Greta Lee on writing her own story
‘It's not enough just to be represented. The work doesn't end there’: The actor and writer talks representation, dressing like a dancer and learning to love LA.
After 17 years spent living in New York, Greta Lee (she/her) has recently returned to live in her native Los Angeles, and she’s not so sure about it. ‘I’m still a bit wobbly’, she explains, with an irresistible sense of humour. ‘I’m reluctant to make any sweeping statements about either city. But I prefer New York.’
‘I grew up in LA, so I have a lot of history with the city’, she continues. ‘It’s been an out-of-body experience to move somewhere that is both incredibly familiar, but also very alien. Not only are we reacclimating after COVID-19, but I'm in a place that has a very different metronome.’ After the transitional time experienced around the world over the past few years, the actor and writer misses the vibrancy, the different kinds of people, the dramatic seasonal weather that she experienced in her adopted home – all of which have shaped the actor she has become. Which is to say: witty, irreverent, considered. Always real.
She is known for taking her roles – including those in productions such as the award-winning Russian Doll and star-studded drama series The Morning Show – and making them resolutely her own, mining characters for rich backstories filled with nuance, complexity and authenticity. And when she struggled to find Asian American roles meaty enough to make her own, Greta turned her hand to writing them, creating opportunities to tell the stories she wanted to star in, but also for those following in her footsteps. In an industry that has just begun to face its own shortcomings as far as equality is concerned, her wealth of experience has made her a force for positive change.
We sat down to speak about occasionally stepping out from under the creative burden carried by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) artists, the wonder and weariness of LA weather, and the small changes she’s making, post-COVID and her new trans-coastal transition, to create a way of life that is ‘just a little bit more whole’.
‘Without question, the industry has changed. But representation is not equity, is not equality. It's not enough just to be represented. The work doesn't end there.’
ON THE ROLE OF CITIES IN MAKING ART
‘There's this idea that artists are isolated entities, removed, and all operating in their own cocoons. But I have found that to be not the case at all. In order to flourish artistically and feed my internal life as an artist, I'm meeting people, and a lot of different kinds of people. The wonderful thing about a city like New York is to have that vibrancy of life at your disposal. It's something that I took for granted there, but in Los Angeles I find I have to seek that out a little bit more. You can be pretty isolated here – and there are some benefits to that as well. Who knows, maybe that's going to reengineer some muscle for me creatively, to work in a more isolated way. I'm game, I'm open. I'm very cautiously optimistic.’
ON THE ROLES SHE CHOOSES
‘The parts that stand out are very clear now. With the first read you can tell if there's enough there to mine a character. I've been lucky in that I've been able to bring my own thoughts to how to construct these people in a way that feels real, for better or for worse. That feels gratifying – honouring the parts of certain people that have been previously dismissed or presumed to be undesirable qualities. I’ve always liked digging up those idiosyncrasies. I'm an actor first, but I try to bring that sensibility to writing too. Most of the things I write are character-driven, and really come from my experience of being an actor and having to read so many scripts.’
ON THE BURDEN OF RACIAL INEQUALITY TO CREATIVITY
‘I was just talking to a young person who happens to be Asian American about what their experiences are. It was very eye-opening to me, realising how many more opportunities there are now. Do I think that there are enough? No. And I still think that there's quite a way to go. I am trying to find a way not just to operate with it, but to live without the constant burden of racial injustice, racial inequities within the system. Because they're definitely there, and that headspace is not the most artful or creative place to live in, unfortunately. It is crazymaking, that conflict, for people of colour working in this industry.’
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REPRESENTATION AND EQUALITY
‘Without question, the industry has changed. People are feeling more welcome. When I was coming up, I could count the people who looked like me on one hand. But this is a conversation that I'm constantly having with my peers: representation is not equity, is not equality. It's not enough just to be represented. It’s not enough to be invited to the table. The work doesn't end there. I think that's the space that I'm in. I'm constantly trying to negotiate how I reconcile myself as a human person and as an artist, with the need to advocate for more fairness. Unfortunately, sometimes it's even just a matter of decency, of kindness. These are still areas that need some tending to in Hollywood, whether you're a person of colour, or whether you're a woman, or whether you're a mother. There's so much room for improvement.’
‘I’ve always liked digging up those idiosyncrasies.’
ON HER PERSONAL STYLE
I've always been really influenced by modern dancers, like Twyla Tharp, or Martha Graham. These women, these artists who are very in their bodies, I love how they dress, I love that there's a consciousness of the body. This idea that you can be in widely accessible clothing – essentially, slacks and a T-shirt – but that mix of athleticism, that we sometimes associate with men, and the grace and fluidity of those dancers, there's something about that essence that I've always loved. I love wearing a shirt or a unitard that hugs close to my body, with a big duster draped on top, with slacks and big sneakers. My husband jokes that I look like I'm ready to make a mad dash, like I'm an undercover CIA agent. I do love that spirit, the moxie of a strong woman who is ready to run.’
ON THE PROBLEM WITH BEAUTIFUL WEATHER
‘In New York you have seasons, and they're so distinct. They affect your rhythms, your life, the way you dress. You have ritualised clear beginnings and ends of time. In Los Angeles it's beautiful and sunny. The weather here is nearly perfect, daily, and I’m finding that consistent, homogenous sunniness can also do something very strange creatively. I miss those transitions. I miss seasons! Right now I feel like I'm in The Truman Show with California. I'm suspicious. How can it be this beautiful again?’
ON HER HOME RITUALS
‘I’m on the eastside of LA. So to take full advantage of this horribly beautiful, perfect weather, I have started growing my own food. Where we live there's a fruit orchard where we have two kinds of persimmon trees and avocado, pomegranate, Asian pear, all different sorts of citrus and vegetable beds. We've just stopped shy of getting goats. Our daily rituals have become gardening and nurturing these plants. We're trying to be mindful of the water conservation and the drought here in LA, and bringing back these coastal oak trees, which we've planted in our home. The more sustainable way to grow them is to plant not giant trees, but small seedlings, and hilariously, they grow so slowly that I'll be lucky if I'm still alive when they reach maturity. Once you embrace that, you resign yourself to the slowness of time. I'm literally looking at these trees and having to accept how slowly they will grow.’
Where do you go to escape?
What do you collect?
What would you tell your younger self?
Hang in there.
What brings you balance?
What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
It's a cream-coloured men's linen shirt. I don't even remember where I picked it up, but it's a vintage shirt that I've had forever. I like the size of it because it has a drapey quality, and I like that it's very utilitarian. I can wear it over whatever if I need to go out and garden, but I can also wear it to dinner.
What’s your favourite film?
Armando Iannucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin.
What was the last book you bought and loved?
I'm really exposing myself as an old-lady gardener here, but it's a book about native gardens in the West, called Under Western Skies.
Greta Lee wears the Autumn Winter 2022 collection for COS.
Photography by Mario Sorrenti.
Styling by Camilla Nickerson.
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