How does a Disney Channel actor go from 800,000 to 13.4 million Instagram followers in just a few weeks? Meet the new face of modern streaming stardom, where cultivating fans on social media is a path to longevity in Hollywood: "I moved across the country to become an actor, not an academic type. I know myself, I'm not gonna be a mathematician or a professor."
For the 25th year of The Hollywood Reporter's Next Gen issue, four of this year's brightest rising onscreen talents are featured on separate covers. They represent the unique and diverse paths that an actor can become a star in 2018, whether that's a rapper-turned-actress from an all-Asian box office hit (Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina), an overnight Netflix sensation (Noah Centineo), a counterculture indie icon who's the face of two franchises (Fantastic Beasts’ Ezra Miller, who also is DC Comics’ new Flash) or the breakout of Marvel's first black superhero movie (Black Panther’s Letitia Wright).
"The following is overnight," says Noah Centineo of his Instagram leap — from 800,000 to 13.4 million followers — within weeks of the Aug. 17 debut of Netflix's To All the Boys I've Loved Before. "The career is not," adds the 22-year-old, who left Florida as a high school sophomore ("If you move me to California," he told his parents, "I will be successful, I promise you") and toiled in the Disney Channel trenches before his rom-com breakout.
Centineo's mop of brown curls is damp from his THR photo shoot, which ended with him underwater in the pool (his idea), still wearing his jeans and white T-shirt. He knows how to get the shot his followers want.
Those Instagram statistics came from Netflix's Oct. 16 earnings report, by the way. The streamer won't release one digit of audience data about Boys, but — like Centineo — it's well aware that social spikes can generate outsize buzz. In its quarterly letter to shareholders, the company included a convenient chart that outlined the before-and-after effect that Netflix series and features had on the Instagram following of their younger stars, including the kids from Stranger Things and The Kissing Booth. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos also made a point of bringing up social media stats in the company's Q3 call, noting that stars like Centineo "went from being completely unknown to being global superstars in the span of a few weeks or a few months of this quarter alone."
To keep that following in growth mode (it's up to 15 million), Centineo packs his Instagram feed with soft-focus portraits of him lounging on a bed, half-clothed, holding flowers, interrupted by the occasional broad-grinned red carpet shot with Boys co-star Lana Condor. His Twitter banner is a single word — "feels" — and his tweets seduce with coy invitations like, "Let's fight your demons with mine." He's the internet's boyfriend (and ladies, he's single).
Scrolling through, Centineo's posts look like a seamless continuation of the woke boy-next-door performances that made him famous. But social media is not "an extension of performance," he insists. "Academy Award-winning actors would have millions of followers if it were." But are career doors opened by his newfound notoriety?
"It depends on the filmmaker," he says. "I don't think Gaspar Noe gives a shit. But did Disney care when they gave Jake Paul a show? Absolutely."
Centineo was already working as an actor and model (and drumming and playing soccer "at a competitive level") when he relocated to West Hollywood with his mom at 16, after turning a one-liner on Disney's Austin & Ally into a recurring role. He enrolled in a public high school, but "I was like, I've got a callback for Lab Rats" — another Disney series — "so I'm not going to go to History. I'm going to fuckin' meet the producer," he recalls with a laugh. "Truancy got involved." After realizing LAUSD did not align with his aspirations, he finished up his junior and senior years in an independent study program favored by child actors. "I moved across the country to become an actor, not an academic type," he says with a laugh. "I know myself, I'm not gonna be a mathematician or a professor."
He auditioned at an exhaustive pace, until he shot a pilot that put on the brakes: "I had this six-month contract that didn't allow me to audition for anything [else]," he recalls. "My purpose was just to act, and you take away someone's purpose and you kind of deteriorate them." He nearly threw in the towel. Then, at 18, he was cast on the Freeform drama The Fosters; Centineo could fill his 10-week hiatuses with whatever projects he wanted.
Along with Jackie Chan's directorial debut, The Diary, those projects included the teen romances that shot him to stardom. In early 2017, he filmed Black Label's Sierra Burgess Is a Loser — a gender-bent Cyrano tale that had its Netflix debut Aug. 30 — and that July he made Boys. Centineo's next step was a bold one: He fired nearly all of his team, sticking with lawyer Derek Kroger but leaving APA and Industry Entertainment for CAA and manager Nick Styne. He also, on his 21st birthday, dropped booze and other substances ("Fuckin' nothing, just coffee and water and juices").
A large portion of his past year has gone toward industry introductions. “I was taking two to three meetings every single day," he recalls. The meet-and-greets were reminiscent of an awkward first date. "I'm sitting down in a room with people who don't know me," he says. "They just were like, 'So, where you from?' And I was like, 'Fuckin' Florida, man. Where are you from?' " Centineo found himself in the limbo of having would-be successes in the can but nothing, as of yet, to show for his work. Eventually, he found his proposal: "Hi, I'm Noah. You don't know who I am [but] I have two films coming out. If you want to work together, I'd love to read a script. Let me know." Two Netflix films and 14 million followers later, those meetings are paying off.
Centineo recently reteamed with Boys production company Awesomeness for yet-to-be-released The Stand-In, which follows a teen raising money for college by acting as a "stand-in" boyfriend. "Yeah, I was hesitant, because that's all I have played," he says of yet another love-interest turn. His personal tastes lie outside of the YA realm and more in Coen brothers and Terrence Malick territory (Knight of Cups is a favorite). "Everything that I'm doing right now, everything that I have done or everything I have lined up are stepping stones. I'm not anywhere near where I want to be." Besides, as he often says, "I love love."
Centineo will be loving love again in Elizabeth Banks' 2019 Charlie's Angels remake at Sony, and he's booked his first lead in action love story Valet from Fauda director Assaf Bernstein. While Millie Bobby Brown has parlayed her Stranger Things heat into a big-screen role (May's Godzilla sequel), Centineo is arguably Netflix's first streaming-to-studio crossover from its less-sexy — up to now — film stable. "Abso-fuckin'-lutely," he says when this is pointed out. "I own that shit."
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.