Sean Kaufman plays Steven in The Summer I Turned Pretty. The show is based on the book series by Jenny Han and has already been renewed for a second season, which is currently filming. All episodes of season one are now streaming on Prime Video.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is a multigenerational drama that hinges on a love triangle between one girl and two brothers, the ever-evolving relationship between mothers and their children, and the enduring power of strong female friendship. It is a coming-of-age story about first love, first heartbreak, and the magic of that one perfect summer.
I spoke with the actor about his take on the character of Steven, bringing relatable Asian American representation to the screen, the relationship between Steven and Shayla, filming those incredible dance scenes, and so much more. Keep reading for our discussion!
So, you’re approaching these beloved books, but I also feel like you brought so much to the character. Was there an aspect that you felt was specifically a challenge acting-wise or that you felt most excited to add yourself to and bring to life?
Sean Kaufman: Well, I think the actual prospect of bringing to life a character that’s already been written, like a book character specifically, just is so exciting because one thing that Jenny really tried to get across, I think, to myself, was that yes, this is Steven and she wrote and created the character, which is crazy, but that she cast me, specifically me, and not anybody else. It’s not just Steven, it’s my take on Steven, and so to bring my kind of breath and life into this character, and to kind of discover how he works and how his mind works with Jenny was both scary and exhilarating once we got into doing it.
Obviously, the books have a passionate fanbase, but the show has received such a fantastic fan response, what is it like seeing how much people love what you all created?
Yeah, I mean, it was amazing. The whole time that you’re shooting, I think, we kind of got the feeling, we were like, “This feels special. This feels like something special that we are creating.” We waited around for a year and kind of felt crazy wondering if it really was as special as we thought it was. We had such a good time and we just wanted people to share that. Then when it came out, seeing everybody just kind of fall in love with each individual character and the stories, it kind of put our minds to rest because everybody knows it is a special experience and it is a special show. To have such a backing behind it and all the new fans too, not just the dedicated fans that we said before, it’s just a dream come true and it really shows how many people that this work touches, that Jenny has created.
Yeah, and I think something that’s so beautiful is that these stories are still resonating with people today. You’re really breathing new life into these characters because you’re portraying them on screen and bringing a visual that so many viewers are going to relate to. What does that mean to you?
Oh man, it means the world. I mean, there’s an extra level I think, for like Jenny, Lola, Jackie, myself, and Minnie, where it’s like being able to be relatable to young boys and girls of like Asian American descent. It really means the world for somebody to be able to see our face and maybe think like, “Hey, that person looks like me, I can do acting.” That means the world and to be quite honest, I think that really the show, as much as it is YA, I think that there’s storylines for everybody to kind of either A.) fall in love with or B.) empathize with. I think there’s something for everybody and to know that it has touched everybody, and again, specifically from my own experience, like Asian Americans in this country, it means a lot. It really, really is powerful when you take it in the grand scheme of things.
There is so much family in the show, and I’m a family person, so I really love that aspect. What do you think that added overall?
Well, I mean, it helped build the world but I think that it took the context of every relationship and just heightened it so much more because not only is it Belly falling in love with these two brothers anymore, but it’s the dynamic of the entire family, and how that shifts everybody. Also, obviously, the whole storyline with the moms — I mean, heartbreaking, but the measure of which it is heartbreaking is only heightened by this beautiful family dynamic that is shown through the show. Those were some of my favorite scenes to shoot to be quite honest with you, like the big family dinner scenes, and every time I got to work with everybody, that was — I mean, we bonded together like a family. I think it came through, I hope it did, but it definitely just added to every relationship in the show, just heightened it more.
Which classic love triangle, that you were a fan of, were you either really torn over who to pick or had picked a side instantly and stuck with it?
That is such a good question. I think… okay, the first one, like, literally the first one that comes to my head: Twilight. I’m such a big Robert Pattinson fan, even back then, so I had to be Team Edward.
I love Steven’s relationship with Shayla. You two were amazing, you had me from their very first scene. What do you think makes their relationship so special? I saw so much love for them on social media, people really love them together.
Oh, thank you. I mean, well, Minnie and I just got off extremely well, we’re such good friends. While we were shooting, she made everything so much easier. It’s every actor’s dream to have an actor, a scene partner that makes your job easier and showing up to set every day, like, that was — man, I couldn’t ask for anything else. But, you know, that Steven and Shayla bond is so interesting to me because Steven is battling so many insecurities throughout the show, so many feelings of being left out and never being good enough, especially for her, but I think the thing that keeps pulling them always back into each other is the fact that it’s just this great, great love that they have for each other. That no matter what, Steven’s willing to mess up, fall on his face, and admit these things but at the end of the day, like man up, whatever that means to him, own up and say, “Okay, I made these mistakes, and I screwed up. But I love you and I’m willing to work towards being better for you.”
As an actor, what was it like for you to dive into those scenes and emotions? It was really great to see unfold, especially the maturity and growth in the relationship, like you just said, with him admitting his faults and really opening up about those insecurities.
Yeah, that’s kind of, I think, it’s every actor’s dream to have a flawed character, which I think is so beautiful because nobody in life is — there’s no evil or good in my opinion, I think, for very few exceptions, but I think that for the most part, it’s like, people are complex characters, and they constantly make mistakes. So I know for myself, that while it was maybe a little hard trying to find the motivation for some of the things he did, because I was like, “Why does he do this?” It was hard for me, but then it kept coming back to the fact that he’s a kid, he’s trying to find his way. It became a lot easier for me as we kept going along because I started to realize that’s what I did when I was growing up, I made so many mistakes and kept going because you have to. Life continues to keep pushing, it does not stop when you make a huge mistake, you know? And to bring that to Steven, I think, meant a lot.
I’m sure I’m not the first one to tell you this but the music– oh my gosh, you had Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Ariana Grande and it was everything. I felt like it was my teenage years’ soundtrack. Which scene was your favorite to see the song added to and help bring it to life even more along with your acting?
There’s two that come to my head. I mean, first off, like wow. We didn’t even get a peek at the final soundtrack until the actual show came out. So when we watched it, we were blown away, you know? I mean, unbelievable music choice.
You couldn’t have had a better soundtrack. Honestly, it was incredible.
I think, for myself, probably the two things that come to my head are: 1.) Jere and Belly’s makeout in the pool when they play, “Are We Still Friends” by Tyler, the Creator. That’s like, “Oh my God.” And then, I think the one that probably impacted me the most — this impacted me the most because they played it while we were on set, which was so cool, it was at the Debutante Ball when Jeremiah’s missing and Conrad steps up, and it’s like that slow-mo Taylor Swift starts playing. They played the song on the loudspeakers while we were there and watching Chris just walk up to Lola and the songs playing, it really — like, I hope it came across on screen that same way because I know in the room, it felt magical and I was like, “Oh my God.”
Speaking of Taylor, which Taylor Swift song, that was not used in the show yet, do you think would be Steven and Shayla’s song?
Oh, that’s interesting, because I know my Taylor Swift song for Steven is “Hey Stephen.”
Oh, yes, that’s a good one!
That’s such a good question. Wow, I don’t know, actually. That’s a good question. I mean, first one that comes to my head is “Lover,” but you know, I think that was used in the show, I believe.
I have to say, if I can make a suggestion, I think “Enchanted” very much fits them.
Ooh, I don’t know that one. I have to look that one up. I’ll definitely look that up. Thank you.
Which scene were you most excited to see come to life from the books, either while on set filming it or watching the show?
I think the scene I was most excited for was — it was one of my audition sides actually, and a lot of it got cut, which is very unfortunate, but how it works. But the driving scene to the beach house with Lola and Jackie.
Talk to me about filming those Debutante Ball scenes. I mean, your dancing was fantastic. What were those days on set like?
I mean, it was unbelievably fun. I can’t overstate how fun my entire experience was, all four months, but that last week, you know, getting all dressed up every day and being with some of my closest friends on set, and dancing with Gavin. We literally just got to dress up, mess around, and have fun and we shot that the entire last week of shooting. It really felt like — because four months and we knew it was coming to an end and we could feel it, everybody could kind of feel it and it really felt like the perfect, “Okay, we’re wrapping, this giant ball is the last thing we’re going to do together and we’re going to make it amazing.”
I was devastated by the ending so I want to talk about that moment for Steven and his family because it broke my heart. What was it like for you to do that scene and really get to that place emotionally? I was crying with you!
Well, I’m glad we could have that effect. I mean, I know for myself, that it was, again, a great experience because a crew that day really let us be by ourselves. They gave us a room in the house that we shot at and were very much like, “You guys take your time. We’re not going to disturb you, we’re not going to bother you. You guys, please do what you have to do,” and that was all we needed to do because then once the three of us were together, the tears just kind of came out so naturally. I mean, Jackie is like a second mother to me and Lola is like a second sister to me. So really, I didn’t even really have to go far to put myself in those shoes, and again, they’re phenomenal actresses so it just made my job so much easier. There were many tears shed that day and I’m very, very grateful that it was with them two that I was able to do it with.
Is there anything that is not in the books that you would like to see for Steven before the show ends? I’m talking like, wildest dreams, ballpark moment?
Ballpark, I would love for Steven to meet LeBron James. That would be — a crossover episode with the NBA. [Laughs] I’m sorry, that’s not the answer you’re looking for.
It’s an amazing answer and honestly. I’d love to see it. I mean, you’re getting all this great music so I think you could get some great guest stars on here, right?
That’s what I’m saying! I’ll call the Lakers.
Lastly, is there anything you personally learned or took away from the character of Steven that you feel like you’re going to carry with you in your own life?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean, we touched on it a lot just in this interview, and I think that is kind of the thing that’s been — well, actually two things. One that we’ve been talking about is you’re gonna make mistakes and you’re gonna fall on your face, and you have to get up and learn from them. You just have to let it go. The second one is lead with love. I think Steven always, whether it’s with Belly, Shayla, his mom, or Conrad and Jeremiah, he leads with a lot of love and I think that’s how the world kind of should be nowadays.