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We’ve seen it all happen before: A company becomes embroiled in scandal, the bad guy(s) is forced to step down, and fresh talent (or in some cases, a diversity officer) is hired in an attempt to move the needle forward. But does that lead to any substantial change?
Greta Lee tried to figure that out as she entered The Morning Show in its second season. Just as she joins the Emmy-winning series (following performances in Inside Amy Schumer, Russian Doll, and Girls), her character, Stella Bak, joins the fictional United Broadcast Association as president of the news division. Young, smart, and successful, Stella is tasked with modernizing the flailing network after its lead morning host was ousted for sexual misconduct, its president was exposed for covering up the bad behavior for years, and a talent booker caught in the middle of the whole scheme was found dead. It’s not exactly easy work.
“With Stella, I hope people can see that it’s so awkward as a woman and as a young woman to have to be the boss,” Lee tells ELLE.com via Zoom from New York, wearing a silky sharp bob and a white blouse.
That awkwardness goes beyond managing new employees—it’s people constantly pointing out how young you are, it’s colleagues questioning your decision-making, it’s being a woman of color in an institution that glorifies white talent. As Stella takes over for Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) while he fills the role of their disgraced president, Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin), at UBA, she’s treated differently than her predecessor. “It was so smart and true to show that she’’ questioned and undermined and treated a little bit, like, ‘Who is this child?’ That’s something that I think we’ve all experienced firsthand,” Lee says.
The Morning Show’s second season just premiered Friday, but Lee has projects lined up beyond the Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston drama. Next, she’ll star in A24’s Past Lives, and she’s developing and starring in an adaptation of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. (She can’t share much yet; just that “it’s early on and we’re really excited and we have a really exciting team.”) And then there’s Russian Doll season 2, which already seems to be filming, but is also still under wraps.
Here, ELLE.com caught up with Lee to discuss her role in The Morning Show, portraying a pandemic storyline, and the inescapable “sweet birthday baby.”
Stella joins UBA during a messy time. Because she’s young and smart, it becomes her burden to fix everything. How did you see Stella falling into the workplace landscape?
At the time, I was really interested and invested in what was happening in real life and seeing a record number of female CEOs, young people in leadership roles, and seeing friends and peers navigate the difficulty of trying to bring about change. How messy it is. I was so interested in this question of, “Okay, what happens next?” What happens after you bring someone in, after you’ve decided as a corporation, “we need to rehabilitate our workplace,” and how do you actually execute that? What happens when you have an intergenerational conflict of ideas and visions? I was so grateful that they were really game to get in there and show that it’s not clean in any way.
On the flip side of that, as much as Stella can call out the flaws at UBA and see what the optics are like for diversity, she still sometimes upholds the culture of gatekeeping. What do you make of that?
Ah. It was really important to investigate this question of what someone like her in her position is willing to and not willing to compromise in order to run a business effectively and to be part of this corporate world. It’s very humbling for her, and she’s failed in a lot of different ways, too. Particularly around race, as an Asian American, where we are placed within the system of white supremacy—not to get too heavy—is tricky. On the one hand, she’s really fighting for diversity and equal opportunity, but she’s put in this position where she’s still having to choose and pick her battles in this very heartbreaking way that I thought was true to life and what we are seeing around us. It’s not always as simple as, Right. We need more people of color. Done. That’s never how that goes down. Hopefully people can see and relate to that.
This season takes place during COVID, and you participated in that storyline onscreen while living through the pandemic, which brought about a lot of pain for the Asian American community. What was that like for you?
It was hard. I tried to be truthful about very painful things that were happening in real time. And I also didn’t want to take that for granted—the chance to tell the truth about what was happening, even though it was incredibly uncomfortable. And not an easy thing to not just talk about, but to show on TV. We had a lot of conversations about how to do that and the importance of doing it, even though it’s tricky and risky and uncomfortable. If we didn’t include that in a story about COVID, that just wouldn’t be honest. I’m grateful everyone was able to recognize that.
On that note, it was really exciting to see that some of your upcoming projects are centered around Asian characters and storylines, like Past Lives and Minor Feelings. Was that important to you?
I feel like what has happened is it’s just become inevitable not to pretend that I’m Asian. I’m Asian American. And it’s something that I am trying to figure out, whether I want to or not. It’s such a natural, organic part of my existence that it would feel inauthentic for me to not turn to it and look at it and try to figure it out.
And I love [how there] was an unexpected platform and opportunity to do that here [on The Morning Show] too. Kerry Ehrin [the showrunner] was so collaborative in wanting to know what I thought, and her voice, making sure that Stella sounds different from the rest of these people and the way she would say things, and it was great. She’d be like, “Would she say ‘hi’ or she would she say, ‘What’s up?’” And I’d be like, “Well, she probably wouldn’t say ‘what’s up’ but maybe ‘sup?’” Those conversations were amazing and important.
Can you share anything about Russian Doll season 2?
I can’t say anything about that! This is the tricky part about this. No. Just that it’s coming and that I’m excited.
Do people still come up to you and say “sweet birthday baby”?
All the time?
It sort of ebbs and flows. It’s gotten a little bit less intense now, but when it first dropped, that was a pretty wild time to be walking around New York City and have people scream that line at me.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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