Greta Lee from 'Russian Doll' and 'Girls' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders "Sweet birthday baby!" Greta Lee talks about her role in the critically acclaimed Netflix show 'Russian Doll,' starring Natasha Lyonne as a woman who can't stop dying and reliving the same night. Greta tells guest-host Julia Furlan how the show was reincarnated from a failed NBC pilot, why she still struggles to avoid Asian-American stereotypes in television and what to expect from the HBO show she's developing.

'Russian Doll' Star Greta Lee

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR, I'm Julia Furlan, in for Sam Sanders.




FURLAN: If you enjoyed "Russian Doll" on Netflix, you know this jam.


HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) Got to get up, got to get out, got to get home before the morning comes. What if I'm late? Got a...

FURLAN: "Russian Doll" is the dark comedy starring Natasha Lyonne created by Lyonne with Amy Poehler and playwright Leslye Headland. It premiered on Netflix to rave reviews this year. And this song is Harry Nilsson's Gotta Get Up.


FURLAN: We hear it over and over again as Nadia, the main character, played by Natasha Leone, keeps dying and reliving the same night, the night of her birthday party. Each time, she reappears in the bathroom of her friend Maxine's apartment.


GRETA LEE: (As Maxine) Sweet birthday baby.

FURLAN: Maxine is hosting the party.


LEE: (As Maxine) Sweet birthday baby, having fun?

Sweet birthday baby.

Sweet birthday baby.

Sweet birthday baby, having fun? It's way too...

NATASHA LYONNE: (As Nadia) The universe is trying to [expletive] with me.

FURLAN: Maxine is played by Greta Lee, one of the few characters who's also caught up in Nadia's time loop. When we sat down in New York, I kind of couldn't help myself.

Can I do something?

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: Sweet birthday baby.

LEE: OK. So I was thinking.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Maybe I should just quit acting...

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: ...And get some sort of deal going with Netflix, like, anytime someone says that to me, I get something, you know...

FURLAN: Royalties.

LEE: ...Minimal, just like 5 cents.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

Of course, her part is way more than that. And Greta is also known for roles on HBO as Heidi on "High Maintenance" and Soojin on "Girls." She's appeared on "Inside Amy Schumer" and on "Broad City," and she's got a development deal at HBO to write and star in a new show there that I'm so thrilled about. We talked about all of that, about Greta's rise in the New York comedy scene, about working with Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler and about how the three of them worked together years ago on a failed TV show pilot that was reborn as "Russian Doll." Here's our chat.


NILSSON: (Singing) There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to 10. We never thought it would end then. We never thought it would end.

FURLAN: You actually - you used to live in LA, and you reverse commuted to New York as an actor.

LEE: So weird.

FURLAN: I can't believe that people would choose New York over LA...

LEE: I know.

FURLAN: ...That, like, beautiful, sunny world.

LEE: Makes no sense.

FURLAN: Please explain.

LEE: Yeah. You sound like my mom.

FURLAN: (Laughter) I'm sorry.

LEE: (Laughter) God, Mom. It's been almost 15 years, OK?

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: I'm - I live in New York, OK?

FURLAN: Let it go (laughter).

LEE: Yeah. No, I - my whole family still lives in LA. They think I'm so weird because I choose this life (laughter).

FURLAN: I - it's been said of anyone who lives here.

LEE: Yeah, right? I'm obviously in LA a lot because of work, and it brings me there, and my family's there. But I - I've said that what it has proven to be so necessary for me to just keep going in whatever this weird business that it is that I'm involved with is just, like, being connected to people, other people...


LEE: ...Strangers.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Basically all the things that everyone in LA, they are repulsed by, I need that in order to do what I do. Like, I can't imagine living in some house, like, on a beautiful hill with perfect lighting and having the tools in my tool belt to inhabit these people. It's just - it's imperative that I, like, have to rub shoulders, whether I like it or not, with all these people.

FURLAN: I agree. I think sometimes you're in a subway car, and you see a tiny kindness that just gets stuck in your head. Like, somebody is nice to somebody else for no reason, or somebody is just, like, sobbing, and a stranger comes up to them and is like, hey...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...I'm sorry you're sad. You know, like, there are also - there are terrible things (laughter) that also happen that, you know, we're not talking about that stuff.

LEE: Yeah. Yeah, not those.

FURLAN: Not those. I don't know what you're talking about.

LEE: Just the good stuff.

FURLAN: Yeah, Mom.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: (Laughter) Is your family from LA originally?

LEE: They are from Korea, from South Korea. And they moved to LA first and had me, and then we moved to the East Coast. And then we moved back from Canarsie, Brooklyn to Los Angeles. And I went to ESL class because I had a very strange mix of - Korean was my first language - Korean and a fake Brooklyn accent, I'm going to say.


LEE: I'm going to prescribe to my young self.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: And now I just sound like a Valley Girl.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: So here we go. Doesn't life make complete sense?

FURLAN: Congrats (laughter).

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: When I was five we lived in Massachusetts. But I also - I was born in Brazil, and then I grew up in Mass. But then I lived in LA, and then we lived in Massachusetts.

LEE: Where in Massachusetts? We lived in Massachusetts too.

FURLAN: In Acton, Mass.

LEE: Acton? OK.


LEE: I don't know where that is.

FURLAN: Where did you live?

LEE: I lived in Springfield, Mass.

FURLAN: Springfield, yeah. But I, for a brief time, had a, like, very strong Boston accent. I was like, I'm going to at (ph) class. And I remember my family friend being like, you have to get her out of there.

LEE: (Laughter) Exactly.

FURLAN: (Laugher) OK. So "Russian Doll..."

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Is your show on Netflix.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: It is delightful.

LEE: Oh, thanks.

FURLAN: It is so much fun. I had a wonderful time consuming it in four days. Like, just...

LEE: Oh, my gosh. Did you sleep OK?



FURLAN: I didn't sleep enough, though.

LEE: (Laughter).

FURLAN: I was up until, like, 1:30, 2 a.m. because I could not stop. My husband left me - I mean, not forever, just...

LEE: Oh, God. Because I - yeah, I was like, I'm so sorry.

FURLAN: ...During the show. He was like, I (laughter)...

LEE: Don't put that on me, OK? (Laughter).

FURLAN: No, he, like - he was like, look, you're blowing through these too fast.

LEE: (Laughter).

FURLAN: I'm going to need you - I - I'm going to need to take a break. But it - it's a show that's written by women, and it feels like it has, like, a really connected group of women behind it, onscreen and offscreen, in all different areas.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: Can you talk to me a little bit about how that may be different from other experiences that you've had?

LEE: Yeah. Well, OK, I was thinking about this particular crew of women and what it is that feels so different and special about this because I've worked - you know, I've worked with other women before.

FURLAN: Shocking.

LEE: Yeah. But there's, this, like, shared quality amongst us. Well, first of all, I think, like, everyone's kind of a theater nerd secretly or maybe not so secretly. Leslye Headland is an extremely prolific playwright. Natasha too.

FURLAN: Yeah. Natasha did a bunch of stage work.

LEE: Stage work under her belt.


LEE: There's that, and there's also this - I hope I'm not, like, speaking out of turn here. But there's this sort of, like, shared self-identifying, like, underdog quality to the group.


LEE: Which, by the way, is very, very difficult to - when our show on IMDB is number one. So...

FURLAN: Right. It's, like, a super success.

LEE: It's really weird.

FURLAN: (Laughter) Nobody's ready.

LEE: Feels very strange. (Laughter) And everyone - I think, you know, it's incredible. But I think, for self-identifying, like, underdogs, we are used to being ignored or rejected. So this feeling - what is this feeling? So uncomfortable.

FURLAN: The hives are success, actually.

LEE: Yes. Oh, is that what it is? OK. This...

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: (Laughter) My, like, cortisol cream has, like, really not - I need something stronger.


LEE: But I think that we (laughter) - our kind of communal response to this success is actually, like, what drew me to this story and how we were going to tell it. Basically, all of us are - have felt that there is something deeply [expletive] up about each of us by society's standards.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Do you know what I mean?


LEE: And I think - so in the making of this show, it never felt like we were doing anything other than trying to tell this kind of, like, punk, dark, twisted, absurd story that was - you know, I think everyone kind of felt like, we're - let's just go for broke and see. And now to have it have this response, like, it's neat to feel, like, these very personal themes and life experiences can be so universal. I mean, that does feel, like, very life-affirming and...


LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: I've seen a lot of writing about the show that says that it's a dark show that is deeply life-affirming, that, you know, like, the underlying - my friend and former colleague Bim Adewunmi wrote this wonderful piece about how it's a show that ultimately tells everybody that you need to choose each other and sort of, like, choose the goodness in the world and move towards that, no matter what.

LEE: Right. Right.

FURLAN: I have a theory about it. Are you ready?

LEE: Yeah. I'm so ready.

FURLAN: This is exactly what you want, is a person giving you a theory about a thing that you made...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...A piece of art. But it feels like a very New York show. And I think the underdog quality and the sort of, like, self-hating but also relying on other people, these are things that New Yorkers have to do and choose to do over and over and over again.

LEE: Yeah. It's like we're living our own time loops as New Yorkers every day.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: It's like, I just barely survived, like, almost died four times. Let's try it again.

FURLAN: Exactly. What are we going to do?

LEE: Like, come on, C train. What you got?

FURLAN: Got to get up (laughter).

LEE: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

FURLAN: (Laughter) So I feel like we're in a time where the categories for creators are sort of breaking down. Like, you don't have to be a comedic actor or a dramatic actor or just a writer or any one of these things. And "Russian Doll" feels very of that moment, where, you know, people are behind the camera and in front of the camera. And they're writing, and they're performing. What do you think about that?

LEE: It's so tiring. We used to just be able to be good at one thing, just one thing at a time. And now I have to be, like, an actor, writer, director, DJ...

FURLAN: Social media star.

LEE: ...Slash ceramicist...

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: ...Slash, you know, like, beekeeper. Let me be good at one thing and go home and go to sleep and try again at that one thing. But no, we can't do that anymore. No, it's a great thing. I think that that is a result also from people realizing, if we want to tell our own stories, well, no one's going to be better at doing that than yourself, right? It's, like, congratulations. You're your own writers' room.

FURLAN: Exactly.

LEE: Go. You just have to just do it on your own. Like, you can't wait. And this show, Natasha and Amy, it's been a - it's been years in the making.

FURLAN: Right.

LEE: We did this pilot together, "Old Soul," for NBC.

FURLAN: Five years ago, right?

LEE: Five years ago. It failed. And then that was the - that planted the seeds for this, which is, you know, much darker and much more interesting.

FURLAN: Is it much more interesting?

LEE: Oh, my God (laughter). Yeah. I have this picture of us in costume for this show for NBC. It's hilarious 'cause I think it's set in New York. I mean, we are, like, the network - can you imagine a network TV...

FURLAN: The network...

LEE: ...Version of "Russian Doll"?


LEE: Instead of, like, "Gotta Get Up," it'd be, like, a Maroon 5 song.

FURLAN: It would be.

LEE: Or, like, I mean...

FURLAN: You know, like...

LEE: Oh, and it wouldn't even be me. It'd be, like, Selena Gomez or someone.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: What are we kidding ourselves?

FURLAN: Fair. Fair point.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: So it feels like it was, like, a really lucky, wonderful thing that it happened.

LEE: Yeah, that we failed.

FURLAN: That it got to - that you got this other chance to do it. It's a very "Russian Doll" experience.

LEE: Yeah. Again, but we're underdogs who are used to failure. So this is very confusing for us to accept that, like, it worked.

FURLAN: (Laughter). So I watched it in four days...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Just like a marathon. I consumed it so - like, in one fell swoop. I wonder how you feel about people consuming something that you tried so hard to craft and that has been so many years in the making, and then people consume it just, like, all in one fell swoop, like it's a cheeseburger, and they haven't eaten all day.

LEE: (Laughter).

FURLAN: Do you have feelings about that? Like, the way the audience comes to your work?

LEE: Well I didn't, but now I do.

FURLAN: Sorry. Now you feel like that (laughter).

LEE: Now I'm getting worked up about it. I - yeah, the scale that - I guess that is also very "Russian Doll". The time is - with TV shoots, it takes so much longer...

FURLAN: Right?

LEE: ...Than people think. Even, you know, (laughter) I initially thought, OK, this is going to be the easiest shoot. Look at this script - time loops.

FURLAN: Really?

LEE: Love a time loop. Great. We're going to shoot out that first party scene. Sweet birthday baby. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Smoke, smoke. You can just, like, keep using that, right? One and done? No (laughter).

FURLAN: Turns out. Wow.

LEE: Months and months. Yeah, I mean, of course. Like, I - each time we reset, we were sort of treating it like its own show.

FURLAN: Completely new thing.

LEE: Yeah. And we'd start from the beginning and really sit down and meticulously plan out, OK, what just happened? How did she die the time before? What is she looking for this next time? All those things, like, we talked about.

FURLAN: These are conversations that you guys had, yeah.

LEE: Basically I tried to phone it in, but they wouldn't let me.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: You know, like, OK, let's just do it. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Let's go.


LEE: Nope. No.

FURLAN: Did you have that preparation? Like, were you carrying the previous world into your character too?

LEE: It was hard not to. I think it would've been easier if I could live in this vacuum where, yeah, I was just separated from all of that. But Natasha is so - she wears everything on her sleeve. It just - sometimes I say to her - I'm like, it's because your - girl, your eyes are so big. You just can't lie (laughter).

FURLAN: (Laughter) She has a big face.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: She has big expressions.

LEE: Yeah. It's like, it must be hard for you because you can't hide anything on that face.


LEE: And every time we got together to shoot those scenes, it just - yeah. It's harder to ignore that, is what I'm trying to say.

FURLAN: Right. Like, each time you encountered Natasha Lyonne, it was...

LEE: She was different every time. Yeah.

FURLAN: That's really incredible.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: That's a huge feat.

LEE: Yeah. She really - she's amazing. I don't know if you can tell, but I'm a fan. I'm a fan of hers (laughter).

FURLAN: Same. I don't know if you can tell, but so am I. There was a tweet by Louis Peitzman that called it the Natasha Lyonnaissance (ph). Like, I'm so happy to be alive for the Natasha Lyonnaissance.

LEE: I - aren't we all? It's just like, finally. Yes.

FURLAN: I know.


FURLAN: It's time for a break. When we come back, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and the network of women in New York comedy.


FURLAN: So you had roles on "Girls" and "Broad City" and "High Maintenance". And these are shows that really feel like ensemble performances where, like, you see the characters on screen, and you know that this might be, like, all made up in your head, but it feels like everyone has really good chemistry. And maybe, like, they walk out of frame, and they're, like, giggling to each other about that scene, or they're going out for coffee or drinks or whatever later.

Is that something that you've cultivated on purpose in the community that you found in acting, or was that sort of something that you walked into? Or am I making it up because the chemistry is so good on screen?

LEE: (Laughter) Well - OK. I think that - I think what was happening was there's, like, really this, like, movement, this, like, class of women in comedy who were coming up together at around the same time in New York. And I think that some of those relationships that you're seeing on these shows for me were happening in real life as we were all getting to know each other over the last few years. But, like, what you're seeing on camera probably, at that time, it was engineered. It's fake.

FURLAN: It was just a - oh, my God. Acting is fake?

LEE: It's not real.

FURLAN: Listeners, I'm so sorry to break this to you.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: So you're saying that, like, it was a group of women in comedy, like Ilana and Abbi...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...And the, like, UCB folk? And that sort of, like, group of women in comedy were uplifting each other and...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Recommending each other for roles and whatnot?

LEE: Yeah. Like, the way I met Amy Schumer, (laughter), I met her at a Noah Baumbach movie audition. Neither of us got the part.

FURLAN: Shocking.

LEE: I don't think either of us even got called back (laughter).

FURLAN: I mean...

LEE: And it was one of those, like, New York moments after we were brutalized...

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: ...Where we were taking the elevator down, and we were just like, you know, talking shop and just saying, like, how'd that go? How'd that go for you? I mean, just so miserable. Right?

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: But that was right before Amy - "Inside Amy Schumer" was going to come out. And that was right before I was going to - Lena was going to ask me to come read this part on "Girls." And we were just sort of like, you know, hey, I'm Greta, hey, I'm Amy. And I was familiar with her stand-up. And then we were both at the table read on "Girls."

FURLAN: Interesting.

LEE: Amy was there.

FURLAN: I see.

LEE: And, like, when I think now about who else was there at the time, like, Jessica Williams was there. And we were all part of, like, this group of women. It's like, OK. What's this show, "Girls"? OK. And then that show came out. Amy Schumer came out, and I ended up getting to be on "Amy Schumer" with Amy.

FURLAN: Yeah. You were on it all the time.

LEE: Yeah. But I mean, it was such a different era. Like, our holding for "Inside Amy Schumer" Season 1 was a homeless shelter, and someone pooped on the floor during our lunch break.

FURLAN: Oh, God.

LEE: Yeah. So it'd be like, OK, Amy. Amy, come on. We're setting up. Like, camera's setting up right now. Step over the poop. Step - watch out.

FURLAN: It's human poop.

LEE: Here we go. Yeah.

FURLAN: I mean, it seems like there's that shared hustle, right? Like, it was...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: Everybody was just, like, we're going to grind to get through this so that we can eventually ask for more for ourselves. Right?

LEE: Exactly. Yeah. And advocate for each other. I remember Amy telling a group of us, earlier on, she was like, you know - how did she say it? She was like, just write your own [expletive]. Just do it, OK?

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: She was like, whip out those laptops, go dicka, dicka, dicka (ph). Just do it. I forget (laughter) who I was with. And it was the kind of advice you hear all the time from people but, you know, she really meant it. And I think that's when she was writing "Trainwreck."

FURLAN: Right. So it felt like it was coming from her heart. And it was...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Easy to understand. It was, like, easy to hear that.

LEE: Right. Right. Right.

FURLAN: So I wanted to talk to you about fashion because you...

LEE: Because I hate it so much?

FURLAN: I mean, clearly - I don't know. It doesn't seem like you do. You have a style, and you have an aesthetic and you wear really cool outfits.

LEE: Well, thanks.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Yeah. To be clear, I do like fashion. I do. I think that sometimes that can be a tricky thing to navigate because - how do I say this? There was a time when being a feminist, and being taken seriously as an artist and, maybe arguably, even more so in comedy, being really into clothing is not necessarily a good thing. Right? Like, it's not, like...

FURLAN: Well, it's trying too hard.

LEE: Yeah. It's trying too hard. And also, like, creatively, comedy people, you want to be able to satirize that stuff. So if you're in it, you know, like, it just doesn't work. You know?

FURLAN: Exactly. Also, I think that comedy has this sort of white-guy...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Schlubby sort of aesthetic to it...

LEE: Yes.

FURLAN: ...That is like, I didn't have to try, and you're still laughing at me and you still like me...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...That I think doesn't - it's not a cutout that fits, always, for women.

LEE: Right. I remember when I was doing some improv in New York, this question of what do you wear was really upsetting and very, like, this hard problem which I've since talked about with other women, and it's changed. Things have changed. But practically speaking, it's just, like, this thing where, you're a woman - do you hide the fact that you're a woman? Like, do I have to go buy that ugly flannel, too, and fit in with the guys? Like...

FURLAN: Right.

LEE: ...Do I need to cover my body so I can believably play other characters?


LEE: But, happily, now I think - in this extensive fashion, too - like, it's fine. Like, I like clothes. Deal with it. I don't know.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Right? Is it a problem? Like, I don't know. Like, this is - I can't help it. I like clothes.

FURLAN: I'm so sorry for you.

LEE: Yeah. (Laughter).

FURLAN: 'Cause you wear them every day.

LEE: (Laughter) Yeah. Right? We're all going to die. So I might as well, like, you know, do something fun with it...

FURLAN: Absolutely.

LEE: ...Is how I feel.

FURLAN: I saw you are pregnant. I don't know if you've figured that out.

LEE: It's good to be reminded.

FURLAN: Yeah. Great. Sorry. Just wanted to make sure you were on that.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: And you just posed almost entirely nude - tasteful nude...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...With a coat. With - just with a faux fur or real fur - I don't really know - coat. Very tasteful - but, like, I remember when Demi Moore did that on a magazine cover. I don't even know when that was, but it was, like, groundbreaking.

LEE: For sure.

FURLAN: And I feel like now it's not like that.

LEE: Now it's like, huh (laughter).

FURLAN: Huh, look at that. Naked pregnant lady.

LEE: I know. Even my mom, I was really bracing myself for some phone calls. You know, I was like, don't at me, Mom. I know. I know what's coming.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: But even her response was like, oh, proud. Actually, I think her comment was proud and then some emojis, and then but and nothing else (laughter).

FURLAN: (Laughter) Classic mom. I...

LEE: No, I feel like - so with that, like, I - when they asked me to do that - and they brought up Demi Moore, and they brought up that Vanity Fair shoot. And this is Humberto and Carol of Opening Ceremony. And they said, you know, for this lookbook, we want to ask members of our community to help us with this exploration of Asian identity. And, like, will you be naked under this coat? And I was kind of like, well, no thanks (laughter).

FURLAN: (Laughter) Really?

LEE: Well, I kind of just felt like, do we need that? Like - you know.


LEE: And I think that I have my own sort of feeling self-conscious of, you know, how much of myself do I need to put out there, right? Like, I...

FURLAN: Totally.

LEE: It's already a lot, like, as a performer. You just - you know, those lines get blurred so easily. But then anytime I have these sort of questions of like, OK, am I going to - with social media, I habitually try to quit Instagram every Sunday night.

FURLAN: No way.

LEE: Yeah. It chemically alters my brain.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: It just does.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Oh, but what I was going to say about with, like, that photo shoot and, like, wanting to quit Instagram, in those moments when I want to retract everything and hide, what keeps me going is knowing that on some level, like, I might - I'm able to contribute to just, like, seeing the presence of Asians in this way...

FURLAN: Absolutely.

LEE: ...That does feel, like, important on some level.

FURLAN: Absolutely. I mean, I feel like you were the only one in a lot of those rooms as you were coming up. You were the only person who wasn't white, or you were the only Asian person. And there is a vacuum that...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Comes with the lack of representation. Like, if you weren't Instagramming, or if you weren't performing or if you weren't saying yes to these opportunities, it's entirely possible that they would be like...

LEE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FURLAN: ...Oh, cool. We don't - like, well, Greta said no, so...

LEE: Next. And it's someone else.

FURLAN: And it's a white person.

LEE: Kathy (ph), who's blonde and...


LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: Do you feel like that is a thing that you think about as you're approaching your career and the next things that you're going to do, which I want to talk about? But...

FURLAN: Yeah, I mean, it's - well, so it's this two-pronged thing where, of course, like, I want to shine a light on it and acknowledge that it exists, that there's, like, this huge vacuum in terms of representation. But then I feel like the most successful and progressive opportunities are ones where race is not the thing, where - let's take, like, Soojin of "Girls" or the stuff we were doing - the sketch work we were doing for "Inside Amy Schumer" or Maxine on "Russian Doll." There's never like, well, look at Asian Maxine over there making her, like, stir fry or something typical.

FURLAN: Yeah, exactly. You're not, like, performing Asianness.

LEE: Like, it's not - yeah. And it's not mentioned at all.

FURLAN: I think that that's one of the true signs of representation is basically not having to use shorthand and accepting characters in the larger context of their characters and not sort of, like, pointing to race things.

LEE: Yes. It's definitely - there's been progress, but it's still very rare.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Like, I still - I have that moment when I walk onto set for the first time, and I have to confront my character's space, like her home or office cubicle or whatever it is.


LEE: And I just clench because nine times out of 10, there's going to be, like, some sort of, like, paper crane or, like, a set of chopsticks that are, like, inexplicably placed with the pencils and, like...

FURLAN: Right.

LEE: ...Like, Hello Kitty [expletive] or the, like...

FURLAN: Oh, God.

LEE: It's really weird that it still happens and in these progressive environments, too.

FURLAN: It's messed up, too.

LEE: Yeah. I'm not going through my life as an Asian. Like, here's my Asian hand reaching for this cup, taking a sip with my Asian lips.


LEE: And, like, now I'm going to go, you know...

FURLAN: Yeah, there's a...

LEE: ...Take the train as an Asian person.

FURLAN: ...White gaze-ness (ph). Yeah.

LEE: Yeah. And then, like, the work it puts on me to, you know, put up a stink and say, excuse me, like, can we not with the Asian stuff? And then, like, having to, you know, stop production to do that. I mean, it gets really exhausting. So that is more the norm, I hate to say. So when I have an experience like this where it's just not there, we can skip that. And then we can just work and, like - and make these people people.


FURLAN: Time for one more break. When we come back, we'll talk about Greta's HBO show that's currently in development and how she almost got swallowed up by a career in the restaurant industry.


FURLAN: So before we talk about what you're up to with HBO, I wanted to talk to you about food because...

LEE: I don't like food. We're not going to have anything to talk about.

FURLAN: Oh, really? Oh, I'm so sorry.

LEE: Yeah, I don't like it. I have a food allergy, you know, just in general. You know, people have like...

FURLAN: Just all food?

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: You worked at Momofuku Ssam Bar. And you - like, you did a couple of interviews around food-related things. I loved your "Grub Street Diet."

LEE: Thanks.

FURLAN: Those things are fascinating.

LEE: Aren't they? Yeah.

FURLAN: And I sort of see a parallel between working in a, like, fancy restaurant with a chef who's, like, on his way to becoming famous and acting and, like, the hustle that that takes in both career paths. It's like there is no middle ground.

LEE: No, there's not.

FURLAN: Is that about you? Like, do you feel like that's something that you have in you? The, like...

LEE: No chill?

FURLAN: (Laughter) Yeah.

LEE: What do you mean?

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: I'm - like, I'm so relaxed. Look at my matching sweatsuit - sweat pantsuit. I'm so chill.

FURLAN: You're very chill. To be clear, I only get chill vibes from you.

LEE: (Laughter) Gosh. That was such a trying, grueling and yet very important part of my life where I was trying to be an actor and also slaving away for the Momofuku empire. But I'm totally nostalgic for that time.

FURLAN: Really?

LEE: Yeah. I think that anyone who's worked in the food service biz - I miss the weeds, which is really psychotic of me to say. Like, I miss that feeling.

FURLAN: Where it's like everything is popping, everything is happening all at once, and you are just, like - you have to sort of, like, flow with the chaos. Is that what you mean?

LEE: Yeah. Yeah. And I did a bunch of different jobs for that restaurant, and I ended up working at some of the other restaurants too. But I was a host at one point, which is probably the most powerful I've ever felt in my life.

FURLAN: (Laughter) I mean...

LEE: Because remember, this was when Momofuku was about to become - yeah - what it is now.


LEE: And getting to work the door of that restaurant...

FURLAN: Who did you say no to?

LEE: Like - no, no - it was like, we don't seat incomplete parties.

FURLAN: But we're here, man. We've been here.

LEE: No, I'm sorry. That's just our policy.


LEE: Yeah. Less is more.

FURLAN: I love it.

LEE: I just felt so powerful. And then I'd cry because I didn't have enough time to prepare for my audition the next day. Like, I knew way too much about microgreens when I needed to be trying to become an actor.

FURLAN: So let's, like, back up. So you sort of - you had some time in the restaurant industry, and - but you were, like, hustling at being an actor as well? Or do you feel like it, like, sort of swallowed you up, and then you went into acting?

LEE: It definitely swallowed me up. I think what happened was I did - my first job out of college was this huge Broadway musical "Spelling Bee." I did that for close to a year and - almost a year and a half, I think, which is a long time to do a show.

FURLAN: Eight shows a week.

LEE: Yeah. And I know like, you know, the cast of "Mamma Mia!" is like, what do you mean (laughter)?

FURLAN: (Laughter) They're like...

LEE: Yeah. Like, goodbye.

FURLAN: ...Girl, you don't even know (laughter).

LEE: Yeah. But for a 21-year-old, like, I - that was a lot. And I think that I had a lot of - I had some preconceived notions about what was going to happen to me after finishing the show, which were just, like, laughable. Like, I really thought...

FURLAN: Like what?

LEE: Like, I'm Natalie Portman now.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: You know what I mean?


LEE: Like, a lot of, like, I'm going out with my, like, banker friends. Like, drinks on me, guys. I'm on this show, this Broadway show, called "Spelling Bee." Like, I got this.

FURLAN: Yeah. I got it. It's happening.

LEE: Yeah, no idea that - how hard it was going to be. The reality of, like, a career...

FURLAN: Right.

LEE: ...Is just, like, this hypothetical thing. Like, you think, like, oh - at that age, I was a kid. And I thought, OK, so when I'm done with this, then Spielberg.

FURLAN: Right, exactly.

LEE: I'm ready. I'm...

FURLAN: The phone's ringing off the hook, girl.

LEE: (Laughter) Right. Instead, it was like, go straight to the restaurant and start working your butt off.

FURLAN: So I guess this is a good time to ask you about your future projects that you are writing.

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: Please tell us about it.


FURLAN: Tell us everything you can about "Koreatown" (ph).

LEE: Right. OK. What can I say about that? I am working on a show with Jason Kim, who is also from "Girls".


LEE: And he's also Korean-American. And we first got together to write a different TV show. It's something else. And we - comedy, and I think at one point it was a girl with, you know, special superpowers.

FURLAN: Really?

LEE: I feel like, you know, like...

FURLAN: Something that you were asked to write, or you guys got together...

LEE: No, we got together. We were, like, likeminded.

FURLAN: ...And you were like, oh, we just want to do something different?

LEE: ...Something fun, you know.

FURLAN: Like - yeah.

LEE: Something for us.


LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: But not Asian-specific.

LEE: No.


LEE: I think in - on some level, we were trying to avoid that.


LEE: Right? Because we get told that a lot. It's like, so when are you going to write, like, you know, your "Fresh Off the Boat" or your, like, "All-American Girl"? But...

FURLAN: Other people put you in a box where they're like, you're - you two are both Korean so, like, when are you going to write your Korean show?

LEE: Exactly.

FURLAN: And you're like, we don't want to write a Korean show. We just want to write a show.

LEE: Right.


LEE: So we tried not to. And then...

FURLAN: How'd that go?

LEE: (Laughter).

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Well, I mean, we spend most of our time just, like, [expletive] about our families. (Laughter). And also the trauma of growing up as an immigrant child. And it just became so clear that this was a show that we were writing. And, of course, there are other elements that are involved. I mean, we - it's set in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and we are - what else? I mean, it's so hard. It's, like...

FURLAN: Can I say the things that I've known so that...

LEE: Yes. Go ahead.

FURLAN: ...At the very least, they're public?

LEE: Yes.

FURLAN: So it's a family. It's a family sort of, like, drama comedy. Comedy drama? Dark comedy. But it's about a crime family...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Right? Which I think is a really interesting sort of destruction of the model minority myth...

LEE: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...Perhaps? I don't know if that's what you meant to do.

LEE: Mm-hm.

FURLAN: And I mean, I feel like - is it going to be an all-Asian cast, or mostly Asian cast? And mostly Korean cast, maybe?

LEE: It's going to be all Costa Rican, actually.

FURLAN: Great. (Speaking Spanish).

LEE: Yeah, yeah. Yeah (laughter).

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Yes, yes. The family is a Korean family, yes. And yes, they are embedded in some sort of crime. Yes. And yes, we - I think, like, we weren't setting out to, like, break down this model minority. It was more we don't come from perfect families (laughter).

FURLAN: Right.

LEE: And I - we don't identify with that. Like, so much of my trauma as a child was never fitting into this box. And...


LEE: ...You know, I was too loud. I wasn't ladylike enough. And I - you know, I was, like, pretty good at math but not good enough.


LEE: Like, I just never fit in to that. And so I think at the end of the day, we're just making a show that works. A show that works involves multi-dimensional characters that are real. That means they're not going to be perfect people.


LEE: And I have to say, what's been interesting almost immediately was - this isn't to say this has been the primary response. But there have been voices who already were sort of pushing back on this idea. I want to say, like, a protectiveness of, wait a second, how are you going to portray us as a community?

FURLAN: Right. This is our one shot.

LEE: Yeah. Which I get because I've felt that way in my life. Like, where are we? We're absent? Like, so if you're going to be portrayed - finally - I guess you want to come across as, like, good. But...

FURLAN: Look. As a Latina who has refused to watch any, like, cartel movies, I think it's a valid question to think about. Right? Like, but I do feel like there are fewer Korean - I mean, I haven't watched a ton of, like, K-dramas or whatever, but, like, I've - at least, in the United States' HBO Netflix world, I haven't seen a "KTown" yet.

LEE: Us, either. So that's what we're after. We're excited. We're writing.

FURLAN: And you're in it, which is exciting. Have you written a role that feels closer to who you actually are or further away from who you are?

LEE: Where we've landed is some sort of mix of myself, and also people in my life and my family. It's going to be a combination.

FURLAN: Like, your sister's going to watch it and be like, how dare she? She's dragging me secretly. She's taking this tiny bit of me...

LEE: (Laughter).

FURLAN: ...And she's performing it, I can tell.

LEE: Surprisingly, my whole family, they're so game. My mom's like, so am I going to get, like, a producer credit? Like, she's got - I have stories. My dad's like, I'm an actor, you know? My dad's a doctor. Like, he's not this - there's no way he's coming anywhere near that set. He's already, like, dressing kind of differently in front of me. I'm like, Dad, are you auditioning? Are you auditioning for the show right (laughter) now?

FURLAN: Do you ever, like, sit in the living room, and your dad comes in and he just does - starts doing a scene?

LEE: Like, an entrance?

FURLAN: He's like, hello.

LEE: Right. Really sorry - I'm going to take that again.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

LEE: Take two.

FURLAN: (Laughter). So great. Greta Lee, thank you so much for being here.

LEE: Thanks for having me.


NILSSON: (Singing) Gotta get up. Gotta get out. Gotta get home before the mornin' comes.

FURLAN: Greta Lee - sweet birthday baby - thank you. And for more Greta, do not miss her on NPR's Ask Me Another. She'll be there on the April 5 episode, kicking off their Women in Comedy series. Every Friday, all of April, on Ask Me Another, Women in Comedy. Don't miss it. And, of course, you can still catch all of "Russian Doll" on Netflix. And if you haven't yet, I highly recommend it.

This Friday, I'm thrilled to be your host for our Weekly Wrap on the news, culture and everything else. So listeners, as always, make sure you share your best thing all week. It makes me cry with happiness every time. Record yourself and email the file to us here at You might hear it on this Friday's episode. Until then - I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening.


NILSSON: (Singing) Gotta get home before the mornin' comes. What if I'm late? Got a big day. Gotta get home before the sun comes up. Up and away. Got a big day. Sorry, can't stay. I gotta run, run.


LEE: (As Maxine) Happy birthday, baby. Having fun?

Happy birthday, baby.

LYONNE: (As Nadia) Do not.

LEE: (As Maxine) Happy birthday, baby.

LYONNE: (As Nadia) Why? What?

LEE: (As Maxine) Sweet birthday baby.

Happy birthday, baby. Having fun?

Sweet birthday baby.

Sweet birthday baby.

Sweet birthday baby.

LYONNE: (As Nadia) There's nobody here. There's no party.

LEE: (As Maxine) I am the party.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.