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As a kid, Greta Lee identified with Val Kilmer — now, she imagines 'Past Lives'

Greta Lee stars as a playwright caught between her American husband and her Korean childhood sweetheart in <em>Past Lives.</em>
A24
Greta Lee stars as a playwright caught between her American husband and her Korean childhood sweetheart in Past Lives.

Growing up in Los Angeles as the child of Korean immigrants, actor Greta Lee says she was expected to be ladylike, do well in school and "not be too loud." But those expectations didn't quite gel with Lee's aspirations.

"I really recognized a part of myself — my true self as a child — in performances like Val Kilmer and Nicolas Cage," she says. "I mean, really big, muscular performances. I wanted to do that. I wanted to take that on. And I believed that I could."

It wasn't until Lee joined the theater program as an undergraduate at Northwestern University that she learned about sketch comedy, which opened her up as an actor.

"Through comedy I could play someone with ... a different physicality or someone much older, or all of these things that I was so hungry to try to take a stab at," she says.

Lee is testing her comedic chops on The Morning Show, where she plays the first female president of UBA News. In the film Past Lives, she takes a more serious turn as Nora, a playwright living in New York, caught between her American husband and her childhood sweetheart from growing up in Korea. Lee says playing Nora allowed her to explore the immigrant experience in a way that felt vulnerable — and personal.

"I remember joking with [Past Lives director] Celine [Song] that it would be easier if I could actually just be nude because I felt so uncomfortably exposed," she says. "I previously had never expected to be able to show all the nuances of what it is to be a woman like Nora, or a woman like me — a child of immigrants, a person who is bi-cultural, who straddles multiple worlds while navigating being just a regular human living in America."


Interview highlights

On director Celine Song's decision to separate Lee's Past Lives co-stars during filming

[The two men] had to be their own sort of private worlds, private from each other. So part of that involved separating the two of them. So I developed my own relationship respectively with each of these actors. And it wasn't until the actual scene in the movie when Arthur and Hae Sung meet, that is the actual footage of them meeting for the first time.

Actors John Magaro and Teo Yoo (shown here with Greta Lee) met for the first time in the scene they shared in <em>Past Lives.</em>
/ A24
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A24
Actors John Magaro and Teo Yoo (shown here with Greta Lee) met for the first time in the scene they shared in Past Lives.

And that was also the case when we were trying to show the physicality of love. And I guess what I mean by that is the actual physiological response you have when you are reunited with someone that you love. What is chemistry? What is that, tangibly? And in order to accomplish these ideas, we wanted to be really precise about what exactly we were showing. ... By making [physical touch] forbidden, it heightened and pressurized touch.

On speaking Korean for her role in Past Lives

Acting is already hard and to do it in a different language – I was really challenged by the idea of whether or not I'd be able to pull it off, and do it in service of everything we wanted to accomplish with this movie.

That's not something that was on my vision board. I had never expected to do that. To be honest, I don't think that I was entirely confident that I had the capacity to do that. Acting is already hard and to do it in a different language – I was really challenged by the idea of whether or not I'd be able to pull it off, and do it in service of everything we wanted to accomplish with this movie. It required such a tremendous amount of restraint and stillness and silence and supreme specificity that I wanted to make sure that I'd be able to deliver on all of those things. ...

I did not think my Korean was good enough for this film. I think I grew up after years and years of being criticized for my Korean being bad and like disappointing my ancestors and not being a good enough Korean — that is baked into my experience as an American. But with this movie and with Nora and with Celine and her vision for the movie, it became this incredible opportunity to move towards what was previously considered a flaw.

On her "state of grief" after filming ended on Past Lives

I remember for months after wrapping the film, I was in a state of grief, honestly, because I knew that the reality of my life, it does not warrant me speaking that much Korean. It just doesn't. You know, I'm a mother of two young children. They know some Korean, but I don't exist in a space in time that allows for me to just speak Korean. No one would understand me. It wouldn't be functionally appropriate. But I think that's what's so incredible about the movie – that that's also part of this. How do I reconcile, how does Nora reconcile, how tragic that is? That this is a huge part of her actual DNA as a human being, and yet there are certain considerations and certain compromises and exchanges that are made just to live.

On her mother's reaction to the movie

She was sobbing and I was deeply uncomfortable, if I'm honest, and not prepared to receive that kind of a reaction from her. Several days later she called me and she was driving and she said, "I'm still crying about your movie." And I said, "I'm so sorry, mom. What's going on for you?" And she said, "I am Nora. This movie is about me." And I was totally shocked by that sentiment. It never even occurred to me that she could feel that way. ... My mother was expressing the embarrassment of riches she's received in her life immigrating here. But the heartache of everything that was lost in order to do that.

On her late grandfather's connection to Hollywood

My grandfather was a real character. Instead of serving in the Army during the Korean War – he had polio, so he couldn't — he worked as a painter at the U.S. Army base in Busan. And it was his job to paint these movie posters, these huge Hollywood movie posters for the U.S. Army. They would have these movies brought in for the soldiers. And he, through painting them, fell in love with American cinema. Growing up in Los Angeles, he is the reason why I know who Greta Garbo is and Katharine Hepburn. He was a real movie buff.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Ann Marie Baldonado
Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.