Sandra Oh Says Jobs Are Like Dating — and She's Learned to Move On
Let’s just get to it. I have a mad crush on Sandra Oh. Every time I’ve seen her onscreen (from Grey’s Anatomy to Sideways to her recent co-hosting of the Golden Globes), she’s at the center of it all. Which is why it’s so thrilling that after a decade Oh made the bold decision to leave Grey’s in 2014 and now stars in another quantifiable hit, the delicious and complex Killing Eve. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who created Fleabag, serves as the showrunner for the BBC America series — a tantalizing cat-and-mouse game between a fetching, eyebrow-raising assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and her meek but driven pursuer, Eve (played by Oh). The second season kicks off on April 7, and if you have not caught up yet, drop this magazine right now and watch. For this interview I met Oh in L.A., not at a celebrity hotel but at an old-school steak house, the Musso & Frank Grill. She kicked things off by ordering a martini. “Oh, yes,” indeed.
LAURA BROWN: You’re a proper model in a fashion story. I know it’s your dream.
SANDRA OH: Finally, a model. All 5 feet 4½ inches of me.
VIDEO: Woman with Desk and Chair: Sandra Oh Teaches You How To Kill It
LB: Have you always lived in L.A.?
SO: No, I moved here from Toronto in the spring of 1996. That was in the last century. I can’t believe I can say that.
LB: Did you ever second-guess yourself when you got to L.A.? An actor’s skin is really tough when you think about it, because you’re judged on everything.
SO: It’s really such a powerful time when you’re 23, 24. There is a certain energy and boldness, but I’ve always been driven. This industry can be crushing, but I fucking love it. I love it, and I think I would be acting and doing something creative no matter what.
LB: Everything I’ve seen you in, you’re always at the center of it. What do they say? “You’re present.” Tell me about hosting the Golden Globes. How much did your parents enjoy it?
SO: They really liked it. They did have a good time.
LB: Do they get nervous for you?
SO: No. They’re very religious. I have an older sister and an older brother. How we grew up was very much the idea of, let’s just say, a higher purpose. The idea of something outside yourself is not foreign to me. For them it’s intensely steeped in and framed around Christianity. That’s not the same for me, but [I relate to] the idea that you’re doing it for something else. So, I think they were happy [from the standpoint of] you’re moving, you’re doing something bigger.
LB: What have you felt the most and least secure about professionally?
SO: I was more insecure when I was 20 than I am at 47. At 47 it’s like, “You need me to put on a crazy dress with mirrors [see photo above]? Yeah, sure. I’m going to work the shit out of this!” I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s, like, you give less fucks.
LB: Aging is brilliant.
SO: Aging is the greatest. It really gives you more space to be that person in the mirrored dress who has always been inside.
LB: Can you tell me about times when you stood up for yourself or weren’t going to put up with something?
SO: At one point I decided that I only wanted to play characters who were central to the story, so I would focus on that. When I auditioned for Grey’s Anatomy [in 2004], that was a big turning point for me. I went in for the character of Dr. Bailey, who is played by the phenomenal Chandra Wilson, but at the time I just felt like ... “Eh, this is not feeling right to me. Walk away and ask for what you really want.”
LB: Which was?
SO: I asked them, “What else is open?” It was the character of [Dr.] Cristina [Yang], who was clearly the antagonist, and I remember thinking it was the best part for me. So I met with Shonda [Rhimes, writer and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy], Betsy [Beers, producer], and Peter Horton, who was directing the pilot. When you come in to test, they have you sign your contract before you can walk in. I had forgotten my phone, so while I was rehearsing, the casting director came up to me and said, “It’s your manager on my phone.” And I’m like, “OK.” And then I talked to my manager, and she said, “Leave!”
SO: She said, “They won’t sign your deal. Leave. Walk out.” And I was just like, “Ah, OK.” It was a real exercise in learning how to say no. I left, and then they called me. As you said, business is like dating, so we were fucking dating. That was definitely a turning point.
LB: Do you stay in touch with Shonda?
SO: Yes. She’s a busy lady, but I still feel a bond with her.
LB: Well, you have to. You spent 10 years of your damn life together. Would you ever go back to Shondaland or Grey’s Anatomy?
SO: It’s extraordinary how much people love Grey’s and still love the character. I appreciate it. And I guess the show is continuing its relationship with the character, but I am not. I left and have worked really hard to let go. It’s like a beautiful relationship, but you have to be mature enough to say, “Baby, I love you. I had a good time, and now I’m moving on. We had a great 10 years, but now I’m going to be single for a little while.” And then it’s, like, I find a new relationship.
LB: So when did Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] reach out to you [about Killing Eve]?
SO: In 2017. I got the script, read it, and said, “Let’s have a Skype meeting to see if we can be in love. To see if I want to, like, marry you.” And then it was on.
LB: Right away, yes?
SO: Yeah. Have you met her? She’s —
LB: — pants filled with sass.
SO: Yeah. Pants filled with sass. I’m totally going to text her that. “Phoebs, you’re pants filled with sass.” But, yeah, immediately I felt like I knew.
LB: When did you first physically meet, and did you drink together? Tell me you did.
SO: We met a month or so later, when Phoebe was here doing press for Fleabag. Both in the Skype meeting and in that first actual encounter, we were wearing the same thing. We were both in bright red tops and high-waist navy pants with buttons on the sides. I was like, “Oh, that’s it.”
LB: For sure. Did you know Killing Eve was going to be such an epic hit?
SO: No, no, no, you can’t. You absolutely can’t. You really just got to love what you’re doing because it’s a miracle.
LB: And what’s it like to have another huge success with something that’s so wildly different from Grey’s?
SO: Grey’s was bananas. When it first came out, it was such a huge juggernaut, you know? It was also a completely different time. There wasn’t any social media. I remember getting a smartphone around Season 4 because I had to deal with my emails. It’s an interesting and privileged position to have that perspective. When Grey’s aired, it was so new, and there was also so much pressure. And the schedule was brutal. Now I sleep, and I feel older, wiser, much more chill. I’m able to be much more present.
LB: How did you first metabolize celebrity?
SO: Terribly. It’s an ongoing process. I remember the first time I was recognized. I didn’t understand what was going on. I get that it’s a difficult context to explain to someone and for them to have any kind of empathy for. I’m highly aware of that, but it’s very discombobulating. I still find it frightening. So, I just try my best to manage that and, honestly, do the interior work to feel like a real human being who has agency over her own life.
LB: People who are known — there’s nothing to envy there. They may have more money or get a free handbag or whatever, but they have their picture taken a lot more often than anyone would actually want.
SO: I haven’t found a way to translate it, and I don’t know if it necessarily needs to be translated, but let’s just say there’s a cost for everything.
LB: How is it filming Killing Eve in London? How many months at a time are you there?
SO: Six months.
LB: You were in London when so much of this Time’s Up stuff was happening here, right? How did it feel to be a bit removed from it all?
SO: It was just groundbreaking. I should say even ground-opening. I’m not a survivor, but hearing the flood of stories from women all around the world, it shook me out of my own isolation. Not only that, it’s also, like, we are not separate. You know what I mean?
LB: Are you involved with Time’s Up? Well, everyone is, kind of. Us ladies, I mean.
SO: I’m absolutely an ally, but no, I don’t have anything to do with the organization per se. As it was going on we were in the midst of shooting Killing Eve. It was, like, we were living it because Sally Woodward Gentle [one of the executive producers] was the one who had optioned Codename Villanelle [the book that inspired Killing Eve], and then she saw Phoebe and made that link. It was one woman giving another woman a shot. We had [female] characters in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s onscreen and off working together, and I felt fucking great about that.
LB: The relationship between Eve and Villanelle is so potent — friendly and scary, almost sexual. In one episode Villanelle sends Eve clothes, including a gorgeous dress. What would you do if your mortal enemy started sending you clothes in real life?
SO: That’s a good question. When I read the script where Villanelle sends Eve clothes, that’s when the voices in your head chime in, like, “Oh, it’s so good.” Because, as a woman, you know how complicated a gift that is. It’s complicated to receive, and it’s complicated to reject. In real life I don’t have a mortal enemy, but if there were a commander in chief who was a woman I didn’t agree with? If she sent me a dress, I would burn the fucking shit out of that. Because I don’t want that energy anywhere near me. But I’m not like Eve, and also my mortal enemy would not have great taste. [laughs]
LB: Your mortal enemy would have shit taste.
SO: Shit taste.
LB: Do you think you’d make a good spy?
SO: Terrible spy. I’m really not good at playing card games. No poker face. I make my money by expressing myself.
LB: Since Killing Eve is there any consistency to the things you’re offered? What do you want to make?
SO: I do feel like the landscape has changed and people are a bit more interested in telling much more culturally diverse stories. I am interested in that. In what capacity, I’m not sure, but it absolutely has to do with Asian- Americans and finding the storytelling within that community. There seems to be an opening, so I want to take the energy there.
LB: Right, whether or not it’s coming from people who are saying, “Oh, OK. I guess Asian movies do well. Now I’m going to care.” That doesn’t matter to anybody who’s sincerely got a story to tell.
SO: Yes, change is much slower, and it has to be much more internal. I’ve been in this game for a long time, and I have never thought that before. I’ve done a lot of indie films, mostly in Canada. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, people at first mistakenly said it was the first film in 25 years that had an all-Asian cast. I said, “That is completely untrue, because there are tons of indie films, a lot of them that I have been in, that have had a full Asian cast.” It’s just a big studio film.
LB: Big American studio film...
SO: Exactly. Trying to grab the opening with that, but then grounding it in things that ultimately really matter. It’s not smooth sailing.
LB: The legitimate will succeed, and the nonlegit won’t. And cool ladies come in all different colors.
SO: You know, previously I could be shut out [of movies and magazines] for whatever arbitrary reasons. For example, “We’re only going to put film stars on the cover” or “We’re only going to put models on the cover.” Well, then, you need to take a look at who these people are. People aren’t only one type.
LB: What are you proudest of?
SO: Leaving Grey’s and the way I left it. It was really hard for me. Probably that and this second season of Killing Eve.
LB: Grey’s was your habit for 10 years.
SO: It was my family. It was my home. When I left, there was no looking back. There is no looking back, because I feel like I did it clean.
LB: You did it clean. Are you happy right now?
SO: I’m happy right now. I feel good all around, man.
Photographed by: Phil Poynter/Serlin Associates. Styled by: Samantha Traina. Hair: Jenny Cho for Starworks Artists. Makeup: Danielle Vincent. Manicure: Christina Aviles Aude for Star Touch Agency. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Mar. 22.