Greta Lee on Being the ‘Wunderkind’ of ‘The Morning Show’ Season 2 and Dramatizing Anti-Asian Hate Crime Amid COVID-19

Greta Lee (left) and Billy Crudup in 'The Morning Show' Season 2
Apple TV Plus

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the fourth episode of “The Morning Show” Season 2, streaming now on Apple TV Plus.

Greta Lee blazed onto the second season of Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” in a way that demanded audiences sit up and pay attention. The veteran actor (see everything from “Girls” and “New Girl” to “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Russian Doll”) was suddenly taking on a very serious — and seriously important — role in Stella Bak, the new president of the news division at fictional network UBA.

Not only is Stella the youngest president in the network’s history, but she is also the first female president and the first woman of color to serve in the role. This provides a unique opportunity for the network to expand its perspective — if her higher ups, including Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), allow it. But thus far, they have not sat up and paid attention to Stella to the same the degree the audience may be watching Lee.

In the fourth episode, titled “Kill the Fatted Calf,” for example, Stella finds herself having to do Cory’s bidding and attempt to convince Alex (Jennifer Aniston) to moderate the upcoming debate even though others at the network — from Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) to Daniel (Desean Terry) have proven they really want the gig. Daniel’s point about the need to have a Black person’s voice heard, which is translated to Stella via Mia (Karen Pittman), is one that particularly hits home with Stella.

Stella is also challenged by Yanko’s (Nestor Carbonell) reaction to the request to apologize for using the term “spirit animal” on air and his subsequent subpar apology.

“She’s someone who comes in really set [on wanting] to fix the diversity problem, to a fault, almost, because she doesn’t even realize how complicated that really is. Her eagerness is to teach an old dog new tricks, get some new voices, get the old ones out. But she’s constantly having to negotiate what would be best for the corporation and the brand of the network, and they don’t fit in line so neatly,” Lee tells Variety.

“Kill the Fatted Calf” was especially meaningful for Lee not only because it was one of Stella’s bigger episodes during the season, but also because it was directed by Jessica Yu.

Having a director of Asian descent was a “gift,” the actor says. “I thought that was so incredibly helpful to have that extra voice so it’s not just me with the burden of, ‘Oh my god, how do we represent these identity questions and not make it a monolithic, prescribed, “Here’s how you should feel” kind of a thing?’ To have that was just invaluable. There’s a good lesson learned for me.”

Here, Lee talks with Variety about using her own experience to inform her new role — including how she developed Stella’s poker face — facing off with Aniston, and how she feels about returning for a potential third season.

There’s a moment in Episode 4 where Stella asks Cory why she was brought on. She doesn’t use the word “token,” but she does imply the move was performative. How do you feel about how much Stella is actually listened to by those around her versus how much she has to bend to prove herself this season?

She’s someone who is this wunderkind who comes from running an online media company that mostly cater to a Gen-Z audience, so she’s bringing in all of those ideas and that experience to this corporate environment and to being a boss at this kind of a place. So, one of the things that I was constantly thinking about throughout the whole season was, for someone like that, what is she willing and not willing to compromise in order to be an effective leader? And the answer to that question proved to be much trickier and much messier and and more painful than I think even I anticipated going into it initially.

Certainly trying to convince Alex to do the debate seems to fit that. She could easy be going through the motions to say she tried without actually trying to succeed.

In that moment with Alex Levy, where it wasn’t her idea, that instance is exactly what I’m trying to describe in terms of her choosing what needs to happen for the network and for the news division over what she may actually want personally — or what she envisioned she’d want personally when she first started working at a place like this. But she’s someone who always means what she says, even if it is something that she is having to experience [from the] outside in, mechanically, when she knows she has to do something. I loved doing that scene with Jen, who has been such a hero to me personally. I had to pull up my bootstraps and know that I was coming in to face off with someone who I’ve admired for so long — that in and of itself is this whole other thing that I had to wrap my mind around but ultimately felt grateful for because I had no opportunity to fall back into my girly fandom. So that was a great tool for me to get to use for Stella’s perspective. But the way that the scene was written, I felt like it is so painful to see [for] someone who identifies as this visionary with really outside ambitions for what not just what the network could be and what the particular corporate environment could be — and the final product — but also the process of getting there. She cares about all of it. It really matters to her, and Alex obviously has different ideas and different priorities that are just as legitimate and have just as much value.

When Mimi Leder spoke to Variety for the premiere, she pointed out that Stella having a “millennial voice” would challenge Cory, and arguably having that voice and energy can change the dynamic on set in general. How much influence did you have on shaping Stella?

I felt so supremely heard in terms of different ideas, bringing in my own life experience into Stella and our shared experiences with tokenism and being an outsider and someone underestimated and looking kind of young. I was so I was overjoyed to get to be in this environment where that was welcomed.

For me, one of the biggest goalposts was always making sure she sounded and looked different from everyone else — honoring her millennial-ism [in] the way she dresses and the way she talks and the way she addresses the people that she’s she’s leading. She is not shy about pushing boundaries and showing up as she is, which I think is so great and actually truer. We have record number of young people in leadership roles, a record number of female CEOs, and I was personally surprised to find that these women were not putting on a manufactured boss voice.

I immediately thought of Elizabeth Holmes when you mentioned the put-on voice. What were you looking at?

Watching different TED Talk videos and reading different books like Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror.” I really started to examine and investigate different people in real life — and effective ones — [and] it was incredible to see that they weren’t doing this Sheryl Sandberg or Elizabeth Holmes power position performance of maleness. They were so fully themselves, and it didn’t mean having the loudest voice, and that’s what I find so compelling about Stella and want to take for myself in my life. She can say what she means and be firm while not compromising her own sense of self and her own identity.

She does speak that way, but she also seems really good at keeping her face neutral so she can listen to things like Bradley saying it would be “inclusive” for her to moderate the debate simply because she comes from a conservative family. How did you develop that poker face?

I’m drawing from people in my life, having lived in and entered adulthood in New York City and watching my peers navigate for themselves their respective corporate worlds and different jobs and moving up in the world. This is going to make my friends sound bad [laughs] but it’s not always about having the best best bedside manner. As actors, there is a part of us where we are innately such pleasers because we’re entertainers and we are part of this infrastructure where we are subordinates. And it’s so gratifying in various rules in my past, and Stella is definitely no exception — playing someone who does not give a shit about that. She’s so much less concerned — to her own detriment, often — with how she sounds and how she’s coming off. She’s such an immovable mountain of a force and she has such incredible ambition in terms of what she wants to do and how she’s going to do it, that everything else falls to the wayside.

The season is set as COVID is just starting to hit the U.S. and having just lived through those months, we know that anti-Asian hatred comes with that. How does that play into Stella’s storyline?

In trying to represent accurately what is actually happening, COVID and the anti-Asian response to COVID was no exception. And that’s not to say it wasn’t incredibly terrifying, the prospect of putting that on screen and how we were going to do it. I did not take that lightly at all; it was something that I felt very strongly about and had a lot of trepidation about. But in speaking with our producers and with our writers and creators, I found that we could do it in a way that felt true, even if it wasn’t wrapped up in a neat answer. It was important that it felt multifaceted — that it wasn’t just like, “OK here’s a hate crime.” We wanted to inject it with with humanity and the impossible complexity of the issue.

Stella wants to enact change but keeps being railroaded. Where are things left at the end of the season — do you see a lot more to explore with her at UBA or does she get to a point where she’s just ready to walk and leave these people to clean up their own messes?

“I don’t know” is my honest answer. What I do know is I am so overjoyed and appreciative that we’ve created the potential to keep investigating, not just gender and racial inequity and how that plays out in the workplace and world, but also [the] generational divide and how someone like Stella and Holland Taylor’s character come to a head. There’s so much more story to tell in terms of someone who’s brought in like Stella and to see how she morphs or doesn’t in relation to these people. On the one hand, Cory and Stella, they could not be more different on paper and just having the setup where she comes in as essentially the new Cory Ellison is totally mind-blowing. But as we go along, we are playing with this idea of, “Well, how actually different are they? Is it possible that they’re somehow the exact same person just spit out into different universes? And what does that mean?” I do think it is a unique and rare thing that we’ve established with these characters and I do hope that we’ll be able to get in there and explore more.

“The Morning Show” Season 2 streams new episodes Fridays on Apple TV Plus.