One of the most enduring characters from the digital run of High Maintenance made her return on tonight’s episode: Homeless Heidi! And damn, she sure isn’t homeless anymore. In fact, she’s living all of our bourgeois fantasies of meeting a hot, rich Indian-American guy. But how long is this really going to last? Vulture got on the phone with Greta Lee, who you may also remember as the not-homeless “gajillionaire” from New Girl and Marnie’s gallery frenemy on Girls, to get her thoughts on her character. Lee talked about why Heidi is an interesting figure in the context of “Lean-In” feminism, her motivations, her psychoses, and why she’s a lot like Kim Kardashian.
How was the character initially presented to you?
It was about five or six years ago when we shot that first cycle. I had known Katja and Ben personally and I guess it was right after the time they got together, they were toying with this idea [of High Maintenance]. It was all very loose and open at that time. It wasn’t until we were there on set and all the pieces came together that it became clear who she needed to be, including all of her fun psychoses. It was presented to me just as a young woman who was homeless and was ultimately a con artist. We had conversations about the hipster grifter, but it wasn’t based on anyone.
She’s become so fancy in the latest episode.
Yeah. It’s fun to pick up a few years after where we last saw her. It is a totally different direction. And that’s what’s so great about her because she’s, well, psychotic and because she’s a con artist. The possibilities are really endless in terms of where she can be. That’s really thrilling. Maybe the next time we see her she’s going to be a dentist somewhere in Palm Springs. Or she could be getting a college degree somewhere. It could be anything. And it was fun to plug her into a different socioeconomic world and see how she operates there.
What do you imagine her backstory being and how she got to where she is?
I like to think of her actually as someone who kind of started out as a regular girl. She’s a young woman who maybe really subscribed to this almost Sheryl Sandberg idea of Lean In. But she just, like, leaned in way too far and ended up on the other side of it, looking more like a Donald Trump, but Asian with flat-ironed hair. I like to think of her as someone who has found herself more and more in a bigger mess than maybe she intended. It’s fun to play within the spectrum of “concern” for other people, as brief and passing as they are. She has those moments, but ultimately it’s such a joy to play someone who actually doesn’t give two shits about anyone or anything. Especially during these times when there’s such a concern we’re being politically correct, or branding, or coming across the right way, saying the right thing, doing the right thing. Heidi does not care. Heidi gives zero fucks about anyone other than herself.
How do you interpret the ending? She’s looking at wedding photos with the hot Indian guy. Then she goes to the café and pretends to be a blind person. What’s she doing?
There are a lot of different ways to interpret that, not to completely evade your question. But I do think that part of it is this question of, Okay, what’s her play here? Is she actually going to try and stick it out and make it work with the sexy Indian dude? Because it seems like there’s some sort of indication that this is a real relationship and that’s a fun aspect of her that we haven’t seen yet. But I don’t know. We’re also led to believe that, well, she’s on her next con. And she doesn’t discriminate either. From the sexy Indian guy to the sexy white lady, you know. Whatever it takes, she’s in it to win it. I love that about her.
Do you think that she is a satire of Millennials?
Ha, that’s funny. I mean, possibly. I’m surprised by how much people like her: the number of people who say that they genuinely love her and that they remind her of themselves. I find that hilarious because, it’s not PC to call people crazy, but she cray. She’s a con artist. But there’s something about her that seems to be appealing somehow or relatable. And I don’t know if that is the fact that she’s the epitome of what Millennials are today, that idea of jumping from personality to personality and that desperate reach for identity and slipping into new ones constantly, that agitated ADD of who am I, who am I now, who am I going to be tomorrow? Maybe that is something that people can relate to. I’m still totally baffled as to why people feel like, Oh my god, Heidi’s my girl, like she’s so real and I totally get her. I mean, she’s crazy! She’s scary and crazy and capable of so much harm. But people feel so protective over her.
Do you get her? Or do you like her?
I do. And maybe this is part of the appeal she has for other people: It’s escapism, the fantasy that if you had the ability and the means, or the psychosis, to reinvent yourself constantly, what that would be? And if you were completely bereft of any responsibility or any concern for anyone else in your life, maybe that’s great.
She reminds me a bit of Joanne the Scammer, this drag queen who is always about getting what’s hers and conning other people. People love Joanne. And I think there’s a certain similarity in spirit about who you could be if you allowed yourself.
Yeah, oh definitely. There’s so much power in being completely free to dive as deep into the ugly as you want. And not to make this gendered or about feminism, but how can you not these days? I do think that there’s a shift right now with women and what it really is to be empowered and using everything you’ve got for better or for worse. Not to get too deep into this, but if you look at the Kardashians who are flagrantly using their sex appeal and using everything they’ve got — all the stops — to become business moguls. And that’s the new idea of female empowerment. I’d like to think we’re tapping into that somewhat. It’s just this new question: What does empowerment look like now? What does feminism look like now? Is it feminist to use all of your assets and tools for better or for worse? Do you propel yourself forward? In this case, obviously, it’s illegal and she’s crazy. But on the other hand, who’s not to say that she’s killing it using her tools? And maybe that is fascinating for people right now, that question.
If you did another episode of her further down the line, what would you imagine her life would be like?
I’m curious to see what she would be like, in the anti-Brooklyn, to see a fish-out-of-water scenario. The more challenges we can throw, the more wrenches there are for her, where it’s harder for her to operate her con — I want to see it getting harder for her. So yeah, if we could put her in Appalachia. Somewhere she can’t hide, somewhere there are no people of color. Somewhere where hipsters aren’t a thing, I’d love to see that. I’d love to see how she’d operate in that kind of a world.
Your character on New Girl seemed like the show was hat-tipping your character in High Maintenance. Am I correct on that? Was that how that story line came about?
No. So you know, when I first read the script — and I auditioned for that part on New Girl — on paper, the element of her possibly being homeless was not a defining characteristic of hers. It was more like a sitcom device to reveal, Oh, she’s actually a gajillionaire, and that propels the arc of why there’s tension between her and Jake Johnson’s character because he’s so not rich. So I was genuinely so surprised when after it aired, people rushed to the protection of homeless Heidi and High Maintenance like, Oh my god, they stole that character. Genuinely, that’s not what happened. I think that Liz Meriwether and her team, I really don’t think they were trying to steal anything or even really tip their hat to something they had seen on High Maintenance. I just think all of this speaks more to Ben and Katja’s uncanny knack of always having their finger on the pulse of what’s happening around them, which is what makes their show so successful and so appealing because they’re pulling from things that are very familiar to us. And I really think that’s just what it is. Like, hipster grifter was a thing already; there was a Law & Order: SVU episode based on a similar character.
Did you play that character on Law & Order?
No! I auditioned for that like six years ago and didn’t get it. I don’t even think I got a callback!
But you were perfect for it!
I know, right?! People went on to say I’m typecast as only playing homeless Asians and I didn’t even get a callback for that. So, you know, the world is crazy, man.