June 21, 2024

“This was not planned. I think the way you know is I walked in here covered with my child’s seaweed snack all over my sweatshirt.”

Greta Lee is infectious and is so damn grateful this breakout moment is happening to her when she’s 40.

When she comes in for her sit-down interview with Variety, she’s laidback and so charismatic, like your old buddy at college you had one too many martinis with on a Thursday night party but still laughed about it til’ this day.

You wouldn’t think she’s enjoying the clout of having played in two major features in 2023. One is her leading role as Nora, a New York City playwright who reconnects with her childhood love in A24’s “Past Lives” from debut director and writer Celine Song. The other is the voice of Lyla, the Spider-Society’s AI assistant in the animated blockbuster sequel, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Not to mention roles in another A24 flick, “Problemista,” voicing the dog Bella in Universal’s “Strays” and reprising her role as Stella Bak, the president of UBA’s news division in Apple’s third season of “The Morning Show.”

Read: Variety’s Awards Circuit for the latest Oscars predictions in all categories.

In “Past Lives,” her performance is one of the best of the year’s first half (I’d argue even all of 2023), igniting passion by audiences and awards enthusiasts who want to see her nominated for best actress. Her inclusion would follow the historic win of Michelle Yeoh in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” who became the first Asian and second woman of color (after Halle Berry for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball”) to take home the prize. Lee’s sensitive and commanding presence is just as worthy.

The daughter of Korean immigrants and mother of two wasn’t inspired to get in this biz by a Fellini movie like “8 ½” or watching Vivien Leigh portray Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was watching Val Kilmer play the titular role of a thief for hire in his Razzie-nominated work in Phillip Noyce’s “The Saint” (1997). “I felt this undeniable sense of ‘I want to do that,’ she tells Variety. “Which doesn’t make immediate sense to people. As a young girl, I felt that being Val Kilmer was freedom in the household and society I was growing up in. A be-all-end-all of athleticism of performance and skill and unbridled joy.”

Her husband even gave her a DVD copy of the movie as a wedding gift. Nevertheless, that spark has led her here, to a moment where she’s generating Oscar buzz and is hopeful for a resolution to the strikes but is “willing to go the distance to get there.”

How did you land the role of Nora in “Past Lives?”

It’s a story that I love, but it’s a very boring story. I got an e-mail with a script. I didn’t know who the writer was, and it had a one-line message from one of my reps asking, ‘You speak Korean, right?’

Even the answer to that question becomes complicated and part of the process of making this movie. I was like, ‘I don’t know.’

Nonetheless, I read it in one sitting and cried a lot. I was so incredibly moved by it. For many reasons – it was an A24 movie, an American movie, and yet most of it was in a different language and shot in New York. It just seemed like such a flex.

I put myself on tape, and I didn’t get the job. A quintessential Hollywood story. My job is auditioning and getting rejected. But I will say putting myself on tape was a surprising reminder of something I’d forgotten — my capacity to speak Korean. My cultural experience was being bilingual, but I’ve been working in an industry that wasn’t part of my current experience.

I heard that the film was cast, and then a year after I auditioned; I got a call unexpectedly, asking if I remembered the movie “Past Lives” and if I would be able to meet with the director now. She was clear and precise about her thoughts, and we connected. She told me I got the job on the spot, and I just tried to play it super cool.

The way Nora interacts with the world and the two men in her life is not something we see regularly in films by a strong female character. Did you identify with how Nora views the world and its people?

As an adult, as a human person, yes. What is interesting about Nora is her freedom to exist within a full spectrum of what people call male or masculine. I understand why we are thinking in those kinds of terms. But what is exciting and essential to her is she’s liberated from that kind of binary and thinking. This way, characters in stories must comment or demonstrate something about their race or identity. A lot of effort goes into constantly thinking, ‘Am I showing this the right way?’

I know other performers can relate to this; it takes up a lot of resources, time, and space within a movie and energetically for me.

In terms of a story, this is centered around a person who looks like me, which was thrilling and challenging. Because, on some level, I’d been used to Hollywood giving the “SparkNotes” version of this kind of a woman.

You had four movies open this year Does that feel strange after struggling to land roles for so long?

“Past Lives” and “Spider-Man” premiered on the same day, too. I was joking with Phil [Lord], Chris [Miller], and the A24 folks, saying, ‘So sorry, I’m swamped. Can’t make it.’

It’s such a privilege, and I can’t pretend I don’t know what it’s like to have certain opportunities. All you can do is make the best of them without feeling entitled to them. I never feel like I was robbed of certain chances or owed this.

Things you didn’t know about Greta Lee

Age: 40

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

The director she’s dying to work with: Barry Jenkins

Shows and movies she watched on loop: “Full House,” “Boy Meets World” and “Wayne’s World” because Tia Carrere was seminal.

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