Greta Lee, Actress/ Writer
Greta Lee is a Korean American actress who most recently starred in Netflix’s Russian Dolls. She has acted in countless movies and TV shows like Girls, Inside Amy Schumer, and St. Vincent. She is currently developing a dark comedy for HBO with writer/producer Jason Kim about LA’s Koreatown. Lee will star on the show as its lead.
“My parents are from Seoul, Korea, they immigrated to Los Angeles in 1980 and had me, then my sister and brother. My dad’s parents moved to LA a few years before my father. My dad was born the year the Korean War ended. During the war, my grandfather painted billboards of American movies at an Army basecamp. He became a movie buff and I was named after Greta Garbo. When the war ended, they moved the family from a refugee camp in Busan to the family ranch near Seoul.
My grandmother was the driving force behind the family. She worked crazy jobs like selling fruit at the market, working at hardware stores, and cleaning buildings in Koreatown. My grandmother would hide outside the elementary school by the window with my uncle strapped to her back and encourage my dad to study. She would do his homework for him because he was a sensitive child coming from the farms. He was overwhelmed and needed the encouragement. My dad went to medical school as a result of her dedication.
Wanting to be an Actress in a Korean Family
I feel lucky looking back that my parents at a certain point stepped back and got out of the way.
I was an annoying theatre kid growing up, adapting my favorite Babysitters Club books into a musical that I forced my whole family watch me perform. I wanted to be a star and it was so clear that I wanted to perform that my parents supported me. I still did really well in school. I wanted to win and so I need to get good grades. In High School, I thought I was going to be a singer or go to Wharton Business School.
My parents moved us to La Canada Flintridge which is known to be an excellent LA school district but they would drive us across the city to this prestigious private school Harvard-Westlake in Bel Air. They would wake up at 4:30 AM every day just to drive me and my sister to this school that was the best in Los Angeles.
Even after I had finished doing my first Broadway show I was still getting calls from my dad asking me to consider going to Medical School.
‘You can go into prosthetics, it’s like sculpture honey, you can be a doctor in 2 years!’
I still don’t know what they think of my career. My dad still hasn’t seen Russian Doll yet. If I have to explain to them what Hulu or Netflix is one more time, I’m not going to make it!
Returning to Korea
To be blunt, I’m scared to go back to Korea, I haven’t been there since High School. It was so traumatizing to go as a teenager, because I was too tan and my hair was really long and so American and I was teased so much for that. That was so long ago and I should be over it. In my mind, I feel like there is a performance I am gearing up to do. In Korean it is called Keun-jurl—meaning a big bow reserved for elders which will be even deeper and more respectful since it’s been so long that I’ve been back.
To have your own culture regurgitated at you is like science fiction times. For me, I remember when my mom mailed me a Jade roller and I was so offended. This was in 2001 when I was in college. She sent me a picture of a cartoon face of arrows all over it and which direction I should be rolling with it. I was a freshman at Northwestern University and I didn’t have time to roll my face with Jade! That seemed like absolute witchery and now it’s everywhere.
I feel like imposter syndrome is such a Western construct and I think it’s good that people are openly talking about it, but there is another arm to this as an Asian person. It’s so ingrained in us that we don’t belong. It’s our DNA—we were born with imposter syndrome. I was thinking about my grandmother, she was told she was an imposter to her own country. Her whole life she was a scary bulldozer breaking down everything, making sure her son would be a doctor. She never belonged anywhere. I will always feel like an imposter, an outsider because by society standards I am. That’s always the case my whole life. I’ve never known anything different. There are two ways to approach it—acknowledging it’s real and normal but also fighting against it. The day I wake up and feel like I belong would be apocalyptic.
Being the only Asian in the room
Early on so much of my career success was that I had mastered being around other people well.
There is a whole generation of really efficient Korean assistant/worker bees that had mastered the ability to just work well with people but that requires this dance of being not too good, not too outspoken—the ultimate buttress with immigrant hard work ethics. It’s this sense of keeping your head down and plowing through. There’s something Asian specific about not having a heavy footprint.
Sometimes it’s like waiting for my Asian-ness to be a bigger deal than it is. I feel like on set I really have to deliver, be better than everybody else. And then I look over at Kathy whats her name just eating nuts from Krafty having a great time! There’s a lot of discussion about women in general who overwork and over prepare. What the feminist movement has recently struggled with—mechanisms that make us work twice as hard—match a lot of the things that we struggle with as an Asian community.
Right now (with the success of Crazy Rich Asians & Searching) is at once awesome, celebratory, and optimistic but it has also underscored how terrible it has been for so long. I feel like I’m waking up and we can’t ignore how vastly underrepresented we have been. For so long it was not too many (Asians in a movie), not more than one!
Being a modern mom is confusing as fuck. In some ways, we are better equipped than our mothers. We have more in our tool belts, but it’s a trick. I’m expected to do what my dad was doing and what my mom was doing but I’m not sure who is making me do that except me. So of course I feel like I’m doing a mediocre job at everything. Having a half Asian kid in Brooklyn in 2019, my concern is how am I going to raise this child to be a well rounded grown-up who doesn’t think 2 +2 = compassion? I have questions about what cultural barriers I will have to bridge. What was I thinking about when I was two years old was not Sun Ra the jazz musician. I didn’t listen to Prince until I was in college. I didn’t know what the Beatles were until I was much older. My parents didn’t care about music, they just wanted me to do my homework.
I was gung ho about teaching my son Korean when he was first born but now my Korean is not good enough to keep up. My son asks ‘how do you say flight attendant in Korean?’ I like that he is interested in speaking Korean. If my son wasn’t interested, I couldn’t sustain a Korean-only household with my midwestern husband.
The Entertainment Industry
I just feel like you have to work twice as hard and then be a little lucky. I still feel like I have so much to do and so much to learn. One of my greatest gifts my parents passed down to me was that they never second guessed how necessary it would be to actively push down doors, literally elbowing your way into a space and saying you’re here. That has been enormously instrumental to my career and having to repeat that with each new room, new job, and new relationship.
You didn’t expect it to be me, but I’m here.”
Podcasts: Mobituaries with Mo Rocca, Aria Code, The Wilderness, Who Weekly
Movies: Willow, The Saint, Mother, Kung Fu Hustle, Force Majeur, The Death of Stalin, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Favorite Asian Food Dish: Mumallaengi-Muchim (seasoned dried radish strips) and North Korean style Mul Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles)