Andrew Scott and Greta Lee Connect Over Sexual Chemistry, Falling in Love on Camera and Making the Year’s Most Intimate Romances

Greta Lee and Andrew Scott
Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski
Greta Lee and Andrew Scott’s instant rapport when meeting for the first time makes sense: At the heart of their astonishing, often wordless performances this year is a deeply felt chemistry they each had to create with their co-stars. In “Past Lives,” from writer-director Celine Song, Lee plays Nora, a first-generation Korean American torn between her first love in Korea (Teo Yoo) and her white American husband (John Magaro), with whom she lives in New York. In “All of Us Strangers,” from writer-director Andrew Haigh, Scott plays Adam, whose lonely life in his London flat is pierced by a flirtatious neighbor (Paul Mescal) and mysterious, dreamlike visits with his late parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy).

ANDREW SCOTT: I first saw your work in “Russian Doll.” What was that like?

GRETA LEE: Oh gosh. I love Natasha [Lyonne]. I love Leslye Headland. It’s a crew of wild, New York women. We self-identified as like an old crusty New York bagel getting together to make this show.

SCOTT: Together, you’re the bagel?

LEE: Together we’re the bagel, I think. I know where I know you from. Is it a big responsibility to represent hot priests everywhere? Is it a heavy burden?

SCOTT: It’s a burden that I’ve bared.

LEE: Maybe not so much currently anymore?

SCOTT: Not so much currently. I’m in my sad era.

LEE: How wonderful.

SCOTT: Right? And congratulations on “Past Lives.” It’s such a beautiful film. It makes me emotional even thinking about it. Are you knocked over by the response?

LEE: I am. I can’t believe you’ve seen it. That’s the level of my shock.

And your movie, “All of Us Strangers,” I was completely gutted and destroyed by. I feel like our movies are …

SCOTT: They’re intermingled, aren’t they?

LEE: Yeah. We could do a double feature. We’re the new Barbenheimer. We need a good portmanteau. We’d be “All of Us Past Strange Lives.” How about that?

SCOTT: That’ll do it!

LEE: Really rolls off the tongue.

SCOTT: So where did you first come across the movie? Did you audition for it?

LEE: Oh, yes, very much so. It was one of those scripts. It made me furious with how good it was and how much I desperately wanted to be a part of it. And so I put everything I had into that audition and then didn’t get the job.

SCOTT: Did you know that you’d got close to it?

LEE: Well, this crazy thing happened that just added to the humiliation of it all. I got this phone call right after I auditioned, from this producer saying they needed to meet to discuss something really exciting and it was very urgent. For whatever reason, I assumed I got the job.

SCOTT: As you would.

LEE: Right? And then I listened to the voicemail again and it was for Greta Gerwig.

SCOTT: You’re joking me?!

LEE: I wish I was. But that really happened. They just mixed us up.

SCOTT: That is horrific.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

LEE: It couldn’t have been clearer to me at that time that it just wasn’t going to be mine, which is its own heartbreak.

SCOTT: My mom, when I used to not get auditions, she’d say, “You’re allowed one huffing day.” You can tell the person walking down the street, “Do you want to know how my life is worse than yours?” And then after that, you’ve got to just [dusts off hands].

LEE: Well, I huffed for a year. Then I got a call out of the blue asking if I could meet with Celine Song that day, because the casting had opened up and they were looking for older actors.

SCOTT: And you thought, “This is not for me. This is for some other Greta.”

LEE: Greta Garbo was in from the dead. I jumped on a Zoom with her that day, and she had such clear ambitions for this film. It felt so antithetical to everything else I had been reading — such a quiet, powerful movie in this world that seems like it’s more and more about championing the loudest voice in the room. This was so different.

SCOTT: Absolutely. By the end of that call, did you feel OK?

LEE: Well, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I felt like, this job is already Greta Gerwig’s, so I’m just going to do exactly what I want to do in my dreams. And I did it. And then she said, “It’s your job.”

SCOTT: It’s so difficult to imagine anybody else playing that part.

LEE: Well, thank you.

SCOTT: Apart from Greta Gerwig. I think she would’ve been good.

LEE: Her Korean is so good. But what about you? How did you get involved with Andrew Haigh’s movie?

SCOTT: I was filming something, and it was a COVID-y shoot, and I was working really, really hard. So I wasn’t particularly inclined to start working again. Then I got this script, and I knew Andrew Haigh’s work. I was so excited just to be even talking to him. He was such a lovely person to talk to on the phone. So, I finished this year-long job, and I had two weeks and I started on this one. But it was such a sort of palate cleanser.

LEE: For you it was a straight offer?

SCOTT: They offered it to Andrew Ridgely from Wham!, and he turned it down.

LEE: I kind of feel like that first conversation with a director feels a little bit like falling in love. I think about Celine like she’s my wife now, whether she wants to be or not. Celine has this incredible generosity when it comes to her treatment of humans. You can read her kindness.

SCOTT: It’s the same with Andrew, actually. We shot the film in his childhood home.

LEE: I know that it’s based off of a book, but it seems so incredibly personal.

SCOTT: Yeah, he’s adapted it very much to a sort of — I wouldn’t call it biographical, but it certainly deals with his own emotional biography. So I felt my challenge was to match [that vulnerability], because he was being so generous by offering up his house. I wanted to give as much of myself as he had given. When I read it, I just felt so much of my own pain or vulnerability. It became a sort of weird marriage.

LEE: And then once you experience it, now I feel like, well, I’m effed, because I want to find that again.

SCOTT: I think what our two films have a little bit in common is a sort of fragility. I feel like they’re both very intimate films, but they have a sort of epic quality to them.

LEE: Yeah. I remember talking to Celine in the earliest days, her describing the bar scenes as, “Is there a way we can do this and make it feel monumental?” A scene that we’ve seen a million times, but those moments that feel so ineffable and so small and yet cosmic.

SCOTT: I think what’s really extraordinary in your film is the online scenes. They’re so difficult to do, that challenge of how do you even capture Zoom calls? And for some reason in your movie, it just feels incredibly authentic. Did you guys just have a lot of time to be free with each other? It felt just so incredibly natural.

LEE: Well, thank you. I guess this is the question about chemistry, right? For us it was this childhood connection that potentially exists over several lifetimes. For you and Paul Mescal — I heard that you’d never met before. Is that right?

SCOTT: We had met before. It’s a really interesting thing about chemistry, isn’t it? I’ve witnessed people who don’t really get on particularly well, and they have incredible chemistry. But I suppose what’s good about it is, if you like the person, you feel playful. And I think if you can feel playful, then I think it just makes the process more enjoyable, whatever the product turns out to be like.

LEE: So you’re saying you like Paul?

SCOTT: I love Paul, in fact.

LEE: He’s very lovable.

SCOTT: Yeah, he’s a beaut. Whatever chemistry Paul and I might have in real life, actually, that’s neither here nor there because we have to create a kind of chemistry that’s completely different to me and Paul’s chemistry. There was sort of sexual chemistry and physical falling in love. It’s such a beautiful thing to do.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

LEE: It was my first time as an actor to inhabit falling in love.

SCOTT: Did you find it pleasurable?

LEE: No. I found it…

SCOTT: Uncomfortable?

LEE: First of all, I feel so often falling in love [in movies] looks like a walk in the park. It looks stunningly gorgeous.

SCOTT: It’s not the nausea that you’re fighting.

LEE: It’s not humiliating as it is in real life when you actually fall in love. I found that having to figure that out in a very real and specific way left me feeling like I was dying! [Laughs.]

SCOTT: Really? Wow!

LEE: I mean, it’s so physical. Maybe it sounds hokey, but it’s a thing where some people describe falling in love like your internal makeup changes, that a person can do that.

What was it like to fall in love for you on camera?

SCOTT: I love it.

LEE: I love that you love it.

SCOTT: I think because it was a lonely character, and maybe it was like that a little bit in “Fleabag.” And maybe because both those actors are people that I love, also. And the tenderness. What I think is beautiful about our film is that there’s a lot of sex in it…

LEE: There is? I didn’t notice.

SCOTT: Did you fast-forward those bits?

LEE: I must have.

SCOTT: And I’m glad you did.

LEE: They’re beautifully shot.

SCOTT: It’s a very tactile film. There’s so much touching. The sex was really important. But what I think is radical about it is how tender these two men are with each other.

LEE: And you don’t really get to see that with men.

SCOTT: Exactly. Sometimes I think it’s dodgy in sex scenes between two men. It’s always, like, fervent, and they’re knocking over loads of books. It feels like you really want to just get this over with quickly. But sometimes you don’t want to get it over with quickly.

LEE: You know, I have never done a sex scene. And the thing about “Past Lives” is there’s almost no touching. We had all kinds of discussions about whether or not we needed to show sex or even kissing, but that felt dangerous to us in a different capacity.

SCOTT: But what’s so extraordinary to me is, if someone had said, “There’s no touching or, like, sex in ‘Past Lives,’” I would’ve been like, “What?” Because it’s so intimate.

LEE: Is this something that you’re looking for in terms of next projects, like this essence of raw sex? [Laughs.]

SCOTT: Yes. Thank you for asking. And thank you for putting it out there.

LEE: I’ve brought you here to ask you all the important questions.

SCOTT: And thank you for using the word “raw.”

LEE: You’re welcome. What I mean is — I mean love!

SCOTT: No, you don’t!

LEE: No, I do! I really do!

SCOTT: Well, I have a sort of idea that all stories are love stories.

LEE: Goddamn it. That’s so beautiful. I’m such a mean, dark person here.

SCOTT: Let’s see if we can name one that isn’t a love story.

LEE: Um…. [Long pause.]

SCOTT: Thank you. Five minutes of silence, Variety. Enjoy!

LEE: No, you’re right. Wait, OK. I feel like we’ve talked about the entrance in [to a character]. How are you with leaving a character?

SCOTT: I’m pretty good at it. It’s like having a jigsaw puzzle. By the time you’ve got only about 25 pieces left, there’s a momentum: You want to complete the story, collate all the things and then go [sits back]. So I don’t usually mind saying goodbye. I mind saying goodbye to the people.

LEE: OK, but that puzzle metaphor, you just break apart the pieces and put it back in the box? I would glue the back and frame the puzzle. You’re telling me, don’t do that?

SCOTT: I wouldn’t do that. Nobody wants to make a jigsaw puzzle that’s covered in hard glue. Nobody wants that, Greta. You’re ruining it for the future puzzle makers.

LEE: Right! That’s selfish

SCOTT: You feel devastated when you finish?

LEE: It does sometimes feel slightly existential. It’s all of the resources put into creating a whole life and a whole world. Hopefully, I’ll get better at that.

SCOTT: I can imagine that with “Past Lives,” because it’s so extraordinarily special. Have you seen it many times?

LEE: It’s now on airplanes, and I want to watch it so badly, but I don’t feel like I can. Do you watch your own movies? I feel like actors aren’t allowed to admit that they do.

SCOTT: I watched “All of Us Strangers” the other night with an audience for the first time. I felt so exposed, seeing it in a proper big cinema. Not only have we exposed ourselves physically, but I felt like, “Oh, my God, they’re seeing something really vulnerable in me.”

LEE: I totally understand that. When we premiered at Sundance, at the very end of the movie, I thought everyone was getting up to leave because they were shifting in their seats — until we realized it was because they were reaching for tissues. I was so convinced that they were grabbing their coats.

SCOTT: It’s magical. I find it so extraordinary that something can be conceived in somebody’s mind and then they can have the courage to write it down. And then to make something that touches people eventually and makes them feel better. I just think it’s a wonderful thing to do with your life.

Variety Actors on Actors presented by “Air.”

From Variety US