On this week’s episode of The Morning Show, new UBA exec Stella Bak (Greta Lee) walks briskly out of her NYC office and heads for her waiting black car when a white man walks by, glances at her, and barks: “Take your virus and go back to China.” In the world of The Morning Show, it’s still early 2020 — early enough that, while Americans have heard about coronavirus, they’re not yet aware that it’s about to impact their daily lives. True to life, however, that’s exactly how early the wave of anti-Asian hate swept across the country in wake of the news that a virus originating in Wuhan, China was spreading across the globe. As one of the first TV shows to take on coronavirus, The Morning Show is also among the first to depict the reality of these anti-Asian hate crimes for Asian-Americans, and actress Greta Lee tells SheKnows that she’s nervous, but proud, to see how viewers will respond to the moment they show.
On The Morning Show, Stella’s interaction with her aggressor escalates to him using racial slurs and referring to the “China virus” and “bat virus” as she hurriedly gets in the car and slams the door shut, shaken. Lee doesn’t take it lightly that they showed something so upsetting, but she also knows how much this scene mirrors the truth of what’s been happening.
“That was unpleasant to shoot,” Lee tells SheKnows frankly. “But the thing that got me through was knowing that I was experiencing that myself and like my friends were and my family wasBut the thing that got me through was knowing that I was experiencing that myself and like my friends were and my family was…the question really just became how could we not include that and still have this be truthful?”
Per national coalition Stop AAPI Hate, over 9,000 anti-Asian incidents were reported between March 2020 and June 2021, with an increase in physical assaults in 2021. In May, President Biden signed a bill to counter the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in recognition that the trend had become a nationwide problem after both reports like this and a number of viral incidents showing elderly Asian people being physically attacked on the streets.
“I’m nervous to see how that is received but I also can stand proud that we’re showing it,” Lee told us. “That is the biggest thing to just represent untold stories like that.”
Read on for more of what Greta Lee had to say about her role on The Morning Show, and how she brought her life experience to making this character pop.
SheKnows: Stella comes in as such a UBA trailblazer — and she isn’t necessarily the biggest fan of coworkers like Bradley and Alex. Can you tell us a little about that?
Greta Lee: Stella is coming from her experience as a sort of wunderkind who was successfully running an online media company that was mostly catering to a Gen Z audience. And then when she’s plucked to come run this environment, which is in some ways the complete opposite, and it’s like corporate, mostly white, and also not to mention the toxicity and the overt instances of like, racial and gender inequity. I mean, she’s just coming in and she’s dropped down and asked to fix everything. So that is an unreasonable task. But I could appreciate that they wanted to be as true as possible to like just how uncomfortable and hard that would be. And I think she’s even surprised herself to find that she’s constantly having to negotiate what she is willing and not willing to compromise in order to be an effective boss. And that sometimes that’s at odds with what she wants personally or the kinds of changes she wants to make, both at the network and in the world at large. Does that answer your question at all?
SK: That definitely answers questions I had! In one scene Stella has with Alex Levy, she’s basically demanding that Alex listen to her and recognize that she has some expertise. Has anything like that ever happened to you in real life?
GL: As a youngish Asian-American woman? Nooooo…I mean, never! Completely foreign to me. Never been an outsider. I mean, yeah, of course. I felt so lucky that they were so receptive to my own lived experience in terms of that, and in a way, what Stella is going through matches, what she’s having when I was happening in terms of myself entering a fully established show with people I admired and looked up to for so long and having to really like pull at my bootstraps and like play ball and hold my own. But the difference is, I mean, Kerry Ehrin and Mimi [Leder] and all the rest of the producers were just so wanting to know what kinds of concerns and ideas I had about authentically portraying someone who is an outsider who is a millennial. She looks and sounds different and really honoring that in a very bullish way I’m so grateful for.
SK: Was there anything specific from your experience that they brought onto the show?
GL: Oh, yeah, a lot of instances of being — you know, I’ve been the token and I’ve been, if not underestimated, I just really have felt that sense of supreme imposter syndrome and outsider-ness. Even things like, in preparation for how to portray a boss, I was amazed to find that my ideas and all the things that I had like prepped were so wrong. As a young woman — and maybe a lot of people can relate to this — there’s like this complete absence of some sort of like instruction manual, like how to be a boss. How to be one — a good one — and have people actually listen to you. And I thought initially in my prep, OK, Sheryl Sandberg’s idea of like power position and loud voice and like a commanding, almost like a performance of maleness. It’s like Elizabeth Holmes-esque. And then watching videos, Ted Talks of young women who are CEOs and finding like, Oh my gosh, actually, the reality is these women are really showing up just as themselves. There’s no weird voice. They’re not like in a pinstripe suit, they’re just themselves. And that was really amazing, and I kind of hope I can take that with me in my own life.
SK: Stella goes through a really horrible incident of anti-Asian hate — what was that scene like to shoot?
GL: That was unpleasant to shoot. And I say that in that it was — I didn’t take it lightly that we were going to show that. And given my intimate relationship with the writers, I knew that I was in good hands. But it is something that is so personally sacred to me in terms of accurately trying to present what was actually happening in a way that was truthful. But we’re not losing sight of the fact that this is for entertainment and it’s a TV show. So like how to negotiate all of that is really, really hard. I mean, I have to admit that it feels like outside of my pay grade, how to represent something like that. But the thing that got me through was knowing that I was experiencing that myself and like my friends were and my family was, so, on a show this prescient, and this sort of wanting to chase after the truth of what was happening, the question really just became how could we not include that and still have this be truthful? So, I’m nervous to see how that is received but I also can stand proud that we’re showing it. That is the biggest thing to just represent untold stories like that. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
SK: Is working with Jennifer Aniston anything like working with Alex Levy?
GL: No! I mean, only in that Jen is such a force — watching her work and just knowing her history of working and what she’s capable of. She’s a master at what she does in terms of her craft and her stamina. And it was incredible to witness and to partner up with…being able to like improvise with her too, I mean, things that were never going to make the final cut, but just the joy of actually doing that was amazing. And her eyes are so blue. They really are. And having to put aside my personal side — like OK, you’re Stella, you don’t care about her, she’s Alex Levy. But that was actually kind of helpful to be able to lean into those pockets in order to do the scene and play the character.
SK: Who’s the most like their Morning Show character in real life?
GL: Oh my God. Oh God, Everyone’s so different from their character! Maybe Mia? Maybe Karen Pittman in her — she’s such a force and she’s such an exquisite, I mean, she is so full of grace in the way that Mia is. So I’m going to say Mia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.