By Thomas Floyd
Noah Centineo is meandering through the International Spy Museum on Tuesday afternoon in Washington DC when he eyes the tools of the espionage trade on display – a lipstick pistol, a poison umbrella, a fountain pen camera – with personal intrigue and professional indifference.
“Some of this is f****** dope,” the 26-year-old actor marvels while examining a deck of cards that doubled as an escape map for Allied prisoners during World War II.
Yet as Centineo discusses his starring role in the Netflix series “The Recruit” – a peppy spy thriller about a fledging CIA lawyer – he concedes such contraptions never had a place in the show’s more bureaucratic trappings.
“If we were trying to do ‘Bourne [Identity]’, it would have been sick to have all those gadgets and gizmos,” Centineo says. “But we’re just doing a show about a kid that wants to be a lawyer that gets thrown into the world of espionage, and I loved it for what it was.”
Nowadays, Centineo is more interested in making something new than drawing from the past.
Best known for playing sensitive jock Peter Kavinsky in Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” trilogy, the Florida native has reintroduced himself to audiences this year, following up his appearance as the quippy, supersized superhero Atom Smasher in “Black Adam” with the role of cocksure attorney Owen Hendricks in “The Recruit”, the first season of which recently debuted on Netflix.
Sporting a buzz cut, maroon sweater and clean Converse sneakers – a stark contrast from his often-dishevelled “Recruit” character – Centineo finds himself reflecting on the clout that the “To All the Boys” movies afforded him, as his Instagram following rocketed past 16 million users and scripts began to flood his inbox.
When it came to charting his career post-“To All the Boys”, following the final film’s release in February 2021, he was less interested in seeking out specific genres or collaborators than he was in keeping his mind open to the eclectic opportunities coming his way.
“It changed my life forever,” Centineo says of the young-adult rom-com series.
“I feel like I got lucky. It could have easily been another actor. I very easily could have been out of town for those auditions. I’m just incredibly grateful, because I went from auditioning hundreds of times a year and getting a yes once or twice a year, if that, to being able to read scripts and decide which ones I want to do. I certainly don’t take that lightly.”
In the case of “The Recruit”, Centineo’s involvement could very well be the reason for the show’s existence.
Inspired by “Vanity Fair” contributor Adam Ciralsky’s time in the CIA, the series was developed by “Castle” and “The Rookie” writer Alexi Hawley in collaboration with “The Bourne Identity” film-maker Doug Liman, an executive producer who directed the first two episodes.
But the show was still in need of a distributor when Hawley and his partners recruited Centineo.
“The reality is that attaching a star is sort of vital these days to get something made,” says Hawley, the series’s creator and showrunner.
“So before we even took it out to Netflix, we went after him, because how many 24-year-olds get something made? You can count them on one hand, probably.”
Centineo says he quickly connected with Owen’s tenacity and hunger, and the novelty of exploring the spy genre through the lens of an in-over-his-head lawyer.
After playing teen heartthrobs in such films as “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” and “The Perfect Date”, in addition to the “To All the Boys” movies, he embraced the opportunity to inhabit a young professional stumbling through adulthood.
“He’s definitely more mature,” Centineo says. “In ‘To All the Boys’, there was drama and there were really, really intense stakes, right?
“Because in high school, you fall in love and you feel like it’s the end of the world when something’s happening with a relationship. But this is just a different level.”
Although “The Recruit” derives much of its drama from interpersonal office dynamics and Capitol Hill politicking, the show also thrusts Centineo’s character into the field on a globe-trotting adventure involving a rogue CIA asset (played by Laura Haddock) and the protection of agency secrets.
Centineo says that even though he dislocated his arm four times while filming “Black Adam”, he threw himself into the stunt work on “The Recruit” with no less vigour. (“I literally pulled the stunt co-ordinator aside on the first episode and went, ‘Can you teach him half-speed?’” Hawley recalls.) The fact that he’s playing an office drone out of his element made those scenes all the more freeing.
“Owen doesn’t know what he’s doing," Centineo says. ”He’s not trained to be a spy. He’s not trained for war or fighting. So the fun part was being able to show up, learn the choreography and then kind of throw a grenade into it and look like an idiot.“
Hawley adds: “It's rare, sadly, to find leading actors who are willing to be the butt of the joke or fail or make mistakes or look stupid. I mean, there are plenty of people who would have demanded to be an action star, but it was very purposeful. The second that he becomes Jason Bourne, it’s a different show.”
While Centineo was the co-lead of the “To All the Boys” films and played a central character in the ensemble drama series “The Fosters”, “The Recruit” represented Centineo’s first crack at headlining a project of this scale.
When it came to setting the tone on set, as an executive producer and the first name on the call sheet, Centineo says he learned from the best: “Black Adam” star Dwayne Johnson.
“He was incredibly prepared – not just with his lines, but with everybody else’s lines, pretty much,” Centineo says.
“He is a dude that has so many different things going on every single day, so the fact that he was able to really sit down and be present with the people that engaged with him was wild.
“I think I tried to carry as much of that gracious professionality as I possibly could into 'The Recruit’.”
Peering ahead, Centineo says he’d love to play more “dope characters” who leave an impression in limited screen time, floating Brad Pitt’s supporting turn in “True Romance” as a prime example.
After helping get “The Recruit” off the ground and soaking up all he could on the show’s behind-the-scenes machinations, he’s also interested in using that intel to start his own projects from scratch.
“I still have not yet been able to fully build something from the ground up and be like, ‘This is my project – 100% me,” Centineo says.
“Who knows what that’s going to look like, when that day comes? I’m still building my repertoire and building my experience.”