IN THE SECOND episode of XO, Kitty, just as we’re growing familiar with the show’s chorus of mostly American and East Asian accents, a very familiar-sounding mouthful of drawn out vowels cuts through the air.
“Sorry, I’m just looking for the loo… I’m Professor Alex Finnerty, from Melbourne, in Australia. I’m a new teacher here this year.”
Professor Alex is talking to the show’s protagonist Kitty, who, unbeknownst to him, has just suffered a crippling episode of social suicide, having crashed through the desert table at her new school’s welcome party after discovering her boyfriend is dating someone else.
In her moment of despair, Kitty couldn’t care less about Alex from Melbourne. But as the plot of XO, Kitty thickens, the pair become unlikely friends. They are both searching for a piece of themselves, a journey that has landed them in Seoul, the vibrant backdrop to Netflix’s hottest new young adult drama.
“I swear, that’s exactly what someone from Melbourne would say,” laughs the Korean-Australia actor Peter Thurnwald, who plays Alex the teacher. “Like, ‘I’m specifically from Melbourne. Not Sydney — Melbourne.”
Thurnwald was raised on the Gold Coast, a stone’s throw from the location of his Esquire photoshoot, which saw the actor inhabit an entirely different character inside Cabarita Beach’s Halcyon House Hotel. But like all Australians, he’s got a handle on the social dynamics and stereotypes that define various towns and cities, and the people who call them home — hence his friendly skewering of Melburnians. On the day of our conversation, however, he’s in Brisbane, where he bases himself when he’s not on set. “I’m heading up to Far North Queensland in a few days to shoot a proof of concept for a film I’m producing,” he says. “It’s like an Australian psychological thriller, basically. But I can’t share too many more details just now.”
Since XO, Kitty aired, Thurnwald has gone from a relatively unknown emerging Australian actor — his first TV role was on acclaimed Stan series Bump — to an actor who regularly receives admiring DMs from his 334k strong (and expanding) Instagram following.
The success of XO, Kitty is no real surprise. The series is a spinoff of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the Netflix romcom that gifted us Noah Centineo, who played high school jock Peter Kavinsky — a dude whose golden complexion, floppy hair and implausibly big heart was responsible for a circa-2018 spike in unrealistic romantic expectations among regular highschool girls everywhere.
This particularly cheesy, feel-good genre of young adult drama is something Netflix executes very well. XO, Kitty doesn’t skimp on the cheese factor, and it’s full of feel-good moments that err on the edge of so-cute-it’s-cringeworthy. But beneath the selfies and internet puns, there are multiple heartfelt storylines at play. Thurnwald’s character Alex is at the centre of one of them, and his plight is one that the 26-year-old actor understands well.
“Alex is adopted, and he goes to Korea in search of his birth parents. He finds himself teaching at the [fictional] Korean Independent School, where his adoptive father is also teaching, and he later learns that his adoptive mother is there too,” Thurnwald explains.
“I think before I joined the cast, there was already an adopted Korean teacher who comes to the school in the script, but he was originally from America. When I was cast as a series regular, they were able to incorporate [Alex] into the story more, I think because I gave them confidence that this is the direction the character should go in… because I’m also Korean, and I’m adopted in real life, too.”
Getting into character was challenging in some ways and easy in others, he says. “It was more difficult than I thought it would be emotionally, but it wasn’t as difficult to prepare for the character, because his experience mirrored so much of mine,” he adds. “It was about picking the areas which I felt suited Alex’s character the most, and that were also safe for me, because I’m not really trying to push open any wounds.”
Thurnwald doesn’t know his birth parents, and before travelling to Seoul to film XO, Kitty, he’d only visited Korea briefly once or twice before. Even though he’s “not losing sleep over not knowing” — something he puts down to his loving upbringing on the Gold Coast with his adoptive parents and sister, who is also Korean-Australian — when it comes to his birth family, he can sympathise with the longing and motivation behind Alex’s search.
“I know what it’s like to have that kind of gap in your soul of just not knowing — it’s the ‘what if’ moment,” says Thurnwald. “And, yeah… when I went back to Korea for XO, Kitty, it was this totally new experience for me of being on the plane flying over Seoul, looking down and being like, ‘this could have been my life, like, this could have been where I was living’. It was a really great moment of observation, and also of gratitude, for what I have back in Australia.”
XO, Kitty was renewed for a second season less than a month after it premiered, which is record timing, even for Netflix. Thurnwald isn’t sure where the next series will be set, but he knows Alex will play a part in it, and he’s excited to get back on set with the rest of the XO, Kitty gang, each of whom have experienced a similarly meteoric rise to fame.
“It was very overwhelming at the beginning — I never set out to get a whole bunch of followers on Instagram or TikTok… But no one just gets that following overnight. It’s taken years of hard work to get there. For me, it’s just the product of the acting I’ve been doing for the past seven or so years.”
“After I graduated from WAAPA (Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts) I was so convinced that for like five or 10 years, I’d be working as a barista in Sydney coffee shops. Then six months later, I booked Bump. Ever since then I’ve just kept booking roles, which, for me, is a surprise. It shouldn’t be a surprise because I feel like I work really hard for it, but there’s this illusion of like, ‘oh, you’re gonna be an actor, but you’re never going to book a role’.”
He says if anything, the bigger platform provides him with another avenue through which to express himself to the world.
“Now I have a place to go further into the things that make me me. I don’t want to think of it any other way, really, because as soon as you do it can start to crumble on itself.”
So, what makes Peter Thurnwald Peter Thurnwald? Asides from acting, the actor plays a lot of golf and makes music in his spare time. He’s also big into fashion. “I’ve always secretly liked fashion… I really enjoy clothes and I’ve always had strong opinions about it,” he says with a grin. “I also just love everything to do with film. And I’m really passionate about acting, producing, directing and making work in Australia. Especially as an East-Asian person, because there’s just not a lot of content that comes out about us.”
This isn’t to say the actor hasn’t felt the pull of Hollywood. “I think an element of myself wants to go there, because I love stories, and that’s where the big stuff is. But in terms of longevity… perhaps not. L.A. is a different beast. I love it, but it can be exhausting.
“So, short answer is yes, long answer is no,” he concludes with a thoughtful smile.
Wherever he goes, we have an inkling the world will be watching on.
Photographed on location at Halcyon House, Cabarita Beach.
See more of Esquire Australia’s style coverage here.