Sandra Oh is as much a listener as she is a speaker. When talking about race and media, I told her my family was Indian and she immediately responded, "So you know what I'm talking about!" establishing the tone for the rest of our conversation. Her success isn't just about her, it's for and about her community, too.
Oh spent 10 seasons playing Dr. Cristina Yang on Shonda Rhimes' first ABC hit Grey's Anatomy, in which the character's unapologetic ambition and signature dry humor became beloved by households all over the country. She's currently starring as Eve Polastri in Killing Eve, a psychological thriller about a determined and brilliant spy searching for Villanelle, a female assassin. Oh gets to demonstrate her vast range as an actor in the role, expertly pivoting from performances of aspirational courage and perceptiveness to highly relatable ennui, frustration, and anger at her husband.
Oh also recently became the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for an Emmy in the Lead in a Drama Series category. When she found out about the nomination, she was with her friend Michelle Krusiec, who is also an Asian-American actress (Oh grew up in a suburb of Ottawa) and who encouraged her to soak in the moment and celebrate it. The significance of her nomination cannot be overstated. Her presence as a Asian character who exists as more than a sidekick, who is smart and funny and well-rounded, will show countless people of color that they deserve to take up space, and that the minutiae of their lives matters as much as that of their white counterparts.
Those of us who have face racialized trauma need more that just images of people who look like us on TV screens, though. We need mentors, friends, and even celebrities and icons who know our struggles are ongoing and deep, and who help us articulate what we are feeling because they've felt it themselves. We need leaders who keep doing the hard work to unpack why systemic inequality persists and how it affects people who exist at the intersections of oppression.
In conversation, Sandra Oh speaks passionately and listens intently. I'm still moved, days later, at the way she engaged with those difficult parts of the Asian-American experience — the guilt that comes with ignoring or resenting your immigrant parents as a teenager, the starvation we feel at rarely being fully recognized, the pain we carry. Speaking with someone who thinks so deeply and speaks so freely about race made me realize how much I diminish the angry, hurt, unseen parts of myself around people who don't understand me. It made me feel so glad that Sandra Oh is here.
You're the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for Lead in a Drama Series. How did you feel when you found out?
I was able to really receive the significance of the moment because of who I celebrated that moment with. It was my friend Michelle, who is a fellow Asian-American sister and actress. I think it actually is quite challenging for me to be able to hold those things in celebration, but to be able to share that moment with her really brought to light the significance of the moment for our community. It was in her expression! I received her joy in the moment and that's how that moment came about for me.
That's so great. I'm Indian-American, so I feel that bond and mutual support with all of my Asian friends too. There's just this implicit understanding of—
Okay so you know what I'm talking about! You know what I'm talking about! [Laughs]
You know, when you have your sister there and she looks at you and she goes, "Wow. This is great!" The depth of how she reflected back to me through her experience made me feel the significance of it!
Totally, you know how excited she is. Everyone has their own narrative when it comes to these things, but there is so much that you don't have to explicitly say, it's a shared feeling.
Yes that's exactly it. Mostly it's this feeling that this is isn't all for me. I feel this for all of us! And I'd like to extend my arms open to those of us in other communities who haven't had that kind of representation yet, and not only representation, but the opportunity for the recognition. So, my arms are open wide for the Asian community. Let's all get on the train together, let's all be included in this celebration.
There are so many narratives that Asian people haven't had the opportunity to share about ourselves. You know, we're doctors or lawyers or we're sidekicks but, within any one Asian person's life there's so much more nuance than that, and so it's exciting to have opportunities to show that.
Oh yeah, I'm exceptionally grateful. I'm so grateful that Killing Eve was, from the very beginning, an amazing script from a wonderful creator and production team. To have been able to really fulfill that opportunity with a hundred percent of myself, with my entire soul, that's what I'm so utterly grateful for. That's what I wish to continue. Not for myself, but for my community, for our community, and for other communities that have not yet had the opportunity. I think of the newness and the freshness of the show, and it's like, "See how interesting a different point of view is?" Give that storytelling ability to some new people! See what happens. This is what happens.
You were actively waiting for a role you could fall in love with when the Killing Eve script came up. I also read that when you got the script, you had this moment of thinking that you weren't going to have the lead role. This realization that you had internalized the lack of Asian representation.
You're right picking up on that. Here's what happened — it was a super painful moment. All those things that you're talking about, when you realize how deep you've internalize things. I work at this. I really really work at this. I work at representation. I work at being there. I work on that shit. That's what I do! And in that moment, when I was looking at the script, I couldn't see myself. It was just a moment when you can see and feel just how deep your own internalization has gone.
For me, in those moments, it goes to show how important images are and what they do for our psyche. How negative, positive, and the truth of certain images affect us so profoundly and what that does for our identity. I've been thinking about that a lot because a lot of people have asked me, and I still don't know how to put words around it. It's still a deep moment for me because I felt exposed to myself. I felt sad, and ashamed, and it was not a comfortable moment. I was like, "What the hell was I just doing? And what the hell have I been thinking, and what the hell have I been carrying?" It was one of those moments where you expose yourself to yourself.
You have to really grapple with it.
I really did. I really did, and at a certain point I wanted to share and talk about it. There's a way that you might know what Im talking about, how sometimes in our community, the struggle comes from the internalization of it. It comes so deeply from inside our minds. It's like our familial obligations, our need to do well, just so many bonds. It's really very complicated but it's true, and the internalization is really really strong. I think you really know what I'm talking about.
"My arms are open wide for the Asian community. Let's all get on the train together, let's all be included in this celebration."
I do. It takes a long time to even recognize and realize those traumas because they're psychological and deep.
Yes! Yeah. I mean like, I do a lot of work on it and still being exposed to how deep it goes was a truly profound moment for me. I will say, I've spoken to a lot of women and I am interested in Asian writers, because I do want to talk about, and I want you guys to write about, our identity! We haven't all figured that out yet, and it's okay. We're just still in the process. But, I think that we need to be actively patient. Meaning like, change is really slow, so we have to be patient. We can't be heartbroken over it, but we can't do nothing. We have to be active in our patience. I'm a big believer in that. Not only doing the work in our community in an exterior kind of way, but also, doing the work internally.
Totally! And recognizing the struggle within yourself and recognizing that you can stand up for your other Asian-American friends and family on a daily basis. Constantly showing up for them is the important thing. I went to see Crazy Rich Asians one of my friends who is also Asian-American and I loved it! We dressed up just to go to this small screener and we just had the best time. She turned to me halfway through and said, "I'm counting the number of times you say 'Awww' out loud to this." I just couldn't even articulate seeing all these people, and they're so hot, and they're so unapologetically Asian, and they speak so many languages. It was just amazing. It was good for my soul. Nourishing, like eating a delicious meal.
That's also the point about images. What it takes so long to know is that you've been hungry this whole time. I remember the first time I saw Joy Luck Club, I was wracked with sobs. I was crying more than the movie called for! I have thought about that. Why? I thought about that. It was so profound for me because I had never really seen my mother before on screen. I spent the first 20 years of my life saying, "Oh, Meryl Streep is my mother! Diane Keaton is my mother!" I'm just using the word mother as someone I identify with. But when I saw that movie, I realized how much more I could feel. How much more I needed to feel. You realize just how hungry we have been, and we're just walking around starving.
Yes, and the people we love — our families, we don't get to see them. We don't get to see their stories, we don't get to see their struggles as valid, and that's so heartbreaking.
Yeah, but when you're saying that it kind of fed your soul? Well yeah! It did! It's not just a saying, it did! When you go someplace and you see yourself, it feeds your soul. That's why we make the art.
Totally, it was amazing. I think especially, just going back to being a teenager growing up in the U.S. as an Asian person, I took out so much angst on my mother and my parents for not being American or white. I think of that as lost time and I think of all the ways I need to make that up, and seeing someone that looks like me or my mom, it doesn't make up for it totally, but it's a small step and it's really healng.
I gotta tell you, we could talk for a long time. I can tell you that right now. I hear the pain when you say "lost time." I can hear the pain behind what you're saying and I kind of want to relieve you of that. Those of us who moved away from our language, those of us pushed back on our parents, those of us who dressed super preppy [Laughs], I don't know. Those of us who really assimilated and then maybe "lost time," to use your words, and then in our twenties didn't really spend time trying to find ourselves?
A lot of times Asian-American people come up to me and say "I did this, I went to school, I did the right things and now, I wanna ride horses," you know? So what happens is, there are 10 years of you not wanting to ride horses, you know what I mean? But that's just part of our process and I just encourage people. You are one of them! In what you write and what you choose to focus on so even that thing of the guilt that we feel and also the gratitude that we feel towards our parents. I don't know if your parents are immigrants but my parents are immigrants, but you're doing it! That guilty part, that heavy part is something that we need to relieve ourselves of. It's a psychological weight.
It is, and it's a process of relearning and it is possible to relearn and reclaim, but the guilt is heavy. For me at least.
Photo courtesy of Killing Eve