For Greta Lee, there was an unexpected benefit to playing a detached outsider on “The Morning Show”: being able to remain chill around Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
In the new season of the Apple TV+ series, Lee plays Stella Bak, the newly appointed head of news at the fictional media company UBA. The news network is in shambles, struggling to manage the fallout from the events of Season 1. In the final minutes of the season finale, UBA’s morning show anchors Alex Levy (Aniston) and Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), in an impromptu moment live on air, detailed the serial sexual misconduct and toxic work environment at the company and the complicity of UBA’s leaders (including Alex herself).
Enter Stella, a young tech executive brought in by UBA’s CEO Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) to try to shake up the company. Stella is aloof and completely unfazed by the network’s star anchors and old-school executives.
“I thought there’s something so amazing about getting to channel how little Stella cares — like, she’s so not impressed, could not give a flying hoot about Alex Levy or Bradley Jackson. And it’s directly at odds with how I actually feel. But I’m grateful that I was playing that, because then it just made me not nervous,” Lee said in an interview. “I was thinking, like, ‘Yeah, Stella, she doesn’t care at all!’”
Like the show’s first season, Season 2 brings plenty of dramatic and messy storylines — which become even more heightened because of its very specific time frame. The first episode begins on New Year’s Day 2020. It soon becomes apparent that over the course of the season’s 10 episodes, the characters will increasingly have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as it gradually becomes a part of their lives.
Lee is one of several big names who joined the show’s already stacked cast for its new season. Julianna Margulies and Hasan Minhaj appear in several episodes as two other top UBA anchors, and Holland Taylor plays the commanding Cybil, chair of UBA’s board, who is especially skeptical of Stella.
It’s an exciting time for Lee, who has several intriguing upcoming projects. She recently started production in New York as the lead of “Past Lives,” the feature film debut of playwright Celine Song, who wrote and directed the movie, which A24 is producing. Lee is also working with writer Cathy Park Hong on adapting Hong’s acclaimed essay collection “Minor Feelings.” And she recently shot Season 2 of “Russian Doll” (Lee is sworn to secrecy on any details and could only say that she’s excited about it).
To better understand Stella’s background as a tech executive coming from the world of startups to a more traditional media company, Lee read books like Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror” and Anna Wiener’s “Uncanny Valley.” She also studied people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes and watched TED Talks of young CEOs, noting their mannerisms and demeanor.
“I was particularly, and just like separately, personally interested in what it’s like to be a young person in a leadership role. Like, that’s something that so many women, we struggle with, and there’s no manual on how to be a boss. What’s that like when you have such a generational gap between yourself and the people that you are working with?” she said.
When watching the videos, she found herself fascinated by the ways many of the young CEOs didn’t convey the “performative” aspects of leadership and were instead matter-of-fact and nonchalant.
“It was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m the boss,’ and they were really able to own that in a way that was surprising to me,” she said.
Throughout the show, Lee as Stella embodies many of these qualities, all the way down to her wardrobe, which is often casual and sometimes a little wild, compared to the generic suits of the other UBA executives. Lee said she and the show’s creative team thought a lot about what Stella would define as “appropriate work wear.”
“There were days when Billy would look at what I was wearing and go: “What is that?!” Lee said. “She thinks that an Adidas lavender tracksuit suit set is, like, what the president of the news division should wear.”
All of these elements helped make Stella “real and sometimes unlikable, and kind of weird, kind of awkward — but, like, this immovable mountain of a woman,” Lee said.
“To be misunderstood or underestimated, to be the outsider, to be the token: I mean, all these things that I have firsthand experience with, and to be able to have that opportunity to bring my lived experience to this character was great.””
Fittingly, playing Stella mirrored Lee’s real-life experience of “coming in as the new girl” on the show. “I could not have more of, like, [a] readily accessible, very full plate of things to draw on,” she said.
In crafting the character, Lee identified with how Stella is an outsider on multiple fronts: new to UBA, new to the world of corporate media and a young, Asian woman surrounded by mostly older white men. She felt strongly about bringing her own experience into the character, which the show’s creative team welcomed.
“[They were] looking to me, asking me directly as an actual millennial — although I identify as more like a cuspy millennial, like, I feel in spirit like I’m a little bit more analog — what that’s like,” she said. “To be misunderstood or underestimated, to be the outsider, to be the token: I mean, all these things that I have firsthand experience with, and to be able to have that opportunity to bring my lived experience to this character was great.”
Season 2 of “The Morning Show” is streaming on Apple TV+, and new episodes premiere each Friday.