Greta Lee Became A Star By Not Giving Her All In ‘Past Lives’

By Robert Ito
New York Times
Greta Lee in Glendale, California. Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

She’s known for playing offbeat characters in Russian Doll, High Maintenance and Girls, but Greta Lee is winning raves for her restrained performance in Past Lives, screening soon at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival.

Greta Lee shines at playing the entrancing oddball, the scene-stealing weirdo you can’t take

Over the years, the actress has channelled Soojin, an entitled, self-absorbed gallerist who thinks she’s poor but isn’t (Girls); Hae Won, a nail salon technician who can party with the best of them, in this case, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (Sisters); and Maxine, the free spirit on Russian Doll caught in an inescapable time loop with her best friend, played by Natasha Lyonne.

What Lee hasn’t gotten to play much are characters who are, to use her word, restrained.

For many actors, restraint is not necessarily something to strive for. “A lot of times, as performers, we’re fighting this unspoken desire to show you can do something,” she said. “To show that you understand the assignment.”

Audiences will get to see a bit more restraint and a lot more of what Lee can do in the A24 drama Past Lives.

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

After years of making the most of small parts, the actress’s talents have long been there to see for anyone with eyeballs, whether she was performing on Broadway (briefly) or in some of TV’s most groundbreaking comedies. All that was needed for Lee to move up was the right role in this case, her first leading role, one that almost didn’t come her way.

In Past Lives, she plays Nora, a Korean Canadian playwright who reunites with the childhood sweetheart she left behind in Seoul when her family immigrated 24 years before. The film also stars Teo Yoo (Love to Hate You) as Hae Sung, the man who still wonders what might have been, and John Magaro (Not Fade Away), as Nora’s husband Arthur, a writer forced to wonder what might have been, too, when Hae Sung comes to New York for a short but affecting visit.

In many ways, Nora is about as far from Lee’s roster of scene-stealing roles as you can imagine: measured and still rather than riotous or offbeat; the humour, when it comes, wry. It’s a breakthrough performance in a film that has already earned rave reviews (The Times described it as “a gorgeous, glowing, aching thing”) after it premiered at Sundance and played the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. The Los Angeles Times called her turn a “career-making performance,” while The Hollywood Reporter singled out the “extraordinary depths” of her portrayal of Nora.

“I’ve played a lot of larger-than-life people,” Lee said. “This is entirely different. I was really attracted to what that could be, and whether or not I could pull it off.”

The role almost eluded Lee, an experience she related one afternoon in a coffee shop in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “I felt absolutely certain that it was not going to go my way,” she recalled.

If Nora is nothing like many of Lee’s previous party-girl characters, neither is Lee herself. She’s a mother, for starters, of two young boys with her husband, Russ Armstrong. On set, “Greta is like a Hunter S. Thompson-meets-Fellini character,” Natasha Lyonne said in an interview. “She’s a total original.”

And while Lee’s characters can seem infinitely too cool to be seen with you or your friends, she herself isn’t above getting excited about all sorts of things, including how kind and receptive everyone has been about this latest movie of hers. “I’m going to show you,” she said, pulling out her cellphone. She played a tiny clip she had shot on her phone of the blocks-long line at a recent screening of Past Lives. “It keeps going! Still going. Still going. Isn’t this completely wild?”

Lee, now 40, was born in Los Angeles and spent most of her childhood here. The daughter of Korean immigrants and the oldest of three, she experienced much of her early life as a series of firsts.

“I was the first kid to be an American citizen in the family, the first to go to school here, just navigating all these things,” she said. “I always had a burning fire to prove something, either to myself, or to whatever authority figure there was in my life.”

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Growing up, she loved sports (”there are Olympic wrestlers on my dad’s side”) and musical performance. She played the piano, studied opera, sang Liza Minnelli numbers at the local mall, took modern-dance classes, competed in classical music festivals (and won). “I know a lot of Italian arias and German art songs,” she said.

After high school, Lee attended Northwestern University in the hopes of going into musical theatre. “Back then it was Miss Saigon, South Pacific, The King and I,” she said. “It’s kind of sad to think about now. It was so limited in what it could be. But it was still enough for me to feel like there was something here that I deeply want to be a part of.”

For a time, she hustled for any type of role or gig. “I was meeting rejection and obstacles, and I remember feeling constantly like I was falling behind,” she said, recalling the five-year stretch when she booked just a few TV episodes. Still, all that auditioning paid off.

In 2010, Lee found herself on Broadway in a revival of La Bête, a comedy in iambic pentameter set in the 17th century and starring David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley.

Even then, she was multitasking. “I would do that play, and then change out of my corset and walk around the corner to MTV’s ‘TRL’ studios, where I was a VJ.” Supporting parts in celebrated series like High Maintenance, Girls and Inside Amy Schumer followed.

In 2019, Lee landed regular roles on the streaming series Russian Doll, which finished its second season last month, and The Morning Show, which has been renewed for a fourth season. Lee read the script for Past Lives the following year and was immediately captivated.

“It really stood out in terms of what a romantic drama could be,” she said. “It’s not a conventional love story or love triangle. And the woman at the centre of the story is really different from others I’ve seen in other films.”

Not long after that first read, “I got a phone call from an assistant, asking if I was available for an important meeting” at a restaurant in the Village, she said. “I assumed I had gotten the job!” But the assistant had the wrong number, and it turned out the message, unrelated to Past Lives, was for Greta Gerwig. In fact, Lee wasn’t even being considered for the part.

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

For months, Celine Song, the writer and director of Past Lives, had been looking at other Noras, other Hae Sungs. “They cast it with two other people,” Lee said. According to Song, the oversight had little to do with Lee herself. The film’s story is loosely based on the true-life reunion of Song, her American husband and her Korean school pal, which took place when the director was 29.

“When you’re young, you think that being 29 is so interesting and cool and meaningful,” Song said. “So I was trying to find somebody at 30, or even in their 20s, and Greta, of course, was in her late 30s.”

“It was really stupid,” Song admitted.

After Song came to her senses, she contacted Lee. A year had passed since Lee had first read the script, but she still remembered it: her soul-mate film, she called it. Could she meet with Song, via Zoom, that day? After a video audition that stretched on for 2 1/2 hours, with Lee reading key scenes as Song played the two male leads (”Celine makes an excellent Arthur and Hae Sung,” Lee said), Song offered Lee the part on the spot.

The film began shooting in summer 2021. To help the actors convey the feeling of being reunited with someone after 24 years, when you’ve only communicated over Skype, Song kept Lee and Yoo apart as much as possible.

“She told us, you guys can’t touch,” Lee said.

For Yoo, “during the rehearsal process, the instinct is to say goodbye naturally, with a hug,” he said. “And Celine was like, no, no, no, you guys, no touching. ‘I’m allowed to touch and hug,’” she told them, but Yoo and Lee got shooed away when they tried. Song insisted that the actors were all in, and that she never had to scold them to keep them in line.

“Is that what they’re saying?” she asked, with a laugh. “No, no. I think they wanted to go along with the trick.”

Of course the actress balked, Lee said, at least at first. “I was like, we’re all professionals here, and there’s a question of, how much of this needs to be actualised? We’re acting. But I think we all wanted to support her vision of this, and I was also curious to see how this might affect the process.”

“It was really visceral, that first moment when we hug each other,” Yoo said. “So I was glad that we were able to capture that, and the audience gets to experience it.”

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Much of Past Lives was filmed in New York, as Nora shows Hae Sung around the city during a particularly dreary, rain-soaked week. The shoot was a reunion for the cast not with, say, a long-lost sweetheart, but with the city itself. Song and the three leads had all lived in New York when they were coming up. Lee and Yoo had spent years in the East Village as struggling actors: Yoo, above a pizza joint at the corner of Avenue A and St. Marks Place; Lee, above a Thai restaurant in a small apartment she shared with three other women.

“We were shooting on the actual streets I lived on in the East Village when I was just starting out as a young 20-something, really desperate for work and trying to make a living,” Lee said. “It’s embarrassing to put it this way, but I guess it did feel somewhat like destiny.”

In addition to Past Lives, Lee returns this fall as the network executive Stella Bak in the third season of The Morning Show. “I think people are really going to be excited about her arc on this season,” Lee said.

She’s also set to appear in Problemista, an A24 comedy written, directed and starring Julio Torres. Greta plays a painter unfairly maligned by an art critic (Tilda Swinton). The part is small, Torres said, but memorable. “Greta has a way of staying with you even when you haven’t seen a lot of her, which is a very powerful thing to have,” he said.

Right now, however, Lee’s focus is on Past Lives. All those other experiences she’s gone through, the stage work and revivals, the sketches and half-hour comedies, the TV dramas and voice actor work, she said, have all helped prepare her for this moment.

“I think the path I took, as an Asian American woman, was different from what is conventional,” she said. “Certain points in my life during this journey didn’t always make sense to other people. But it makes so much sense to me now.”

“I feel like I’ve been working really hard,” she added, “to make sure I was ready for the day when a role like Nora Moon would come my way.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Past Lives is available to watch at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, from July 19 to September 10, and is in cinemas from August 31. Tickets are on sale for the NZIFF from Tuesday July 4.

Written by: Robert Ito

Photographs by: Chantal Anderson


Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: