‘Too American’ no more: Greta Lee just may be Hollywood’s new comedy ‘It’ girl

December 17, 2014
(Courtesy of Greta Lee/Photo by Cameron Marshad)

(Courtesy of Greta Lee/Photo by Cameron Marshad)

By Tae Hong

For Greta Lee, a Korean American actress well on her way to one day join the roster of Hollywood’s funniest, smartest women, 4,000 miles and Lena Dunham was what started it all.

It was what Dunham saw in Lee as she performed her single scene in the Pulitzer-nominated Amy Herzog play “4000 Miles” in 2012 that convinced her to write a “Girls” role for the 31-year-old.

Two years later, Hollywood is convinced, too — Lee’s a newfound comedic treasure trove, all right, and if you missed her turn as gallery owner Soo Jin on “Girls,” you’ve seen her in a handful of other places in the past two years — most recently as Kai on “New Girl,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” the web series “High Maintenance,” Amy Poehler’s “Old Soul.”

And you’ll see her in others, too, like the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan series “Wayward Pines” and the Tina Fey- and Poehler-driven film “Sisters,” slated for a 2015 release.

Her flight schedule from New York (where she lives) and Los Angeles (where she was born and raised) gets more and more hectic by the day. Gone, hopefully, are the days of failed auditions for Asian roles for being “too American.”

Funnily enough, Lee’s a second-generation Korean American if there ever was one — her immigrant parents’ heavy involvement with the Koreatown community despite the family’s residence in La Canada Flintridge meant summers spent doing Korean things with Korean kids at Camp Conifer (a discontinued camp for Korean American youth) and hours singing with Opera California Youth Choir.

She started camp in third grade. There must have been a hint of a future actress wriggling inside her even then, because she once made a suggestion that they put on a performance of “Forrest Gump.” She wanted to be Forrest.

“One of the lines was, ‘Life is like a box of kimchi,’” she laughed. “[Camp] was the best. Oh my God. I could sing you the whole theme song in Korean.”

Her father, a rehabilitation doctor, still has his own practice in K-Town, where her parents live.

(Courtesy of Greta Lee/Photo by Cameron Marshad)

(Courtesy of Greta Lee/Photo by Cameron Marshad)

While attending the elite Harvard-Westlake School, Lee became enamored with performing arts — dancing, singing, the whole shebang. As she describes it, her decision to attend Northwestern University as a theater major was a fast one, and not necessarily something her parents understood.

It still partially escapes them, even now, when they see Lee portraying homeless stoners on web shows like “High Maintenance” or being catty about mochi on “Girls.”

“In Korean culture, the idea of comedy was something that does not make sense as something you can do with your life,” she said. “If they see something weird I’ve done where I’m making a weird face or I’m taking on weird physicalities, my mom, without fail, will say something like, ‘Why can’t you be a lady? Why can’t you be lovely and graceful?’ … My parents and their Korean American friends are not the target audience for ‘Girls.’ And I think Lena Dunham is OK with that.”

And while comedy’s not the only genre Lee is interested in pursuing, it’s certainly what’s working for her at the moment. It’s been a long time coming — nine years, to be exact, performing on Broadway (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) post-Northwestern and auditioning for small TV roles (“Nurse Jackie,” “Law & Order: SVU”).

While the struggle for Asian American actors remains, she said she never saw her race as enough of an excuse to go for it anyway.

“The more I pushed my agents — let me audition for this, even though it says Caucasian, let me just try — and basically by being the most annoying person they had ever met, being persistent, you can find that it’s possible to prove people wrong,” she said.

Lee’s set her views on eventually conquering both comedy and drama — some of her favorite people have done it. The worst question, she said, is when Hollywood industry executives ask her in meetings to name a star she sees herself as.

It’s a tough one for an Asian American female, she said, with a spectrum that runs from Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi to Margaret Cho.

“I used to say, as a joke, that I see myself as Denzel Washington,” she laughed. “Because that’s a totally impossible question to answer. But if I really had to, I feel like Jonah Hill is someone I really admire — someone who has both dramatic and comedic chops.”

The gigs keep on coming, the most recent of them being Kai on “New Girl.” In “Sisters,” she’ll play a Korean national named Hae Won.

They’re more proof of Lee’s rising visibility. And if she’s learned anything from working alongside the industry’s biggest female comics — Dunham, Poehler, Schumer, Tina Fey — it’s that the game can be changed her way.

“They’re all writers, actors, comedians, producers. They’re examples of this new breed of women working in the industry who are able to do all those things at once, which has been so inspiring for me,” Lee said.

So she’s made herself a gig of her own: aspiring film and TV writer.

“People have always said I need to write my own material and take more control over my career,” she said. “Now that I’ve worked with these women for the past two years, there’s just no excuse anymore.”