In The End We'll All Become Stories

In The End We'll All Become Stories

'Past Lives' is a story about love as an action. The choices we make about who to love, and the consequences of deciding who we can carry with us and who we must leave behind. It is about reconciling past and present identities, and what gets lost in translation between our former and our current lives. After standout supporting roles in 'Russian Doll' and 'The Morning Show', Greta Lee captured our hearts in her breakout leading role as Nora, creating a visceral, deeply moving portrait that we won't soon forget. She talked with 'Past Lives' writer and director, Celine Song, for Violet.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 19
Published: 2023/09/03
Updated: 2023/09/24
Zoey Grossman
Leith Clark
Celine Song



CELINE SONG: Greta, what was the most difficult and most heartbreaking part of playing this character for you?

GRETA LEE: The task of being handed the opportunity of serving as an interpreter of your gorgeous words and the script and story. There was my own innate difficulty of wanting to do it full service, and making sure I was going to live up to the promise of our incredible initial conversations that we first had on Zoom, just like this. I wanted to bottle up the feeling that we had, and what we articulated in that first conversation about our hopes and dreams for how we were going to tell this story. It was painful on a lot of levels to have to maintain stamina over many, many months. Honouring and protecting that dream because it felt so sacred. I sound like a fortune cookie, but I think you know what I mean.

I know exactly what you're saying. [Filming] is like peaks and valleys, but also about having something that is consistent, that is burning through the whole character and burning through the whole movie, you know?

I love the image of you and I holding a small candle that's burning. Just like passing this little candle and this flame, back and forth to each other.

I remember early on, right before we started filming, you said to me, ‘You're performing this for me. I'm here, it's just me.’ There was a directness that was so soothing, and it felt like you were my beacon of guidance. It was so comforting.

I know how lonely it is [as an actor]. Everybody on set and everybody in front of the screen is looking at you. They’re watching you. That's part of the job as an actor. You must be watched. You have to be looked at, and every gaze is some form of judgement. Even if it's a very positive one or if it's a very supportive one, it still is one, right?


But you and I know that we have a special task, which is to care for this character. I remember saying to you sometimes, ‘Don't worry. I'm not going to let you suck.’

Which is exactly what every actor wants to hear, again and again.

I know part of my job is saying that, right? ‘I know what you're afraid of, but don't worry, I'm not gonna let you do that. It matters too much to me, so I won't let you suck.’ And it's not just something that I told you. I said this to everyone who worked on the movie.

One of the big surprises for me in showing up in the way that I was being asked to show up by you, and by the work, and what we were striving for, was how much it was going to hurt. Not in a sentimental way – just the unlearning of myself in order to become Nora. To not judge what was going to come forth. It was not a passive thing at all, to be this woman, in a way that was exactly what she needed to be, no more, no less. I'm remembering the two books you gave me, 'The Art of Loving' and 'I'm A Beautiful Monster'. Do you want to tell me why you gave me those books?


Blazer, skirt and veil ERDEM.


Dress and shoes PRADA, Necklace and ring CARTIER.

'The Art of Loving' is a book that I cherish so much. It taught me about the art of loving in such a deep way. It taught me what I know about love. No, that's not true. I know what I know about love through my family and people in my life who give me love. But the clarity with which that book talks about love – as not something that is passive, but an act – it's weirdly been a fundamental part of my work since I've been reading it. So, to me it's like, that's just a gift I sometimes give when I know it can really expand someone’s relationship to how they're able to love.

I think sometimes [love] feels chaotic because it's so confusing. There's not enough language for it. I think that book provides a beautiful language for it. It emphasises the way that love is different than dating, which is a big part of the work that we were doing in the movie, too. The movie is very much about love, not dating. With I'm A Beautiful Monster, that’s a book I just really love because I know I feel like a monster sometimes.

In making this movie with you, we were talking about the ways that we feel like a monster or the way that we are freakish or wild — to be existing as a woman who wants to be the centre of her own universe, or a woman who wants to prioritise themselves when it comes to what they need from their work, for example. You're often made to feel like a monster [for wanting those things].



I'd read 'The Art of Loving' before, but it felt so totally different when I read it after we wrapped. You gave it to me as a wrap gift, and it just read so completely different after having finished shooting. The idea of loving as an act of service. It just hit differently, in a fascinating way.

And 'I'm a Beautiful Monster' just makes me think about a picture I texted you, of the two of us on set — I'm standing in profile, you're giving me a note, or we're talking or something, and you have a mask on. I could barely see your face because of Covid. But you're talking to me and there's something about the expression of my face and my stance of just how open I was in like, receiving you. The two of us together – I felt like our full monster selves were welcome and invited. We arrived at the job every day as fully formed version of ourselves.

It was exquisite to be able to work with you in that capacity where I never felt like you were holding back or manipulating something. There was just nothing of that sort. It felt bold and such a relief that from there, we can expand and really shoot for the stars and do everything we wanted to do. I know how valuable and rare that can be, you know? To have that communing of two women.

I'm curious about your relationship to love because my primary reference point is our movie. I'm deciphering certain things and maybe making assumptions. Nora has such a fierce, steady centeredness that I see in you, that goes way beyond your years of living. I'm curious, as a kid, were you always like that? Did you have an adult sensibility about love, or what you wanted out of it?

I think that we all have both: we all have the inner child, and we have the inner adult. I think it becomes a problem if one of them becomes a much louder voice for you. I think it is a bit of a holding both together, because I think part of being an adult is knowing when it's time for the kid and when it's time for the adult.

Knowing that is sort of at the heart of what this film is about. I don't think you can be an artist without the kid. And I know that you have a kid in you too. You know, I would sometimes be like, ‘look at Greta looking like a fucking eight-year-old there.’ You know you are just a kid inside as well. But I also know that you have the adultness, or the maturity. Both of those things are with you throughout your life.

It takes an incredible amount of wisdom to know that. There are a lot of adults who don't know what you just articulated — when to be an adult, when to be a child, when to even acknowledge the two of them. So much of that is not present in so many grownups. There's this quality to your work and the movie, where you’ve constructed these relationships and these people through such a generous lens. Is that learned? Or is it inherent in you? It's such a magnificent thing.

We watch Nora throughout three times in her life, right? [Adulthood] is something where you're developing and learning and it shouldn't be perfect, because it never is perfect for us in life, right? You guys were trying to find her youthfulness, after having worked as such a grownup throughout the film. We were all surprised how a little bit of hair and a little bit of a shift in acting [could change the perception of Nora’s age]. You guys weren't doing anything super weird, or method acting or going to extremes. It was so subtle.

I remember you telling me when we were shooting, ‘I'm adding just a pinch of unbridled ambition to this performance.’ I don't think anybody else in the room even noticed what you were doing. Just you and I could tell – adding just that little edge of youth, that edge of unbridled emotion, or unbridled desire. That can be enough for the whole audience to then be with her and recognise it [Nora’s shift in age]. I don't think when you go through something and you learn something, that you're suddenly an adult. I think it's so much more subtle…you barely notice it. Until you do.

That was what was so great about being in dialogue with each other, just getting that language right was so wonderful. And our shorthand, too, in speaking Korean. I don't think I'm ever going to have that with anyone else.


All clothing and shoes DIOR, rings CARTIER.


Dress and shoes PRADA, necklace and ring CARTIER.

I think it's one of those weird gifts – doing so much of the movie in Korean while shooting in New York. Full department heads, PAs, people just didn't know what we were doing or saying sometimes, right? They were just trusting us.

In some ways, it makes the process more difficult because like, the script supervisor didn't really know when a line was flubbed. You guys rarely flubbed any lines — I don't remember a single time that happened — but the hope is that the script supervisor is able to take care of that. But it's like, well, the script supervisor doesn't know. I think that we made up for that difficulty by having our secret code.

There was something electric about having that absence of a conventional feedback loop. There's an element on other gigs where you're performing to an audience, the crew. Because that was completely taken away, that essence is signature to this movie where we're taking those super intimate, simple, sometimes mundane exchanges but made them feel sparkly, made them feel cosmic and otherworldly.

I remember there was a moment in that amazing scene you were doing with John in the bedroom. It's the first time that most of the crew members who don't speak Korean knew what scene it was because it was one of the few English-language scenes.

What was so amazing was that I could feel physically, tangibly, that the whole set shifted a little bit when it came to being like, ‘maybe we're working on a great movie’. Because before that scene, there was just no way for them to know: they could tell things were beautiful, they could tell that you guys had beautiful expressions on your faces, and they were shooting it in a beautiful way. It looked really good, but they didn't know if it was going to be a good story or a good movie until you did that performance in English with John. And you guys are doing nothing but talking. That scene was a big movement forward for our making of the film because there's something about it where something just got unlocked.

As a first-time filmmaker — which is totally insane because you do not present as a first-time filmmaker in any way — thinking back to shooting in New York City with our crew, I'm curious if you could comprehend just how weird and beautiful and, not to be hyperbolic, but historic, it felt like such a fucking flex shooting at these locations, you know? On a ferry in front of the Statue of Liberty, on the waterfront with both bridges in the background.

What did that feel like for you? Our crew was multilingual and so diverse, from all over. I mean, Shab [cinematographer Shabier Kirchner] serving as the cinematographer, you know, he put the Korean patch on his camera, and I think he put the American flag on it too. It felt palpable to me that the magic of the process was being reflected in the movie. Something about it just felt like this beautiful carnival.




Dress PRADA, necklace CARTIER.

I didn't have something to compare it to. I was just trying to make sure that we could get what we needed. But I do think it's important that you, Greta, feel such a connection and ownership of the process we had. I feel like having you as the face and the heart of the movie and for you to show up every day and do the job, but to really do it from your heart and from such a fundamental place that the movie needed and how much it mattered to you, it’s so palpable in how I was able to put this together.

It would be difficult for me to ask every single person on set to care about the movie when the person we’re centering our entire production around and looking at on the screen every day doesn't give a shit. But in fact, there were moments where I was able to rely on you in that way where I'll be like, ‘Well, Greta's here, Greta's on set, Greta's gonna show up.’ And I know that because of 10 things that didn't go right, that we don't have time to do the 10 shots that we wanted to do, but I know that we have time for two shots, and I know that Greta will deliver.

One of my favourite things you said while we were shooting was something along the lines of, ‘Anyone can tell a joke but not everyone can tell a cosmic joke.’

I think I asked you to perform, just with your eyes, a cosmic joke. You can only do that when your actors are great. You just have to say the thing that you need, and then sometimes the actors will come and meet it. How are you gonna do a cosmic joke, you know? At the end of the day, all I can hope for is to say that it has to be a cosmic joke, then wait for Greta Lee to show me what that is [laughs].

So many times, people were like, ‘Where do you get Greta's wardrobe in the film? Where do you get Nora's outfits?’. And I'm just like, ‘Listen, they're so good’.

They're iconic.

Exactly. Again, this is a thing you sometimes [ask], as the director. It has to be something impossible, and then it happens. I was like, ‘It has to look like an average person is wearing it with no agenda whatsoever. No agenda but also has to look fucking iconic.’ Katina [Danabassis, Past Lives costume designer] made that happen. I was looking at it, thinking, ‘I don't know how, but my description of what this outfit should be is how this outfit is.’ All I had to do was tell Katina that, that it needs to be bad. Magical. It's amazing when it works, you know?


All clothes and shoes PRADA.


All clothing PRADA, necklace and ring CARTIER.


Blazer and skirt ERDEM, shoes GINA.


Dress HONOR, earrings CARTIER.


Sweater LOEWE, tights TARGET.


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