In 2004 when Sandra Oh was still married to director Alexander Payne, I asked her if working with her husband on Sideways created complications on the set.
“No, not too much. It was a new part of our relationship definitely, and on the first day of shooting I wondered if Alexander regretted having cast me. All these terrible things go on in your brain. But right away everything went away, and it was all great after that,” she said then.
Soon after, following the spectacular success of that film, the couple separated and divorced.
Oh, 47, admitted it was a difficult phase in her life. “Oh, gosh! It was a difficult couple of years. A very challenging couple of years. But I am exceptionally grateful for my work and for my family and friends. And I feel very happy with exactly who I am right now,” she said now.
Not long after that, Oh became a household name as part of the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. She enjoyed a nine-year run playing Dr. Cristina Yang, although somewhat overshadowed by her co-stars Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo.
Following that successful run, Oh toiled for many years in forgettable TV series.
But last year, she killed it as Eve, giving one of the most electrifying performances you will ever see on television.
The BBC series Killing Eve won her immediate acclaim followed by an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe win.
At a press conference to promote the British series, the actress admitted that when she first read the script she had no thought of playing Eve.
“I was looking at this script and I was honestly thinking of the part of the doctor or the teacher … But then I was on the phone with my agent and I remember asking, ‘So what is the part for?
“And then she said it’s for (the lead role of) Eve, and of course I was thrilled so I read it again, and of course I said Yes.”
In Killing Eve, Oh plays the titular character, a smart MI5 security officer who stumbles upon a case involving a talented killer Villanelle. As Eve is tasked to hunt down the psychopathic assassin, Villanelle has started to obsess about her Eve too.
Culturally, playing Eve is certainly a move up from playing Dr. Yang?
It’s definitely a growth spurt because here you have a real character and she is the hero of the story, which is what is so lacking for Asian actors; so I’m so happy to be a part of it.
As a second-generation Korean how important is that culture for you?
My most important personal attachment to Korea is my involvement with many young female Korean-American directors whom I hope to work with.
Do you speak Korean?
I know a smattering of the language, but I was born and raised in Ottawa, and I spoke French.
My parents, of course, speak Korean at home, but my exposure to the language and its culture is more a community involvement.
You started acting at an early age. Did your parents encourage that?
You know, I danced for a long time. I wanted to be a dancer, but when I was around 10, I started acting in plays and after that, my parents just couldn’t stop me.
And I’m really thankful for that, because my high school years were very difficult. So, when I turned down going to college, it was a difficult decision for them because my parents are very educated.
My sister’s a very successful prosecutor. My brother is a medical geneticist. I have a really smart family.
But my parents realised this desire within me to be an actress was very, very strong. So I went to the National Theatre School.
At the time they didn’t want me to do that at all, but now they’re thrilled and they’re proud of me. They really support me because they understand that there’s meaning to my work.
But at the time it must have been a big disappointment for them.
Absolutely. Coming from an immigrant background, my parents questioned the meaning of my choice.
I was brought up to believe that what you do in life, you have to do for society; you have to do something that’s good for humankind or else don’t waste your time.
Make good choices. Don’t do stupid things. Which wasn’t lost on me because that’s how I guide my choices, by playing characters who have something to say about the human condition.
How did they feel about your marriage to a Caucasian?
I see it as a reflection of how open minded my parents are. I mean they’re deeply religious, but they’re not blinded by their religion, and they’re not conservative.
Besides they were just so happy that I got married. They didn’t think that their actress daughter would ever get married.
After graduating from the National School, it didn’t take long for you to land your first part. So can you remember your first paycheck?
Oh, but that was much earlier. I was about 14, and because I was fluent in French I got this job in an industrial film series, where I spoke both French and English.
I remember the first episode was about not drinking and driving intended for students.
How much were you paid, and what did you do with the money?
I am not sure, but I think I was paid maybe CAN$200. I’m sure I stashed it away. I’m not that big of a spender.
Do you think opportunities are opening up for Asian-Americans or is Crazy Rich Asians the exception?
I think television has been 15 years ahead of film. I’ve always felt very welcome by television. We’re more visible and more accessible there.
But now with this proven success (of Crazy Rich Asians), hopefully Hollywood will open their doors and acknowledge who we are in society.
As a Canadian living in the United States, do you miss Canada?
Oh, yes, absolutely I miss Canada very much. I don’t have citizenship in the United States. I only have a Green Card.
I still feel challenged by that, because I don’t get to vote, but my ties, my entire family is here, and my community of peers, my classmates, my childhood friends are all here.
I try to go back as often as I can. I just shot a film in Toronto and worked with many people that I know. I go back to Canada to shoot as much as I can.