Korean-American actress Greta Lee is best known for brief but memorable appearances in the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy Sisters, as well as Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. Now, she proves that she can hold her own as leading lady in Fits and Starts, which had its world premiere at SXSW.
The film also marks the directorial debut of writer Laura Terruso, and follows New York literary darling Jennifer (pen named the gender-ambiguous JM, and played by Lee) and her husband David (Wyatt Cenac) as they journey to suburban Connecticut for an exclusive artists’ salon. Jennifer, who has just released her second novel, insists that their attendance will benefit David, who hasn’t published anything since a fictional account of a man suffering from HPV that appeared in The New Yorker “a few years back.” JM’s success only accentuates David’s lack thereof.
Similar to Hello, My Name is Doris, whose script firmly established Terruso as a talent to watch for, Fits and Starts is acerbic yet heartfelt, making fun of the pretentious art scene while teasing out the characters’ hopes, fears and insecurities, which are all too relatable. In Austin to promote Fits and Starts as well as Gemini, in which she has a supporting role, Lee sat down to talk about subverting convention both onscreen and off.
Born to Korean immigrant parents who had settled in Los Angeles, Lee was immersed in a creative environment from the start. Her mother, a classical pianist, bestowed a lasting passion for music upon the children. Lee also dabbled in dance and, of course, acting.
“I was adapting The Babysitters Club into plays and short films and casting my siblings,” she recalled of her childhood.
After studying theater at Northwestern University, Lee continued eastward to New York City, where she currently resides, and launched her career on the stage before shifting toward film and television. Despite the stereotypes of Asian immigrant parents, Lee’s were supportive of her artistic aspirations “once it became undeniably clear” that she had her mind set on joining the entertainment industry. Rather, the challenge lay in breaking down the expectations set by society for what it means to be an Asian woman.
“It wasn’t that I was ever explicitly told, ‘Don’t be funny,’” she said. “It was more that stereotypical, ‘Keep it down now,’ ‘Don’t be so present.’ It was the norm that you were expected to be submissive—and I’m not saying that my household was like that, but that definitely contributes to this mindset of what a woman should be.”
Lee is anything but submissive, as evidenced in her performances as well as her real-life demeanor, which remains steadfastly animated and candid even at the end of a long press day. And, as anyone familiar with her most recent work knows, Lee has a distinct flair for comedy.
“Recently, the comedy world has been much more inclusive and has so much more variety in terms of the types of people that I’ve been able to play,” she said.
Meanwhile, in drama films, especially when she was starting out as an actress, she was only getting jobs to play the stereotypical technician, nurse, or a lawyer, she said.
But thanks to Carruso, Fits and Starts provides Lee with ample opportunity to flex both her dramatic and comedic chops. The best part? Despite depicting an interracial couple, the narrative doesn’t make race a plot point. Instead, the story focuses on the tensions that play out within the relationship when one party seems more powerful than the other—with fame being the currency—and both are members of the same tight-knit industry. Lee was grateful that race was never discussed on set, but agreed that casting her against Cenac, who is African-American, added nuance to the story that viewers can interpret how they will.
“My husband and I are both creators,” she says, on how she relates to her character in the film.
“We work in similar industries…it’s a minefield to navigate, to be totally blunt. I appreciate in this film that you see that they love each other, that they are committed and, for the most part, a functional, happy couple, and they’re dealing with it. That seemed very real to me.”
As other actors and actresses of color will freely admit, Lee shares the same concern of being pigeonholed by casting directors because of her heritage and appearance. Echoing recent statements made by fellow Korean-American actor and Gemini co-star John Cho, Lee alluded to “this unspoken feeling of a ceiling that you can’t break through that exists.”
“Without trying to be political in the roles I’m choosing—there’s only so much I can control, unfortunately, [being pigeonholed] is absolutely something that I’m thinking about,” she said. “And the hope that there is no ceiling in place.”
It’s a fine line to walk because, for Asians and other minorities, the roles that are available are often merely derivatives of stereotypes rather than fully fleshed out individuals. However, films like Fits and Starts offer hope for positive diversity and complex characters.
“This is not to say that things haven’t gotten better, and I do feel lucky with the opportunities that I’ve had,” Lee said.
Currently Lee is shooting the second season of Hulu drama Chance opposite Hugh Laurie, but looks forward to producing more of her own material in the near future. She just directed her first short and is developing a digital series called Hibiscus. Ceiling or no, Lee’s trajectory pushes onward and upward, no doubt inspiring other actresses of color to do the same.