Though Sandra Oh was celebrated for her performance as Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy, she has spoken candidly about her career struggles, particularly pertaining to her race. In a interview with Vulture staff writer E. Alex Jung, Sandra Oh discussed how internalized racism has affected her career, particularly in regards to how she saw her titular role in the new drama Killing Eve. Despite winning a Golden Globe and two Screen Actor Guild awards, and being nominated for five Primetime Emmy Awards, among other accolades, she did not believe she would be considered for the leading part because of her Asian heritage.
Oh revealed in the interview that when she first received the script for the BBC America spy miniseries, she wasn't sure what part she would play and told her agent as much. "In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve," she said. The Canadian actor of Korean descent explained:
"I think about that moment a lot. Of just going, how deep have I internalized this? [So] many years of being seen [a certain way], it deeply, deeply, deeply affects us. It’s like, how does racism define your work? Oh my goodness, I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why? And this is me talking, right? After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, 'Oh my god! They brainwashed me! I was brainwashed!"
Her reaction to not immediately realizing that the lead role could be hers is a sobering reminder of the ways in which racism can affect people from the inside.
Oh explained that since leaving Grey's Anatomy in 2014 she has taken the time "to find the right project." In Killing Eve, Oh plays Eve Polastri, a spy who becomes obsessed with a female assassin named Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer. The two women become embroiled in a game of cat and mouse. The series is adapted from Luke Jennings' novels — in which the character of Eve is, according to Vanity Fair, white — and executive produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and lead actor of Fleabag.
Though Oh did say that she was presented with other opportunities — she recently appeared on American Crime Story and was in a new play in Los Angeles — she also mentioned the struggles she and other women of color face as actors in television and movies who are trying to find good roles. "Racism exists," she said. "Let's start there. I felt it, and I have felt it deeply."
Oh told Vanity Fair, that her 10 season arc as Cristina on Grey's Anatomy meant a lot to Asian viewers who rarely see other Asian faces on primetime television. She said that when she meets some of these fans it can be an emotional experience. She explained,
"Young Asian people who come up to me have a certain vibration, and I receive it, and I understand it, and I feel emotional just talking about it. I'm here for you. And I'll continue doing everything I can to fill something that I know you need right now, that we don't yet have as a community.”
Though there are more shows featuring Asian actors on television now than there were when Oh made her Grey's Anatomy debut in 2005, progress has been slow. According to Deadline, a 2017 study of Asian American and Pacific Islanders on television found that only 4.3% of series regulars are Mono-racial AAPI (a person of single or multiple Asian or Pacific Islander heritage) while Multiracial AAPI account for 2.6%. For every Master of None or Fresh Off the Boat, there are many more series that have zero of few characters played by Asian actors.
This reality is one that affects people of color who rarely see themselves reflected in a meaningful on television and in film. As Oh pointed out to Vulture, she had a profound reaction to The Joy Luck Club when she and her friend saw it in the '90s, because for the first time, she was given the opportunity to see Asian women in leading roles. She explained, "Our experience was much bigger than what was being called for. And we haven't even scratched the surface of how deeply we need to see ourselves represented. And how it's not just leaving the images to the outside voices. It's finding it within ourselves."
Oh told Vanity Fair that landing the lead role in a television drama was a career goal decades in the making. She said of getting the phone offer for the role from Waller-Bridge, "It took 30 years to get this call." That's 30 years too long for such a talented actor to have to wait for Hollywood to cast her as the lead. However, Oh is breaking down barriers for the young Asian actors who are watching her career and learning to believe that they absolutely deserve to be the heroes of their own stories. And that change is pivotal in striking a blow against racism from within and without.