Greta Lee (left) and Teo Yoo (right) play Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood sweethearts who reconnect as adults.

Greta Lee (left) and Teo Yoo (right) play Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood sweethearts who reconnect as adults. / A24

Who is she? The Korean-american actress has worked on titles like Russian Doll, the animated Spider-Man film series and Girls. Now, she's starring in the much anticipated indie flick, Past Lives.

  • The story follows Nora, a Korean-Canadian playwright living in New York City who is happily married to her Jewish-American husband, Arthur.
  • When her childhood sweetheart from Korea seeks her out to reconnect, she is confronted with memories of her past and has to evaluate how they've carried into her present.

What's the big deal? As Nora questions the path she's chosen and how it's affected her identity, Lee's own experiences helped her understand her character's struggles.

  • That included her own relationship with speaking Korean, and honing in on the intricacies of that cultural tie for the role.
  • "If you look at the language aspect of it, it was so important to accurately convey the fluidity of language. And when you mention, feeling more Asian around certain people or less [Asian], that kind of fluctuation is something that is so real and personal to me. And we wanted to bring that to the character in this story."

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What's she saying? Lee spoke with NPR's Ailsa Chang to dive deeper into those linguistic subtleties, as well as how the role impacted her.

On the revealing nature of language:

Well, there's something so exposing about language, right? I mean, my language, my Koreanness is something that's so private. And actually, I was surprised and kind of tickled by the response from my friends and family initially when they heard that I was taking this on - this kind of reaction collectively of, like, "Oh my God. But can you actually speak Korean? How good is your Korean?"

But what I feel like what that was honing in on is there is so much to the way we hold on to - whether it's our native language or our second language, and what that relationship is like.

So that scene - yeah, that scene when she's talking to Arthur [her husband while lying in bed] about it - it is so personal, the fact that her husband can identify that that is a place that he can't go.

On taking a speaking role in Korean:

I never expected to do a movie in Korean with this much Korean - a movie in any other language, other than my primary language, which is English. And being immersed and re-immersed in my Korean and Koreanness - it unlocked a lot of different things.

It cracked open, for me, recognizing all the shifts that I'd made in my life and my career, this trajectory of what this means to have this immigrant experience. Yes, we have academic ideas of what assimilation is, but it became really personal. I think, in a way, it matched maybe Nora's experience of feeling the heartbreak and the loss of identity, letting go of former selves and just reconciling that, you know, the choices that we make - where we live, who we're surrounded by - they have incredible, massive impacts on the full trajectory of our lives.

On the Korean concept of inyeon, explored in the movie:

Inyeon, to me as I know it, is just about human connectedness. It's rooted in ideas of reincarnation. And it could be as slight as two people walking down the street and brushing up against each other. And it could also be as deep and vast as the connection that we would have with a parent or a spouse, spanning over multiple lifetimes, even.

... I felt a deep inyeon with the script, actually. It cut through me.

So, what now?

  • Lee says that the film explores those choices, conscious or not, in exploring new frontiers and new forms of expression.
  • "I can definitely relate to that idea of love and destiny not as these neat constructs, but just as a living and breathing entity in and of itself that evolves with us over the course of our lives."
  • Past Lives is in theaters now.

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