Meet Greta Lee, the Star of “Past Lives”

In fact, Lee wasn’t even being considered for the part. For months, Celine Song, the writer and director of “Past Lives,” had been looking at other Noras, other Hae Sungs. “They cast it with two other people,” Lee said.

According to Song, the oversight had little to do with Lee herself. The film’s story is loosely based on the true-life reunion of Song, her American husband and her Korean school pal, which took place when the director was 29. “When you’re young, you think that being 29 is so interesting and cool and meaningful,” Song said. “So I was trying to find somebody at 30, or even in their twenties, and Greta, of course, was in her late 30s.”

“It was really stupid,” Song admitted.

AFTER SONG CAME TO HER SENSES, she contacted Lee. A year had passed since Lee had first read the script, but she still remembered it: her soul-mate film, she called it. Could she meet with Song, via Zoom, that day? After a video audition that stretched on for two and a half hours, with Lee reading key scenes as Song played the two male leads (“Celine makes an excellent Arthur and Hae Sung,” Lee said), Song offered Lee the part on the spot.

The film began shooting in summer 2021. To help the actors convey the feeling of being reunited with someone after 24 years, when you’ve only communicated over Skype, Song kept Lee and Yoo apart as much as possible. “She told us, you guys can’t touch,” Lee said.

For Yoo, “during the rehearsal process, the instinct is to say goodbye naturally, with a hug,” he said. “And Celine was like, no, no, no, you guys, no touching.” I’m allowed to touch and hug, she told them, but Yoo and Lee got shooed away when they tried.

Song insisted that the actors were all in, and that she never had to scold them to keep them in line. “Is that what they’re saying?” she asked, with a laugh. “No, no. I think they wanted to go along with the trick.”

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