Gaining overnight success last year despite being published in 2009, Jenny Han’s book trilogy turned streaming series, The Summer I Turned Pretty, is as addictive as a show can get. Caught in a love triangle between two brothers, something that fans of The Vampire Diaries know about all too well, the coming-of-age romantic drama is a story of love, heartbreak, and the magic of that one perfect summer with your best friends; whether you discovered it by burying yourself in the books or binge-watching the show on Amazon, the series’ success can be attributed to two things: the characters themselves and the brotherly love triangle.
In comparison to the books, season two of The Summer I Turned Pretty finds Taylor Jewel, played by Rain Spencer, returning for a fleshed-out storyline in which her character goes from making mistakes and struggling with her feelings to being openly vulnerable and honest with herself. She’s now sporting bangs – an indirect signifier that Taylor’s about to embark on a new era of self-discovery the same way Rory Gilmore did – and on top of leaning into her vulnerability, she continues being fiercely loyal and present for her best friend, Isabel Conklin (Lola Tung), as they navigate their way through life’s challenges. “I completely relate to Taylor in the sense of protecting your best friend,” Spencer begins.
“I grew up having one best friend and we always had each other’s backs. You know, if you’re mean to her, you’re being mean to me sort of thing,” she continues. “But I feel like as we get older, that intensity in friendships dies down a little,” she notes. “Like sure, I’ll still have my best friends back today no matter what, and I’m going to have a reaction if something is bad, but there’s just something about being 16 and all of that feeling like life or death,” she details. “It’s pretty fun to go back and play those situations again though. It’s like experiencing it all over again.”
Much like her new look, the second season ushers in a different era for Taylor. She’s still Belly’s ride-or-die best friend but now, due to taking on a more prominent role, there’s room to dive deeper into who Taylor is on her own. “I really wanted to dive deeper into Taylor in season one in terms of who she is and why she is the way she is so, when I got the scripts for season two, I was really excited,” says Spencer. “I mean, we’re still barely scratching the surface with her because she’s more complex than you think but it’s been really fun just putting a foot in the water with her,” she admits. “Getting to explore her inner world, discovering why she has all these walls up, all these defence mechanisms, you could go on forever,” she adds.
“You know, she has a soft spot for two people in her life and that’s Steven and Belly. She’s all about being there for them, and she’s learning how to let her guard down when it comes to Steven, but there’s so much more to who she is as a person rather than just someone’s best friend,” she states. “You get to see her show how she actually feels, which is scary for her because it’s not something she knows how to do. It’s the same for everyone though!” she exclaims, proving to be more like her character than she thinks as she can’t help but gush over her castmates. “Conrad, Belly, Jeremiah, Steven. They’re all more complex than what we’ve seen so far and it’s so exciting,” she tells us. “There are some beautiful moments with Steven where you get to see him grapple with the success of college but also a crazy amount of grief at the same time; you just get a better sense of why these characters are the way they are.”
That’s not to say we won’t get to see Taylor defend Belly as if her life depends on it. “Taylor is intensely loyal to Belly. That will never change,” the 23-year-old confidently states. “You know, if anyone hurts Belly’s feelings it’s almost as if they’re directly hurting Taylor too,” she laughs. “Take Conrad as an example! If Taylor feels like he’s playing with her best friend’s emotions you can bet she’s going to have something to say about it,” she adds, reminding everyone that Taylor is never afraid to speak out about things. “I think that’s because it’s hard for Taylor to think before she speaks,” she admits. “It’s obvious Conrad is going through a lot, and that definitely doesn’t go over Taylor’s head, I just think she finds it hard to understand what he’s going through when he is messing with her best friend’s feelings. It bothers her a lot and she can’t seem to draw a line between it.”
Dismissing The Summer I Turned Pretty as just another series about friendships and love triangles would be a massive disservice to the beautiful storytelling itself. It’s the hard-hitting topics covered within – the ones that detail different characters’ stories when it comes to mental health, grief, and loss – that the show thrives on. It’s that perfect balance between the two that resonates with its audience. “When you watch a family go through something like this on television, it almost gives you permission to feel what you need to feel in your own life,” says Spencer. “Personally, I have dealt with a good amount of grief in my life, and seeing Belly go through it, watching all of the characters go through it, it makes you feel less alone,” she states. “For the most part, everyone has experienced something similar. Everyone can relate to a loved one dying, or losing someone in general, and I think it’s so important to show those stages. It’s important to watch it and realize it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling,” she notes empathetically. “It’s good to get it out and not stuff it down,” she proclaims. “I mean, grief doesn’t really go away and we touch on that. We explore how it gets better but also how it doesn’t go away. It just sits there until it gets easier, and it’s important for people to take note of that.”
Spencer’s instant attraction to the story meant that her audition wasn’t like any that she had done before. In fact, following her role as Jane in 2022’s Good Girl Jane, having her first two major roles be so disparate was a good thing. It challenged her in the best way. “I had so much fun in my audition!” she exclaims. “I remember letting myself go and challenging myself to play a character that’s a little bit different to myself in real life,” she adds. “Taylor is also the polar opposite of a character named Jane that I had previously played in a movie that went to Tribeca Film Festival last year; you know, if you put those two characters in a room together, they’d completely despise one another,” she laughs. “It was really fun for me to go from someone that was experiencing a really tough time and getting into drugs to Taylor who’s this, kind of, queen bee type, always loyal to her best friend, and constantly loud person. It was kind of refreshing to have that duality.”
Admitting that she feels like she “totally missed out” as a teenager for not knowing the series was originally a book trilogy, the actress discusses how it helped her bring her own ideas to the character. “Honestly, I feel like I totally missed out when I was a teenager because I would have loved these books. I would have eaten them up,” she smiles. “In terms of playing a character in the series though, part of me is glad I didn’t read them,” she shares. “I think there’s more pressure in playing a character that you grew up with and I’m grateful that I didn’t read it at 16 because I would have had some real strong opinions about Taylor,” she jokes. “I think reading each book before its season has allowed me to see her from an adult perspective and put my own spin on it. You know, I’ve gotten to explore her emotions more and relate to them on a deeper level,” she notes before elaborating on any pressure felt throughout filming. “I think there’s always going to be pressure in this industry. At least for me anyway,” she sighs. “When you’re building a character, especially before the world sees it, there’s always going to be that pressure of hoping it’s well received; I didn’t know how people were going to react to my character so I kind of prepared myself for all sides of it,” she tells us. “To my surprise, people have been really positive. Knock on wood it stays that way but, I’m just so freaking happy that is the case,” she beams. “You know, I get to show up, I get to do my job, and I love that but, at the end of the day, it’s not about me and it’s not for me. It’s for Jenny and the fans of the show,” she stresses. “I just have to do the best job I can do to try and make Taylor as human as possible. I have to get people to really see her and I think that’s easier in season two.”
But, the work doesn’t stop after the audition. Becoming Taylor Jewel was a whole journey in itself and, as we expand on her acting methods, Spencer details how she built her character from the ground up. “Humans are so complex that we kind of have everyone in us whether we know it or not,” she begins. “We all have these different personas and phases that we go through that make us who we are,” she continues. “You know, when I was 16 I was very different from Taylor but there’s so many aspects of her that I would have resonated with. From having one best friend that you’re completely loyal to and always sticking by, whether they’re right or wrong, to having a super intense crush that you never want anyone knowing about because it’s kind of embarrassing, I would’ve understood that,” she shrieks as we start to reminisce on our cringe-worthy teenager years. “And, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it but, I think even Taylor feels that way,” she laughs. “You know, no one wants to be rejected. It’s embarrassing” she screams. “So in her defence, I understand putting a bunch of walls up and protecting yourself the way she does. I don’t want to be rejected today either!”
Although her lips are sealed on her next move, Spencer shines a light on what she plans to do with the rest of her year. “I honestly have no idea what the rest of my year is looking like because of the strikes,” she admits with half an hour left until they begin. “I did have some things that I was potentially going to film but I guess we’ll see,” she shrugs. “You know what, I’m going to go on a hike,” she states. “I’m going to paint,” she adds, starting to list things to do with her spare time. “I could even go to the beach. I have so much time now!”
DISCLAIMER: This interview was conducted prior to the July 13th strike before SAG-AFTRA members went on strike.