“I was definitely making my options,” says the actress Sandra Oh on The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast as we discuss the years between the end of her decade-long run on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy in 2014 and her casting on BBC America’s Killing Eve. Coming off of Grey‘s, a hit medical drama series that had brought her five Emmy nominations for her portrayal of intern-turned-surgeon Cristy Yang, Oh hoped that she had moved up in “hierarchy of opportunity” in Hollywood — but she was heartbroken to discover that “that wasn’t the case for years.” Indeed, it wasn’t until mid-2017 that another truly exciting screen opportunity came around: a pilot script written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge for a show called Killing Eve. Conditioned to being considered only for supporting parts, Oh read through it trying to figure out which character she was wanted for — until her agent told her that it was the titular one, an MI6 agent obsessively pursuing a psychopathic assassin named Villanelle. The 48-year-old marvels at the limitations of her imagination: “In the moment where the world is asking you to see yourself, you can’t.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Oh was born and raised near Ottawa, one of three children of Korean immigrants. She was an avid dancer throughout her childhood, but when she was 10 her older sister encouraged her to audition for a school play and, she says, “That’s when everything changed.” Oh was landing professional jobs by 15, and would shortly thereafter turn down a journalism scholarship in order to attend the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal, landing paying jobs of various sizes along the way. “In Canada it’s very, very different,” she explains, “because multi-culturalism is very much mandated, so I really, really benefited from that during my teen years, because there needed to be representation.” Upon her graduation, she was quickly cast as the lead of a high-profile short film, feature film and TV film in Canada. “I knew what was possible because I got it from the very beginning,” she muses, before deadpanning, “Then I moved to Hollywood.”
Soon after arriving in the showbiz capital in 1995, Oh had a “very, very, very painful” encounter with an agent who communicated to her that she would find no opportunities in America and should go back to Canada. “I think it’s taken me a long time to unravel from something like that,” she acknowledges a quarter-century later. But, despite that messaging, she soon landed the part of a spunky assistant to a sports agent on the HBO comedy series Arli$$, on which she appeared from 1996 through 2002. Robert Wuhl, the show’s star, chose her, and, she says, “I will always be forever grateful to him” for an experience on which she “learned so much.”
Outside of and after Arli$$, Oh pursued work in films, and appeared in a number of them that found large audiences and/or were well received, such as Garry Marshall‘s The Princess Diaries in 2001, Audrey Wells‘ Under the Tuscan Sun in 2003 and Oh’s then-husband Alexander Payne‘s Sideways in 2004 (which was nominated for the best picture Oscar and was awarded the best ensemble SAG Award). But, in focusing on film opportunities, Oh found that she was working less and less — as she once put it, “I’d hit the glass ceiling of playing the best friend.” And so she decided to try to return to television.
Fortunately enough, shortly before the release of Sideways, Oh was sent Shonda Rhimes‘ pilot for Grey’s Anatomy. She initially was approached about playing Dr. Miranda Bailey, Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital’s resident supervisor (Chandra Wilson was ultimately cast in the part), but instead wound up playing Cristina Yang. “She was really tough, and I liked her acerbicness and spikiness,” Oh says, noting that she relished the rare opportunity to develop a character over an extended period of time. At the end of the show’s 10th season, however, Oh felt it was time to move on. Around then, Rhimes said of her, “One of the greatest gifts of my creative life has been the opportunity to write words to be spoken by Sandra Oh. The reason is simple: Sandra Oh is a virtuoso. She treats dialogue like notes of music — every word must be played, every syllable correctly toned. She’s always been an extraordinary actor.”
And then, eventually, came Killing Eve, on which Oh not only stars — opposite her “great dance partner” Jodie Comer, in a cat and mouse game unlike anything seen on television before — but also serves as an EP. For her performance, Oh has already won best actress in a drama series Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards, and has received two Emmy nominations in the same category, as well, the first of which, in 2018, made her the first woman of Asian descent ever to be nominated for that top acting honor. On the heels of its third season, Oh says, “I have found shooting this show extremely creatively challenging for me, in the best of ways and in ways that have challenged me the most. In the darkest places I have had to go, it hasn’t been easy. But the fact that people enjoy it?” For that, she could be more grateful.