Sandra Oh, like many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, was devastated in March when, after a pandemic year marked by a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate incidents, a mass shooter killed eight people — six of them Asian women — in targeted attacks across Atlanta.
Mourning the tragedy from Pittsburgh, where she was filming her Netflix series “The Chair,” the Emmy-nominated actress found herself searching online for a place where she could stand in solidarity with the community. “I was just like, ‘There has got to be a rally. I need to be with people,’” Oh said in an interview for the Season 2 premiere of the L.A. Times podcast “Asian Enough,” a show about Asian American life.
She joined a nearby #StopAsianHate rally and was moved to speak, leading fellow demonstrators in a chant that quickly went viral: “I am proud to be Asian. I belong here.”
“To be able to raise your voice and say something is physicalizing the first act of what it is to declare your space,” said Oh, “and your personhood in a crowd of people.”
The film and TV star spent 10 years beaming into homes as Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy” and has no plans on making a return as other cast alum have done. “I left that show, my God, seven years ago, almost,” she said. “I have moved on.”
In 2019, she became the first actress of Asian descent to win multiple Golden Globe awards with her lead turn on the BBC America crime series “Killing Eve,” which she also executive produced in its third season. In recent years, she’s lent her voice to Asian-led animated films “Over the Moon” and “Raya and the Last Dragon” and the Amazon series “Invincible.”
After quipping at the 2018 Emmys, “It’s an honor just to be Asian,” the Canadian-born Oh, who is also a U.S. citizen, became a widely quoted emblem of community pride, that famous line emblazoned on T-shirts. In this lightly edited interview, which you can listen to in full on The Times website, Apple, Spotify and other audio platforms, she spoke about that sense of honor, the learned systems of internalized racism and validation she works to dismantle, and why she’s now focused on roles that engage directly with Asian experiences in films like the upcoming “Umma” and her August Netflix series “The Chair,” in which she plays the head of a university English department.
How has this last year changed what’s on your mind, what you think about and what you choose to put your energy into?
I’ve been thinking of the dismantling of systems, every single system [in which] we participate. But let’s keep it in this space of this podcast, of being Asian “enough.” I’m constantly trying to dismantle that. What is it to be Asian enough? Can I see the water that I’m swimming in? Can I awake to the thoughts and the influences and the belief systems that I’ve been swimming in for my entire life? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and being in that space.
I’m constantly trying to dismantle things, not only for myself but for us. I recently finished two projects. One is a film. It’s a psychological horror called “Umma,” written and directed by Iris Shim. And I just finished a half-hour show for Netflix called “The Chair” by Amanda Peet. Those two pieces, I feel, are working at dismantling certain belief systems that I feel like I know I have been trapped in and I feel like we’re all trapped in.
Sandra Oh: “I am now only interested in pieces that are specifically dealing with Asian experiences. Not in a heavy-handed way, but in a way that considers it.”
(Micha Theiner / For The Times)
Zeroing in [on] the particular lens of racism and violence against Asian Americans, the way I really try and work to address that is profoundly through my work. The deeper I can go to unlock certain things within ourselves, myself, in our community — and then to show myself or our community in places of normalization and also places where the characters are full-fleshed characters — that’s how in my job, which is to come into culture, come into storytelling, come into view, that’s where I aim my work.
Were you looking to work with Asian and female creators even at the start of your career, and are you now seeing more of those opportunities?
I just wanted to work, when I’m talking about the beginning of my career, as everyone does. You just want to work. You want to work on the best projects possible. I will say for my career, the majority of people that I’ve worked with have been women and have been people of color, because that’s who’s hired me. So it’s nice to have it continuing on. I’ve had early relationships with two key people — [Canadian filmmaker] Mina Shum and also playwright Diana Son — and I’ve done almost all their work for the past 20 years.
What’s really great now is that I’m meeting new people, young women, young people who are now having the chance to be able to put their work up and work out and have reached out to me. But it’s been a long time until I feel like I’ve really felt that change, and that’s really only in the past couple of years.
While you were working on “The Chair” in Pittsburgh, you made a surprise appearance at a #StopAsianHate rally. That moment went viral. It felt so spontaneous.
It was. It was totally spontaneous. But these things that go viral, you can’t predict them. The only thing I can say is it’s from the heart.
I was working on “The Chair.” Atlanta happened. I had the day off and I was just searching, honestly, online in Pittsburgh. And then I got in touch with the Asian crew members. And I was like, “Why am I just reaching out to my Asian crew members?” So I put out an email to the entire crew and cast — “Only if you want to join in.”
So many of the crew did. And our fellow Asian crew members really felt supported by our crew. We all headed down to this area in Pittsburgh and it was a nice, small rally. And I just felt so moved to speak. And to speak about mostly the pride … Even through the fear, we belong. I just wanted to voice that for a moment, and I’m happy that it resonated with people.
You grew up in a small town in Canada. Your parents are immigrants from Korea. How did you form your identity there growing up, as a kid?
Honestly, I’m still unraveling that and trying to unravel it through my work. I had a very typical immigrant experience — I’ll say a typical Korean American, Korean Canadian experience — where my parents came on the wave of the ’60s and went into the professional class.
I grew up in a small town in Canada. All my friends were white. We went to a Korean church… church, church, church! And then I went to the National Theatre School — again, mostly all white. I didn’t really have an experience of meeting fellow Asian artists, actors or writers or musicians until I left school, until I was in my early 20s.
Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri in the first episode of “Killing Eve’s” second season.
(Aimee Spinks / BBCAmerica)
“Killing Eve” is not an “Asian” show, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Eve is Asian. In Season 3, we see her starting her life in a Korean enclave in London called New Malden. Even in Season 1 we saw Eve in the break room with her boss, with her bento box and chopsticks. How has the experience been for you, bringing these aspects of Eve’s identity into the text of the show without having it being the focus of the story and who she is?
“Killing Eve,” regarding that subject matter, is a real transitional piece for me. I am now only interested in pieces that are specifically dealing with Asian experiences. Not in a heavy-handed way, but in a way that considers it.
I had great conversations with Suzanne Heathcote, who was the showrunner on that season. My pitch to them for the beginning of Season 3 for “Killing Eve” was, “Eve was on a moped in, like, Cambodia. You can’t tell who she is. She’s doing all this Jason Bourne stuff because she’s hiding out.” And they said, “Great idea.” And they put it into New Malden.
Your new Netflix show, “The Chair,” allows you to build on the system dismantling you started with “Killing Eve.”
The piece is about me being the chair of an English department. But these elements are woven deeply into the DNA of the show. My character’s name is Ji-Yoon Kim. I was ecstatic when Amanda Peet gave me this script and I had a Korean name. It was very deep for me to receive this script. To have a Korean name is very important, just in the way of normalizing things. It’s nice to be able to hear a name that you might not be familiar with, but all the other characters are saying my name, and saying my name correctly.
This wonderful man [Ji-yong Lee], he plays my dad. When I was working it out with Amanda, I was like, “Amanda, just leave all his dialogue in Korean. I understand what he’s saying and it’s more comfortable for him.” Mr. Lee’s never acted before. And again, this is about how to deepen our bench. My character has a daughter, and my daughter is not of the same race, and my father is speaking Korean to me. I’m trying to speak in English to my daughter. My character is caught in the middle, in all aspects in this show. And I felt something really special going on, in having an argument with my dad in Korean and English, and then having to speak to my child in English but having her also understand Korean, and trying to bring the elements of her ethnicity into it.
It was very fulfilling, because I just thought, “This is a story I want to tell, where many of us have multiple things going on.” To have the richness of having to speak another language other than English to our parents and then having to bridge from our parents to our children, and how satisfying that was. I felt I am making this for people who will understand this intimately.
What excites me about that and what excites me to continue working that way is, I don’t want to worry about people who might not understand about my experience. I am only concerned with people who are interested in this experience. There are enough Marvel movies out there. I’m trying to do something different here. So you don’t have to speak Korean, but if you know what it is to be in that place of being squeezed at all ends, and also being a single mom, hopefully you would enjoy “The Chair.”
That sentiment also relieves us of expending the energy of explaining ourselves to the people who don’t care or who don’t want to take the time to learn.
Just watch it. Enjoy it, you know? To many people, just hearing that language and seeing someone interact will reflect their own experience deeply. And I want to reflect that. I’m interested in that storytelling and interested in an interracial adoption story. I’m interested in these other layers. It’s taken a while to then move on from something like “Grey’s” and Cristina, which is in a specific world, in a specific tone, a specific style, but this is what I’m interested in now, a multilevel place where culture and language is always flowing through us.