For Sandra Oh, A Star Turn Tracking A Stylish Assassin On 'Killing Eve'

Apr 9, 2018
Originally published on April 9, 2018 6:13 pm

We know more than we ever did before about how hard it can be for women trying to make it in Hollywood.

But Sandra Oh says she was prepared for anything the industry threw her way — sort of by accident. She had to face her toughest critics long ago — her parents — who absolutely did not want her to become an actor.

"It was very, very, very difficult to rebel against them coming from a very typical, strict Asian immigrant upbringing," she says. "But when I defied them, there was a certain amount that could not hurt me because I had already upset the most important people to me. And when I achieved a certain amount of success and acceptance, they came around. They came around."

Turns out Oh was pretty good at being an actor. In 2006 she won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the hard-charging Dr. Cristina Yang on the hit TV show Grey's Anatomy. For fans of smart, nuanced female characters, it's a big deal that Sandra Oh is back on TV, a few years after leaving Grey's.

Her new series is also female-driven — and a bit subversive, too. It's a thriller, from the writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who made a name for herself with the show Fleabag. This new series, on BBC America, is called Killing Eve.

Oh stars as Eve, an American living in London. She works for MI5, Britain's security service — that sounds super sexy and interesting, but her job isn't those things. She longs for something more meaningful.

She gets it when she picks up the trail of a female assassin who is murdering high-value targets across Europe. The story unfolds, cat-and-mouse style, with these two very different women linked in a perilous chase.

"One who is the hunter, the other who is the killer," Oh says. "You know, one who is young, powerful, filled with vitality; the other who is middle-aged, seemingly unremarkable and a little plateaued. You can go all over the place — one who has fantastic fashion sense, one who doesn't really care. And my character is the one who is quite schlumpy."


Interview Highlights

On the intrigue of a female assassin

It's unusual, and Eve — first [is] very doubtful, or not so confident in her instinct. Through the series we see her gaining more confidence with her instinct that she's right, because [of] her fascination with a woman who is able to do this job of being an assassin — no remorse, and with such a great sense of style that she assassinates people with a certain amount of personality. And that Eve catches onto that, and she really is attracted to that because those are the things she doesn't have within herself.

On the dry, dark humor of characters she has played

I feel like I don't really have a sense of humor. ... I don't know if I could characterize it dark or light, I just — I do like humor. When I saw Fleabag, and when this script came to me, there is a uniqueness and a dark naughtiness to Phoebe Waller-Bridge's sensibility that I did gravitate towards, very much. And it's a lot darker than anything that I've played before, and I just — I personally like that taste-wise.

On being called for the part

In some ways I wish it was that easy — that they called me. And in some ways it was, because they called me. And then when I look back, it's also: It took me 30 years to get this call. And I mean that from a very true place. I was very, very happy to get this call. I left Grey's Anatomy four years ago, and have just been actively waiting. And what I mean by that is actively trying to find the right project to fall in love with.

On first reading the script and assuming that she was not the lead

Yes. As an actress of color, right, you — just to see how deep the belief system had run into me, myself, that I would see a script and immediately not assume that I am the primary storyteller. And, you know, they basically woke me up from that. And it was really sad. It was very, very sad, and then also happy in that moment, because it was sad to see how deep the internalization went for me, and it was really exhilarating to know that that belief system is no longer true.

Justin Richmond and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We know more than we ever did before about how hard it can be for women trying to make it in Hollywood. Our next guest, though, says she was prepared for just about anything the industry through her way sort of by accident because Sandra Oh had to face her toughest critics a long time ago - her parents who absolutely did not want her to become an actor.

SANDRA OH: It was very, very, very difficult to rebel against them coming from a very typical, strict Asian-immigrant upbringing. But when I defied them, there was a certain amount that could not hurt me because I had already upset the most important people to me. And when I achieved a certain amount of success and acceptance, (laughter) they came around. They came around.

MARTIN: And for good reason because turns out Sandra Oh was pretty good at being an actor. In 2006, she won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the hard-charging Doctor Cristina Yang on the hit TV show "Grey's Anatomy."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREY'S ANATOMY")

OH: (As Cristina Yang) Don't come to me for absolution. You want to be a shark, be a shark.

ELLEN POMPEO: (As Meredith Grey) I'm not...

OH: (As Cristina Yang) Oh, yes you are. Only it makes you feel all bad in your warm, gooey places. Oh, screw you. I don't get picked for surgeries 'cause I slept with my boss. And I didn't get into med school 'cause I have a famous mother. You know, some of us have to earn what we get.

MARTIN: For fans of smart, nuanced female characters, it's a big deal that Sandra Oh is back on TV a few years after leaving "Grey's." Her new series is also female-driven - a bit subversive, too. It's a thriller from the writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge who made a name for herself with the show "Fleabag." This new series on BBC America is called "Killing Eve." In it, Sandra Oh stars as an American living in London. She works for MI5, Britain's security service, which sounds super sexy and interesting. But her job isn't those things, and she longs for something more meaningful. She gets that when she picks up the trail of an assassin, a woman who is murdering high-value targets across Europe. The story unfolds cat-and-mouse style with these two very different women linked in a perilous chase.

OH: One who is the hunter. The other who is the killer. You know, one who is, young, powerful, filled with vitality. The other who is middle-aged, seemingly unremarkable and a little plateaued. You can go all over the place. One who has fantastic fashion sense. The other who doesn't really care.

(LAUGHTER)

OH: And my character's...

MARTIN: Eve we're talking about. Yeah.

OH: ...The one who's quite shlumpy.

MARTIN: Let's play a scene. This is a point where Eve Polastri, your character, is trying to convince her boss to let her go down this rabbit hole - to let her investigate this theory that the assassin killing all these people is a woman. He is not having any of it. Let's listen to this.

OH: Great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KILLING EVE")

DAVID HAIG: (Bill Pargrave) Eve, what's happened to you? You're going mad.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Nothing ever happens. See, now this woman is happening. And either someone is stopping it from coming out, or someone is too lazy to follow it up.

HAIG: (As Bill Pargrave) Are you accusing me of something?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I don't know. Maybe. Yes, maybe you're being lazy.

HAIG: (As Bill Pargrave) And so what if it is a woman anyway? I don't care if it was an alien.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Yeah, but she's new. And she's prolific, Bill. Look.

MARTIN: There is something intriguing to her, in particular about the idea that this is a female - that this killer is a woman. And frankly to the audience, it's really intriguing. It's not something that we see a lot of.

OH: It is. It's unusual, and Eve - first very doubtful or not so confident in her instinct. Through the series, we see her gaining more confidence with her instinct that she's right because her fascination with a woman, who is able to do this job of being an assassin - no remorse and with such a great sense of (laughter) style - that she assassinates people with a certain amount personality. And that - Eve catches on to that. And I think she really is attracted to that because those are the things that she doesn't have within herself.

MARTIN: There are these dark, funny moments. And this is something that we saw in "Fleabag." This is...

OH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...The show that Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote and got a lot of critical acclaim for. But it also, I think, is a sweet spot for you in characters that you've played. Cristina Yang on "Grey's Anatomy" - she also had that dry, dark sense of humor. Is that just you? Is that just Sandra?

OH: I feel like I don't really have a sense of humor.

MARTIN: Really?

OH: I feel - it's like I (laughter)...

MARTIN: Come on.

OH: I don't know if I could characterize it dark or light. I just - I do like humor. When I saw "Fleabag" and when this script came to me, there is a uniqueness and dark naughtiness...

MARTIN: Right.

OH: ...To Phoebe Waller-Bridge's sensibility that I did gravitate towards very much. And it's much darker than anything that I've played before. And I just - I personally like that taste-wise.

MARTIN: How did this part come to you?

OH: They called me.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Who's they? The people - the Hollywood people?

OH: The BBC...

(CROSSTALK)

OH: (Laughter) No, but the thing is it's - in some ways, I wish it was that easy - that they called me. And in some ways, it was because they called me. And then when I look back, it's also - it took me 30 years to get this call. And I mean that very - from a very true place. I was very, very happy to get this call. I left "Grey's Anatomy" four years ago, and I've just been actively waiting. And what I mean by that is actively trying to find the right project to fall in love with.

MARTIN: I read, though, that when you were in Sundance, you recounted this story of reading the script initially and making an assumption that you were not the lead.

OH: Yes. You know, as an actress of color - right? - you - just to see how deep the belief system had run into me, myself - that I would see a script and immediately not assume that I am the primary storyteller. And, you know, they basically woke me up from that. And it was really sad. It was very, very sad, and then also happy...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Right.

OH: ...In that moment because it was sad to see how deep the internalization went for me. And it was really exhilarating to know that that belief system is no longer true.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS SONG, "GOLD LION")

MARTIN: It was great to talk with you, Sandra. Thank you so much.

OH: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: Take care.

OH: Thank you.

MARTIN: That was Sandra Oh. Her new series on BBC America is called "Killing Eve." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.