Greta Lee will make a meal of a minor character. Over a decade of supporting roles, the actress hasn't just stolen scenes but entire TV shows: As the aptly-named Homeless Heidi on High Maintenance, as delusional gallerist Soojin on Girls, as ebullient best friend Maxine on Russian Doll. Her characters on the big screen are perhaps even more offbeat, playing hard-partying nail tech Hae Won in 2015's Sisters,and Spider-Man 2099's trusty AI in this year's Across the Spider-Verse.
"This journey that I've had, in terms of the characters that I've gotten to play, I'm incredibly proud of them," Lee reflects. "I have such a deep love for people like Homeless Heidi and Soojin and Maxine — these wild women. But I think I was at a place in my career where I thought maybe there will be things left unsaid for me, and I was accepting that maybe that wasn't going to be the nature of my career."
Then she read the script for Past Lives, from playwright and first-time filmmaker Celine Song. The romantic drama centers on Nora (the role Lee would play), a Korean-Canadian playwright living in New York City with her Jewish husband, Arthur. When her childhood sweetheart from Seoul, Hae Sung, seeks her out to reconnect, Nora is forced to reconsider the path that life has taken her.
"I thought it would require my full capacity in a way that I was desperate for. To be thrown the ball and be told, 'Now run with it,' is a total gift," Lee says. "I don't want to racialize it and say as a Korean woman, or an Asian woman, or just a woman — as an actor, for anyone to get a chance like that, to get material with gorgeous words and a strong point of view, that's everything anyone wants."
She continues, "I was really thrilled to be able to have this chance, and to be able to do something that's more naturalistic and live in the space of realism. It's a place that I've wanted to belong in for so long, and I'm totally overjoyed that I could do it with this movie at this point in my life."
The films that Lee loves most are reflect the gamut of her. Below, she shares with A.frame five of her favorite films. "And the caveat for me is it constantly changes, right? Because we're different people."
Directed by: Armando Iannucci | Written by: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin
I'm such a huge fan of Armando's work. I love an ensemble. I love that kind of physical comedy and satire. I love British comedy, that kind of dark, esoteric comedy, and I like his historically-based characters. I love scenarios where you are able to see yourself in horrible people, like historically-known to be horrible people. If you can pull that off, I just find that very gratifying as a viewer.
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho | Written by: Bong Joon-ho and Sung-bo Shim
I saw Memories of Murder a few years ago. I have to admit, I'm late to Korean cinema. I knew a lot of the greatest hits, but this has been an ongoing exploration for me in revisiting older Korean movies. There's something that Korean cinema is able to do that I insist on in terms of the projects that I choose here, domestically. There's a way that they're able to subvert genre. You can have an incredibly dark, twisted and violent piece tonally that is also incredibly funny. That's that magic concoction that is always really exciting to me as a performer.
Directed by: Richard Linklater | Written by: Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
I know The Before Trilogy counts as three movies, so I'll only say one of them. But early in my career, that was an example of a space that I really wanted to be in. I remember watching those performances in those movies and feeling like they were humanizing a really relatable experience. And as someone who has felt like such an outsider for so long, that felt like the ultimate liberation, just to be able to tell a story on that scale. A two-hander with such great dialogue. So, those movies will always have a special place in my heart.
[In reviews, 'Past Lives' has more than once been likened to 'Before Sunrise.']
I know. I can't accept it. It's so wild to me. It really means the world to me that anyone would say that, and maybe that's evidence for progress or some kind of better future in terms of diversity and inclusion. I don't know, but it's pretty cool.
Written and Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Faye Wong in that movie, I know she teeters on manic pixie territory now, which is somewhat problematic — whatever — I love that performance. I love that woman. I remember seeing her and recognizing that woman, and feeling so excited as an Asian-American, and feeling so validated by seeing a reflection of a person that I could relate to on that level. I felt like, 'Surely this is proof that this can happen here in the States. This is compelling. Look at her!'
I love a big ensemble piece, and it's that genre-bending too — supreme romance and such an elevated longing and achiness that is just so sadistically enjoyable as an audience member, but also so funny and vibrant.
Directed by: Phillip Noyce | Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick
My wild card answer is The Saint with Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue. As a young blossoming actor, that movie was seminal to me. I'm such a Val Kilmer head, and watching his performance, where he has to impersonate a wide range of different people, I felt like that was such a flex. When I was a little girl, I remember feeling, 'If I could do that, if I as a woman, an Asian woman, a Korean woman, could ever be afforded the opportunity to flex like that and play five characters in one film in that way — sure, in the format of a mediocre '90s action film, fine — I would do it.'
That was one of the earliest indicators for me of what I wanted to do and what I was aiming to do: Really connect with people through storytelling. It sounds so trite, but I just found that really a pivotal viewing experience for me as a little girl.