Three Great Things: Greta Lee

The actress and writer, who can currently be seen in the Sundance hit Past Lives, on some of her favorite things in life.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release in theaters of Past Lives, writer-director Celine Song’s romantic drama starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro, acclaimed actress Lee shared some of the things she loves most in life. — N.D.

Landing Back in New York City
There’s a full-body sensation I feel any time I fly into New York City, that moment on the plane when I can see Manhattan over the side of the wings and we’re descending and about to touch down. To this day, I still get what I call a “tickle” at that moment, which I hope I never stop experiencing. It’s indescribable.

When I was a little girl, I spent some time in Brooklyn, but for the most part I grew up in Los Angeles and it wasn’t until I became a young adult that I connected with my innate desire to be in New York City. I remember the first time I felt the “tickle” was when I was 17 and going to tour Juilliard with my whole family. I have a sense that the sensation is connected to acting, to this dream I had as a little girl of getting to be a part of something that felt bigger than me, and to the youthful ambition I had.

I moved back to L.A. a few years ago, but New York will always be that special place for me. I mean, it was where I chased all my dreams as a young person, setting out to do what I felt was almost certainly impossible. But I must have some sort of sadistic streak inside of me, because I did it all anyway, despite all of the voices around me on multiple fronts advising me not to. For so long, my career and the idea that I was an actor felt hypothetical, and maybe I don’t want to lose that. Maybe it’s crucial for me to feel some degree of that still.

I experienced a lot of the highs and lows of trying to find work as an actor, including a chronic series of rejections, but I also faced a specific set of obstacles as an Asian-American woman trying to navigate this business. When I was first starting out, there was almost a complete absence of anyone who looked like me, both behind and in front of the camera. I felt for so long like I was Sisyphus, destined to push this rock up the hill for all of my life. Despite any strides I made with any work I got, I had to start all over again on the next job. But Asian-Americans in the industry have made some massive strides in recent years so I’m excited, and cautiously optimistic, for the future and where we’re headed.

I love mulching. That’s gardener-speak for throwing a bunch of wood chips on the ground. I love gardening and have become a fully plant-obsessed gardener. Gardening brings me such joy. The work I do as an actor can be so internal, so it’s really gratifying to do manual labor and to see the literal fruits that manifest out of that labor. It completes me and I get so much out of it.

Mulching is a very deliberate act that seems almost whimsical. What you’re doing is picking up wood chips and throwing them on the sections of your garden where you are preventing growth, in order to make space for other things to exist and bloom. So it’s a very conscious activity, actually. In the process of mulching, you are making space for possibility, and that contrast is something I’ve experienced in life, where through death, there’s life. Actually, it reminds me of a line in Past Lives where Nora’s mother tells Hae Sung’s mother that sometimes in order to gain something, you have to lose something. I guess mulching is a physical manifestation of that idea.

I’m one of those “pandemic gardeners.” When it seemed the world was ending, I found comfort in digging tiny holes and filling them with things. At the time, I was living in New York with my husband and our two young kids, and we were staring at each other, collectively at a loss for what the world was going to look like. As a family, we found solace in being outside and trying to make life during a time when it seemed like death was all around us. We were banging on our pots and pans every day for the brave healthcare workers, and then we went outside and tended to the garden. It was a very challenging and scary time, but I’m so grateful for how I was able to reconnect with life and find a new kind of grace in how we were going to proceed living it.

Watching the Audience at a Show
Any time I see live music, I love the feeling I get when I look at the audience and feel part of that collective experience, which has existed for as long as humans have stared en masse in one direction to receive something, whether it’s music or art or theater or just someone speaking. As someone who at times has felt like an outsider, that feeling is so binding and bonding for me. It feels like the perfect reminder of my own humanness and connectedness to other people. So, yes, I’m that crazy person who turns the other way at shows! There’s no disrespect to the person I’m there to see, but I do like to look around and take everything in.

I usually do this at concert halls or venues like the Hollywood Bowl, which is a great outdoor space. The proscenium there reminds me so much of Greco-Roman history and the history of the arc, and even just that we as humans invented a construct which has served us for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s so fascinating to me.

I love the experience of looking around and feeling that connectedness because I use it as fuel. On certain days when I feel bogged down by how embarrassing it is to be a human now, it’s a gentle reminder of the inherent good in us and our inherent desire to seek out art and a collective experience. It feels very invigorating and is a reminder to keep going. I guess it feels like an embrace, if that makes sense. It’s a visual and visceral reminder that, at the end of the day, despite whatever differences we may have, we’re all people. And that’s worthwhile.

Greta Lee is currently starring opposite Teo Yoo and John Magaro in Past Lives, writer-director Celine Song’s acclaimed romantic drama which is out now in theaters through A24. She was recently seen in Apple TV+’s The Morning Show and the critically acclaimed Netflix comedy Russian Doll, written and executive produced by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler. Greta is also currently adapting Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings for FX/Hulu with A24 and Onyx. She will star, write and executive produce the comedy series. Her other TV credits include recurring as Homeless Heidi on HBO’s High Maintenance,” and she has made memorable appearances on Girls, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City.