‘Past Lives’ Stars Greta Lee and Teo Yoo Tell Us About Filming a Different Kind of Love Story

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo express the intricacies of love and the complex nature of relationships in “Past Lives,” the striking, elegant debut feature from director Celine Song that has already proven to be an arthouse hit. Song uses the idea of two South Koreans who formed a lasting bond as children to encompass grander ideas, such as the passage of time and fate, and how it can all swirl together in something as human as an evening walk.

Lee plays Nora, who as a child in Seoul met Hae Sung in class. An instant crush was abruptly interrupted when Nora’s family decided to move to Canada. Years later, a grown Hae Sung (Yoo) seeks out Nora on Facebook and the two reconnect. Another 12 years pass as both focus on advancing their lives and careers, she in New York City as a married playwright and he in South Korea as an engineering student. When Hae Sung decides to finally visit his friend in New York, the question hovers over whether they were meant for each other, and in what way.

Both Greta Lee and Teo Yoo sat down with Entertainment Voice to talk love and take us inside the making of “Past Lives.”

Greta, this screenplay by Celine Song is so different from what we usually know as a love story at the movies. What was your first response to this material when it fell into your hands?

I was completely blown away by the script, just destroyed by it. The magic of the script, the thing that Celine accomplished with this gorgeous writing, is being able to make these kind of simple observations about human beings and relationships, marriages, friendships, in a way that feels ordinary and incredibly monumental. In that way it feels subversive. She’s subverting the genre. We have conventional ideas of a love triangle and this is so different from that. It feels so bad-ass in its restrain, maturity. I like how there are no villains. These characters are intelligent, respectful human beings. It’s from that place she strikes this devastating chord about love, faith and destiny.

The tricky thing about “Past Lives” is making the characters truly feel real. It is almost a fly on the wall film where you feel like a witness to these characters’ lives. Greta, how much of your actual self did you place in this role?

That’s a tough question. Yeah, it’s acting and on a lot of levels I’m different from Nora. I’m a mother, I have two young children. I’m American. I was born in Los Angeles. Even though I had the immigrant experience with two Korean parents, I did have to bring my full self and my own understanding to Nora. Specifically, it’s my own sense of what it’s like to be living in America as an Asian woman navigating the realities of being bilingual and bicultural. At one point in my life I said a lot of the things Nora says, you know, like “I’m going to win a Pulitzer Prize!” It was good to not hold back on unbridled ambition. Then we could explore these bigger ideas, these universal ideas about love and get to the romance. I brought in my Korean identity as well. I’d never done a movie in another language. To do a film in Korean is not something I was anticipating. My language is private and I think a lot of people feel that way, who have this bicultural experience. My Koreanness is not on full display all the time. It felt exposing and vulnerable, but was needed for the movie.

Teo, what struck you first about Celine Song’s concept?

It was exhilarating to find a director who I knew could use my notions of melancholy. I know being born and raised abroad and always feeling a certain kind of displacement in my life, I always questioned notions of identity. Not as a crisis but in the underlying emotions as an outsider. I was grateful she could use me to express ideas of melancholy, like an instrument. To introduce that idea of jaesaeng, or the Korean idea of reincarnation, in a feature film to western audiences, in a way where everyone can relate to it was really smart and impressive. I felt a sense of pride in that as a Korean. I really hoped I would get the part when I read it.

“Past Lives” feels so natural in the way it effortlessly go beyond being a mere romance. It’s also about how time can be cruel, the nature of bonds and the attainment of wisdom. Teo, what was the environment like on set?

There was no contrast between control and free form. It was quite harmonious. Celine was making her debut and yet she never felt like a first time filmmaker. From the beginning she knew what she wanted. As an actor you want to feel like you’re in safe hands. There was some wiggle room and room for suggestions. She was very open to ideas if they served the film and what she wanted to say. It was very collaborative.

Greta, are you the kind of actor who prefers a strict structure or do you need room to improvise in a film of this kind that feels so organic?

I would say everything was very true to the script. You don’t want to meander from it. Celine is incredibly detailed about what she seeks. Yet she still gave us this incredible sense of ownership. She would say, ‘Now Nora is yours.’ We shot on film, not digital, so we felt the pressure not to screw up (laughs). There were some incredibly long takes that felt theatrical. But that’s the dream as an actor, to really exist in that space. The end of the film is a long tracking shot that we did in one take. 

Teo, you’ve worked with some major directors like Park Chan-wook in his recent, acclaimed “Decision to Leave.” How would you compare that experience with working with Celine Song?

How do you rank your favorite dishes? You enjoy each dish for what it is. One has certain ingredients and the other has other ones. You just appreciate each different style of directing. Celine’s style is unique and special. But even the entire crew felt familiar and friendly. We would sit around for hours talking about jaesaeng and what might have been happening in our past lives. 

Teo, what ideas of love do you hope audiences so used to popcorn escapism get from this film?

I would wish for everyone to go away with a sense of closure, whatever their situation is. This film is in its themes universal and for everyone. It’s for anyone who has experienced love and therefore heartache, or ever questioned their destiny. From a young person to a senior citizen, everyone can understand that. Having grown up in Germany but now being based in Korea, I’ve always felt like an outsider peeking in. I’ve been approached by people from all different backgrounds, just moved by the film. So I hope everyone just has a good cry afterwards. 

Greta, what does true love mean to you?

My genuine philosophical answer is I don’t know. I think part of the human condition is understanding the mysterious and limitless capacity for love. You often hear people such as new mothers for example say they’ve discovered a new chamber in their hearts. As humans, we all have a great capacity to love and receive love that is endless. Maybe that’s a very idealized take when it comes to the goodness of people, but I do believe that. 

Past Lives” releases June 2 in select theaters and expands June 23 nationwide.