How author John Green helped shape Hulu's Looking for Alaska adaptation
Adapting a book as beloved as Looking for Alaska is no simple feat. But thanks to author John Green being involved in Hulu’s upcoming adaptation every step of the way — while still allowing the cast and showrunners to make it their own — fans of the 2005 YA novel can rest easy knowing the show has the original artist’s stamp of approval.
In fact, Green was on set during production of the eight-episode limited series earlier this year, watching young actors Charlie Plummer and Kristine Froseth bring Miles “Pudge” Halter and Alaska Young to life. And since the characters and story are so personal to Green — Looking for Alaska is based on his own high school experience — knowing that Green was watching them film was “f—ing terrifying,” Plummer tells EW with a laugh.
“I remember he was there for our first day of shooting and I was already just so terrified to start,” Plummer adds, as Froseth laughs next to him. But he’s quick to note that they spent a lot of time with Green before filming began to pick his brain about their characters. “Before we began the shoot, we were so fortunate to get to go to the school that he attended in high school,” he says. “He shared so much of himself and his life with us. It became so clear how important this story is to him and was for his career, but also just in his life.”
Plummer is impressed by how Green was able to give so much of himself not only in the book, but also to the Hulu adaptation. “He wrote the book obviously for readers, but now for us as actors, having people embody them was somewhat of a therapeutic thing for him,” he says. “But it was really terrifying for me. I’ve never cared more about a story that I’ve gotten to be a part of, and then to have the guy responsible for that just be watching you attempt to do that is pretty surreal.”
Froseth is so grateful for how often Green came to set, sharing his stories and even music that reminded him of being in high school. “It was really lovely having him as such a helpful creative force,” she tells EW. “He was always really supportive and gave us so much freedom and trust. He really blessed us by telling us, ‘These are your characters now,’ and it was really powerful.”
“And he really meant that,” Plummer adds.
For Jay Lee, who plays Miles and Alaska’s friend Takumi Hikohito, he’ll always remember a pivotal conversation he had with Green at the start of production. “We went out to dinner with him the first night of shooting and he was telling us stories about growing up and being at his boarding school,” Lee recalls. “He and I had a conversation about the person that he knew who Takumi was based on. He was incredibly trusting to say, ‘This is what I remember of him, and this is what went into the book and how it was fictionalized to a degree, and now I’m passing it off to you. I want you to be able to take this and run with it how you see fit to tell this story.’”
Lee breaks into a huge smile and throws out his hands in a shrug. “That’s an amazing, incredible, unbelievable experience to have the original artist tell you that!” he says with a laugh. “To have that collaborative spirit with John was a huge honor. You’d think that would be a traumatizing experience having him watch you bring these characters who mean such a real thing to him to life, but it really wasn’t. He’s the most casual, laid-back person you’ll ever meet. He’s a father, and he takes on that father role with everybody.”
Rounding out the core four of Looking for Alaska’s main friend group is Denny Love, who plays Chip “Colonel” Martin. And like his castmates, he credits Green’s words with helping him find the confidence he needed to take on such an important role.
“Once I got confirmation from John, once we spoke and he let me know that I was how he envisioned the Colonel to be, that was everything,” he says. “Then it became just not getting in my own way, trusting the process, and trusting that I understood the character the way when I read the book the first time. I just trusted my instincts. It was a very easy process once I trusted myself.”
However, Love did have a hiccup on his first day of filming. “Day one was the toughest day because it was overwhelming,” he admits. “It was the first time I had been on set, met the crew, a lot of the cast. And the first day we came to set, John was there. Having to say these words for the first time in front of John on set for the first time, it was all so overwhelming. It was insane.”
One of the first scenes Love had to film was when the Colonel and Miles meet for the first time and move into their shared dorm room at Culver Creek Prep. “I remember I had to write the word ‘coffee table’ on this trunk [with duct tape],” Love says. “I was so nervous that I spelled ‘t-a-b-e-l’ instead of ‘table.’ It was so mentally overwhelming, but the Colonel couldn’t be overwhelmed. So having to detach myself from my own emotions and just fall into the Colonel’s shoes, that was so tough on that first day. But once I got those jitters out and fell into the world, then everything just got fun.”
And yes, Green “definitely” saw Love make that mistake with the coffee table, which Froseth and Plummer can’t stop laughing about. “It was in front of everybody. I laughed a lot,” Plummer says, smiling. “Because Denny, he’s a very confident gentleman, very charismatic, I loved seeing him freeze up. That brings me great joy.”
Love shakes his head. “But [Green] was very gracious about staying out of the way,” he says. “He didn’t want us to feel any kind of nerves or pressures, so he was just like a shadow. But it wasn’t fun, it was terrifying. Once I got that out the way, it can’t get no worse! I just spelled ‘tabel’ in front of John Green, so at that point, I was like, ‘We’ll be okay. We’ll be fine.’”
While Love got his jitters out of the way on his first day, Froseth and Plummer each had their nerve-wracking moments later in production.
“The scene when Alaska and Miles are having their first connection at the smoking hole is an incredible scene, and I was so nervous,” Froseth says. “I just love how the connection is so real in that moment and how vulnerable we both were. It’s such an important scene in the book, too. I remember reading it and being so worried about putting it on the screen.”
“And there’s a scene in the fourth episode where Miles is telling Alaska, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I want to be with you,’” Plummer adds. “That was a really beautiful scene to shoot. We were just so fortunate, it was such a beautiful location, the crew was so supportive and loving and cared so much about the story and us.”
But Froseth never stopped thinking about how “there are a lot of expectations and opinions that people put out there” about an adaptation of a book that’s been around for 15 years, especially one that’s been in development for more than a decade (initially as a movie before becoming a limited series).
“There are so many people who care so deeply and have a connection to this story and these characters,” Plummer says. “Being able to keep that in mind and really fight for that but at the same time let it be our own thing, we were just really lucky that John was so supportive of that from day one. It could have so easily been a different situation, but he has been there every step of the way and given his blessing with everything and that has meant so much doing this.”
And for any fans of Green’s book who are worried about a TV show somehow ruining something so beloved, Love is quick to assuage those fears.
“When you read the book, you see it in your head first, and I truly feel like what people saw in their heads when they read this book is what they’re going to see on screen,” Love says. “When we even went to the campus for the first time, John Green said the campus we shot the show on looked more like his school did back then than his actual school does now after 15 years of renovations. Everything is there — we even got the swan.”
All eight episodes of Looking for Alaska begin streaming Friday, Oct. 18, on Hulu.