A Conversation
Hollywood 2024 Issue

Greta Lee Was Hiding in Plain Sight—Until Past Lives Changed Everything

Her childhood dream of “all-American” movie stardom once seemed out of reach.
Greta Lee in a Gucci top and skirt Chanel Fine Jewelry cuff and Belperron ear clips behind the scenes at the 2024 Vanity...
Photograph by Landon Nordeman; styled by George Cortina.

For a long time, the typical Greta Lee character would hit you right in the face. She was cool and confident—the best friend spouting viral catchphrases, the romantic rival with scary-great style. She was usually quite funny, and often, she got to be a little crazy. You could watch a good chunk of the 2010s era’s biggest television darlings like Girls and Russian Doll and High Maintenance and New Girl and spot Lee popping up—sweet birthday baby!(if only for an episode) to imbue a sinuous charisma to roles that might otherwise be categorized as stereotypical “cool Asian girls.”

Even so, Lee made it work, becoming a regular scene-stealer over nearly 20 years in the biz. In the second and third seasons of The Morning Show, she joined the main cast to play Stella Bak, a savvy media executive who’s also always being underestimated. Then came her star turn in Past Lives, this year’s fresh-faced A24 awards darling. Celine Song’s piercing film features Lee in her most intense yet unexaggerated mode as Nora, the 30-something everywoman who mostly just kind of walks around New York and lets herself slide through gradations of yearning and heartbreak. It’s gentle, intimate work; unnerving, like eye contact. For Lee—and for all those years communicating the interiority lurking under side-character surfaces—it’s an artistic triumph. We’re thrilled to have her as part of our 2024 Hollywood issue.


Lee earned nods from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards for her performance, though somehow—amid palpable public disappointment—not from the Oscars, despite Past Lives being nominated for best picture and best original screenplay. In any event, it’s clear the actor considers the project a personal breakthrough. And isn’t that what Nora spends all of Past Lives trying to help us understand? How to make peace with life’s more unknowable forces—while also choosing, again and again, to love the life you’ve created despite them?

Vanity Fair: We’re catching you right at the height of your first awards season. What’s the most “yes, it’s me, leading lady” moment you’ve had so far?

Greta Lee: The Golden Globes—that felt like I was going to my own wedding, and like I was bringing the little girl in me along as my date. Like, Oh my gosh, come join me. This is for you. It felt really poignant for me, and the little girl that I was who had this really massive, cosmic dream that just felt so unreachable—but for whatever reason, she refused to accept that. I just kept thinking about that the whole time.

The beauty of this is that it’s always two-sided. The moment that it felt the most magical and regal also had that one little element of groundedness—instant humbling!—which I appreciate. That is the answer to sanity. I was staying at the actual Beverly Hilton where the event was, but the red carpet was too far for me to walk. And I couldn’t get into a car, because you cannot crease the dress! So they made me stand in a golf cart! My butt was sticking out, and we had to drive fast. It was the perfect way for me to arrive at this super glamorous moment, just screaming my face off.

Photograph by Landon Nordeman; styled by George Cortina.

Your performance in Past Lives has become a huge breakout moment, even though you’ve been working in this industry for nearly 20 years. What’s the dominant emotion when you think about that? Maybe a sense of justice for that inner, young Greta? Revenge?

Revenge! Rage! It’s complicated. I can’t pretend that it’s not. I’m a 40-year-old woman, and I have kids now. I can’t pretend that there aren’t elements to this moment for me that aren’t tricky, because it’s like being wide awake for your dream coming true. There’s no pretending that I’m naive or not understanding of the struggle and the absolute miracle it is to get here.

I really had done so much work, and was so proud of my own self-acceptance and measuring my worth based on totally different metrics. After a certain point, there was no way for me not to feel like if I wanted to live a life of joy, which I think I deserve, then I had to let go. I really made peace with accepting there was no place for me there, but I didn’t want to give up. Now that I’ve gotten this chance through Past Lives, which was absolutely the opportunity of my life, it’s fascinating. It’s a relentless exercise in honoring the spirit of what I’ve found before and also finding the joy to step into the spotlight and take it. It’s so much bigger than me. I know now what’s possible. For myself and other Asian American women. I don’t want to accept my previous reality. I can’t.

Have there been any mentors who’ve helped you navigate this part of it all?

Stephanie Hsu has been incredible—when you are so underrepresented, your mentors can be people who are younger than you. She’s been a real beacon of light for me in just understanding how complicated this is. Everyone is on their own journey. I can’t look to another Asian American actress and say, Okay, what do I do? We can compare notes, but it’s so lonely. Talking to Sandra Oh has been invaluable, as well as my buddy Steven Yeun—a good head on those shoulders. But we all could come from it with a sense of levity too, just understanding what kind of beast this is and how constantly unknowable it is. Billy Crudup gave me advice about preserving and protecting your own artistry; that has been so invaluable to me.

Past Lives is such an emotional film. You have people coming up to you in grocery stores to talk about their long-lost loves, or their own “what if” moments. Has the film raised any ghosts or ghost lives for you personally?

Oh, yeah. Oh god, it’s so bad. What if I never moved to New York? What if my parents had decided not to make these giant leaps and risks? What if I never found the theater kids at school, or the people who I’ve sort of lost along the way? I’m a human being. I have lost loves—not just romantically. I think in terms of the ghosts, it really boils down to: Well, having finished this movie, am I not ever going to speak that much Korean again?

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Did it make you feel like a different person to speak Korean?

Yeah, in a way that continued to unravel and reveal itself to me again and again. Playing Nora made me understand this idea of Western modern women and that kind of strength, but also that there are certain sacrifices for how hard it is to be strong and to exist within this world and what I was doing in order to do that. All the different, I don’t know, shields that we have.

Nora—she’s the most regular person I’ve ever played, and that was the ultimate gift. I learned just how much I was hiding in plain sight in terms of the way I was holding myself as a woman, as a mother, as an Asian American woman, all of that. I remember feeling so terrified about literally showing my face in that way. I’d been used to playing really stylized, heightened people. To show up as her—she’s so unapologetic and so unconcerned with hiding—that was so liberating and also heartbreaking. It made me realize how much of that I was doing in my real life.

To go from playing someone like Maxine in Russian Doll to Nora, I’m sure there’s this fear of like, “Is this enough?”

That’s the breakthrough. That is what’s new for someone like us. We don’t get that chance to do that, and it felt really risky. And Celine [Song] was constantly reminding me in her own way: This is enough. You are enough, and your face is enough, and the way you speak is enough, and this is enough. Her unrelenting confidence in that and the movie that she wanted to make—it was spellbinding, and I’m still kind of in shock that we did it.

I have a technical question about all of those really quiet, restrained moments in the film. What’s going on in your head when you’re shooting something like that, versus like, a Morning Show scene where you’re sparring with Billy?

One of my first shots was sitting in a car and staring out the window at the New York City skyline and feeling like, Oh, this is cake, compared to how aggressively athletic The Morning Show had been. Like, All right, wow, independent films are where it’s at!

And then it was instantly humbling to understand that even though what you are seeing is restraint, what is required of me literally is to have restraint. It’s that belief and that faith that it’s enough to just sit in our car because that’s what human beings do. I mean, we haven’t even really gotten to see an Asian American woman sitting in her car without her robbing a bank or getting killed.

But in order to do scenes like that, there’s no chill. In order to do that and to sit on all of the emotions in terms of what’s going on for her—and also what’s going on for me as the actor—it’s like there’s a volcano under my ass. The way it was orchestrated, each beat? It was so surgical, all of it. I miss working like that.

Photograph by Landon Nordeman; styled by George Cortina.

Past Lives was one of the few films to get a SAG-AFTRA exemption for Oscar campaigning during the actor’s strike this summer.

We were in a very peculiar situation. I had five seconds of feeling a lot of guilt until I realized who our colleagues were, like Killers of the Flower Moon and Barbie and Oppenheimer. It became easy because of the genuine pride in this movie, so we hit the trail early. So that’s why I feel like a corpse-woman who’s ready to lie down and crawl into either a cheeseburger or bowl of spaghetti. We’ve been at it for almost a year.

Do you have thoughts on the biggest hurdle still facing the profession from your perspective?

This is that two-handed thing where I’m the most optimistic I’ve ever been, and I also know just how much further we have to go. I know that it’s because of the independent filmmaking system that I’m here. I’m not here because of a studio film. It has relit that fire for me of insisting you just need that kind of support.

We had producers who believed in us, and who let us do our jobs. They put together this crew of people, of whom none could understand a single word of Korean—aside from maybe one person, Grace, our incredible set designer. Just imagine this. I want people to know what that experience was like, to be working on a movie surrounded by people who couldn’t understand a single word you were saying, and yet were giving everything they had because they believed in the script, and they understood and saw themselves in it. It sounds cheesy, but that, to me, was witnessing the American dream come to life.

Tell me about your relationship to fashion. You’ve been killing it on the red carpet.

I’ve always loved it, and I think that is directly linked to my Asian American identity. I was that family member who would show up for family dinners wearing something insane. It was always a form of peaceful protest, not just within my own family, but also against institutions and in the world that I would step into. That was my way. My sister and I used to do crazy things when our parents wouldn’t buy us fancy things. We really wanted this Calvin Klein T-shirt, so we found a knockoff and cut it out and reattached it to our clothes. It was so fun.

In terms of the red carpet and the clothes, it just feels like, Well, why not just keep this going? I want to do it exactly the way I want to do it, even if it’s something that doesn’t really immediately make sense. I’m constantly shocked when something that I wanted to wear because it’s a little weird is acknowledged.

I hope someone in your life is reading you the, um, appreciative tweets.

“Flying into the cunt-agon.” Yes. I don’t have Twitter, but I’ve been sent a lot of things. Nothing makes me happier when I have moments where I feel like, Oh my God, this is so hard, and this is such a weird machine that you get thrown into. There are inevitably these lows. So when I open my phone, and I read some of those stories, it simply brings me to life.

Last question. You’ve talked about how Nora is the role of a lifetime for you. What dream roles are left that you’re now eyeing in the near distance?

I feel like I’m just getting started, which makes me feel instantly exhausted. People tell me, Oh man, I really feel for you. You’re starting again now after everything you’ve already done. And I’m like, Yeah, I know.

But I keep thinking about that little girl, and I think about how she distinctly identified as the “girl next door.” In her mind, she was the all-American girl when she dreamed of being a movie star. I’m trying to put myself to task in her honor. I have to make up for lost time and do the things that she wanted to do, like big action movies or a musical.

It’s like I’ve been given permission to be excited about the future, about walking down a new path in the way that I had been doing before. I had decided to take a side road, and now I’m trying to hold myself to it: You’re staying on that road. You’ve got to keep going.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For fashion and beauty details, go to VF.com/credits.