After The Summer I Turned Pretty premiered on Prime Video this summer, fans immediately became invested in Belly Conklin’s (played by Lola Tung) love life, and it began trending in no time.
Now, Minnie Mills, who plays Shayla Wang on the series, is blown away by the love — especially because she was nervous to even take on the role in the first place. “I was like, ‘Can I pull this off?’ It felt so removed from me, and I think that’s part of what drew me to her. I originally auditioned for Belly’s character, and when I didn’t get the role, the producers were nice enough to write a new character who wasn’t in the books. They asked me to come back and play her,” the 20-year-old exclusively tells GRAZIA USA.
To pump herself up, she told herself that the producers saw something in her. “Through this character, I found so much confidence within myself. I think so often I felt invisible, especially being Asian and in America. Then, I got to play the it girl, the pretty girl who turns heads, and I never thought she could look like me. Shayla taught me to be more confident because she knows who she is — and she’s competent in who she is, and she doesn’t try to change for anybody.”
When the brunette beauty first moved to America, she was bullied a lot, especially for her accent. As a result, Mills changed the way she spoke and started speaking in an American accent because she thought that would make her fit in better. When it came to auditioning for Shayla, she started off with an American accent, but they slowly “encouraged her to bring elements of myself into the character and bring myself into Shayla,” she says.
“She was a blank slate, and I got to help create this brand new person,” she says of Shayla, who is in a relationship with Bellie’s brother Steven Conklin (played by Sean Kaufman). “They were like, ‘You should use your natural accent. I think that would bring a brilliant layer to the character.’ And for the first time in my life, I got comfortable speaking the way I speak and not feeling judged for it. It’s had such an impact on me. I have gotten more comfortable in my identity, too. I learned a lot, including I can be whoever I want to be, and I don’t have to be in a box that I’ve always been put into.”
The U.K. native is also thrilled that she gets to change the industry by being part of a cast, which includes several Asian actors. “It means the absolute world,” she notes. “It’s something that’s always been very important to me when I knew I wanted to go into acting. I barely had any examples of anyone who looked like me on the screen. When I did see some of the actors, they were often in this box, and they looked a certain way and were insecure. I think Shayla really flips the script, and that’s why I was so grateful to be able to play an Asian character like her because she’s not looking for anyone’s approval.”
Mills believes it’s important to tell these stories, especially if someone is struggling with their identity and having trouble fitting in. “It’s refreshing to see a story about a girl having an idyllic summer and also see different types of Asian people on screen,” she says.
When the reviews came in, Mills still had to pinch herself, saying everything felt “so surreal.”
“I’m just grateful that people are relating to the show and that it means something to people,” she states. “That’s all you can hope for when you’re an actor — you put something out there that you love, and you hope it impacts somebody and somebody feels something when they watch it.”
Mills always wants to make sure that she did a good job of playing Shayla. “She’s such a beautiful person and a beautiful character and her and Steven’s story was so near and dear to my heart. I want people to love them,” she says.
The cast and crew are back to filming season 2, but Mills couldn’t divulge too much about what’s to come. “I love the relationship she has with Belly, and I think that’s very beautiful to see Asian women support each other and be there for each other. I hope we see that blossom, and I hope and her and Steven continue to be open and communicative with one another,” she gushes.
Not only does Mills love her character, but she also has a strong bond with the cast — and it’s a blast to get to work with people who are all around the same age. “I feel so lucky to have been able to enter this industry with these people at this point,” she admits. “I had never been to acting school, had any training and this was my first ever role. I felt like my castmates knew what they were doing, but they were nothing but kind and supportive. They taught me so much every day.”
She continues, “It’s such a crazy journey and to have my best friends along for the ride with me is amazing. I’m so grateful I met them through this project.”
In the meantime, Mills, who spent her early career as a model, has starred in dozens of fashion campaigns — from DVF to Nike to Tommy Hilfiger, and she’s interested in expanding her horizons even further.
“Fashion is such a fun way to express yourself,” she says. “I never explored that part of me before Shayla, and it was such a big part of my character — and part of me learned who she was.”
“In terms of acting, I fell more in love with acting through this project,” she concludes. “I would love to be able to do something where I can really represent my culture since being Korean is such a big part of my life and so important to me. I would love to showcase my culture and teach people about who I am.”