It Took Sandra Oh 30 Years to Get to Killing Eve

Photo: Bobby Doherty

Where has Sandra Oh been? For a decade, she was a fixture on primetime television as Dr. Cristina Yang, the comically humorless, fiercely ambitious surgeon on Shonda Rhimes’s first ABC hit Grey’s Anatomy. Cristina’s relationship with Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) would serve as the emotional anchor through all the plot twists, bomb threats, sudden deaths, and McDreamys. Oh left that role on her own accord four years ago, and since then, she’s done smaller, more modest projects (most notably Catfight with Anne Heche) for an actor who earned five Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe for her work.

But Sandra Oh is back, and for the first time in her career, as the lead of a major television show, in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s drama Killing Eve, which premiered Sunday night on BBC America. As Eve Porowski, Oh plays a sharp but bored MI5 officer who’s working well below her potential until she becomes fixated on a female assassin named Villanelle who’s been taking hits out on people out across Europe. Eve is a perfect showcase for Oh: droll and sarcastic with a keen intelligence that sees a challenge in Villanelle. It’s the kind of role that raises the question: Why isn’t Sandra Oh getting lead roles? In an emotional phone conversation, Oh talked about the heartbreaking revelation she had when she first received the script for Killing Eve, her artistic practice, and hanging out with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Both Killing Eve and Catfight have a pair of female adversaries at their core. Killing Eve is much more of a cat-and-mouse style thriller, whereas Catfight was this social satire. But they’re both grounded in this female adversarial energy. Is there something about that dynamic that attracts you?
Huh, I didn’t really notice that. Gosh, now that I think about it, that’s true. Catfight was very much violent and adversarial and [Killing Eve] is very intertwined and adversarial but also obsessive. It’s super-charged, like you’re getting to wrestle with the female psyche that way. In Catfight, both of our characters wanted to kill the other. With Killing Eve, it’s not so much wanting to kill the other, it’s the fear of killing the other.

Those are just the spiky places I feel are so interesting to explore. Eve and Villanelle are adversaries, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s not only adversarial energy, it’s mixed equally with almost a twin-like nature. Like a persona. And there’s this kind of indescribable attraction. Obsession. How can it possibly end well? You barrel toward it anyway.

Do you think there’s something aspirational in how Eve sees Villanelle? She’s stuck behind a desk, not fulfilling her full potential, whereas Villanelle is.
Oh yes. Rather naïvely, Eve admires Villanelle’s freedom — what she perceives as freedom, or guilelessness, or not giving a shit, lack of remorse. The idea of that is really thrilling to her. She’d never admit to it. I don’t even think that she’s conscious of it. But the ability to rule yourself so fully by, metaphorically, not giving a shit about someone else’s life — that’s one of the driving forces of why Eve is fascinated by Villanelle. And her style. It’s not just that she wears great clothes, because she does. It’s the personality, the individuality, the flair with which Villanelle is and moves through the world. It’s something Eve is also fascinated by and really probably needs to integrate herself.

Did you ever consider doing a British accent?
Oh you know what? I asked them! Early on, it’s like, oh did you need that? Because if it is, I gotta start practicing right now. It’s a very British show, it’s a very European show, and so they really wanted a grounding American element. They wanted there to be a North American/American presence. And I like that also because Eve is an outsider. And one of the ways is that she did not grow up in the culture.

How did the project come to you?
It just came to my doorstep one day. I got a call about it and read the script. I was familiar with Fleabag and then we met on Skype.

You and Phoebe?
Yes. And went back and forth and blah blah blah and then it happened! I know it’s crazy. I’m saying this kind of off the cuff, which in one way it is. And in another way that I think you may understand, it’s taken me over 30 years to get here. So when you ask me, how did it come to me, yes there was an email and a phone call from my agent. That is true. And I also want to recognize that it came to me because of everything that I’ve done before.

Well, this gets into what I wanted to talk about with you. After Grey’s Anatomy, did you feel like you were getting the opportunities you wanted?
I’ve got to tell you, I work really hard to not think that way. And I have so much opportunity because I can say no, and I choose to say no. I took a lot of time to find the right project. So I’m interested in reframing what I know you’re asking me. Because wondering what if or why … being in the well-worn path of a belief system I don’t want to be in, I worked really, really hard to move myself out. Because it’s taken a long time to accept the reality of where we are. I know I’ve had an extraordinary path. But it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s, you know?

And it can’t.
And it can’t. And it’s also about me believing that. So it’s just like “oh, so at a certain point in your career, you think A, B, C, or D is supposed to happen?” Thinking of it that way just causes me suffering. But being aligned to it to say, How do I stay creative? How do I still connect? How do I practice access? That you can do every day. Whether you’re on a set or not. And that is just preparation for when something actually does come that you’re fully prepared for. Does that make sense?

The only thing we can control is our actions and what motivates us. But also, shit’s hard. [Laughs.]
Yes, because you know what, not only is shit hard, it’s extremely unfair. And racism exists. Let’s start there. I felt it, and I have felt it deeply. And I’m extremely fortunate. So I’m not going to not say that it’s not there, because it is.

But it’s changing the mindset that being an actor of color, person of color, that you’re at a disadvantage in the creative life. That you don’t have opportunity. It’s all how you see the opportunity. And the clearer and deeper you get into what you really want, you just become a better artist. If that’s what you really want — becoming a better artist — does that include access? Does that include having 5 billion Instagram followers? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide. But if what you want is to connect, if what you want is to be a great artist, I think you can find your way. Even within this giant paradigm that a lot of times doesn’t include people who look like us.

Because we aren’t looking at each other face-to-face, I should tell you I’m Korean-American, and so this question of how you don’t allow racism to define you, or your work, is centrally important. I think it can be a struggle sometimes to figure out what your work looks like, and how it can transcend other people’s views of you.
Yeah. I’m totally with you. I’m so interested in what you’re saying right now, because for me, this far into my career, it’s somewhat of a balance, of being in the reality of the situation. And also the work it takes to transcend it. I try and spend more of my time focused there, because I think that’s my job.

One thing I will share with you — when I got the script for Killing Eve, I remember I was walking around in Brooklyn and I was on my phone with my agent, Nancy. I was quickly scrolling down the script, and I can’t really tell you what I was looking for. So I’m like, “So Nancy, I don’t understand, what’s the part?” And Nancy goes “Sweetheart, it’s Eve, it’s Eve.” In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve. I think about that moment a lot. Of just going, how deep have I internalized this? [So] many years of being seen [a certain way], it deeply, deeply, deeply affects us. It’s like, how does racism define your work? Oh my goodness, I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why? And this is me talking, right? After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, “Oh my god! They brainwashed me!” I was brainwashed! So that was a revelation to me.

That’s how deep this is. We can’t see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories.
Correct. I saw Joy Luck Club when it came out, so that was early mid-’90s, and I remember seeing it with my long-time collaborator, Mina Shum. We’d just done Double Happiness and we saw this movie and we were weeping. Like, shuddering weeping. Weeping more than really the film deserved. Our experience was much bigger than what was being called for. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of how deeply we need to see ourselves represented. And how it’s not just leaving the images to the outside voices. It’s finding it within ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about us and our community a lot. How do people understand us more? How do we connect? Something I feel we need to explore more in our own communities, ourselves, is to know who we are.

Our world is so big. Our parents are incredible people. They’ve lived through war, and then moved to a country where they didn’t speak any…
Speak English.

I feel like we grew up and we thought our worlds are very small and ahistorical but they’re not.
No they’re not because of exactly what you were saying, and I’m saying right now, is what we are supposed to do as part of this generation. I’m very interested in you being an Asian-American writer, and the things you are talking about, and I want to encourage you in any way. Keep writing about it. Keep writing about what you don’t know. I think we need more of that introspection, questioning, for ourselves as our own community before anyone else is interested in our community.

Is there a role you haven’t played yet that you would love to play?
Oh I’m sure. I just haven’t met it yet. [Laughs.] I’m really happy to be playing this one right now.

You seem like you’re having a lot of fun.
I am. And even these things that we’re talking about now, I have definitely put into this show.

How so?
It’s hard to talk about because it’s such a deep creative process, and it’s also like, I can’t let you know all my secrets. [Laughs.] Those things we need to believe about ourselves. I’m just trying to think of, say, the things Villanelle represents to Eve. Or that Carolyn represents to Eve. Or that any of the other characters represents to Eve. For me, I just am so grateful to be an actor. We can use the creative process to work shit out. [Laughs.]

Your Grey’s character, Cristina, and her relationship with Meredith resonated with a lot of people because it showed what it looks like to be someone’s person, but not in a romantic way. I feel like you’re really exploring the wide palette of female relationships. It’s like an Elena Ferrante novel happening with your career.
Oh my god, I was obsessed with those books! That is like the biggest compliment. Because I get what you’re saying. Even what you’re pointing out, you go from Grey’s to Catfight to Killing Eve. I’m excited for the next one, I don’t know what’s that gonna be. I guess maybe I’m interested in that. I loved those novels.

What was your experience reading them?
I was so fascinated with the novelist, whoever the novelist might be. I love that! We don’t know who she is, or maybe it’s a he, but it’s a she. And I just felt it was so much of a documentary. I feel like, “Oh my gosh she’s exposing her entire life.” I don’t know if you have old friends, but I have a couple of old friends and it’s so interesting that time moves along, how it bends and changes things. And it makes us more flexible in certain ways and less flexible in other ways. But that was a true exploration, those four novels. Two women.

What’s one of the most significant female relationships in your life?
Definitely I would say my best friend, who I met in the first grade. By the seventh grade we lived two houses away from each other, on the same side of the street. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, and she’s a mom of two teenage boys. She’s an HR specialist. And we lead very different lives and our friendship has gone all places. Including the therapist’s room.

Yeah. We hit a rough patch where we couldn’t connect, and we hurt each other. But that [person] who knows you inside and out … she’s definitely my best friend.

Does that get funneled into any of these roles?
Sure, I steal from my life all the time. I’ve played so much of my friendship in Grey’s, very much so. But I would say the No. 1 person who I explore in some ways is my sister. I’ve played my sister in so many things.

What was it like when you met Justin Trudeau?
You want to know? I’ve met him a few times now. One, he is that handsome. Two, there is something so immediate and personable and exceptionally Canadian about him, because he is. I was like, “Prime Minister Trudeau” and he would just say “you need to call me Justin.” And I would say “Prime Minister Trudeau, just please, come to the house for a beer.” You just want to hang out with him and shoot the shit. He and his family, Sophie, his wife. They’re really, really lovely, wonderful people. And I’m supportive of him and I hope he does good things for our country.

Sandra Oh: ‘It’s Taken Me Over 30 Years to Get Here’