On the first day of shooting Past Lives—the film-festival breakout about a woman torn between the two loves of her life—its star Greta Lee was caught unprepared when a production assistant asked if she had a “set drink.” Lee had never heard of such a thing. “I’m like, ‘Do you mean over there?’ ” she remembers asking, and pointing in the direction of a craft services table. “I could feel my own panic, like, I’m not playing this part correctly. We’d just started filming, and I felt I had so much to prove.”
So Lee, a 20-year veteran of film, television, and the stage, did what any resourceful person would when struck by the bolt of impostor syndrome. “I went to my trailer, shut the door, and googled ‘Brie Larson, Marvel, set drink.’ Then I came back and told them it’s this energy seltzer water,” she recalls. “They bought me, like, 30 cases of this water that I never want to see again. It’s so activating, it changes your personality.”
Lee is telling me this story over noodles in LA’s Koreatown, at an unassuming strip mall eatery with laminated menus and plastic-covered chairs that she’s been coming to for years. It’s not the sort of place where you’d regularly find Hollywood actors at the top of the call sheet, but it feels like home to the native Angeleno, precisely because of its modesty, as well as its proximity to her father’s medical clinic across the street, and the church she attended as a child. It’s about a week before her 40th birthday, a milestone for which Lee’s been ready for the last three and a half years.
Why three and a half? “I did an interview with The New York Times years ago that misquoted my birthday. Because of that it was impossible to reset my Wikipedia. It was a mess. So I’ve been 40 for the last three and a half years.” About her actual big day, Lee says, “I feel good. I want to not seem so young to people. I find it tiring.”
A plate of tteok-bokki, or spicy rice cakes, arrives at our table—on the house. In fluent Korean, Lee orders the rest of our meal: knife-cut noodles, beef bulgogi, and doenjang jjigae, a fermented soybean paste soup. (The tubular rice cakes in a bright red sauce are a “palate cleanser” that cleanses, she remarks gleefully, “by blowing your palate out.”) Though K-Town served as one of the principal backdrops of Lee’s youth—between church, singing with the Opera California Youth Choir, and loitering with would-be Korean gangsters at the local malls—she now lives a world away in eastside El Sereno with her husband, comedy writer Russ Armstrong, and their two children, ages three and six. The hilltop property they’ve called home since leaving Brooklyn in 2020 after Lee was cast on The Morning Show was once a goat farm; now the family of four raises three chickens who are given free range unless hawks or coyotes are circling nearby. Lee’s Fair Isle sweater, mom jeans, and chunky boots, a uniform disrupted only by the red-tipped manicure left over from her recent Berlinale appearance, is more a reflection of her daily life—mulching this morning!—than her nascent status as a movie star.
Past Lives made its triumphant debut at Sundance in January, garnering predictions that first-time director Celine Song’s romantic drama would rank as one of the best films of the year. It’s a stirring tale of love, fate, and what-might-have-been, with Lee anchoring the story as Nora, an ambitious New York playwright reconciling her feelings for her Korean childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung, with the commitment she has to Arthur, her American novelist husband. Audiences familiar with Lee’s most memorable characters—Marnie’s art world frenemy Soojin from Girls, Russian Doll’s free spirit Maxine, and shrewd wunderkind Stella Bak in The Morning Show—may be shocked by who they encounter in this film.
“Nora’s the fullest sketch of a person that I’ve gotten to play,” says Lee, whose career ideal when she graduated Northwestern was Vanessa Redgrave, because that’s who she thought a “serious actor” should look up to. “I’ve loved and am so proud of the people I’ve played in the past, but I’ve been hiding in plain sight, using language, costume, and makeup choices to reflect certain things.” To her point, Russian Doll’s star and creator Natasha Lyonne describes Lee’s Maxine as a “throwback Buñuel or Fellini surrealist figure brought to life because of the utter originality in Greta’s presence and delivery.” Lee’s cultivated a fan base for such highly stylised supporting roles, but “Past Lives is completely free of that,” she says. “And that’s what felt scary. It required a vulnerability that was so excruciatingly uncomfortable.”
She credits Song, along with costars Teo Yoo and John Magaro, with guiding her away from what she had been conditioned to think of as acting. “Coming from comedy, I had my reflexes of filling space, because we’re always writing on our feet,” explains Lee, who’s shown she can hold her own alongside the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jennifer Aniston. “I remember Celine telling me, ‘What are you doing? Don’t talk.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, wouldn’t they talk in this scene?’ And she’d say, ‘No. Just sit there.’ We had these days shooting where I was just looking out the window.”
Song, a Korean Canadian playwright who received her MFA from Columbia and drew from her own experience to write Past Lives—though she hesitates to call the film autobiographical—laughs gustily when I relay Lee’s account of her direction. “I don’t think I ever said ‘Don’t talk!’ But she had to be the center of gravity, and we had a constant conversation about how to represent that. Like, how do you become this character that is so—” Song pauses. “Steady. Steady’s the right word.”
Greta Jiehan Lee was born in Los Angeles in 1983, the same year the Korean War ended in American living rooms when the last episode of MASH, a special two-and-a-half-hour event, aired to over 120 million viewers. Although the war dramedy about a surgical unit stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea, featured several Asian characters across its 11-season, 256-episode run, less than a handful were of Korean descent.
The real Korean War had a much greater impact on the Lees. “My dad’s family were ranchers who fled down to the US base [in Busan] during the war. My grandfather, Yang Ki Lee, couldn’t serve because he had polio and a bad leg, but he was a painter, so he painted billboards for the movies they showed to the soldiers, like Gone With the Wind,” she says, ladling our kalguksu noodles into individual bowls. “I got the name Greta because of Greta Garbo. He introduced me to all the greats: Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Liz Taylor, Montgomery Clift.” (Later, her mother, Jane Min Ja Lee, née Kim, a classically trained pianist, will contradict this story to Lee via text, maintaining the name Greta was her idea.)
Lee’s grandparents and parents picked up stakes in the 1970s, immigrating to Los Angeles and settling in La Cañada Flintridge, an affluent LA suburb. Greta’s father, Peter Chong Kol Lee, established his pain clinic further south in Koreatown because of his medical school connections there. Meanwhile Lee, along with her younger sister and brother, were enrolled in private schools known for their academic rigour on the Westside, which guaranteed a daily commute of two hours, round trip. The constant travel between siloed communities scattered across LA’s sprawl was a perpetual unrooting—“The only place where I felt like I could just be myself was the car,” she recalls—but it also gave Lee, who was singing and dancing competitively from an early age, the foundation for her future.
“Immigrants live this life of studying behavior and their surroundings. It’s a matter of survival,” she says. “Like when you go to a friend’s house, in Sherman Oaks”—a well-to-do “family neighbourhood,” as real estate agents would say, in the San Fernando Valley—“and you’re having dinner. And you think, Oh, so now we all sit down together, and your mother’s going to speak to your father like this. And you guys are now going to talk about a topic and it’s going to go like this. Down to how everyone’s eating their food and existing together. Acting is just that. It’s living amongst people. And using the truth you’ve witnessed to tell whatever’s necessary for the story.”
“I didn’t want to conform to the Westside look, with everyone in their Fred Segal and Uggs. I started wearing huge platform high heels with really skinny trousers that covered the shoe, because that was how the Koreatown girls were dressing.”
Fashion was often the balm for Lee’s feelings of alienation growing up. “I remember starting a day off wearing my baggy UFO cargos, these scratch-and-sniff pants, to meet friends at Koreatown Plaza,” she says. “Then changing in the car to get dressed up for the b’nai mitzvah of the Katzenberg twins at the Beverly Hills Hotel. With my mom witnessing all of this thinking, You are a psychopath. But that was just normal to me.” Normal until Lee began to shed her desire to fit in.
“In eighth or ninth grade,” she recounts, referring to her years at the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School, “I didn’t want to conform to the Westside look, with everyone in their Fred Segal and Uggs. I started wearing huge platform high heels with really skinny trousers that covered the shoe, because that was how the Koreatown girls were dressing. And the lipstick with a brown liner. I had a history teacher—she was actually Korean—who really wanted to put me in my place. So she took out a ruler one day and measured my shoes. She was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re wearing four-inch heels to this…place of academia?’ ” (Although Harvard-Westlake has a history of producing famous acting alumni, from Jamie Lee Curtis to the Gyllenhaals, Lee was never cast in a single play during her tenure.)
Lee’s refusal, in her words, to “make sense” within her environment, sartorially and otherwise, persists to this day. When she’s not home mulching or herding chickens, she favours labels like Loewe, Sandy Liang, Kwaidan Editions, and Khaite—cerebral, with a little bit of kook. “I like to dress in a way that feels like some sort of rebellion,” she says. “For my first Emmys, I wore this iridescent green, two-piece Christopher John Rogers. It was this big fluffy taffeta thing, but it was all about the pockets. Even if the silhouette is feminine, it needs to feel sporty. It’s important how my body feels in it.” A modern dancer in high school, Lee still attends weekly classes with the same self-deprecating daring she brings to her work. “It’s pretty humiliating. I was so serious about it growing up, and now, with my nonprofessional body, it’s, like, a humiliating act that I find I get a lot out of. I just put myself out there.” She’s also learning how to arrange flowers, and will venture now and then to the downtown Flower District with her mother, who is trained in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging that contemplates flora in sculptural terms.
The Morning Show executive producer and director Mimi Leder has seen firsthand the dividends of Lee’s willingness to keep learning and push forward. “Our show has a lot of dialogue,” says Leder, referencing the Apple TV+ drama’s talky, Sorkin-esque DNA, which just wrapped filming its third season. “The most fascinating thing about Greta, with her character Stella Bak, is what she manages to discover between the words. She can do so much with words, but for me, it’s about what’s in-between.”
As a child of immigrants and a woman of colour—an outsider whose mastery of languages and cultures didn’t necessarily yield a sense of belonging within them—Lee has a lifetime of experience occupying the in-between. While she’s fielding new scripts, she’s also developing her own projects. The first is a New York Times Magazine story that Lee and her husband optioned about the followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, also known as the Moonies, and their little-known but significant impact on American sushi. The other project is an adaptation-to-series of poet Cathy Park Hong’s award-winning memoir, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, a brutally honest exploration of identity.
“My daily struggle, creatively, when I write about a woman who is Asian American is being told, ‘I don’t understand. There’s not enough here. So she’s just—living her life?’ ” Lee laments. “And then every time I turn on the TV, it’s another man living his life. There’s a full show about it. There’s a full movie about it.”
With the dominance of Everything Everywhere All at Once this awards season, Lee is cautiously optimistic that there’s still room in Hollywood for narratives centred around Asian and Asian American characters. The critical reception to Past Lives, which has largely treated the film as a universal story rather than an “Asian story,” is a promising start. “I’ve always wanted connection. To make a connection across differences,” she says.
Before we leave, she has the restaurant pack up our leftovers for her parents. “They would be furious at me if I just left this here,” she says, and I laugh knowingly. Wasting food is a cardinal sin among Asian parents of a certain generation. After a quick stop across the street at her father’s clinic to see them, Lee will get back in the car, where she felt most at home as a child, and head into another world—the Loewe boutique on Rodeo Drive to get fitted for Paris Fashion Week—holding steady as she goes.
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.