Greta Lee Has Been Waiting For A Film Like Past Lives
Nylon/A24; Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb


Greta Lee Has Been Waiting For A Film Like Past Lives

Past Lives star Greta Lee talks to NYLON about working with Celine Song, her love for Asian cinema, and more.

by Elissa Suh

There’s a bit of contention as to how Greta Lee got her name. Her grandfather may have chosen it as an homage to the classic Hollywood actress Greta Garbo, or her mom may have plucked it from a name book, drawn to its meaning: “star.” It actually translates to “pearl,” but the name is fitting either way: the Korean-American actress seems to have been destined for stardom, and it took quite a journey to arrive.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lee has been a performer since birth, singing in the mall, constantly putting on shows, and eventually studying theater at Northwestern University. “I was a total ham,” she tells NYLON. Over the years, Lee has established herself with acutely memorable parts in well-known TV comedies (Girls, Russian Doll, and High Maintenance), often imbuing her characters with a stylish irony, whether through a well-timed barb or a perfectly delivered line that embeds itself in in the cultural zeitgeist. Her comedic chops have never been in question, but a new starring role in Past Lives affords her ample canvas to unleash the full spectrum of her thespian prowess, another side of her we haven’t seen before.

Spanning decades, the film (written and directed by the playwright Celine Song in her filmmaking debut) centers on Nora (Lee), a writer living in Manhattan who reconnects with a childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) who she hasn’t seen since emigrating from Korea. Their reunion is the source of the film's emotional drama, creating a gentle but indisputable wrinkle in the fabric of Nora’s comfortable life with her husband Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer. During the production of the movie, Lee was asked to keep her relationships with each actor separate, “which was crazy-making for me, but appropriate for Nora.”

The plot is familiar to anyone who's had a relationship cut short from circumstances beyond their control, and the wistful disorientation and what-ifs it inspires (Before Sunrise comes to mind). But the sensation of loss and regret is also intertwined with the question of identity, which may have particular resonance with immigrants, and others who leave behind their homes. It’s difficult to watch someone thinking, but Lee naturally conveys the inner conflicted with a combination of soulfulness and intellectual rigor.

Lee has been waiting to act in a movie like this, which was also shot on film — a symbolic encapsulation of how far she’s come. “As an Asian American who’s had challenges in navigating lack of opportunities, the experience of being captured on film in this granular, physical way — is kind of like the book.”

Ahead, Lee talks about preparing for the film, her adaptation of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, and the science fiction of it all.

As a Korean-American woman going into watching Past Lives, I felt like there was a lot riding on it because we don't get a lot of movies like this. What was your reaction when you first saw it?

I saw an early cut of it before some of the music was finished, before it was completely edited. It wasn't in a movie theater, it was at home, but I felt everything. I felt overjoyed and terrified, kind of like what you were saying about going to see the movie yourself — that reflects how I felt. We were really betting on telling a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way, and seeing it was totally surreal.

The film is deliberately paced, with a lot of silence and very intentional stillness, but your transition from comedy to drama felt pretty seamless to me.

As actors, it's kind of hard to distill exactly the difference in our approach in terms of different genres and tones. It's always just whatever's necessary in service of the story. I think from the jump, it was clear what this was going to require, and that it would be a challenge to authentically convey the right kind of restraint. A lot of times with acting, you have to fight this resistance to show that you understand, and push and give a lot. It's almost like it's engineered that way. This was all about being still, and those moments of quiet, and really having nowhere to hide.

I've wanted to be in this space for so long, to do something that is more naturalistic, that kind of performance and story. But there's a big part of me that feels like it's the same: I approach comedy and drama exactly the same, because life is funny and tragic. Every moment is and can be the full spectrum of all of these different things. I think we see that more in foreign films and in Asian cinema. Korean cinema, for example, has always been able to hold all of those different tones together — look at Bong Joon-⁠ho's work, incredibly dark and also incredibly funny. And now after a movie like this, I'm excited to see that there will be more space to have all of those things together.

Taking a step back: I read that your first thoughts after reading the script was “Who is this person and how dare she do this?” It took me a second to realize that reaction was to Celine and not to Nora, right?

It was Celine. I was totally floored by this person, the specificity of her voice, and the daring it takes to tell a love story like this, in a way that’s completely free of melodrama or nudity or sexuality or spectacle. Instead, what emerges is this precious gem that’s really intimate and small and simple — yet totally massive in scale, epic, and really universal. That word gets overused but truly she pulled it off, and how? She made this bespoke concept of in-yun relatable, instantly, to anyone who's lived a life, who’s loved, or been loved. Reading the script, I felt aghast at her ability to do that in an unburdened way. It’s so clear she’s not driven by checking off lists or trying to explain something or herself to a white audience. It was all in service of the story she wanted to tell in this exquisite way. “How did they do this? Where have they been all my life?” is how I felt reading it.

In terms of this being a love story, Nora is ambitious but conflicted romantically, which is kind of common for the average romantic comedy heroine, though she’s definitely more thoughtful and less spacey than most. How would you describe your character and her circumstances?

I would actually argue she does know what she wants. To your point though, we do so often sees a woman at the center of a story like this: a love triangle, a woman who is lost and grasping at what she wants for herself and her identity and looking towards men to fill in the gaps that are missing from understanding of herself — and this is so not that. This woman is absolutely certain of her ambitious dreams, and it’s from that place that she’s unexpectedly hit with that hologram from her past, someone else who knows her in a completely different way. I think it opens up the story and allows it to become this monumental thing that surpasses the idea of a love story and the modern day heroine in it.

Even though this is based on Celine's life, did any of it feel true to you? Have you confronted a hologram?

So much of it, even though we’re so different. I'm American and my immigrant story is much different than Celine's, and Nora’s, too, since it’s semi-autobiographical. But I got to channel this part of myself that I didn't expect to share honestly. Before Past Lives, it was tragic to feel that there are going to be things about my life experience, about the way I understand living my life as an American, that I was maybe not going to have the opportunity to share during my career.

Some people didn't even realize that I speak Korean — which is wild! But it makes sense. Now that the movie’s done, I've had the pain of missing sitting in my Korean. I'm not speaking it anymore; English is my primary language, so I can understand how that reflects Nora's saying goodbye to her childhood self. It’s painful and complicated.

I was going to ask about speaking Korean, which I grew up speaking, too, to an extent. But if I were to speak it now, it would feel very strange.

Oh, it’s bumpy as f*ck. From the very beginning, Celine had this incredible ambition to have this love story become almost like science fiction. It’s the perfect metaphor for what it’s like to be bilingual and bicultural. Not only all the code switches, the pivoting, but also literally feeling like you’re jumping through wormholes and moving through different parts of your identity. Those bar scenes were the genesis of the movie: Celine was with her husband and childhood sweetheart and felt every time she turned to each respective man she was becoming a different person — and I felt that, too.

You mentioned universality vs. specify, which is a common idea people talk about when it comes to movies concerning any kind of “otherness.” Where do you think this movie falls on that spectrum? It’s universal, but there are things that are so specific to, if not Korean, then East Asian immigrant culture.

To answer that, I have to talk about how I feel about American movies and what they can be. For so long, I have privately felt that what makes a universal good story is cultural specificity. That is just the truth: the reality of an accurate depiction of a real person’s life living in America. Frankly, I’ve always been enraged that any story featuring a person that looks like us is a bespoke identity piece over there [motions in the distance] only to be consumed by a certain set of people. I’ve never felt that to be true, and it felt like I was screaming about it to myself in an empty room. I insist that through specificity, honesty, and diversity, who gets to hold the storytelling stick, you can have really universal stories that everyone can connect to. In fact, that’s a better way of doing it — showing we’re all human and exactly the same in some way.

There’s a scene in the film where Nora comes back from meeting Hae Sung and is telling her husband Arthur how Korean and not Korean she feels in relation to her childhood sweetheart. How do you think she feels about her Koreanness? I thought it was interesting that she hadn’t encountered that conundrum yet, like she’s been living in this bubble.

You know how in life certain people can hold up a mirror to different parts of you? I can absolutely feel that and can understand what it would be like for Nora, chugging along in her life in New York City, as I was as an adult, finding her way, and closing certain doors in order to do that and navigate the mostly white institutions that exist in our society. She doesn’t lose sight of that part of her, but she’s suddenly struck by a reminder of the things that were boxed up. I felt that way in making the movie. The time I spent trying to rapidly conjure up this realistic happy marriage with John, who plays Arthur, was a stranger at the time, but it came so easy. Like here’s this white guy who is very familiar to me. I felt so completely different when I would spend time with Teo. He made me feel a certain way that can’t be simplified as feeling more Korean or less, but bringing out different parts of my identity in a different, frankly uncomfortable way.

The movie doesn't pin either guy as the right path, or a good or bad person. There’s a way of seeing that as an easy way out, too, but it’s not.

I understand that some people will see it that way and might take the stance of Team Hae Sung or Team Arthur, but I would argue that the thing that stays with them weeks after seeing it is so not that. It’s existential, this idea of how our lives become what they are by the choices we make, the things we say no to to make space for other things, and just having to reconcile that with the fact that — this sounds dark and dramatic — we’re all going to die. And it’s so unfair, the supreme injustice that no matter who you are, we only have this extremely short life. That’s it. Maybe we have these ideas of in-yun and reincarnation to cope with this idea that we’re all going to be dead eventually.

What was the most difficult scene to film for you?

Oh my gosh. They were all difficult. They all required so much stillness, but things like the last scene — a tracking shot that’s her walking into the past and standing there for two minutes — were two excruciating moments of silence. We knew where our marks were and the emotional arc of what I had to do, but I didn't know what was going to come out, that cry. I asked to see what Seung-ah, who plays young Nora, looks like when she cries so it could match up. I think we were all kind of stunned by that final release, and what it ended up being. Then I had to repeat it, over and over again. It was brutal. So brutal! You feel like you're dying. You have to remind yourself that this is pretend, you’re okay, everything’s fine, but your body goes into chaos mode — you get dehydrated at a certain point and you just cannot generate moisture.

All of it was part of this bet Celine was making in the pay-off. She would say, “Don't cry, I can see you crying,” and have me suppress it. The first time I cried was actually when I’m hugging Hae Sung. It just had to come out — and it was frustratingly shot from behind. I was like “How will they know that I'm doing this? What if they're not with us by the end?” I just had to trust her. She was like, “Nope. It’s going to work. You're going to cry at the end, in a way that is right, and that will be the pay-off.” And she was right.

I’m curious what kind of direction Celine gave you when you're preparing for the role. Nora has a very specific body language.

I'm curious to know what it read like.

Your posture was very determined, without being too rigid. And when you’re with Hae Sung there’s a looseness to Nora that she seems to put on purposefully, but not in a forced way, just an intentional and playful way.

A lot of it has to do with youth and the people who knew you at different points in your life. A lot of the conversation around the physicality of how she would be with each of them was based around if someone knows you from childhood and you exist within that time when you’re with them, what does that make you feel like? I think that’s true of life. There are certain people who remind me of myself when I was in third grade, and other people who I only know as an adult, and that fully informs how you would exist in your body.

And as cringy as this might be, it has a lot to do with sex. What does that feel like when all of a sudden, as a fully formed Americanized Korean girl — a sexualized woman who has been code-switched into a white space — you’re shoved into a space with someone who’s from the East and Korean and knows you only in another way? What does that do to your insides when you can't suppress or ignore the fact that you are a sexual being, and there is a connection and electricity with someone, but culturally, it’s so different? I've never seen that in a movie before, and I was wondering how we could convey that.

It's great that people can notice that physicality. There was a lot of thought put into that. I wanted to step up to the plate in terms of accurately portraying a real woman who was full of ambition and determination. It’s the full spectrum of experience and can be youthful. As Western women, we’ve been trained to be independent and strong and closed-off in some ways where you’re ambitious and driven. That scene where Nora’s at the artist's retreat and signs her name on the wall — that’s an embodiment of “Here I am. I’m going to be a Pulitzer-Prize winning woman. I’m doing that.” That feeling is so familiar to us as women, and it was essential that we show it.

I read that you used to say that one of your role models was Vanessa Redgrave because you thought that was the right answer. Today what actors do you look up to?

Genuinely, a lot of my heroes have become more Asian. There’s a lack of seeing people who look like us, so I get so much out of watching Chinese films, Korean films, Japanese films, which are free of the gaze and unburdened of having to do a certain kind of song and dance — having to be palpable, or having to explain “I am this because of this.” They’re liberated. At this point in my life I really want to channel my outlook as an artist and put myself to task in terms of striving to show the full spectrum of a person in a way that doesn’t feel caged in.

Are those thoughts coming up as you work on Minor Feelings?

It’s different because that’s explicitly honing in on exactly the problem that I'm describing. I hate to define it this way, but in some way the book is explaining why things feel the way they do. That’s what was so tremendous and life-changing for me in reading it when I did. Just having it written down in a tangible form, everything I'd been feeling my whole life, and having someone, for the love of god, making it real and putting it out there. It was crucial. I don't think I would be able to give the kind of performance I was able to for Nora if it wasn't for that book.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.