Greta Lee Gets Uncomfortable

As she settles back into California, the Russian Doll actress reflects on the fight-or-flight reflex that’s been a driving force in her life.

Photographs by Cole Barash
Styled by Sean Knight

Greta wears a dress by Alaïa.

The actress Greta Lee swore on her grave that she would never, ever return to her hometown of La Cañada Flintridge, a Southern California suburb known colloquially as La Cañada. Growing up at the foothills of the Verduro Mountains, just nudging the San Gabriel Valley to the southeast, Lee was “one of those L.A. kids who never felt comfortable there,” she tells me during a recent video call. While in the throes of classic teenage angst and rebellion, Lee would drive to a parking lot by the La Cañada country club and smoke Camel Lights, gazing into the expanse of greater Los Angeles, dreaming about the moment she could move to New York City, where she’d pursue her dreams of acting—and, no doubt, finally be accepted for who she was. “I just felt like, ‘I gotta get out of here, I am never coming back,’” she recalls. “‘Fuck this town, this is a shit town.’”

Greta wears a dress by Proenza Schouler.

And yet, in 2020, after living in Brooklyn for more than a decade, she and her husband moved with their two children into a home located less than 30 minutes away from the place she vowed never to go near—a place she’d been avoiding for years. And here she is, doing a photoshoot for W in Descanso Gardens, a botanical garden she used to visit, resentfully, as a child. Now, she’s wearing “beautiful Alaïa, or whatever it is, and I’m basically naked,” she recalls to me a few weeks after the shoot. “So just imagine: I’m naked, and this net thing I’m wearing is symbolic of clothing, truly just the essence—a whisper of clothing. And I look up and I see a gaggle of Korean women in huge visors approaching. And I realize—oh my god, that is Eric Kim’s mom.” Eric Kim was a “random guy” from Lee’s childhood who she hasn't seen in more than 20 years. But the image of his mother is imprinted into her brain—because there’s nothing that can elicit the kind of hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up fear like encountering a group of Asian mothers from your past. The mothers, of course, clock her, realize they know this person, and begin elbowing each other, giggling. “I’m just dying, trying to find a flattering angle, trying to vanish, to teleport myself to a different universe to avoid making eye contact with Eric Kim’s mom.”

In a nutshell, that experience is what it feels like for Lee to be in Los Angeles: “Having to face my past in the most exposing, uncomfortable, nightmare version of how I would want it to go down,” she says, chuckling to herself as she pulls the strings on her bright red McDonald's-branded hoodie.

But as Lee tells it, living in a state of constant discomfort—and not only that, but creating art and work from that uncomfortable place—is the only thing she knows. (“It’s my brand!,” she tells me cheerfully.) Discomfort, funnily enough, also happens to be a marker for the milestones in Lee’s Hollywood career. Since 2006—the year Lee landed her first role on Law and Order: SVU—the actress has made a name for herself by playing irreverent, kooky weirdos on shows like Girls, High Maintenance, Inside Amy Schumer, and The Morning Show. The role she’s best known for at this very moment, however, is as Maxine on Russian Doll, the Netflix series that quickly became a hit when its first season released in 2019. In it, Maxine is the fabulously fashionable, cocaine-laced-joint-smoking best friend of Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov. Maxine has thrown a birthday party for Nadia that quickly becomes a nightmare, when the birthday girl discovers she’s been thrown into a cruel time loop: she keeps dying over and over, reliving the same night again and again, awaking in the bathroom of Maxine’s apartment after each cycle. (Maxine’s recurring line, “Sweet birthday baaaaaby!” which she delivered every time Nadia emerged from the bathroom, became a fan favorite.)

Greta wears a dress by Balenciaga.

On April 20, the long-awaited second season of Russian Doll will air. For fans expecting a continuation of the time loop concept, think again. This time around, Nadia has the ability to time travel. The season still tackles the same core themes—addiction, family, hitting rock bottom—but deploys a different structure. Lee didn’t know what to expect in terms of narrative until the very moment she received scripts. In the Russian Doll universe, nothing is off limits. “I was like, are we gonna be underwater, are we gonna be in outer space? Am I even playing the same character?”

Lee is still the same fast-talking, supportive best friend, but the scope of her character widens this season. “Maxine’s investigating other questions, like motherhood,” Lee says of the upcoming episodes. “Some of the things that Nadia is questioning, Maxine is too, in her own way. Maxine is so direct and she’s so incredibly at peace and honest. She has a really strong grasp on her core values and her core self. It’s fun to play someone like that.”

Embodying a self-assured character became a point of comfort in the midst of the pandemic, especially when Lee, Lyonne, and the rest of the Russian Doll cast and crew headed to Budapest for part of the shoot. Lee was so jet lagged that she spent “half the time in a dream state,” she says. “I’m not a method actor, however, going to Eastern Europe during Covid to film the show, and having to play a person on a specific journey where they’re dropped into a whole new world—I mean, let’s just say it was easy to access.”

Greta wears a dress by Rodarte.

On her days off, instead of visiting the then-shuttered sights she’d once hoped to see—the opera, the natural hot springs—she rode a double-decker bus on a tour of the city with a group of rowdy French soccer fans. During shoot days, she was introduced to a whole new world of Covid-era filming, one that robbed her of one very key thing she does on set of every project: stress eat. “I like to carry a handful of nuts in my pocket so I don’t get low blood sugar,” she says, “Or I’ll keep a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos with me—just emotionally! I may never touch them, but they are in my costume, or in my care. It’s that postwar mind-set. It’s generational and we inherit it culturally: I know the snack is there, just in case there’s a war, or in case something really dire that could be so surprising for everyone else happens—I’m ready.”

She attributes this “postwar mind-set” to being raised by two Korean-American parents in the United States. Her mother, a concert pianist, and her father, a medical practitioner, married in Seoul before moving to Los Angeles and giving birth to Lee. Their immigrant story, she explains, was wholly imperfect—her parents didn’t just move to the shining beacon that is America and start living their dream. Especially not when the specter of the model minority myth loomed over their heads, no matter where they went. “And this pressure obviously still exists,” she says. “If we are given the chance to show ourselves, there’s a very tight framework within which we are allowed to exist. Inherent to that experience is how confusing it is—how murky and full of gaslighting it is, just being Asian in America. And it’s taken me a long time to even want to see it.”

Growing up, Lee had tons of energy—she was like a rod of electricity in the form of a child, running around the house constantly. Her existence stood in stark contrast to the stereotypes ascribed to Asian Americans: quiet, submissive, obliging. As a way to channel her élan, Lee’s parents enrolled her in classical singing classes; she’d participate in local competitions where she sang Baroque music. “I won the Bach Festival!” she adds with a note of pride. “I was an arty kid, but I was also an immigrant kid in that I did well in school, and certainly had that stereotypical but very real pressure to succeed academically.” Once she turned 18, Lee’s game of see-saw between her personal desires and the cultural expectations put upon her continued. Her dreams of New York City were still palpable, but put temporarily on hold while she attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. There, she studied theater, and began participating in sketch comedy. She realized people found her funny. It was a life-changing revelation—but not one that made her feel like any less of an outsider.

Greta wears a dress by Proenza Schouler.

“Even for me, as an actor, it’s still a struggle to accept that’s what I am,” she says. “I’ve always operated in the gray area. As a kid, I was a dancer who wanted to be a singer, then a singer who wanted to be an actor and then an actor who wanted to do comedies and then Broadway, and now, I’m an actor who wants to write. It never made sense, and it still doesn’t.”

Lee managed to find her footing in the industry, despite it all. And if she knows one thing about herself, it’s that a state of discomfort can lead to some beautiful work. At the moment, she’s in the middle of adapting the book Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong into a TV series for FX’s Onyx Collective, a content brand that prioritizes work made by creators of color. She wanted to participate in Minor Feelings from the moment she began reading the book in 2020, during that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and racial reckonings. “It really cracked open so much for me,” she says of the text. “It sounds cliché, but that book changed my life, as it did for a lot of people. We felt like finally, it’s pointing at something that has existed and is inherent to the experience of being an Asian American woman that’s so slippery and hard to pin down, in a way no one could argue with.”

Lee acknowledges that, especially since moving back to Los Angeles, she has no real need for the fight or flight, always-on-edge gene that exists within her. She’s settling nicely into Southern California with her family, far away from the fast pace and nutso lifestyle she enjoyed in New York City. (And when I say enjoyed, I mean she really did love it: “The thing that’s crazy about us people is what happens when you don’t have that battle anymore. Living in New York, feeling like it’s life or death daily, to now just this, it can really make you bananas.”)

“I’m in transition here, trying to figure out, okay, if I don’t have that element: riding the subway, breaking a sweat just trying to buy groceries and feeling like, ‘I really almost died this time, I barely made it home with these essentials,’ it’s very disorienting,” she says. But one way she’s adjusting is by gardening. Back in Brooklyn, she could barely get an indoor house plant to not die. Now, a few times a week, she puts on a huge hat and a pair of gardening gloves, and takes care of the land around her house. “I just planted a bunch of baby oak trees, these native California, coastal oaks,” she says. “I may not be able to enjoy them in their full development as a tree, in my lifetime, but talk about putting down roots—I’m literally doing that.”

Hair by Nikki Providence; Makeup by Sophie Haig.