In her first big-screen leading role — in Mina Shum’s 1994 indie Double Happiness — Sandra Oh played an eager 22-year-old aspiring actor named Jade Li who dreamed about getting cast as Blanche DuBois or Joan of Arc. In the film, Jade practices monologues in the childhood bedroom she still lives in and half-earnestly fantasizes with a friend about how she’ll eventually win an Academy Award: “I’d get nominated for a really dramatic part. Something really hard and real. I don’t know, something that I had to, like, gain weight for.” And then she auditions for a small role as a waitress, and her yet-uncrushed aspirations acquire a dent or two.
The casting director tells her to try running the lines with an accent, and is unamused when Jade speaks in a cartoony French one — he knows that she knows what he means. After a few seconds, the smile drops from her face and she accedes, affecting the halting English of the recent Chinese immigrant that she is not. In that instant, she’s confronted with the reality that while she sees herself as a capable of playing anyone, including the lead, others look at her through a much narrower lens.
It was impossible not to think about Double Happiness — a film that feels like it could be some lost Asian American ’90s landmark, except that it is, like its leading lady, Canadian — when reading Oh’s recent conversation with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung. In the interview, she confessed that when first reading the script for her new BBC America series Killing Eve, she didn’t understand that she was being offered the lead role, and called her agent to ask which part she was supposed to play. “I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers,” the 46-year-old Korean Canadian said. “After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, ‘Oh my god! They brainwashed me!'”
It was as if Oh were Jade in that moment, after years of shitty run-ins with the limits of the industry’s vision convinced the actor to let those Tennessee Williams dreams go. One could imagine Oh flipping through a script looking for the stern authority figures or savvy tech experts used to fill out scenes and deliver exposition — anything but the star.
Oh started acting when she was a teenager — you can dig up online bootlegs of her acclaimed early performance as a runaway addicted to drugs in the threadbare 1994 Canadian TV movie The Diary of Evelyn Lau — and in her decades-long career, she’s certainly turned up in those kind of roles, ones in which a performer functions as, essentially, talking scenery. But she’s never been someone who easily disappears into the background, or who fits into the confines of the stereotypes Asian women have had to fight to escape onscreen. With her precision timing, mobile face of a screwball heroine, and big mane of curls, she takes up space in the best way — too big a presence to be folded neatly in the slot of character actor she’s been defaulted to, yet apparently too unconventional to be considered for the spotlight, no matter how much it seems to be calling.
When doing press, Oh has tended to acknowledge racism while resisting the idea that her career is defined by it. “I work really hard to not think that way,” she said to Vulture, when asked if she felt like she was getting the offers she wanted after leaving Grey’s Anatomy in 2014. “Thinking of it that way just causes me suffering.” Back in 1995, when Double Happiness got a limited release in US theaters, she told the Los Angeles Times about being labeled “The Quota Child” because she was one of the few Asian actors in an otherwise mostly white pool: “You wondered if you were picked for your ethnicity or your talent. I just didn’t let it get to me but it really could if I had let it. I decided very early that I was going to be an actor. Period. The best actor possible.”
Embracing this outlook in a profession so dependent on the whims of (mostly white, mostly male) executives feels like an act of self-protection, but could just as easily be an act of shrugging self-care when dealing with an industry that’s clearly liked having Oh around, even if it never seemed quite sure what to do with her for reasons that go beyond race. Oh’s gloriously no-nonsense aura is one of her most gratifying qualities onscreen, but it is also arguably one that seems to consign her to side roles. That’s not to say the characters she plays aren’t vulnerable, or messy, or goofy. They simply feature a groundedness that’s such an underrated onscreen quality that it tends to turn up in advisers, authority figures, or friends to be leaned on rather than protagonists.
One of the reasons Killing Eve, which was adapted for TV by Fleabag writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is so satisfying is that it both showcases this quality and turns it on its head. In it, Oh plays title character Eve Polastri, an MI5 officer who is good, if underutilized, at what’s essentially an office job, until one of the professional assassins she’s made a hobby of tracking comes crashing into her life. The series is a convention-defying, tonally unpredictable combination of thriller and dark comedy that fits Oh like a glove (that you’d put on before jaunting off to murder someone).
Polastri, a comfortably married desk drone dropped into a world of off-the-books espionage, isn’t in line with the sorts of tragic Southern belles and doomed French saints Jade Li imagined herself playing in 1994, but she is immensely interesting on a scale all her own. Turns out, Oh didn’t need to wait until someone finally saw her as Blanche DuBois in order to step into the lead — she just needed someone to see her.
Sandra Oh has played multiple teachers, several coworkers, a couple of assistants, and a few neighbors from around the way — most notably in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2010 Rabbit Hole, in which she played a fellow grief support group member who smokes pot with, almost has an affair with, and steal scenes right out from under Aaron Eckhart. Race-unspecified side characters have become the meat and potatoes of many an actor of color’s career; Oh specifically has become best known for playing the “bestie.” By my count, she’s played the stalwart friend to a blonde woman at least four times: She shows up on the doorstep of Diane Lane’s villa midway through 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun and accompanies Virginia Madsen on double dates with the two main characters in 2004’s Sideways. She’s one of a small chorus of wacky pals to Heather Graham in 2005’s Cake, and for 10 years she played Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) “person” on Grey’s Anatomy, in a role that’s so much richer than the rest that it feels a little unfair, if not inaccurate, to group them.
Cristina Yang is far and away the defining role of Oh’s career so far, but she didn’t come out of nowhere. If you squint, you can see some of Oh’s earlier roles floating through her — in the proto Cristina–Meredith solidity of the friendship in Under the Tuscan Sun, or in the Yanglike wounded toughness of her character in Sideways, who beats the crap out of Thomas Haden Church with her motorcycle helmet after learning he’s been lying to her, a sequence that’s staged like brutal slapstick but still manages to highlight the pained betrayal on her face. Cristina Yang is what happens when a character has her genesis as a “sensible friend” but is filled out by an actor who allows that character to become a whole, complex person with her own narrative.
For whatever it’s worth, Oh is notably great at sharing the screen with other women. Her most central onscreen relationships have mostly been with women, not necessarily with a queer subtext — though she does play one half of a lesbian couple in both Tammy and Under the Tuscan Sun, in romantic relationships that exist alongside the platonic ones given the main focus. She’s a particularly adept channeler of female friendship, in all of its intimacy and complications, even if it means she’s there to accessorize the dramas of the main character rather than be a part of them. It’s why she was at the heart of one of the great, sprawling explorations of female friendship in recent years — the epic saga of Pompeo’s Meredith and Oh’s Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy, a pairing that managed to feel more central to the series than any of the swoony romantic ones featured during Oh’s decadelong tenure on the show.
Cristina and Meredith immediately saw something in each other during their early days as interns — a wry sense of humor, a dark streak, and talent — and fell into step so effortlessly that there’s never really a place to mark where their friendship actually began. It simply was this intensely enviable but never simple thing that unfolded alongside Meredith’s tormented love story with McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey), Cristina’s similarly complicated one with Burke (Isaiah Washington), and all the other entanglements and twists that would follow over the years. Cristina and Meredith were soulmates, the Twisted Sisters, but they were also a nuanced study in two women making different choices with regard to how they wanted to balance their careers and their personal lives. The divergence between them eventually caused a scorchingly real fight in Oh’s 10th and final season, when Cristina tells Meredith that Cristina’s outstripped her as a surgeon because Meredith “let up” professionally in order to devote more energy to motherhood.
Cristina was a well-written character — quietly revolutionary, even — but Oh’s performance is what made her so vibrant. She played the character as warm but never soft — an acerbic, brilliant force who got referred to as a “robot” and a “machine,” but who was far from heartless. Rather, she was unapologetically ambitious, someone for whom surgery was a passionate calling. That she lived and breathed work did not make her inhuman, or without desire. Oh steered Cristina clear of both model minority and chilly career woman associations, leaning into her confidence, her pragmatism, and her drive with an easy assurance usually only available to men.
Grey’s Anatomy wasn’t Oh’s first US TV series as a regular — that would be Arliss, the sports agent comedy turned punchline from the dark ages of HBO programming, on which she played wacky assistant Rita Wu. But her multiple-Emmy-nominated 10 years on the series both secured her spot as one of the most famous Asian faces on television, and demonstrated what she was capable of, given the right platform. She did just as much to make Grey’s Anatomy what it continues to be today, whatever its highs and lows — a show that could straddle soapy surprises and delicate, difficult character work.
Two years after Oh left Grey’s Anatomy, she starred alongside Anne Heche in 2016’s Catfight, an oddball indie from director Onur Tukel about two former college frenemies who keep running into each other, old resentments and repressed rage bubbling up until they engage in ridiculously violent brawls that leave first one and then the other in a two-year coma. It’s mostly a funny-strange curiosity in the careers of both women, but for Oh, it has the additional resonance of seeming like a response to parts in which she was cast as the friend. In this movie, instead of offering solace and a shoulder to cry on to her blonde costar, she undermines her, insults her, and then ends up smashing her face into the ground repeatedly — supportive bestie no more.
Oh has been frank about her frustration with how few offers came her way after she left the series, telling Vanity Fair that the lull was “heartbreaking.” But one of the notable things about Killing Eve, when it finally did roll around, is that it feels — much like Catfight — like a reaction to all that time spent playing the good pal, and a place where Oh could be darker and more uncomfortable. In Killing Eve, she’s yet again paired with a pretty blonde, only instead of ending up in an affectionate huddle together, it’s perpetually unclear whether the duo will kill each other, fuck each other, or do some combination of the above, so wire-taut and unidentifiable is the tension between them. Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a sociopathic but terrifically fun contract killer, a woman with a taste for designer clothing, Paris, lovers of any gender, impulsive carnage, and traumatizing children. She is the stuff of outlandish thrillers, neck-deep in intrigue — the kind of character stories happen to.
And Eve, by design, is not. Killing Eve starts with a winking shot of Oh waking up screaming in bed — not, it’s then revealed as her sputtering husband wakes up alongside her, because of traumatic dreams, but because she fell asleep on her arms after going to bed drunk. Eve, with her practical parka and hangover from an office karaoke party, works for MI5 in a way that is largely mundane. Her deep interest in female assassins turns out to come in handy, but it starts off less as something work-related than as a hobby with a definite whiff of true crime fandom to it. When she and Villanelle cross paths for the first time, it feels like two genres smashing into one another — bloody, globe-trotting suspense and workplace dramedy — as Villanelle, who’s come to a hospital to kill a witness in protective custody, advises Eve, who’s there to question that same person, to wear her hair down when the two share an unsuspecting moment together in the bathroom.
Characters like Eve are supposed to obsess over characters like Villanelle, these charismatic antiheroes we’ve seen plenty of on screen lately. The fact that Villanelle, in her child-pulling-wings-off-flies way, becomes just as fascinated by Eve is the biggest and most pleasant early surprise of the series, a sign that it isn’t going to follow predictable patterns. Villanelle serves as a kind of opposite of the humiliating casting director in Double Happiness. She’s a psychotic onscreen booster of Eve’s potential who gifts the older woman with a suitcase full of beautiful clothes and murders a colleague she thinks is holding Eve back. It’s like, after years of going underappreciated, Oh has been cast in a role alongside a character intent on making it all up to her by being her scariest fan. Comer gets to be outrageous, but Oh more than keeps up with her. She’s the heart of the series, by dint of her engaging realness as a woman getting a crash course in how to be an honest-to-god spy, which sometimes means hastily shaving her armpits over a hotel sink in order to wear a sleeveless dress out to flirt with a source.
There’s something expressly poignant about seeing Oh, with her business-casual garb and her hair in a bun, at the center of Killing Eve, which has already been renewed for a second season. Eve is funny and dorky, eager and intense, possessed of so many of the qualities that made Oh shine in those supporting roles, not discarded now that she’s been bumped up to lead, but burnished — a refreshingly unromanticized character dropped into a lurid conspiracy, not as a joke, but as the point. It’s not even that Eve is a rich role, though she is — it’s the expanding of imagination that she represents, the promise that writers and directors and showrunners can see a place for an actor like Oh, not just on the sidelines but at the heart of the story. There’s never really been any doubt that Oh could hold the screen when given a chance at the lead, and that audiences would show up to watch her. What’s changed is that there are people willing to give her that opportunity, and roles that aren’t written to an older, narrower idea of what a leading lady is like. Jade Li, in Double Happiness, might never have dreamed up a character like Eve, but that’s part of her appeal. She’s not an archetypal heroine — she’s something new. ●