Josephine Langford Isn't The Next Bella Swan, But She's Ready For Everything After After
The Australian actress is set to break out in the movie adaptation of a fan fiction phenomenon, and she's curiously calm about everything that comes with that.
Josephine Langford is locked out of her hotel room. The actress has just wrapped three full days of interviews, TV appearances, and the Hollywood premiere of her new movie, After. It’s finally evening, and she’s been in heels all day. Now would have been a great time to relax and unwind. If she’s tired or stressed about the lockout, she doesn’t betray that over the phone. Instead, she tells me in a chipper tone that she’s just taken off her heels and is prepared to hang out in the hotel hallway, barefoot, to “pace and chat.”
After, out April 12, is based on the eponymous bestselling book series that started as One Direction fan fiction on Wattpad (the same fiction-focused internet community that begat another beloved teen romance, Netflix’s The Kissing Booth). The original version of After, which has racked up 542 million views as of this writing, includes a romantic lead named Harry Styles, and Harry’s pals Zayn, Liam, Louis, and Niall. But when the stories blew up and author Anna Todd, aka Imaginator1D on Wattpad, landed a multimillion-dollar book deal with Gallery books, legalities came into play. The dashing, brooding brit was renamed Hardin Scott (played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin in the film); Zayn became Zed Evans (Samuel Larsen).
A very vocal segment of the 1D fandom also took issue with Todd’s fictional portrayal of Styles as a jerk — one particularly zealous fan even started a change.org petition called “Do not produce glamorized fan fiction!” in protest. On the pro side are millions of fans, who’ve spent the weeks leading up to After’s release ensuring that #Hessa (the hashtag for the film’s OTP, Hardin and Tessa) really becomes a thing on Twitter.
And into the eye of this storm waltzed Langford to play Tessa, our heroine and Hardin’s object of affection.
“When I was first cast, Anna [Todd] and the producers let us know that this might be something big, because of the fan base,” Langford tells Refinery29. “I’ve had a year to mentally prepare for it.” She’s already met giddy, mostly supportive fans in person; one even told Langford she was “more Tessa than Tessa.”
The Australian actor was born and raised in Perth, but since landing a starring role opposite Ryan Phillippe in Wish Upon in 2017, she’s rarely in one place for long. In the past year, she says she’s only been home for a total of three days, which is the reason she’s finally decided to relocate to Los Angeles “soon,” though she notes that New York is more her speed.
It’s been an intense year for the 20-year-old, who watched her older sister, 13 Reasons Why star Katherine Langford, become a star overnight. But nothing could prepare the younger Langford for the ferociousness with which After fans approached her at a recent book signing in Madrid.
“The crowd was insane. The car was rocking back and forth; they had to form a human chain to get us into the book store because there were so many people there who were so excited,” she says. While this sounds like a claustrophobic nightmare to most people, Langford chuckles as she recounts the experience. “It was funny. I don’t think any of us have ever been in that situation before.”
Langford appears to be curiously calm about all of this. She says she’s not concerned that fans won’t like her rendition of Tessa. “I didn’t try, intentionally, to bring anything to her or to change her. I just did what was in the books was confident in what I was doing,” she says. Director Jenny Gage describes Langford to me as a “fierce feminist” with a soft spot for dad jokes. It was very important to the director that, like her portrayer, Tessa came off as confident and empowered, and not the cliche “good girl” (read: she’s smart! She loves books! She dresses conservatively, even at parties — which she rarely goes to! She doesn’t notice boys; they notice her!).
Truthfully, though, Tessa is the textbook image of a good girl: She wears a relatively high-cut, old-fashioned dress to her first college party — an event she immediately tries to escape. On the page and screen, Tessa is known for her intelligence (something her mother, played by Selma Blair, doesn’t want her to squander); she first warms to Hardin when she finds a worn copy of Wuthering Heights in his bedroom. But Tessa also tells Hardin when he’s being unbearable; stands up for herself when things start to feel off in their later relationship; and dictates her sexual boundaries and when she’s ready to push past them.
That last element, says Langford, is why she wanted to make After. “There’s something about girls’ sexual awakenings and telling their stories for the first time that just doesn’t get airtime,” she explains. And while the number of movies that address that pivotal moment of a young woman’s life is growing, it’s still not a wildly popular topic on the big screen. Langford views her sex scenes with pragmatism. “Going into it, never having done those scenes before, I was [thinking] is it going to be awkward and weird?” But it wasn’t. “It’s all very technical and choreographed, so that wasn’t an issue for me. I was surprisingly incredibly comfortable doing it.”
That changed when paparazzi arrived during a particularly vulnerable scene shot outdoors, at a lake, in which Hardin touches Tessa for the first time, but stops short of anything below the belt. “We’ve got time,” he whispers when it’s clear Tessa has reached her limit. It’s an intimate, highly erotic scene — not one that would be improved by the presence of gawking, sweaty men with high definition lenses zoomed in.
“You just have to do it,” Langford says. “But obviously, it was not 100% ideal.”
Accomplishing that scene with lurkers about is some feat, especially because Langford is ferociously discreet. “It’s important to have privacy and have a personal life. I’m trying to have boundaries,” she says. “I want to be myself and be honest, but I don’t have to feel a hundred percent uncomfortable and exposed and tell the world every detail of my life.”
The actor has a public Instagram, blue check mark and all, but she’ll often go months without posting anything, and says she would rather eat her food than post photos of it. “My brain has so many qualities that do not work with social media. I’m an overthinker, I’m overly private, and those two personality traits just do not work when it comes to Instagram,” she says with a laugh. Another ‘gram concern: She’d like to avoid inspiring any unwanted (and potentially false) narratives about her personal life. Take a few minutes to peruse the (thousands upon thousands) of comments on Langford’s Instagram photos, and you’ll find fans making all kinds of personal assumptions.
“No one I know [in real life] has ever asked me why I follow this person or why I don’t follow this person, because everyone knows it has absolutely no correlation to people who are important in my life,” she says. “I don’t even check my [Instagram] feed. It’s meaningless, is what I’m trying to say.”
When fans’ discussions about Langford’s relationship with her sister Katherine comes up, her cheery tone wavers a bit, and the volume of her voice dwindles. “I just don’t understand the internet sometimes. I think that rumors are crazy.”
The rumors she’s referring to concern a supposed “feud” between the Langford sisters, which started circulating when Katherine did a May 2018 interview with French magazine L’Officiel in which she is supposed to have stated that no one in her family was in the entertainment industry. From there, fans and gossip mongers have found “evidence” in the fact that neither sister appear to be friends on social media, and that they don’t name drop each other in interviews. Even the slightest comment about Katherine can become an entire headline for Langford.
“My friend sent me a video the other day, and we were laughing at it, because somebody had picked up like a little thing I had done in an interview, and they found what I did in multiple videos and stitched it together in a compilation,” she says, possibly referring to this YouTube clip in which a fan dissects and interprets Langford’s words about Katherine in After junket interviews. “I think when you have limited content of someone, and I’m definitely not helping that, you just sort of take little parts of what you know about a person, and you extrapolate it.”
Langford isn’t about to share the whole family history, but she doesn’t speak about her sister with veiled acrimony. She jokes that they as their fame rises, they could become like Elle and Dakota Fanning, and that if the stars aligned to find them in the same project, she’d be in “one hundred percent.” She does specify, however, that her acting career developed independently of Katherine’s.
“We both got into acting on our own, completely separately, with nothing to do with the other one. We both grew up in this family, with parents that weren’t particularly creative, and were both interested in creative things.”
Langford booked her first acting gig at 14, but until her big break in 2017’s horror flick Wish Upon, she hadn’t booked many gigs that she felt were significant. “I was in a play called Hood; I was an extra in Passion of the Christ; I did corporate videos, commercials, little university short films. Just anything that I could be a part of, really.”
Now her career is very possibly about to go through massive change. If After succeeds, Langford’s likely got at least four more films ahead of her — the After series is comprised of five books, with sequels titled After We Collided, After We Fell, After Ever After, and Before (a prequel with a few post-Ever After updates for #Hessa devotees). In fact, a representative for the studio confirms to Refinery29 that the studio is already in “discussions with the filmmakers” about sequels. And immediately after press for the film wraps, Langford says she’ll be back on the audition grind, with a few possibilities on the horizon.
“I’m just taking things day by day. I don’t really know what the response or reaction will be. It’s very possible that the film comes out, and I go back to anonymity,” she says. If things go well, however, Langford is hungry to play every role she can get her hands on, be it sci-fi, action, dark comedy (she’s a massive Ricky Gervais fan) or another romance. If she had to pick her ultimate dream role, though, it’d be something sinister.
“It would be fun to play a really good, complicated three-dimensional villain. There’s only a few villains, in my opinion, in the history of film that are really, really special; making a good villain is hard,” she says. “I am incredibly cynical, and I don’t think that’s something people would guess. People think I’m all positive, but I’m a skeptic.”
For the moment, as she awaits After’s reception, Langford can briefly enjoy her relative anonymity.
“Other than social media — if a friend posts a photo of me, and a 100 people will repost it and know where I am — [work] hasn’t changed my day-to-day life in any way, shape, or form,” she says, pausing as if working through a checklist in her mind. “I’ve never been recognized … it hasn’t affected me being able to go to the grocery store or anything.”
But those boundaries could disappear, and quickly. And if the early fan response to After is any indication, Langford’s at a tipping point — only, once again, she doesn’t seem to be worried.
At some point during our call, Langford silently made it back into her room, no longer doomed to roam the hotel halls barefoot.
“I tend not to worry about bigger things,” she says. “It should be the other way around, but it’s not.”