GRETA THE GREAT. We welcome wholeheartedly to SBJCT the gorgeous, wickedly funny actor Greta Lee, whose astute observations on her place in this space at this current conjecture of a time I find to be particularly wry and observant. I think we could all use some honest takes on our human-ness. Read on from Greta on plenty of, ahem, SBJCTS, including why Art Matters and all…
BY ERIN WALSH
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Erin Walsh How did you get started in the biz? and WHY?
Greta Lee Like all the very best actors I know, I got my start in my living room, starring in the titular role of the musical “Annie.” I habitually sang “Tomorrow” until my chords bled. So imagine my surprise when my family encouraged me to attend college far, far, far away at Northwestern University. I majored in Theater with a certificate in Musical Theater. Then I moved to New York after graduating and have been waiting tables, I mean, acting ever since.
EW Help me out here. I realize I am a white woman asking this question, but I find it to be both important and inspiring how you both draw attention to and celebrate your Asian-ness, and also manage to let it go. As a child, I remember the mass thinking was to pretend everyone was the same. Obviously, this has evolved since then. Of course everyone should be treated the same, but I find it extremely important to acknowledge and celebrate our differences. Has your ability to do so in your work changed over the years? And do you find you have a responsibility through your work to acknowledge past stereotypes? I know this is several questions- I guess what I most want to know is, how do you present your identity in your work and what do you find your responsibility to be?
GL HA. Not letting me off the hook here, Erin. Let me try to speak on this without conferencing in my therapist. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that I can represent Asians in the media. We are still so wholly underrepresented. It’s shocking and alarming. It keeps me up at night. On the other hand, and I hope this isn’t a cop out answer, but I wrestle with even this idea that I must present my identity through my work in a way that’s any different than my white peers. I know a lot of POCs share my frustration that it puts too much of “the work” on us to fix the systems of white supremacy. It’s what I’ve explained to my friends and family as the “Hot Potato Game,” as in, here, you take the potato for a minute. We need allies. Ultimately, all I can do is be honest about who I am and continue to pursue roles that paint full pictures of what it is to be a human-person, Asian or not.
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EW What do you like most about being an actor?
GL It’s impossible to master.
EW What do you like the least?
GL It’s impossible to master.
EW What is your most sacred responsibility as a performer?
GL Telling the truth for better or for worse. The camera can always tell when you are lying.
EW SO you are pretty f-ing funny. Where does this come from?
GL My parents are ridiculously funny but they don’t identify as funny people. My dad’s a doctor and my mom’s a pianist… with comedic timing. Please don’t tell them I told you – it’s very off-brand for them and would ruin their reputations.
EW Tell me about being a parent and working, especially with the schedules of a freelance artist. How do you find your rhythm? How do you manage?
GL It. Is. So. Hard. I’m still figuring it out and it’s a constant negotiation. My hubs and I shoot for 50-50 in our household which has proven to be more difficult than a traditional arrangement in certain aspects. There’s no 50-50 for walking the dog. Meaning, the pitfall is two people trying to do half of everything. But then the extra energy it takes to constantly split responsibilities makes me want to hide in a crate of boxed wine. Everything’s perfect. Next question.
EW Is there any sort of 5 or 10 or 20 year plan for you? What do you most have in mind to accomplish?
GL Generally speaking, any time I’ve set some sort of plan like this, something very different happens. What is that book “The Secret” – my M.O. seems to be a tragi-comedic subversion. So let me just say that in 20 years I hope to be making and selling my own goat cheese. But the truth is I want to write, direct, and produce, and have about 16 more kids because they’ve turned out so cute so far. There, she said it.
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EW What do you most wish journalists would stop asking you?
GL The “Asian questions” are tricky. There’s the assumption that I live with my Asian-ness at the forefront of my existence. Here is my asian foot taking a step. Now my asian hand is pushing this door. My asian bowels have IBS. But I feel conflicted because I also very much appreciate people like you, Erin, wanting to engage with me on the subject of identity. It’s helpful to talk about. But yes, it’s also a balance.
EW What do you most enjoy about being a mother?
GL There is no way I could have imagined this kind of love. It’s like discovering whole new chambers of your heart that you never knew existed. There have been instances when I’ve been tempted to call myself an ambulance because of “cuteness overload.” I know how this sounds, but I cannot apologize for it.
If you are on good terms with yourself, no matter what happens, you will be okay.
EW What do you least enjoy about being a mother?
GL Along with the good, being a mom has also brought to the surface every crutch, every bad habit, all my flaws. It’s forced me to be better. And oof, it’s not always easy. It’s a painful process to really look at myself and identify the things that just won’t and can’t fly anymore. And motherhood has done a real number on my nipples.
EW Do you enjoy parenting in NYC?
GL I love it but it’s all I know! Sure, it’s possible everything could be easier if we lived somewhere slower and quieter. We don’t have family here sadly and it’s no substitute but what a beautiful thing to have our New York surrogates. I fully subscribe to “it takes a village.” Our village includes the corner Korean juice store woman who nags me for not dressing my kids warmly enough. In my defense, this happens even during the summer.
EW Tell me about an ideal day for you.
GL I’m really laughing thinking about how much the answer has changed from just a few years ago. An ideal day for me is waking up early to do some sort of exercise before the kids are awake, having breakfast together without any whining about an unrealistic more desserty option, getting everyone out the door, and then going to set, wrapping in time to make it home for dinner and bedtime with the babes, nightcap with my husband, do some writing, asleep by 11. This has happened exactly twice in my life.
EW What do you most hope to pass on to your children?
GL Growing up, my parents used to tell me that the most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself. People can come and go. There will be surprises, both great and terrible. But if you are on good terms with yourself, no matter what happens, you will be okay. This really isn’t translating very well from Korean. But I want to pass on this kind of self-assuredness to my kids.
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EW What do you hope your legacy to be?
GL I used to have a real chip on my shoulder about the value I might bring to this world as a performer. My closest friends have very different occupations than I do, ones that aren’t so inward facing or seemingly self-serving. But I’ve come to be very proud about the chances I get to make people, yes, think or expand their horizons, but also, just laugh or feel entertained. I have so much compassion for other actors and creators who commit their lives to this. If I can keep doing this while also making a young asian girl or boy feel like they aren’t so invisible, then are you kidding me? Start digging my grave. I won’t willingly get in until I’m 100 but I’ll feel like I have a legacy.
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EW Favorite food?
GL I cannot possibly answer this question succinctly.
EW What piece of work that you have done are you most proud of? Least?
GL I did a play in London that transferred to broadway called La Bete, which maybe 4 people have seen. It was in iambic pentameter and 16th century France. I played a maid who only spoke in words that rhyme with blue. At the same time I was a host on an MTV show doing live segments like, “How to dress like Taylor Swift for under $50” in Times Square. Was gonna say I was proud of only one, but now that I think about it, proud of both. What a wacko time.
EW I have been thinking a lot about being conscious of the choices we make on a daily basis. How do you ground yourself? Having kids and working really makes the days move rather quickly. How do you stay conscious? I know, deep thoughts, but I am genuinely curious.
GL I have been trying a new thing where every day I try to listen to one song in its full entirety, start to finish, with intention. No multitasking, no phone. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this is very hard for me.
EW Any charities or causes we should start paying more attention to?
GL Wide Rainbow is a nonprofit after school contemporary arts program for underserved and neglected youth in NYC and it’s outer boroughs. Apex for Youth is a great foundation helping Asian and immigrant youth in NYC. And a plan for universal child care is a policy issue that I am very riled up about.
EW Any books or theater or film we must immediately see?
GL I just saw Parasite from Bong Joon Ho. #$%&*! Holy bleepity-bleep-bloop.
EW What moves your Greta Lee? Whats your SBJCT?
GL ART! THE GOOD KIND!
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