.
But it wasn’t just Hardin Scott — the bad boy inspired by One Direction’s resident rockstar — that had fans swooning. It was the self-assured girl with a plan who uncharacteristically falls for him and slowly unravels the future she had envisioned for herself. Or, at least, the one her mom had envisioned for her and that she had been generally cool with.
That’s another difference between Tessa and the 21-year-old actor who portrays her. Whereas the character rebels against the safe path laid in front of her, Langford has been asserting hers for her entire life. “I was always the kid who was putting on plays, and so, I have no idea how to describe it,” she said. “I just have always wanted to be an actor.”
And so, with a determination not unlike Tessa’s, she put everything she had toward achieving that dream, booking her first paid acting job at the age of 14 and moving her way through a stream of auditions and near-misses. “I’ve tested for so many shows, I’ve gotten so many jobs and then not gotten them, or you’re about to get a job, and you don’t have a visa,” Langford said of the industry she shares with her sister, Katherine, without a hint of frustration.
She’s fine with just going with the flow, as long as she can keep telling stories. “For me, I’m obsessed with movies,” she said. In particular, “I’m all about Marvel, I’m all about action. I love Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I love Die Hard, I love Inception, I love The Dark Knight.”
But even though she’d love to get in front of the cameras of the next blockbuster, she’s not overly concerned about setting such a specific path for herself. She shrugged, “You just do the roles that you want to do and that you’re lucky enough to get cast in, and then eventually you have that career,” she said. “I feel like you can’t control it; it just happens organically.”
That gentle undulation is exactly what led her toward Tessa in the first place. Fans of the series may have already heard this story: Langford came thisclose to not landing the part.
She’d heard of the project through friends — even helped some prepare for their own auditions — but because of another job or green card problems or some other reason that she can’t quite remember, Langford didn’t get to audition for the lead. “And then they pushed the shooting dates back two months, by which point they had already cast Tessa, so then I auditioned for Molly,” she said. (Langford is referring to After’s Molly, who is Tessa’s polar opposite. “It’s always fun to play bitchy roles,” she teased.)
Langford didn’t get that role — it went to Inanna Sarkis instead. But by some twist of fate, the original Tessa actor had a scheduling conflict and, against all odds, Langford was offered her first lead role. “It’s funny because, reading the script, I did sort of gravitate towards [Tessa] more,” she recalled.
Langford loved that Tessa is a flawed, three-dimensional character in a story that feels closer to reality than outsiders would expect to find in fanfiction. (For example, Langford loves that Tessa cheats on the high school boyfriend she left at home when she first starts seeing Hardin — “because it happens.”) But, although After is not “a dating guide in any way, shape, or form,” she said, it “doesn’t shy away from the reality of what relationships are.”
In particular, when it comes to sex. “I think it’s a little bit taboo to have a coming-of-age story where a girl explores her sexuality. That just doesn’t happen a lot,” she said, adding that in movies, sex is infrequently shown from the female perspective. “And in this, it’s all about Tessa’s pleasure … Every scene leading up to their first time is about her.”
There’s also, of course, the non-sexual aspects of the romance that made filming the movie especially fun alongside her co-star Hero Fiennes-Tiffin. The lake scene, for example, where Tessa and Hardin build up tension before their first kiss, filmed on a humid Atlanta day that left everyone wanting to tread water. Well, maybe not everyone. “Look, one of us had a floatie, one of us didn’t. And I’m not going to say who had who, but I will say that I am Australian,” Langford laughed.
And there were her personal favorite shots — the sweet, classic, audio-free montage scenes that show Tessa and Hardin falling deeper in love that allowed Langford and Fiennes-Tiffin to relax a bit and talk about “everything and anything,” she said. “When we were at the aquarium, we were just saying the stupidest things about the fish.”
But now, full of blissful memories as the bulk of her initial film duties wrap up, Langford is looking forward to some relaxation and reflection in Perth, where she still lives with her family.
No one can say what changes she’ll see once After hits theaters on April 12, but in this snapshot of a moment, she smiled, “I’m happy.”