Jenny Han wants you to feel conflicted over John Ambrose McClaren, the sweet Hufflepuff who perhaps takes up just a little too much space in Lara Jean's mind in To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You. After all, fans of the successful Netflix franchise have already fallen head over heels for Peter Kavinsky, the lovable jock who won over Lara Jean's heart in 2018's To All the Boys I've Loved Before. But John Ambrose is kind and patient and gentle; he's real friends-to-lovers material.
For Han, if you're shipping Lara Jean and John Ambrose, then she's doing something right.
In this conversation with MTV News, the bestselling young adult author reflects on the success of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the meteoric rise of its young cast, writing compelling love triangles, and how she fell in love with John Ambrose, too.
MTV News: To All the Boys I've Loved Before became a phenomenon. Everyone watched it. My mom loved it. Did you ever anticipate just how many people would fall in love with these characters?
Jenny Han: I went into it thinking that I just wanted the fans of the books to be happy with it. And then I felt like whatever extra came of that would just be the cherry on top of the whole experience. So no, I think I thought that young people were really going to love it. What was the best surprise was how it was so widely embraced by so many different kinds of people — friends of mine who watched it, who really loved it, that was meaningful to me. My agent's daughter was eight at the time, [and] it was her favorite movie. And then friends in their forties were like, "I love this movie." So that's been really special.
MTV News: Did the fervor around the first film change how you approached the sequel? Or was that already locked in and in the works by the time the first one premiered?
Han: It wasn't, no. And the great thing is since I had written three books, we already had a real roadmap of where we going with the rest of the story. So that was kind of set. The approach was just wanting to make all the fans happy. I remember saying to the producers, I said, "My dream for this would be a Terminator 2 type of situation." Terminator 2 is one of my favorite movies — where the sequel is even better than the first one. The dream was to elevate the whole thing.
MTV News: It's a little bit self-aware of the first film's success as well.
Han: I think the mistake that sequels make that I've seen, as someone who loves a sequel, is when you try and go for the exact same beats and just make it a little bit bigger. And I think the best way is to create something fresh. You still give them what they loved about the first thing, but it should feel fresh and new and not like you're trying to recreate the first.
MTV News: Has the success of this franchise on Netflix opened you up to more opportunities?
Han: For sure. I've gotten to do so many interesting things. One of the things was announced... Shonda Rhimes has a TV show called Notes on Love, and it's going to be an anthology of love stories. And so she asked me do one, and that's something that came my way that was so exciting to me. I cried. I was so excited because I'm such a fan of Shonda Rhimes and what she's built. And [I'm a fan of] storytelling in general, and film is just another way to do that.
MTV News: Shonda has Shondaland. Is that what you see for yourself? Is that what you want?
Han: I have no idea! Writing novels is always going to be a home base for me because it's so different. With novels, it's just you and the page. Later on it becomes more collaborative with your editor and then figuring out a cover and marketing and all that stuff. But really when the storytelling is happening it's just you. And then making a film is very collaborative. And the exciting part of that is if you find amazing people to work with then they're bringing all their talents, and it's like best idea wins, right? If you're stuck on something, you can just ask somebody else, "What do you think about this?" I love being on a team, so that aspect is really enticing to me.
MTV News: What was it like watching your two young leads, Lana [Condor] and Noah [Centineo], have this exponential rise at the same time as the film? I know you and Lana, in particular, were very close and talked a lot in the production of the first film.
Han: It was so overwhelming and I was more protective, where I'm like, "I just want you guys to feel OK." Going from overnight to having millions of followers — people who are watching your every move on social media and all these really wonderful fans — it's all good, but it's also can be a lot, especially for a young person. I think it's a lot even for me, you know what I mean? So I just wanted to make sure that everyone felt safe and still solid.
MTV News: Solid enough to come back and make another one?
Han: Yeah, and people were happy. Everybody was so happy to come back into the next film, which was the best part of it. I remember Noah was like, "It's like coming back to summer camp." And people were all together again, and I think there's something nice about having that time apart from the rest of the world in a way because when you're working on a movie set, which I didn't realize until I was so deep into it, was I was talking to friends back home and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, my whole world is just right here, on this set." It's the bubble, and it's really nice to be in the bubble with such great people.
MTV News: And there's a few new cast additions in this film.
Han: Having Jordan [Fisher] and Ross [Butler], Sarayu [Blue], and Holland [Taylor] — those are our new cast members — each of them brought so much to not just the movie but just the whole vibe. Jordan is an organizer, you know what I mean? So he'd organize game night, or they were doing a lot of movie nights, and I love to see all the bonding going on. And Ross is the same way. His energy was always great on set. I was just laughing all the time. Everybody rocked so much. I just could not feel more lucky that people agreed to come and be in this movie.
MTV News: Casting of John Ambrose McClaren — obviously, this is an important role. He's the second male lead and the third part of this love triangle that you've created. What was important for you that this actor bring to the role that Jordan brought?
Han: His warmth. So much of that character is in the way that she looks at him and the way that she thinks about him. It's almost like he's a dream that came to life. He's a memory that she holds dear in her heart, who then comes back into the picture and it's like, does that person live up to how you imagined them to be? And he's also a little bit shy, but he's confident. He also likes to read. But then he also is sporty, and he has an active. social life. He's all these things. So I think that they really just connect with each other on a different level. It's a different frequency than she has with Peter, which is just like real life, right? Where you have different people that you connect with in different ways that give you different things. And I really think with Jordan and Lana that connection was apparent immediately.
MTV News: I love their chemistry. They're both cute and shy.
Han: Yeah, it's just two cute puppies.
MTV News: The key to a good love triangle is you want people to root for them. You need people to ship Lara Jean and John Ambrose.
Han: Absolutely. I want to break your heart. I want you to be so torn as I am when I'm writing that love triangle. I'm always so torn.
MTV News: So you went back and forth as you were writing?
Han: Always. And the thing is, the whole reason I wrote P.S. I Still Love You is because of the letter to Johnny Ambrose McLaren. It was the first letter that I wrote of all the letters. To me, that was a really important one that I wanted to give its due. And so then I called my editor and I said, "I think I need to do another one because I don't want to just jam him into this one. I think that it's a really important relationship." So I really wanted the focus to be on him in the second book. I was just beginning to write To All the Boys, the first one, and I was already thinking of those two stories. It's like two halves of a heart.
MTV News: Were you torn while writing it?
Han: That is genuine. I've written a few love triangles, and there's always a point where I'm really torn and waffling too because I have to fall in love with him just as much as I'm writing it.
MTV News: I know you famously do not write with an outline, so are you really just sorting through your feelings as you go?
Han: There have been times when I've called up my best friend, who's also a writer, and I said, "Do I, do I... I don't know. I don't know." I'm starting to really waver and she's like, "You know what you want to do. You've had this in your mind." Because even though I don't outline, I usually have an idea of what the ending looks like. She's like, "Stay focused." But I do think in order to really write it in a way that other people feel just as torn, I have to get to that place as well. I always think of it as method writing where I'm like, "Let me just feel the feelings."
MTV News: But you always knew that this was going to end with Lara Jean and Peter?
Han: I still think that the story is never over in a way. Do you know what I mean? People come in and out of your life, and so much of it is proximity and timing, that I couldn't say... I guess you could say I'm never an endgame kind of person. Because I think your mind can really be changed, and I think time can change you, and circumstances change too. So, who knows?
MTV News: For a lot of young people, Lara Jean and Peter are now a reference point. What was a formative fictional couple for you?
Han: You've got your classics. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. That's definitely OTP [one true pairing] for sure. I do love to watch different adaptations of that — Bridget Jones's Diary is one of my favorite romantic comedies. And what I love about that love triangle is you do really waiver between those two guys.
MTV News: The first film was about Lara Jean and Peter falling in love, but it was also a film about family and sisterhood. And in this sequel, what I really loved is that you have this really great story line for Gen and Lara Jean. Gen is a character who gets a lot more to do in this film. What was the importance of that for you?
Han: I love that. I really love that story line. It was really important to me to keep that. Oftentimes, when you are looking at your life, you're seeing it from just your own perspective. You could be the villain or the hero of the story depending on perspective. Lara Jean is the hero of her story, right? But then that doesn't mean that she's a hero in someone else's story. And Genevieve might be the villain in hers, but she's also her own hero. So how does she feel about what went down? I look at that relationship between her and Peter as one of those kind of foundational first love type of things. Because they were each other's first loves for so many years. And both of them have come from families that are going through things and so they connect with each other on that level. He's always been the person that she calls what she needs something, and he comes running because she does the same for him. So looking at that relationship and then looking at Lara Jean and John Ambrose McLaren, they connect on a different level. I was happy that the story could continue and you could see things from her point of view. Because I never like to feel anything so black and white in terms of who's a good guy and who's a bad guy.
MTV News: I really loved the scene between Lara Jean and Gen in the treehouse.
Han: It makes me cry every time. I tear up. To me, so much of that book is about memory and childhood and saying goodbye to childhood. And the treehouse represents all of that. And honoring those old friendships that maybe they don't fit in your life in the same way anymore, but that doesn't mean that they weren't important to you at that time.
MTV News: This film made time for Lara Jean's friendships, both past and present. And that felt really important. It's not just a story about her figuring out which boy she wants to date.
Han: It's about her just figuring out what she wants and kind of growing into herself a bit more and letting her world just get a little bit bigger with each step. Having Stormy and then Trina, who comes into the story, her world just keeps getting bigger. And she, in many ways before this point, has had sort of a smaller life and she liked it that way. And she still is who she is. She's still an introvert. She still likes to be at home with her family. But opening herself up to all these different opportunities makes her world just a little bit bigger.
MTV News: She's so endearing. It's not a character we see a lot of on our screens.
Han: She's just really open-hearted. And I think she's a warm-hearted person. And because of that, the movie, I hope, feels warm-hearted. And I also really feel like the fans are really warm-hearted. It goes from top to bottom. The people who love this story are just good-hearted people.
MTV News: But don't you think it starts with you then? Would you call yourself warm-hearted? An optimist and hopeless romantic?
Han: I'm a romantic. I'm optimistic. I'm a pretty cheerful person. I think a lot of me is in this story. I felt really lucky that since the beginning when I first wrote these books, readers would come to my events and be dressed up like Lara Jean and would bring me baked goods. That hasn't changed. I'm happy the books have inspired that kind of warmth.