Sandra Oh on family, fear and the moment that changed everything

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  • The most exciting show on TV is back and Sandra Oh is more than ready for her moment. Here, she tells Alina Cho about fighting against resistance, gaining recognition and bagging the role of a lifetime

    In the days following this year’s Golden Globes, Sandra Oh remembers feeling triumphant, exhausted and a little like she just finished a marathon. ‘Just straight up, it was terrifying,’ 
she recalls over Skype, sporting a new fringe. ‘I had so much stress and tension about it, but by the end of Sunday night, I was exhilarated.’

    Oh co-hosted the Globes with Andy Samberg in January and, in an almost-too-good-to-be-true turn of events worthy of a Hollywood ending, won one herself for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Drama, for her role as MI6 operative Eve Polastri in the thrilling BBC drama Killing Eve (which returned this month for a second series).

    Just like that, she became the first person of Asian descent to host a major US awards show and – with a 2006 Best Supporting Actress statue for Grey’s Anatomy – win multiple Golden Globes. By the end of that month she had also picked up Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards.

    Sandra Oh

    Photography by Thomas Whiteside

    The moment was not lost on Oh. In a move considered deeply meaningful to many in the Asian community (myself included), the Korean-Canadian actress honoured her parents in her acceptance speech by bowing – the ultimate show of respect – and telling them in Korean that she loved them. In the opening monologue, she spoke of getting over her fear of taking the stage as co-host. 
‘I wanted to be here to look out into this audience and witness this moment of change,’ she said.

    ‘I was very clear on who my target was – young people of every colour, people who have different body shapes or different abilities who have never been able to be up on a stage,’ she says now. Yet she’s clear that one moment under the shiniest of lights is just that. ‘It’s a moment, right? Don’t hang everything on Crazy Rich Asians,’ says Oh. ‘It’s OK if shit changes. Change is slow and long. But for this moment, let’s be together because, for God’s sake, I’m standing on that stage.’

    ‘I couldn’t see myself in a leading role’

    My first memory of Oh is in the 2004 critically acclaimed film Sideways, in which she plays Stephanie, a scorned woman who breaks her lover’s nose with a motorcycle helmet after finding out he’s engaged to another woman. She did seven seasons of the 
HBO sports-agent comedy Arli$$, but it was her role as Dr Cristina Yang in 
the long-running medical drama series Grey’s Anatomy that catapulted Oh, who was on the show for ten years, to fame.

    Her latest character, Eve, is headstrong and hell-bent – at the expense of almost everything, including her marriage – on catching assassin Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer). ‘I’m grateful that it’s happened at 47,’ she says of the recent recognition, ‘because I’ve done enough work on myself to really experience it. And then, too, it just has deeper meaning for me.’

    Sandra Oh

    Photography by Thomas Whiteside

    Born and raised in Ottawa, French-speaking Oh is the middle child – she calls herself the peacekeeper – in a family of high achievers. Her father was an economist, her mother a biochemist; her sister is a lawyer, and her brother, a geneticist with a PhD.

    She was equally ambitious, but in a non-textbook kind of way. At age ten, she started acting, found her calling, and decided against her parents’ wishes to skip a traditional four-year college in favour of attending the National Theatre School of Canada in Montréal, paying for it herself. She found early success with a few leading roles in Canada, then, as aspiring young actors often do, decided to make the move to Los Angeles.

    Not long after, in 1995, she was met with resistance from an agent, a moment she would love to but simply can’t forget. ‘She said, “Listen, I’m not going to lie” – and that was, I think, what was so painful – “I’m going to tell you the truth,”’  she recalls. ‘It was basically, “Go back home and get famous, and then try and make a transition because I already have an Asian actress on my roster, and she hasn’t auditioned in three months. I don’t know what I could do for you.”’

    Sandra Oh

    She now links that fateful meeting to her reaction upon finding out she won the leading role in Killing Eve. ‘I was like, “What’s my part?” When my agent said, “You’re fucking Eve,” 
I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see myself in a leading role… It’s like a fucking shard in my heart [that I felt that way] because we work really hard, love what we do and understand how important it is to be visible and to see ourselves, right? But to catch myself in a moment where I’m not [doubting myself] is still really difficult.’

    ‘I’m grateful it’s happened at 47, because it just has deeper meaning for me’

    Yet, as someone whose spiritual practice is based in Buddhist philosophy and teaching, Oh is all about living in the moment. And this is definitely hers. She’s not just the star but also a co-executive producer of Killing Eve. She’s in what appears to be a loving, committed relationship. (Oh is fiercely private, and her publicist would confirm only that she’s had a boyfriend for a few years.)

    When asked about whether she’d want a family of her own, Oh replies, ‘I went through that period, I’d say in my mid to late 30s into 40, where it was like, I make a great living and I could do this on my own, and I didn’t. I have an extremely fulfilling life as an aunt, not only to my nieces and nephews but also to a lot of my friends’ children.’

    Sandra Oh

    Photography by Thomas Whiteside

    Now she’s reached a point where she has the luxury of being choosy about what roles she takes and what projects she wants to devote her hard-earned time to. For now, she just wants a break. ‘I know a big part of my job is to rest. Do you know what I mean? The output is tremendous, and if you do not rest, you will not be balanced. And if you’re not balanced, you’re an asshole.’

    Killing Eve airs weekly on BBC One from Saturday 8th June, or watch all episodes via BBC iPlayer

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