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Greta Lee on Tackling Racism and Anti-Asian Hate in ‘The Morning Show’s’ COVID-Era Season 2

The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter
 2021-10-16
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[This story contains spoilers from the fifth episode of the second season of Apple ’s The Morning Show , “Ghosts.”]

Stella Bak is a boss, Greta Lee wants everyone to know. And, she’s really good at it.

Lee joined Apple TV+’s The Morning Show for season two and has been making her mark at the show’s fictional network home as the new UBA president, taking over the job left vacant by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) once he was promoted to CEO. A tech world wunderkind, Stella has been brought onto the executive team to give UBA the woke millennial spin it so desperately needs after being exposed over its toxic culture rife with sexual harassment and misogyny.

Her power style and fierce dialogue exudes confidence, but the first female and youngest-ever president at UBA has an uphill battle ahead this season when it comes to steering the Morning Show wheel of change. In the fifth episode, titled “Ghosts,” Stella and head producer Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman) must discipline weatherman Yanko Flores (Néstor Carbonell), a Cuban-American who is facing social media backlash over his appropriation of Native culture during a forecast. “I’m not going to publicly genuflect at the altar of her progressive bullshit,” he argues when asked to educate himself for viewers.

Shortly after, Stella experiences racism directly when she is accosted by a white man on the street, who hurls anti-Asian slurs her way and attacks her over the “China virus.” (The season is set in early 2020 .) After she leaves the scene, Yanko, who witnessed the end of the encounter, approaches the man to stick up for Stella, who is Korean, and gets into a physical altercation that is recorded and later posted to social media. In the next episode, Stella will be forced to put her personal feelings aside to further discipline Yanko in order to do damage control for the UBA brand.

“We get to see her put to test what she’s willing to compromise and what she’s not in order to be an effective boss in this corporate environment. And, it’s really heartbreaking, actually, some of the decisions that she ends up having to make,” Lee tells The Hollywood Reporter. In the chat below, the Russian Doll and High Maintenance star explains why she’s proud of how The Morning Show tackles racism and anti-Asian hate in the COVID-era season and shares her hope for Stella if the series returns.

What attracted you to paying new UBA president Stella Bak?

I watched season one and I was such a huge fan of those performances. All of them. But, in particular, Billy [Crudup] . So when the opportunity presented itself to play this character who would basically be the new Cory Ellison in this twisted sequence of events, that was really exciting and scary. I wanted to see if I could step up to that plate. I ended up flying in to do a chemistry read with Billy, and I had just seen him do his incredible one-man show in New York. I could not have been more secretly just fangirling over him, but of course I’m playing this character that is very much not impressed with him. That was the name of the game of the acting challenge and it was great fun.

Billy Crudup has spoken about how showrunner Kerry Ehrin initially envisioned the character of Cory Ellison to be more like Stella , someone who could represent a newer generation of media executives. What did you want to bring to this young media role and were you able to give any input?

I don’t know if it was nerves or what happened to me that day when I came in and read with Billy, but I could not stop talking. After we read together, I started exploding about personal things I was invested in and poring over. At that time, Jia Tolentino had that book Trick Mirror; I also read this other book Uncanny Valley and Elizabeth Holmes was in my mind. I was genuinely fascinated by this idea of how you can have young people who are visionaries, taste-makers and disruptors in Silicon Valley, in tech, in media, where these characters are so rich. There’s almost something Shakespearean about these people. And I was maybe too intense about how much I really wanted to make sure we showed how uncomfortable it is when someone young like that comes in and is a boss, and that it is not smooth. I wanted to accurately reflect what I was experiencing myself, with my peers living in New York and seeing so many workplace environments wanting this cry for change. Trying to implement that, though, is so dynamic and endlessly interesting. I felt that if we were going to bring someone like Stella to UBA, we have to honor the truth of what that is.

Stella is very aware of the gender and racial inequities at UBA, and yet she’s running the PR machine — and is really good at it. Then, you add in the racial reckoning that is simmering in early 2020 and Stella having to put aside her own feelings to make these decisions. How can you relate to that personal-professional tug?

Everything that was happening in real time while we were filming [in 2020] could not help but seep its way into the show. We had so many conversations about cancel culture, about racism, about anti-Asian acts of hate during COVID, and then how to show that on a TV show. And being mindful of what kinds of stories we’re including during this 10-episode arc, along with so many other stories that we need to honor and tell, too.

I feel really proud of what we did. It was so important to me and to the rest of the cast to stay true to this idea that we don’t know the answers — at all. And this isn’t about showing any sort of solution. It’s just showing how much we don’t know. And Stella is absolutely an example of that. We get to see her put to test what she’s willing to compromise and what she’s not in order to be an effective boss in this corporate environment. And, it’s really heartbreaking, actually, some of the decisions that she ends up having to make. I’m so grateful that they honored that.

In the fifth episode, Stella experiences anti-Asian hate directly when she is verbally assaulted over the “China virus” by a white man passing her on the street. What was it like for you to film that scene and what impact do you hope it makes on viewers?

I know, with COVID, my own personal experiences and the experiences of my friends and family, that is something that was undeniably happening. But, the challenge of representing that on TV is such a delicate thing. To be honest, I had moments where I was like, “I don’t want to show this” — or not in this way. But what I kept telling myself is that if we didn’t show it at all, that would not be an accurate representation on a show like this that is meant to be prescient and a full reflection back of what was really happening. So I was like, “Ok, yeah. This shit happened.” It’s of course so uncomfortable and hard. But, that’s kind of the beauty of the show.

There are shows that have the option to flash-forward or exist in an alternate, COVID-free universe, but The Morning Show took it head on by revisiting January to March of 2020. How did filming during the pandemic and about the pandemic help you as a cast get through 2020?

I keep saying: Imagine how you would feel if, for some unforeseen global event, you are suddenly in lockdown and the only people outside of your immediate family you are seeing every day are Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon? It was crazy for me! I was like someone turned on a switch, and it felt like a dystopian alternate reality. But, yes, it was really special, too, to have each other during that time when we still didn’t really know much and were all trying to work through that. We filmed scenes where the sets were replicas of New York restaurants, while we were fully masked and not able to go anywhere, and to pretend we were at dinner in Gramercy somewhere was really, really wild.

The Morning Show hasn’t yet been picked up for a third season. Would you hope to return and, if so, what are your hopes for Stella after March of 2020?

There’s an endless amount of drama because there’s workplace drama — that’s the magic of this. And, yes, I love this group. It feels like an athletic event being on this show — what’s required of you in terms of pace and stamina. It’s been a real joy to be able to step up and play ball with these guys.

So you want Stella to keep running the show in season three?

As a boss, yes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The first five episodes of Apple TV+’s The Morning Show season two are now streaming.

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