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Cover story

The Story of Oh

With

Sandra Oh

She is the Canadian-Korean actor who has become a global icon as the award-winning star of Killing Eve. Here, SANDRA OH tells AJESH PATALAY why the role of Eve has been her most challenging to date and why she is passionate about championing her Asian heritage, as she models a beguiling selection of FW19 pieces by Korean designers

Photography Boo GeorgeStyling Cathy Kasterine
Cover Stories

“So, obviously I didn’t die.”

Sandra Oh is telling me what little she can about the third season of Killing Eve, the previous season of which ended with her character, Eve, being shot by her ‘other half’ Villanelle. “[The next season] is basically about coming back after that, emotionally,” she says, giving everything and nothing away at once.

It’s early September in London, and Oh, who made her name in Grey’s Anatomy but has become a star in Killing Eve, has been shooting new episodes here for a month. She says the role of Eve remains the most challenging of her career: “A lot of the time I feel Eve is fighting. And there have been times when I have been fighting as well.” She thinks this has something to do with the psychological depths she has to plumb, and “the depth of being seen”, and she wonders if that’s why the show has struck such a nerve, particularly among women. “Eve is changing, and the deeper you go, the deeper the resonance can be.”

This week, though, she’s not working. “This happens to be a break for me,” she says. “They are shooting [another storyline] elsewhere. I won’t tell you where; it’s fantastic! I can’t believe I can’t go.” The upside is she can have a drink, which ordinarily she wouldn’t do during filming. So she orders a negroni, and then another. It also means she can spend time with her parents, who are over from Vancouver for two weeks. Both are in their eighties. Oh, who is 48, suggested they stay for two weeks to allow them time to get over the jet lag. “It takes me a f***ing week to recover,” she exclaims. “But my mom just wills jet lag away. The morning [after they arrived], my mom is like,” she clicks her fingers, “‘Let’s go! Buckingham Palace!’, and suddenly we are hitting every museum. They are unbelievable troopers.”

“When I won the Golden Globe, my PARENTS were there and I bowed. I don’t think PEOPLE who are not from our CULTURE understand the DEPTH of respect and strength in BOWING to your elders”

Opening image: dress, Pushbutton. This image: sweater, Andersson Bell; pants, BITE Studios
Cardigan, Andersson Bell
Dress, Andersson Bell

Sandra Oh is a trooper, too: bristling with energy, hyper-engaged, determined to be authentic and squeeze every drop out of life. She doesn’t do many interviews. I suspect their one-sidedness bores her. But conversations, where she can actually learn things about other people, those she likes. When she turns up with her assistant at our Notting Hill restaurant, dressed in a puffer jacket, green Ripstop hoodie and black Comme des Garçons pants, she insists we sit outside for a while, drinking and smoking and getting to know each other first, off the record. When we finally go inside and the Dictaphone goes on, she stops me half an hour later to say she is going to dismiss her assistant, “Because I think this is going to go on longer,” past our allotted time. She ends up staying two hours. “Eventually, I have to go and see my parents,” she gripes, “but this, this is what I appreciate.” She means conversations like ours, between two people of Asian descent. “This is how we figure it out.”

What Oh is interested in figuring out is what it means to be Asian in the West, which is why she agreed to do this shoot celebrating Korean designers.“It’s not just, ‘dominant culture, let us in’. It’s about our self-identity as Asians in the diaspora, and what and how we want to be,” she says. “There are things that, say, North American culture does not understand about Asian culture and doesn’t necessarily respect. When I won the Golden Globe [for Best Actress in a TV series, in January], my parents were there, and I bowed. I don’t think people who are not from our culture understand the depth of respect and strength in bowing to your elders. It’s not a supplicating gesture, it’s a gesture of raising, not only yourself but also the person you are bowing to. That’s what I know not only the Asian diaspora but many people of color understand. And that’s who I am talking to.”

Jumpsuit, Le 17 Septembre; trench coat, BITE Studios

“Young PEOPLE of color, not just Asian, come up to ME and say whatever is in their HEART. It’s very intense”

Recently, she’s been speaking to other Asian-American performers, such as Hawaii Five-0’s Daniel Dae Kim and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming-Na Wen, about issues that concern them all, like the ethics of playing accents. Few of them have worked together, “because you’ve got one person of color on screen at a time,” Oh says. But after years in the business, they all have influence over things such as casting. And “there is just this bond [between us]; we’re the first generation.” It’s early days, though. “I look up to the African-American creative community because of the way they have created a sense of individual and [collective] identity,” says Oh. “It’s almost too early for us in the Asian community. It just speaks to where I feel we need to go.”

She tells the story of how when she first received the script for Killing Eve, she couldn’t make out which role was for her, taking for granted that it wasn’t the lead. “I still wonder what that was about,” she says now. “That was one of those moments when you believe you are on a journey, making progress, and then you realize, inside you are back here. I was filled with shame, anger, humiliation, heartbreak. And that was only three years ago.”

The success of Killing Eve has helped her to move on, and has also led to a number of breakthroughs, including Oh becoming the first Asian-American woman to be nominated for a Lead Actress Emmy, to host the Golden Globes, and to win multiple Golden Globes (after her Best Supporting Actress gong for Grey’s Anatomy in 2006). She feels the impact most “in the way young people of color, not just Asian, come up to me and say whatever is in their heart. It’s very intense,” she says. “There are moments when I can hold it and there are moments when I need to step away. Because there is a lot [in that community] that is not yet metabolized.” I ask what she feels needs to be metabolized. “It’s almost like we cannot be afraid of breaking our parents’ hearts. Because that is fundamentally what it is to individuate as a person. And it’s that separation that I think many in our culture cannot bear.”

Blouse, and pants, both Andersson Bell; necklace, Loren Stewart

“I put [my parents] through so MUCH s***. I did an entire SKIT with two people playing my PARENTS… and my parents were in the audience. AWFUL! What kind of daughter DOES that?”

Dress, Pushbutton
Dress, Andersson Bell

Oh’s own relationship with her parents is good, though it wasn’t always so smooth. Her Korean-born businessman father and biochemist mother came to the States, then Canada, in the 1960s, and were typical Asian immigrant parents in having high professional expectations for their children. Oh’s older sister is now a lawyer in Vancouver, her younger brother a medical geneticist in Boston. (Both now have families of their own. Oh was married to Sideways director Alexander Payne for three years but is now divorced.) From a young age, growing up in Ottawa, Oh wanted to perform. “I put [my parents] through so much s***,” she recalls. “I did a lot of improv in high school, and in my last year we had a big competition. I was applying to theater school at the time,” against her parents’ wishes, “and I did an entire skit with two people playing my parents about how I wanted to go to the National Theatre School. And my parents were in the audience. Awful! What kind of daughter does that?”

“I was filled with SHAME, anger, humiliation, HEARTBREAK. And that was only THREE years ago”

Straight out of college, she landed the lead in a TV film about Canadian poet Evelyn Lau. “It was very difficult subject matter,” says Oh, “with scenes of Evelyn doing drugs and being a prostitute. [My mom had] this very old-school mentality that acting is one step above prostitution, and the first thing I do is play a prostitute! It aired and the next week at church some people were not [supportive]. But I never felt any pressure because [my parents sided with me] and that was clearly very difficult. The only thing I remember [my mom] saying to me afterwards was, ‘That must have been very hard.’ It’s amazing the ways we feel understood by our parents.”

When, in 2018, billboards for Killing Eve went up, Oh took her mother and father to see them, and their evident pride as parents was matched by their pride as immigrants. “This is what I really love about my parents. Not only is it, this is my daughter on this billboard, it’s absolutely an Asian face, too, and that has a profound meaning for them, which we don’t need to talk about, but I know they carry it. And I know they carry it for everyone in their generation.”

Some parent-daughter dynamics transcend culture, though. When our time is up, we head outside for a final cigarette. She tells me how she’s been taking hip-hop “booty shake” classes for three years to get in touch with her body, and how she agreed to host the Golden Globes and Saturday Night Live because she believes in doing things that scare her. Both pretty inspiring. Then she makes a confession. Since her parents are staying with her, she now has to go home, have a shower and brush her teeth, so they don’t clock that she’s been smoking. “Isn’t that stupid?” she laughs. I reckon we’ve all been there.

Blazer, Pushbutton; top, and pants, both Andersson Bell

PRESS PLAY

How does Sandra Oh look after her fabulous hair? Who gives her serious wardrobe envy? And, more importantly, does the actor give away any secrets from the new season of Killing Eve? All becomes clear in this exclusive behind-the-scenes video…

Sandra Oh is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown