The first thing Noah Centineo does is take off his shirt. When he visits the Bustle greenroom in September, it's quite warm — though we've set up a small fan to face us — so Centineo is changing out of his jacket and back into his street clothes. It'd only been a few weeks since the world saw him in his standout role as Peter Kavinsky in To All The Boys I've Loved Before. And just two days after his Bustle visit, Netflix would go on to release its second summer rom-com, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, starring Centineo alongside Stranger Things star Shannon Purser. But in just the last month, a lot has changed for the young actor, who has been promptly named the internet's boyfriend and already gained 9 million Instagram followers. And despite it being unbearably hot outside (and in this small room), Centineo is actually pretty chill.
It takes about two minutes of hanging out with him for me to realize that Centineo is the Evolved Male Lead™ come to life. He's got edge, but is incredibly introspective. He talks about religious texts, but sings along to Nicki Minaj's "The Night Is Still Young" on set of his photoshoot. He thanks his parents, dark times, and heartbreak for teaching him to respect others. ("You learn from these experiences that can be traumatic," he tells me.) And now he's playing characters like Jamey (in Sierra Burgess) and Peter (in To All The Boys), who are not "aggressive" or "hyper-masculine" like rom-com leads from the past (i.e., John Bender in The Breakfast Club), marking a change in what we have come to expect from leading men. "I think what culture deems to be appropriate, acceptable, and attractive in a mate is shifting," he says when we sit down to talk.
According to Centineo, who at this point has folded — and then refolded — his legs into a pretzel position on the couch, the modern man is "a man who is able to equally protect and be aggressive when necessary out of love — but also have an emotional intelligence," adding, "I think we're becoming more conscious as a society and more mindful of what's healthy."
It's been a "wild" few weeks for the 22-year-old, who is barely fazed by his newfound fame. ("It's not like I have 8 million people following me around every single moment," he tells me when I ask if it's at all scary to be the internet's newest obsession.) After all, before To All The Boys was released in August, Centineo had starred in a bunch of roles, including a starring role on Freeform's The Fosters for 3 years, though nothing has been quite as launchpad-like as the Aug. 17 release based on the book by Jenny Han. "To be fair," Centineo says, "this is almost how it's been since I joined The Fosters," though he admits now it's "scaled up." It is immediately clear to me that "scaled up" is a massive understatement.
You'd have to assume that this type of overnight fame — "instantaneous" as Centineo says — is terrifying. Since the weekend To All The Boys came out, Centineo has grown a social following of more than 10 million. People are editing themselves into photos with him, he's receiving marriage proposals online, and the people following him? "Yeah, that happens," he says. Despite this, however, you won't find Centineo saying anything negative about the opportunities he's been given. "It's just lovely," he says, in complete earnestness.
You learn from these experiences that can be traumatic. ... You understand what it means to truly be hurt.
The Evolved Male Lead™ with whom audiences and Centineo's millions of followers have fallen in love extends beyond the screen and into his real life. He is handsome; after he leaves — when I post a selfie with him on Instagram — fans from around the world DM me asking how he smells. He's thoughtful; somewhere in between talking about how Mark Ruffalo in 13 Going on 30 was ahead of his time and God (yeah), Centineo gets up to readjust the fan so it isn't "blowing directly at us." And, he's well-intentioned; he hopes his tweets — the ones that sometimes read like a Tumblr post — "spark an awareness," adding, "if I can somehow bring a moment of reflection to someone that reads something that I put out or sees something that I do, it's really exciting to me."
"You get pretty deep," I say, as I start reading him a tweet he posted in November about God that said:
"God? Naw, never met the guy but if I had to guess, I'd say she's a soft pillow, a comfortable bed and a warm meal. Maybe some good company in a bad time. Maybe they're the reason you were running late and didn't have that car crash. Idk maybe you're me."
"I just love that particular tweet," Centineo says, explaining further: "The patriarchy has created this concept of God. I don't denounce Christianity — I don't denounce any religion. ... I think there's something to be learned from all religious texts, whether they're mainstream or like, Emerald Tablets of Thoth or something."
"I will say," he says, pausing to readjust his body into a more comfortable position, "It's interesting that God is a 'he' to Christians. If I was a woman, I don't quite know how I could be like, 'Yeah, it's He. Capital H.'"
Tweeting — and social media as a whole — is a "tool for people to see inside of my head and how I view things," Centineo says. He also knows that with a platform as big as his, he needs to be cautious with what he says. He's seen what happens; his To All The Boys co-star, Israel Broussard, faced massive backlash for old offensive tweets that resurfaced. "Everybody went for Israel's throat for things that he was retweeting and the things he was saying, and understandably so," Centineo says. "I've known Israel for seven years. He operates from a place of love. He is one of the most loving individuals I know. He would never hurt someone. He can be abrasive with his opinions at times, absolutely."
"The thing about Israel is that he will share an opinion even if it's not his own to stir the pot, almost like someone who's in the middle of two people debating might throw a concept out there just to show a change of perspective," Centineo says. He doesn't agree with "a lot of what he posted," just "the positive things and the things that I can get behind."
"It definitely reminds me, yeah man, be careful," he says, "though I don't think we align too much."
It's got to be a lot of pressure, I suggest midway through our conversation, to be seen as the internet's cherished boyfriend. People on Twitter are constantly tweeting about needing to find their own real-life Peter Kavinsky (or — pipe dream — just marry Centineo). If there is pressure to live up to the good guy personas of Jamey or Peter, Centineo doesn't show an ounce of it. He doesn't feel like he has to live up to anyone, in fact. "There's no have to, or you should or shouldn't," he says. "There's what's normal and there's what's expected, and there's just what's being a respectful, reverent human being."
He adds: "Just because these two characters that I've been fortunate enough to play are [these things], that surely will not be the reason that I respect people and communicate effectively and am able to be reverent toward other beings." He says that traumatic experiences and "truly learning what it means to be hurt" have lead him to realize the gravity of his actions, and other people's actions and words. "You just take more care for other people through those [experiences]."
Honestly, you'd think that Centineo has lived six lives when talking to him. Who knows — maybe he has. As for this life, the one that has brought me and him together in a small, slightly overheated room, he'd be what you'd consider wise beyond his 22 years. (He reads books like Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and Blasphemy by Douglas Preston. "It's a fictitious tale, but it's gorgeous," he says of the latter.)
He has great hope for his generation, which is technically Gen Z, though he identifies with both Gen Z and Millennials (in our conversation, he reminds me I'm a Millennial, while he was born in '96, so he's "right on the cusp"), and turns his nose up at the idea that people "our age" haven't fully lived.
"I think [our generation] is able to see many different perspectives and different styles of life now because of the internet and because of social media," he says. "We don't just have to swallow the pills that our parents gave us. We're able to see other ways that parents raised their kids and really learn from those things. It's more of a communal way of living, like an ecclesia type."
Centineo is impressive in the way he speaks and thinks. At the same time, I know this is a 22-year-old guy, so I have wonder what he does for fun. "Like, do you really love Game of Thrones?" I ask.
"I'm a thrill seeker," he says without literally any hesitation. "I climbed to the top of a crane to the mission control thing like 200 feet above the ground ... onto the top of the crane and hung off of it." He does it all: Bungee jumping, skydiving, anything that makes your body hurt just hearing about it. "I'm pretty reckless if I let myself be," Centineo says.
I was running on fumes, and I was pretty much getting high off the fumes that I was running on.
"Recklessness" didn't always mean acting out a scene of a Rock movie. Last year, on Centineo's 21st birthday, he made the decision to become sober for the year. "Previous to that, I was partying, experimenting, and just completely being reckless and being loose — while still managing a career," he says. "I was running on fumes, and I was pretty much getting high off the fumes that I was running on." He says any decision he's ever made and regretted was during the portion of his life before he became sober. "Usually [when I made those decisions] I was on some sort of substance."
"I woke up the day before I turned 21 and was like, 'Society is telling me I can legally drink now. ... Funny, I've been doing that and way worse for the past three, four years.'" He sees his year of sobriety as an act of rebellion against the society that allowed him to be reckless. "It's an act of self love," he says. "I've been different."
Although he's not sober anymore, he says that year was crucial for his health. "I learned the importance of taking care of myself, [of] making myself mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically sound. One always ties in with the next."
I ask Centineo what his goal is, giving him free rein to answer the question with regard to his personal life, his work, or something else entirely. Even though he's taken a year to focus on his health, has climbed construction cranes, contemplated God, and starred in two summer blockbuster movies, he's clear with his intentions. He answers the question softly — speaking in a quieter tone, compared with the rest of our conversation — clearly grateful for the opportunities he has been given. "I think I have much more to offer in the romantic comedy space," he says. He believes that if someone were to ask him what his big break was, he'd say that "it hasn't happened yet": "I'd like to think my big break is always ahead of me," he explains. Also ahead of him are his hopes of being able to give more to the art world and installments, as well as galleries and spoken word. "Just expression," he says confidently.
"I don't really have a goal as far as my life goes," he says. "I feel like if I was dead it'd be easier to tell you. Hindsight is 20/20."
Grooming by Jessica Ortiz for R&Co at Forward Artists