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Sandra Oh Takes The Lead In 'The Chair' And 'Killing Eve'

Sandra Oh came to prominence playing Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy, but she plays a different kind of doctor in her latest series, The Chair. In it, Oh stars as Ji-Yoon Kim, an English professor who is the first person of color and the first woman to head up her department at a prestigious fictional college.


Other segments from the episode on August 30, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 30, 2021: Interview with Sandra Oh; Review of 'Only Murders in the Building.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sandra Oh, stars in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair." She plays Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, the first person of color and the first woman to chair the English department at a prestigious college called Pembroke. This is the kind of barrier Sandra Oh is used to breaking, having been the first actress of Asian descent to win two Golden Globes, be nominated for an Emmy as a lead actress and to co-host the Golden Globes.

One of those Globes, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award, was for her starring role in the popular thriller series "Killing Eve" as British intelligence officer Eve Polastri, who's pursuing an international female assassin who goes by the name Villanelle. They develop a mutual obsession, which becomes increasingly erotically tinged over time. The fourth and final season of "Killing Eve" is now being shot.

For 10 seasons. Oh starred in ABC's medical series "Grey's Anatomy" as Dr. Cristina Yang. Before that, she costarred in the HBO comedy series "Arliss," about a sports agent. Her films include "Sideways." Sandra Oh is the daughter of South Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. in the '60s, then moved to Canada, where Sandra Oh was born.

Let's start with a scene from "The Chair," which was co-written by Amanda Peet. Now that Oh's character, Professor Kim, has become the chair of the English department and is in a position of authority, she finds herself in a conflict zone. The college is hemorrhaging enrollments, and the older, tenured professors are being challenged by students and young progressive professors, calling out racism and sexism on campus. In this scene, she goes to speak to an older male professor in her department. He's the chair of the tenure committee for Dr. Yasmin McKay, a young, Black professor known as Yaz, who's become a star in the department and has a big following on social media. Her classes are packed. Few students sign up for his classes. Instead of just lecturing while teaching "Moby Dick," Yaz has her students make presentations about the novel in which they can talk about or rap their take on the story. Professor Kim wants the older male professor to strongly support tenure for Yaz, but she senses his disapproval. He's played by Bob Balaban. Sandra Oh's character speaks first.


SANDRA OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) Your tenure letter for Yaz is going to include material on her teaching, right?

BOB BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) Mmm hmm. Why wouldn't it?

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) I think it's important that you highlight how innovative her pedagogy is - the flipped classroom...

BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) Well, I believe a specimen of that will be on display in today's seminar.

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) Could you maybe include a mention of it? Look. She is hot [expletive] right now. She has over 8,000 followers on Twitter. I mean, that's more than all of us put together.

BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) You know who judged himself by the number of his followers? Jim Jones. David Koresh.

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) Yaz is not a cult leader, Elliot.

BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) Jesus only had 12 followers. I suppose that makes him a loser.

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) Because of her, our students are excited about literature that was written 150 years ago. I know in your heyday, that's all you...

BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) How do you know right now is not my heyday?

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) Look. I don't want to pull rank here. But as the chair of the department, I need you to do this.

BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) Well, you sure settled into that role.

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) I am not saying this as your supervisor.

BALABAN: (As Elliot Rentz) Supervisor?

OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) I'm saying it is the best thing for the department and the right thing to do for Yaz. So just do it.

GROSS: Sandra Oh, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the series. It is a pleasure to have you back on the show.

OH: Oh, thank you, Terry. It's so good to speak to you again.

GROSS: Are there themes in this series that resonate in your own life about race, ethnicity, generational conflict?

OH: Oh, my God.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OH: I've got to tell you, just that scene - you see how Professor Kim - moment after moment, you see how she's just shifting and folding herself, trying to get what she wants - like, trying to get what she wants out of Elliot, played by Bob Balaban. She first starts by cajoling, and then she starts by kind of, like, oh, bringing him into the cool side, then to recognize him. And then she just gets angry. And so something like that (laughter) - like, you know, like, all the different ways you just need to learn to try and get people to do what you want them to do so you can, like, run your department - I mean, I feel all of us understand that.

But going to your question about, like, you know, the greater themes of being a woman and a person of color, you know, in an institution, I - yeah. I really, really understand that profoundly.

GROSS: So you don't work at an institution per se. You don't work, like, at a university. Did you do any research or talk to friends or family who have recently either taught or been students at a university and dealt directly with some of the academia issues that you deal with on the show?

OH: I got to tell you, I'm slightly, barely ashamed to admit this. No (laughter). I didn't talk to anyone.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OH: Really, I didn't talk to anyone. I never went to university.

GROSS: You went to theater school?

OH: I went to theater school. I went to the National Theatre School, which is deeply just a theater school.

GROSS: In Canada?

OH: Yes, in Canada.

GROSS: There's a scene in which there's a Korean ceremony that's held for a 1-year-old. I'll ask you to describe the ceremony and if you're familiar with it from traditions in your own family or not.

OH: Oh, sure. It's a 100-day ceremony called Doljanchi. And basically, on the 100th day of the baby's life, there's a big celebration. There's lots of food. But what happens is, is that you put all these objects in front of the baby, and all these objects mean something. Like, a pencil is a writer or, you know, a pot is a chef. You know, money is money. You know, and it's - whatever the baby crawls to first and tries to grab is supposedly their destiny, you know, tells their future. So it's a fun ceremony. Not that I had one.

GROSS: And did your parents have one when they were growing up?

OH: Well, you know what? Actually, I don't know whether my parents had one when they grew up. And it was a tough time in Korea, you know, the occupation and all that stuff. So I don't know. I should ask them that. But it was only my brother who had one.

GROSS: Oh, he did?

OH: Yeah (laughter), my brother had one.

GROSS: How come he had one and you didn't (laughter)?

OH: Oh, come on. I'm, like, the middle child. I'm the second girl. I didn't - no, I didn't get one.

GROSS: So in the past year or so, you became pretty outspoken about anti-Asian attacks and crimes. And you know, this was during COVID, and it was during the period which - I don't know. Are we still in this period when there's a lot of anti-Asian attacks? In part, I think - would you agree that this is in part because of Trump, when he was president, calling COVID the Chinese virus?

OH: You know, I would like to put it all on one person, but it's not, you know? Obviously racism runs deep, and it's still going on in a way where people still feel frightened. And they're frightened for their elderly parents and grandparents, and they're frightened for themselves. It's a tough time. It's a tough time. And it - as it is a tough time for everyone. And it is, you know, again, what - your point of view and what you make of it.

I think what you might be referring to is, after the shootings in Atlanta, I was - we were shooting "The Chair," and I was in Pittsburgh. And I - for me, I don't consider myself, you know, a big activist. It's just about, like, the need to connect. And it was that week and that weekend. I just wanted - I just knew there's got to be - there had to be a march or a rally somewhere in Pittsburgh. I mean, there's a lot of universities there.

And so I found one, and then I invited the cast and the crew. And it was really tough because, again, it was during COVID, and it was - to even, you know, invite the crew to a gathering where there were lots of people. And most everyone was masked. But it was an important thing for me to do because I just felt like I needed to connect with the Asian American community. And I didn't really have - (laughter) I don't know - really know what I had to offer other than to say, like, let's work through this fear that we have because that's what we'll destroy, you know, is - if we bend to the fear.

GROSS: Did you experience that fear directly?

OH: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. In the ways that of - you know, when you are a known person, wearing a mask is kind of great 'cause no one - 'cause people will give you a little bit more before they can figure out who you are. So I've relished kind of having pockets of my anonymity back behind a mask. But having said that, what has raised is that, oh, I am clearly an Asian lady wearing a mask and sometimes wearing a mask where other people are not wearing a mask. And you can just tell, I mean, as a woman, you know mean?

It's - as a woman and you're walking somewhere. Let's say it's dark or you're walking through and there's groups of, you know, dudes - you know? - everything just kind of goes up. You just get more aware, and you're ready for things. So I feel like absolutely I know that. I know that I'm tremendously protected by my good fortune and privilege. But, you know, I'm also still an Asian woman.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sandra Oh. She stars in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair," and she stars in the series "Killing Eve." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sandra Oh. She's starring in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair" as the first woman and first person of color to chair the English department at a prestigious college. She also stars in the British spy thriller "Killing Eve," and the fourth and final season is in production right now.

You're speaking to us from London, where you're shooting the final season of "Killing Eve." How did you get the part on "Killing Eve"?

OH: Oh, they approached me. In a very kind of classic way, they approached me with the pilot, and I say yes (laughter). But when I was first offered the project of "Killing Eve," I remember I was standing on a street in Brooklyn. And I was - honest, I was flipping through the pilot on my phone while speaking to my agent on the phone. And I was asking her, I don't get it. Like, who am I playing? And my agent was saying, Eve. You're playing Eve. And that was really, like, a significant moment for me for understanding where I was as a person and understanding honestly how profound my internalized racism was. You know, I spend my - I've spent my entire career clearly and intentionally trying to make images that include myself and my community. And when I suddenly realized that I could not even see myself, I was really - I felt so ashamed and really sad.

GROSS: So you couldn't imagine that they were asking you to do the title role?

OH: Yeah, I guess so. I couldn't see it. I didn't know. I didn't know in that moment of like - oh, well, clearly, there's a person named Carolyn, and I think she's a senior member. Was it - is it that part? I mean, I don't think it's the assassin Villanelle, you know, part. I mean, it looks like she has to do all this, like, you know, fighting and stuff like that. I'm like, and is it this - I did - I just didn't - I didn't see it. It was something that was very, very offhand. You know what I mean? It wasn't only till later that I realized for me the significance of it. It was just, in some ways, an offhand comment. But it's just like - where did that come from? Where did that come from? Why couldn't I see - it's called "Killing Eve." It's the title character. Why didn't I naturally think that's what someone would be offering?

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from "Killing Eve." And Eve is a British intelligence agent who's pursuing a young female assassin who goes by the name Villanelle. She's played by Jodie Comer. And in this scene, Villanelle has broken into Eve's apartment. And Eve is - she's terrified, but she's also really furious 'cause she knows it was Villanelle who recently killed Eve's work partner. So this is their first face-to-face meeting, not under great circumstances (laughter). And so Eve, like, finally regains her composure and tries to assert her power by telling Villanelle that she has investigated Villanelle and discovered her real identity and uncovered her past.

So Sandra Oh as Eve speaks first.


OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know you are Russian. I know you were in a prison in Moscow for five years until someone broke you out. I know you are exceptionally bright, determined, hard-working.

JODIE COMER: (As Villanelle) What else?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know you are an extraordinary person.

COMER: (As Villanelle) What else?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know something happened to you.

COMER: (As Villanelle) What else?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know you're a psychopath.

COMER: (As Villanelle) You should never tell a psychopath they're a psychopath.

GROSS: You should never tell a psychopath they're a psychopath might be very good advice. But after a pause, Villanelle casually eats some food that she insisted Eve give her. And then Eve asks her this question.


OH: (As Eve Polastri) Are you here to kill me?

COMER: (As Villanelle) We're just watching you.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Who? Who do you work for? Why are you killing these people? Do you not know?

COMER: (As Villanelle) Do you know who you work for?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Yes.

COMER: (As Villanelle) Really?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Yes.

COMER: (As Villanelle) Really? I think if you went high enough, you'd probably find we work for the same people.

GROSS: There's a scene from "Killing Eve" from early in the series. You know, the two characters, Villanelle and Eve, become obsessed with each other and even, like, work together at one point. And there's this, like, erotic charge between them that keeps getting more intense over time. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the first showrunner of the series. Each season there's been a different woman who's been the showrunner. Did you talk to her about that erotic charge and how she saw it and, like, how pronounced should it be? And I'm wondering - I have never read the novel, so - I don't know if you read the novel that it's based on - and how pronounced it is in that.

OH: You know, so "Killing Eve" was loosely based on a book called "Codename Villanelle" by Luke Jennings. And Phoebe really took aspects of that book, like the characters, and then really honestly put her own spin on things tremendously. And so one of those things that you're talking about, which is this kind of obsessive, erotic, ambiguous but charged relationship between these two women - (laughter) I tell you, in the first series, we never talked about it. Like, I swear. I can't remember if we talked about it.

And because it was - she was just really - she was writing it from a place - and I feel like Jodie and I were playing it from a place - of there's these - just these two women who want something from the other person. And that started creating a charge. And it wasn't - I think it really developed from how people kind of received it. And so for me, it's about a woman wanting and trying to be whole. I mean, I could say that hopefully for Jodie's character as well.

But I don't know. But like, for Eve, you know, for me, in an overall kind of - an overall arc, you have this every woman who's at a kind of plateaued place in her life. And she enters into this extraordinary world because of her relationship - and a fraught relationship with Villanelle. And for me, in a kind of psychological way, I just wanted to explore how this character of Eve becomes a whole woman and how she needs this other woman to become whole. And I think also within that is room for any interpretation.

GROSS: There's a scene where you murder Villanelle's handler while he's strangling her. So you kill him to save her life 'cause there's an ax lying on the floor. So you take the ax, and you really don't want to use it. And he thinks, she's never going to use it. And Villanelle keeps saying like, do it, do it.

(Laughter) And we see you, like, take the ax and, like, you know, wield it. But - and then we see blood splattering. But we never see the ax enter the body. We never see - you know, we never see - he's not on screen as you're killing him. He's on screen later with the ax in his back and with you trying to take it out (laughter).

But you know what scene it reminded me of? In "Sideways," there's a scene...

OH: Oh (laughter).

GROSS: ...Where Thomas Haden Church - you find out - he's, like, your boyfriend. And you find out he's actually getting married in a few days. And you're so angry. And you take your handbag, and you wield it like a weapon. And you start, like, beating him with it. But he's off camera. So it looks like you're basically, like, hitting the sidewalk, (laughter) you know what I mean? And that - 'cause he's not really - he's, like, off camera. But - so I was wondering if that's something that you wanted or if that's the way that it was written, you know, that we wouldn't actually see the violence.

OH: Sure, sure, sure. I think twofold. So in "Sideways," it was actually a helmet that I'm hitting him with.

GROSS: Oh, I thought it was your handbag.

OH: Yeah, it was a helmet. Anyway, so...

GROSS: No wonder you leave it there (laughter). I was thinking like, who leaves their handbag? OK.

OH: (Laughter) Yeah. And so I was actually hitting Thomas.

GROSS: You were?

OH: I was actually hitting him. But what you might not remember is that basically he comes out with this big stuffed dog.

GROSS: Right.

OH: So I was actually beating the big stuffed dog just below camera. So he is falling on the ground. And I'm actually hitting - I mean, actually hitting him, holding the dog. And then so for "Killing Eve," when Eve is killing Raymond with the ax, yeah, I think we had to do it for television purposes of not showing that much of a gruesome image. I mean, it's pretty gruesome, you know what I mean? But yeah, it's working out that desperation and rage. I'd never made that kind of connection. But it is kind of the same chopping motion.

GROSS: How do you like working with fake blood? You know, 'cause it's always disturbing to see blood on screen. But like, you know, that it's just like - it's fake stuff. But is it disturbing anyways?

OH: Oh, no - not at all. I'm a pro at it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OH: You know what I mean? And so when I worked on that - when I worked on "Grey's Anatomy," I mean, there's so much blood - and then...

GROSS: Oh, God, of course.

OH: ...All the different types of blood. No, I don't have a problem with that at all.

GROSS: All right.

OH: It's fun.


GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here and then talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sandra Oh. And she stars in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair" as the new chair of the English department at a prestigious college. And she stars in the series "Killing Eve." We'll talk more after we take a short break.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sandra Oh. She's now starring in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair" as the first woman and the first person of color to chair the English department at the prestigious college Pembroke. She also stars in the British spy thriller series "Killing Eve," which is now shooting its fourth season. Sandra Oh became famous for her role in the ABC medical series "Grey's Anatomy" as Dr. Cristina Yang.

You grew up in Canada. Would you describe your neighborhood?

OH: My neighborhood was called Arlington Woods. It was a very, you know, middle-of-the-road, suburban Canadian small-town neighborhood. You know, it's like - we walked to school. And the primary school, junior high and high school were all in the same kind of block, two-block radius, very kind of middle-of-the-road, you know, suburban small town.

GROSS: Were there other Asians and people of Asian descent in the neighborhood?

OH: So I would say in the way that I was brought up, there were absolutely smatterings of people of color and kids of color and all different colors, but not enough to where there were, like, groups of us. I'd say, like, from my childhood girlfriends, who I am still very close with, they're all white.

GROSS: So you didn't feel like an outsider. You felt included.

OH: Oh, no (laughter). No, no, not at all. I mean, of course, I felt like an outsider. You know, I don't think that it takes much that, you know, you're the only Asian person kind of in a lot of spaces. You know, I feel like I absolutely grew up that way. So in some ways, I socialized myself to be as comfortable as possible in a white world. And it wasn't only until I left home and went to school in Montreal and then moved to Toronto and then to Los Angeles and started meeting other artists of color that my world started expanding.

GROSS: Your parents immigrated from South Korea. When did they go to Canada, what year about?

OH: Actually, they first came to the States. You know, after 1965, the borders were open to students from the - from South Korea. So that's when my parents came in. They first went to university in the States, and then they went to university in Toronto, and then they moved to Ottawa, where I grew up in a suburb city outside of Ottawa.

GROSS: What were they studying in grad school?

OH: Oh, my mother - (laughter) this is so terrible. My mother was science-y. Look at that. It's terrible. It's terrible. I'm the - I've said this before. I'm the only one in my family who doesn't have, like, a master's degree. My mom was - did science, and my dad did economics. That is terrible. But that's the best that I have. My mom, who - very highly educated. And then, you know, when you make that crossing, you then - she wasn't able to transfer a lot of her skills. And then so - she ended up being a research scientist for the government. But I think - I'm pretty sure she studied pharmacology.

GROSS: Do you know the conditions that they left behind in South Korea? Did they talk to you about their lives there?

OH: You know, before they left when they were in their mid-20s, they went through more than I could possibly imagine. You know, you go through the Japanese occupation, you go through the Second World War, and then you go through the Korean War. And the country is devastated. And then you go through - to university. And you know that university's - education - they come from a place where an education is the only way out. And it was. And so when those doors open and the United States were, you know, welcoming students from South Korea, they went. They came to the States 'cause they - 'cause it was a hard time in South Korea at that point. At that point, it was the North that was more prosperous.

GROSS: Did they know English when they came to the U.S.?

OH: Gosh. This is terrible. I feel like I don't know anything about my parents. I think so. But it was also - I think so, but not to, obviously, the level that they know English now, you know. It was - you know, my - I remember my mom telling me a lot of people went through Hawaii and had, like, a month kind of integration course of coming from Korea. And I think it was very, very difficult. I know it was very difficult. My mother went to Bryn Mawr, and my dad studied at Wayne State. And I think that they - particularly for my mom, I think it was very, very difficult to be in that academic setting when she was always the top of her class but with the inability to speak English very, very well, communicate very well, I think it was very difficult for her.

GROSS: So did they speak Korean in the house when you were growing up?

OH: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Are you fluent?

OH: No. No, I'm not. I would say - my sister's five years older than I am. And so when she first went to school, her - you know, she - that's all she spoke was Korean. And then she was - she didn't understand English well enough. And then my parents freaked out, and then they just started speaking English.

You know, it's - it has to do with - it's interesting. It has to do with what generation you are 'cause I would say a lot of people my generation in maybe the Korean American community, the Korean Canadian community, don't have the language. But the generation after us, either are - people's children or, I would say, friends who are in their 30s, they have much more of the language. Our generation, my generation really - there is something that either it's the first one or the need to assimilate or - whatever that was, many of us do not have the language.

GROSS: You were raised Christian. And what was your church like?

OH: Oh, my God - so much church, Terry, so much church. We would go to English-speaking church in the morning, and then we would go to Korean church in the afternoon. Whew. I would spend a lot of time in church. And I'm so grateful for it now. I'm - I don't consider myself Christian now, but it has such a huge influence on me of just understanding, one, having a deep relationship with my parents who are very, very Christian. And two, it just - I think it helps you be an artist.

GROSS: How so?

OH: Because it helps you understand myth. It helps you understand symbol. It also helps you understand that there is a - there's a - there is spirituality in this life. And there's just different ways of getting to it.

GROSS: How old were you when you stopped going to church?

OH: Oh, when I left home, so 18.

GROSS: Were your parents upset?

OH: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: How'd you deal with that?

OH: You know, I think that how I have grown in my artistic life and in my life, I feel like they understand the spiritual purpose of how I how I am in my life. You know what I mean? Like, my parents - having a spiritual life and having a purpose as a person in society was a very important lesson, very important to them that you do something good for society and that you have a spiritual life, you have a relationship with God. And I did it my own way that didn't - that they didn't want or they couldn't understand the choices that I made early on. But as time has gone on and they've seen the work that I've done, I feel like all those things that they taught me, I still try and do in my work.

GROSS: Well, it must have been hard for them to be convinced that you were doing a spiritual act when you were playing, like - early in your career, you had some parts that were, you know, pretty inconsequential in the larger film.

OH: Actually - you know what, Terry? - that actually wasn't the case.

GROSS: Well, you started off in Canada doing roles that were about, you know, Asian Americans. But then in American films, you had some pretty, like, marginal roles.

OH: Yes, yes, yes. But I would say that the - when my parents could see what I was doing or what I was trying to do, that was - I was very, very fortunate. It was early on in my career. When I graduated theater school, I was the lead in a film. I was the lead in a television film. I did A-list theater. I did all of it. You know what mean? And they saw me in everything. So they were able to see very early on, because I was given the opportunity of, I think, expressing as much of my artistic self and potential at that early time in my career, that they were able to see what I was trying to do. And so they really moved from like, oh, when you're a - when you're an actor, it's like being a prostitute - honestly, I think that was said around the dinner table once - and then to understand what it is to be an actor.

GROSS: Wait. In one of your early roles, didn't you play somebody who was a prostitute in her teenage years?

OH: That's true. (Laughter) Actually, that's true. That was true. Oh, my God. I had to get my sister to, like, break all that news to them. My sister - she had to, like, sit them down 'cause I couldn't do it. She had to sit them down, and she had to tell them what the whole piece was about.

GROSS: But this was somebody who eventually became, like, a poet and writer and...

OH: Yes, yes, yes. She's one of our most famous poets, Canada's famous poets, yes.

GROSS: All right. Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sandra Oh. And she stars in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair," and she stars in the series "Killing Eve." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sandra Oh. She's starring in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair" as the first woman and first person of color to chair the English department at a prestigious college. She also stars in the British spy thriller "Killing Eve," and the fourth and final season is in production right now.

After doing some movies in Canada, you moved to LA, where you were told by an agent that you were not a leading lady, that you weren't pretty enough and that maybe you should consider plastic surgery (laughter). And this agent apparently told you to go back home - I assume that means Canada - and get famous there. Did that totally - like, what was your reaction to that?

OH: Well, I will say - she didn't tell me to get plastic surgery (laughter). But what she didn't tell me, which was - this is the thing that I feel was destructive - is she said, listen; I'm going to tell you the truth. I'm going to tell you what people won't tell you. You're not going to work here. It's better if you go back home, you get famous, and then you can come here with something. At that point, I was at the top level in Canada as I could be at that point. And so I didn't know what else I had to do to be able to get a foothold in here - in the States. But it was crushing. It was crushing. I link - honestly, I link that moment to the moment standing in Brooklyn with the pilot of "Killing Eve" and not being able to figure out what role I'm...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah.

OH: I totally can link those. I can link those. I remember. It was in the mid-'90s, so I was at a phone booth (laughter). But I was at a phone booth, and I called my director of "The Diary Of Evelyn Lau," Sturla Gunnarsson, who was a real mentor of mine, and just sobbing hysterically, trying to figure it all out. And all those things that I think you know as a girl, as a kid of color - you know what I mean? - as a person of color, all those things that you kind of are pushing off at bay because you've had the privilege to, you know, grow up in a very middle-class Canadian upbringing, all come crashing down. And in the way of like, no, you're not wanted. No, you're not - you don't belong. No, there's nothing for you here. And again, the destructive part was that this woman, who was very seasoned, was doing me a favor by telling me the truth.

GROSS: Do you think she meant because you're Asian, you're not going to get parts?

OH: Correct. Because she did say - she goes, oh, I have blah, blah, blah - you know, Linda Lee. You know what I mean? I'm just making up a name. And, you know, she hasn't been out. You know, she hasn't been out on an audition in six months. Meanwhile, I'd say, well, that's your problem, agent lady, because you're obviously not hustling to get her an audition or fighting hard enough. But it's also clearly - it's like, I don't believe in you. There's nothing for you here, and I'm not - I don't believe in you anywhere near enough to help you or to fight for you.

GROSS: What gave you the confidence to stay in spite of that?

OH: Oh, that wasn't going to stop me. That just wasn't going to stop me. That deeply affected me, I think. But that was never going to stop me. I don't really know if there was ever going to be anything that was going to stop me. Just for continuing on - and what I mean by stopping me, it's just like - just by continuing trying to act, trying to be an actor. I loved it so much. I love it so much.

GROSS: So you hosted the Golden Globes with Andy Samberg one year. Was it 2018 - do I have that right?

OH: It was '19.

GROSS: 2019. And you've said that it was really, like, absolutely frightening and that you would never do it again. What made it so frightening?

OH: Oh, my God, Terry, it's so much pressure (laughter) that made it so frightening. It's so frightening. It was so frightening. I was so scared. I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life - definitely professionally, I should say. I remember my - a dear friend who was kind of taking care of me said you were actually physically shaking. You were actually physically shaking. You were - i've never seen you that frightened. You were actually physically shaking. I think it was just the pressure of doing a good job of hitting the jokes. And it's also the way that Sandberg writes, you know, he brought all his "SNL" people, late-night people.

And so their process, which is very much like how "Saturday Night Live" is done, is a very, very last-minute fast process. I am the type of actor - although I will say I have really mellowed out and changed in the past four years - I usually like really being prepared. And so I didn't know what I was saying. Like, I got a script for what the show was going to be under my door on Saturday night. And the Golden Globes were Sunday. So I was freaking out.

GROSS: Did you like the script you were given?

OH: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was so great to work with those writers. It was so great. It was great to work with those writers. I met a lot of - a lot of the writers that are all doing late night writing. That, I got to tell you, was amazing. That was amazing because Andy was just so great and open and was, like, was interested in what the writer's room would be. And I was really - it was really important for me that there were a lot of women in there and there were a lot of people of color in there.

And when I entered that room, I want to say there was like 15, 16 writers, and more than half were women. And, like, there were a lot of writers of color. And, I mean, I met Bowen Yang there, you know what I mean? And Amber Ruffin there. And, like, two - oh, my God - I just met so many great writers. And to be able to kind of meet them then and then follow their careers, it's - it was a great time. And they put together a great show.

GROSS: So you're shooting the final season of "Killing Eve." You're in London shooting it right now. Are you filming tomorrow?

OH: No, I have the day off tomorrow.


OH: It's great.

GROSS: So what's the next crazy thing you have to do, though without giving away any plot?

OH: Oh, my gosh.

OH: Well, I'll just tell you this. Someone gets killed (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, wow. OK, that's intriguing.

OH: Yeah. Someone gets murdered in a gruesome way. And I'll leave it at that.

GROSS: OK, fair enough (laughter). Sandra Oh, it's just been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

OH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Sandra Oh stars in the new series "The Chair," which is streaming on Netflix. She's currently shooting the fourth and final season of "Killing Eve." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new mystery-comedy series "Only Murders In The Building," starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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