Greta Lee on how the success of

Before 2023 actress Greta Lee had built her career on a wide range of supporting roles – as the rollicking birthday party host Maxine in “Russian Doll”; as the entitled gallerista Soojin in “Girls”; as Stella Bak, a millennial and very fashion-forward boss uncowed by her anchors, in “The Morning Show.” But the film role that’s vaulted the Los Angeles-born Lee into awards contention has her doing something she didn’t expect: acting in Korean.

In “Past Lives,” the 40-year-old Lee stars as Nora, a playwright who left Korea as a child. Now living in New York, Nora reunites with her Korean childhood crush, and … it’s complicated.

“I think I have a lot of feelings about my Korean-ness,” Lee said. “My speaking Korean is something that is so personal. Like, I really had categorized that completely separate from work, essentially.”

To watch a trailer for “Past Lives” click on the video player below:

Past Lives | Official Trailer HD | A24 by
A24 on

Is it hard to emote in a second language? “Yes,” she laughed. “You cannot use any of your former tricks. You cannot use ’em in a totally different language, in a totally different culture. And that, also, was so incredibly terrifying.” 

Not that Lee would have even thought of shrinking from a challenge. For as long as she can remember, she’s been looking for “that break.” “I was such a ham,” she said. “I was, you know, constantly performing for the family, and trying to cast myself as the lead in all of these shows.”

Correspondent Mo Rocca with actress Greta Lee, star of the film “Past Lives.”

CBS News

The oldest of three born to parents who emigrated from South Korea, Lee performed everywhere she could: “I had some aspirations to become a Liza Minnelli-esque cabaret star, and why not?” she laughed. “It’s sort of exactly what I’m doing. Is that not apparent to anyone else?”

Soon after graduating from Northwestern University, Lee landed on Broadway, where we met in 2007, as castmates in the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Lee played the overachieving Marcy Park:

I speak six languages
All-American in hockey
And anything I do I do without getting sore
I speak six languages
And I like the theme from “Rocky”
Though I play Mozart more
– “I Speak Six Languages,” from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

Greta Lee as the overachieving Marcy Park.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

“What did you think your career was gonna be? What were you hoping?” asked Rocca.

“The future seemed wide open,” said Lee. “And I think that was a very validating moment for me. I had dreamed of becoming a real kind of stage actor. And then, to be able to do ‘Spelling Bee,’ I thought, ‘Okay. This is great. I am the Philip Seymour Hoffman of my generation, surely!'”

Well, not just yet. After the play closed in 2008, Lee ended up working for a time at a New York City restaurant, and as an MTV fashion VJ, before making her way back to the stage, in “La Bête” and “4000 Miles.”

That was where Lena Dunham took note, and wrote Lee into her HBO show “Girls.” Other stars who saw something special in Lee included Amy Schumer, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler. “They were able to create these characters for me that stepped outside of a certain box of, maybe, what you would assume for someone who presented like myself,” Lee said. “I got to play a full spectrum of very wild sort of women … yeah, it’s no accident that it comes from women.”

Including “Past Lives” writer and first-time director Celine Song, herself a major awards contender this season.

The movie has changed Greta Lee’s present life in ways she could only imagine before. “I’m having this experience now, where I’m connecting with audiences,” she said. “I’m at the grocery store, I’m, like, picking out my cereal. And someone will stop me and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I saw ‘Past Lives,’ and start to cry. And to receive all of that, yes, is entirely overwhelming.”

Actress Greta Lee, star of “Past Lives.”

CBS News

When asked if the film’s success has made her rethink her future, Lee replied, “Yes, which is so exhausting at this point in my life! I had already made peace with, maybe, the fact that I wasn’t gonna have an opportunity like this, that it just wasn’t in the cards for me. And then, this happened. To have all of this happen has completely ruined everything!”

For more info:

Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Mike Levine. 

See also: 

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Mo Rocca and the fun of appearing on Broadway (YouTube Video)

From the archives: Mo Rocca and the fun of appearing on Broadway by
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