The Untold Story of Noah Centineo's Rise to Rom-Com Heartthrob (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Noah Centineo is having a moment. The breakout star of Netflix’s two major teen romances has commanded Hollywood’s attention as the charming, confident lacrosse jock Peter Kavinsky in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the endearingly sweet star quarterback Jamey in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. The interest and attention on Centineo has skyrocketed as a result; stars like Gabrielle Union and Millie Bobby Brown have made public declarations over their adoration for the actor.
"I'm kinda just hanging out," Centineo, 22, told ET recently, downplaying his newfound heartthrob status. "Not much has changed. I hope not a lot does change." Easier said than done. In just a matter of weeks, his social media pull has multiplied exponentially. As of Friday, his Instagram followers stand tall at a staggering 8.6 million. Not bad for a kid from South Florida.
"I'll say the same thing I've kind of said before in anticipation, the outer world is going to change for sure, whether that's more people knowing who I am or the jobs coming in, but I want my inner space to stay the same,” Centineo said. “That's really important to me." But speak to those who have worked closely with Centineo in recent years and a common thread emerges: When the cameras aren’t rolling, he’s exactly what he’s like on camera -- charming, goofy, charismatic, intellectual, and just a tad off-center.
And really, we should have seen this coming. Seven people who know Centineo best explain why in ET's look at how one decision, made on a whim, brought us the Summer of Noah.
Centineo isn’t exactly an overnight sensation -- though the sudden onslaught of attention would suggest otherwise. Before To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, the actor got his start with a bit part on Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally, playing Ally’s crush and cell phone accessory guy, Dallas, in a three-episode arc from 2011 to 2012. Guest spots on tween programs like Shake It Up, Jessie and a role on the Disney TV movie, How to Make a Better Boy, followed. But it was Centineo’s three-season run on Freeform’s The Fosters, replacing original star Jake T. Austin as the impulsive teen Jesus Adams Foster in 2015, which marked his first Hollywood breakthrough.
Peter Paige, co-creator of The Fosters: He always had that thing -- that charisma and charm; it’s so authentic to who he is. It absolutely comes through the camera. It’s why we cast him and it is of course what’s brought him this next level of success. The same things that everybody else is finally noticing in him -- the charm, the offbeat wisdom, that slightly off way of looking at the world that made Jesus so memorable.
Physically, he wasn’t the perfect fit for the recast but everything else outweighed that. He was so utterly delightful and you just root for him. To me, he’s just relatable. He’s somebody that everybody feels like they know. He’s one of those guys who feels like he’s your friend and the truth is, if you met him, he probably would be.
On The Fosters, Centineo’s Jesus had one of his most memorable arcs, when the character suffered a traumatic brain injury and went through the painstaking highs and lows in heartbreaking, poignant fashion. It was an ambitious storyline that may not have been written had Centineo not been in the role.
Paige: When you’re doing a TV series, you want actors to inspire you to write and give you great confidence in the stories you are going to tell for them. We knew once we had found Noah that we could take him on this very difficult, very hard, very dark journey and that you would keep rooting for him. That story very much came out of Noah’s gifts. I just knew from that first moment [in his first episode in 2015] -- the way he interacted with the cast, the way he melted right into the stew with everybody, that it was going to work and it was going to be special. And then when we came back for the next season, he proved that again and again and again over the first few episodes. Within two episodes, we were completely confident and almost forgot that we had done [a recasting]. It was as if he had always been there.
Sierra Burgess was released after To All the Boys, but it was actually the first of the two to be cast and go into production, filming in January 2017 in Los Angeles. It was during the casting process for Sierra Burgess that casting director Tamara-Lee Notcutt, who serendipitously oversaw both films, discovered Centineo. Shockingly, he wasn’t in the conversation for Jamey, the romantic lead and object of Shannon Purser’s tech-based affections, because the part had already been cast. Instead, he was angling for a smaller bit part, which called for him to play an unlikable douchebag.
Tamara-Lee Notcutt, casting director for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser: I cast Sierra first, so that’s where we stumbled across Noah. We were reading some smaller roles and Noah had come in for one of those, and me and producer Rachel Smith were very much like, “He’s really special. He’s really interesting.”
'Sierra Burgess Is A Loser:' Noah Centineo on His 'True Connection' With Shannon Purser
Lindsey Beer, screenwriter of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser: Ben Hardy was originally attached to play the part [of Jamey]. He had been in one of the producers’ other movies [2017's Only the Brave] and they thought he’d be great for it and they attached him. His schedule ended up not working out, so we had to audition other people.
Ian Samuels, director of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser: We were having a really hard time finding Jamey. When you’re casting, you have a character description and a lot of the Jameys that were coming in just felt… I don’t know, there was maybe something too on the nose about what we were seeing, in terms of the jock-y football player. But we really wanted Jamey to really be likable. You have to fall in love with him to believe in this relationship. Our casting director, Tamara, did an amazing job and she had Noah come in for one of the supporting roles and he was so charming in the room.
Beer: I think he [originally] came in for Spence. [Will Peltz ended up playing him.]
Samuels: It was for Spence, Veronica’s boyfriend. I think that’s what it was. Completely different.
Beer: I watched all the auditions. Every single one. With Jamey, we were looking for somebody who could play a more soulful type and somebody with the puppy dog eyes who the girls would like, but who kind of had a unique sincerity to him and Noah absolutely did. It was kind of crazy, honestly. I didn’t have a specific actor in mind when I wrote this and I wrote it a long time ago, over six years ago, but I did have a generic image in mind of Jamey and Noah just looked and embodied him to a T, it almost weirded me out. It was like he had incepted my brain six years ago and made me write the part for him.
Notcutt: He was so charismatic. He’s very charming. He’s got a great look. He’s really tall and I already knew that I wanted to cast Shannon. She’s a very tall girl. He matched her in height and everything, and not very many actors -- especially that age -- are that tall. [Centineo is 6' 2".] Even though he was confident, there was something very goofy and awkward as well. He’s grown up a lot in the last two years, it’s been quite amazing to watch. He’s just super adorable, very charming and fun. He felt like a real teenager.
The scene Centineo auditioned with to land Jamey was the scene before the first kiss switcheroo, where Jamey and Sierra, via her proxy, Veronica, are discussing the stars.
Beer: Except the version of the script -- which was what his sides were from -- was longer and a little more emotional, so he got to show his range in that scene.
Samuels: The funny thing about Noah that everyone should know is that who he is on camera is exactly who he is in person. That endearing charisma and sense of humor just came across in the little audition that he gave us for another role. When he left, we immediately talked about bringing him back in for Jamey, so he came back right away and read for Jamey, and we were all so excited about casting him.
'Sierra Burgess' Star Noah Centineo Says On-Screen Kiss With Shannon Purser Was an '11' (Exclusive)
Notcutt: He had to self-tape because he was on vacation in Florida, because it was over Christmas a couple of years ago, and he did a great job. We brought him back in in-person in January and he nailed it.
Samuels: I knew part of it was trying to capture earnest butterflies from Shannon, and Noah was so playful that I knew when they had to have these phone conversations and they could really flirt that Noah would be able to give Shannon what she needed to respond to him and get all the idiosyncrasies of what it’s like to have a crush.
Once Centineo took over the role of Jamey, there was another teen rom-com on the horizon, To All the Boys, looking for its romantic leads. It was Notcutt who recommended Centineo to be in the mix for Peter Kavinsky, after seeing him initially try out for a douchebag role in Sierra Burgess. She believed, in that instance, that Centineo had the goods for the egoic Peter Kavinsky. But it was an uphill battle, since producers of To All the Boys were hoping to snag an actor of higher stature for the part.
Notcutt: When we initially brought him in for Sierra, he was coming in for a different role. He was playing the douchebag basically. I’m thinking, I know he can play that and obviously, he can play really sweet, I’m sure he can find the middle ground in between it. To All the Boys really wanted an established TV or film name because they didn’t know if they were going to get it in any of the other roles. We went through a bunch of guys and they were starting to panic. I was like, “Look, I really think you guys should meet Noah Centineo. I just cast him in another movie and it’s not because I cast him in that that I want to cast him in this. I think you should give him a go.” They were like, “OK, fine.”
Susan Johnson, director of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Noah, I auditioned by himself first and then pulled him back in for chemistry reads. He was 30 minutes late to his audition because he was given the wrong address. So he came in all disheveled and full of that energy that he has on screen. I hadn’t seen anyone that charming, but humble at the same time. When I put him with Lana [Condor], it was immediate sparks. I’ve heard the story about them sitting outside the casting session before they came in; I think it’s very, very funny that she turned him down to read [their lines]. They were magical in the room.
Notcutt: He came in and wowed them all, as I knew he would. We chemistry read him with Lana and a couple of other girls, and they were great. They really brought the scene to life because as drafted, the scene wasn’t as funny on the page and they both made it really funny together. When you can see that happening and feel they’re in sync with each other, especially when they’ve just met and they’ve got good comedic timing and chemistry. It was a slam dunk. After that, they were like, “We’re going to cast him in another movie!” [That other movie is The Stand-In, a coming-of-age romantic comedy co-starring Riverdale’s Camila Mendes and Austin & Ally’s Laura Marano, slated for 2019.]
It was clear from the get-go on both Sierra Burgess and To All the Boys, the latter of which filmed last summer in Vancouver, that Centineo was on the precipice of something big.
Notcutt: I was like, People are going to think I have an obsession with Noah Centineo, because I’ve just cast him twice back to back! I was going to do a third movie for Awesomeness Films that he’s in [the aforementioned The Stand-In], but I couldn’t end up doing it in the end because of scheduling. I can’t cast him three times in three back-to-back movies, I’m going to look crazy! He’s awesome. He’s the right guy for both jobs, so it worked out.
Beer: Not even during filming [of Sierra Burgess], like from his audition, the producers and I were like every girl is going to fall in love with this guy.
Noah Centineo Talks Cuddling and Potential Marriage Pact With Lana Condor
Lana Condor, star of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: The moment I met him, I was like, “Yup, that boy’s gonna be a star.” We all knew as we were shooting the movie that he was just going to break literally 15 million hearts. So I’m not surprised at all.
Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Noah has a real sweetness and vulnerability to him as a person and I love that he really let that shine in the movie. There are so many moments in the movie where he is so soft. In particular, I remember the first time I saw the final cut of the final scene of the two of them on the lacrosse field and he has his back to her and she's telling him how she feels about him but he looks so scared. You can see how much he feels for her in that moment and how much he likes her and how nervous he is. That's so much of Noah's own tenderness in the role.
Johnson: I literally took him aside the day we wrapped, or maybe it was the day after we wrapped, and said, “You have no idea what you’re walking into here but the performance you just gave us for 21 days is so spectacular. You’ll get to do whatever you want to do. Be choosy and decide.” I think he has all the potential in the world. I really do think he can have any career that he wants. He’s amazing.
Condor: I’ve never felt chemistry like this ever before with any other actor that I’ve worked with. I think we both know that it’s special and I’m just happy that it’s him that I’m going through all this with.
A February 2018 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, during which Centineo and his Fosters castmates kicked off their farewell tour for their outgoing Freeform drama, served as a preview of the eventual groundswell of adoration that was about to come his way. During the visit, Centineo and his co-stars took part in a silly game of blindfolded musical chairs. Centineo won.
Paige: He used the springboard we provided with that appearance and ran with it. He was so charmingly authentic and goofy... If I was a casting director and saw that, he would be in the casting office tomorrow.
Six months after that appearance, it’s been a whirlwind -- to put it bluntly -- for Centineo. He’s been called everything from the “Internet’s boyfriend” to “the new teen heartthrob.”
Notcutt: I haven’t seen it happen like this before, ever. I know that the guys from The Kissing Booth blew up after [the movie came out in May], but Noah’s been working a little bit and he isn’t brand new. He’s handling it really well and he’s still very humble and a bit bashful. It’s hard to break through in this business nowadays, especially when you’re young and so much weighs on you in terms of social media. If we can quantify followers in terms of success, I guess it’s pretty phenomenal. Even more so, it’s nice to give someone else an opportunity and hopefully it’ll pave the way for more people.
Samuels: I’m so excited to see him blow up right now. He was a surprise and I’m so happy we cast him. It’s been so exciting to see people get so excited about him the past few weeks.
Johnson: He is the new Jake Ryan.
Paige: We always knew Noah was a superstar. I’m so happy for him to be finding this level of viral attention. I just directed him in an episode of [The Fosters spinoff] Good Trouble, and he’s still the same charming, goofy, wayward philosopher he’s always been.
Samuels: I’m not surprised [by the response] because we all felt that way, but I also didn’t necessarily see it coming. We knew he was going to have a future when we were shooting [Sierra Burgess]. Everybody was saying that.
Condor: People just genuinely, are thoroughly in love with him. I’m honored to be on this journey with him and watch as he’s growing and blowing up. He deserves all the recognition that he’s getting and I think he’s handling it really, really well. He deserves it. Noah’s been acting forever. He’s been in the game way longer than I have, so he’s put in the work and he deserves everything that’s coming his way.
Paige: He is who you want him to be. That is not always the case. He is exactly the man you want him to be.