“It’s great to be back working.”
Sandra Oh is hardly a stranger to television, but it’s been nearly four years since she exited “Grey’s Anatomy” after a 10-year run as the indelible Dr. Cristina Yang. She’s had a few roles since, including a memorable turn on Season 3 of ABC’s “American Crime,” but her latest effort — as the titular character in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s darkly comic thriller “Killing Eve” on BBC America — marks her return to the medium she loves.
Oh stars as Eve Polastri, a low-level bureaucrat in British intelligence’s MI-5 who becomes fixated on a serial killer (Jodie Comer), who’s been casting a path of destruction throughout Europe. Their cat-and-mouse chase is unlike most espionage thrillers — stylish, deadly, and yet with a distinct, twisted sense of humor fans will recognize from “Fleabag.”
Here, Oh opens up to Variety about working with Waller-Bridge, the importance of inclusive casting, and why she won’t be making a “Grey’s” comeback anytime soon.
What made you sign up for the role?
Phoebe. I was familiar with “Fleabag,” which is just so up my alley. And then it was Phoebe and her script. I just thought it was really, really interesting — a woman spiraling towards herself and also into some sort of dark place that I was just like, wow, what is that? She just keeps on spiraling. I think both characters become obsessed with each other — Eve becomes obsessed with Villanelle (Comer) and vice versa. I think people go on journeys and it’s unstoppable and they could ruin themselves and a bunch of other people around them. But it’s a unstoppable energy between these two characters, Eve and Villanelle. They’ve just got to ram into each other and see what happens.
The tone of the show is so delicate — how did you find the right balance?
The tone is very special, and we worked really, really hard on it. It’s not easy. We really kind of fumbled our way through it. I think we really found it by the end, but that kind of tone, that kind of almost love affair or obsession, that was apparent to me from the pilot, honestly — that it’s going to go in this direction.
The title is “Killing Eve.” How are we supposed to interpret it?
Whether it’s the verb or it’s the adjective, that changes the whole meaning of it! Is someone going to kill me or am I the killer?
Exactly! So which is it?
You know I can’t answer that. (Laughs.)
The women in the show are not defined by their relationships to the men in their lives. Is that something that appealed to you?
There is something in that for sure. Expanding not only in one’s own self as an artist, but I’m conscious of society as a whole. Not to be so grandiose about it, but you have to say what are you choosing to put your time into because this is not a part-time job. It is full on. And if I’m dedicating my life [to a project] and being away from my home, if I’m going to give it all of my being, then it is towards bending that arrow of history towards expansion, towards inclusion, towards a broader mindedness, more acceptance.
Just to follow up on that note of inclusion: Your character in the Luke Jennings books this is based on is white.
Can I just tell you, it’s about f–king time! The character is not Asian, but there are a billion examples of the reverse where the source material or the character in the book was one ethnicity or another and no one blinks an eye when people change it to being a white actor. I really hope that there is more pressure and sensitivity and understanding around it. And that comes from the actors themselves. It really does. When you read the source material — oh, you know, this person, this character is first nations, maybe I shouldn’t play it, right? Hopefully actors are empowered to be able to just make that choice.
Is it just up to the actors? Producers have to be forward-thinking, too.
Yes. BBC America, [executive producers] Sid Gentle, Phoebe, all said, “Hey, Sandra Oh, what a great idea.” If it was potentially a whole different group of people that thinking might not exist. So it’s about people who are interested in thinking of things in a different way and then having been empowered. The whole trajectory for this project — Sally [Gentle], our producer saw Phoebe’s one-woman show before “Fleabag” was a TV show and she was just like, who’s that writer? I want you to do Luke’s book, let’s pitch you. Then she gets the job. So they took a risk on Phoebe, right? People take a risk on 20-year-old white guys here all the time. So they gave her a big shot, and this is what she delivers. So because BBC America and Sid Gentle and Luke — because he was totally on board, too — were thinking that way, that’s how things change.
What was your reaction to the offer?
This was a real change for me, too, because I realized my own mentality. I was walking in Brooklyn when this script came in. I was talking to my agent and as I scrolled on my phone, doing a really quick pass at the script, I’m just going, Who am I? Who am I playing? This was a real moment for my own internalization. And my agent goes, “Honey, it’s Eve” — and then I was just like, Ohhhh. I appreciated that they thought of that before I thought of that. It really, really stuck with me.
Are you more interested now in doing limited series rather than committing to a long-term show?
Dude, I spent my time in the trenches! I don’t need to do that again. But I think the way that people are watching television is just so much different. I personally like this setup creatively much more. I know it can be challenging and difficult and crew wise, you need to get maybe sometimes more than two jobs per year. And I think that makes it much more difficult to continue making a living, because if you only have eight episodes and you can’t do anything else, that is not enough to sustain a family. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve moved past that point. But while I think our content is becoming more interesting and more varied, I’m also conscious that the way things are being made is getting more challenging.
Would you ever come back to “Grey’s”?
I’m just going to say no. I’m just going to put that down there because it’s been four years since then, and I’ve really got to try and create much more of that separation. Even though I could just talk on and on and on about that show and what I feel like I learned from it and continue learning from it. It was so special, lightning in a bottle that’s lasted for over a decade.
Ellen Pompeo recently made headlines when she opened up about her pay disparity on the show. Was that an issue you were aware of?
Pay parity, it’s a tricky one. “The Crown,” that’s very tricky. I think people who don’t understand our industry — it’s tricky because it’s just not black-and-white, and I understand when people throw things out there like, oh, look, one person’s getting a dollar, the other person’s getting a billion dollars. That’s not fair. And it’s like, yes. There’s a whole complicated chain of events that have made that so. Some of it is absolutely systemic. And some of it is because someone has been working longer, has had X, Y, Z, and those things are tricky to quantify. One person has had better representation than the other. It’s not just a systemic thing between women and men. It is, but it’s not just that.