Sandra Oh and Kerry Washington on What They Learned From Shonda Rhimes

Sandra Oh and Kerry Washington both climbed to the pinnacle of stardom on TV shows created by Shonda Rhimes. After 10 seasons as Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Oh embarked on an espionage adventure as a spy dodging a ruthless assassin on “Killing Eve,” which recently finished its third season. Washington, who played Olivia Pope for seven seasons on “Scandal,” now portrays the artist Mia opposite Reese Witherspoon on “Little Fires Everywhere.” In addition to acting, both have taken on the duties of producing. They talked to each other over video chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors issue.

Sandra Oh: I want to reach through this screen and touch you. I’m going to start with asking a question about “Little Fires Everywhere,” which I loved. I’m so glad you and Reese did it. Can you talk a little bit, I’m interested to know, about the nuts and bolts of the process of how you and Reese came together?

Kerry Washington: Reese read Celeste Ng’s beautiful novel. We’ve been casual friends for a long time. So she emailed me and said, “I found the thing for us.” When I read it, I loved the material, and I loved the deep exploration of the many paths to motherhood. I think we tend to think in such a duality of good mothers and bad mothers, and we ignore the beautiful spectrum of the ways that we mother. All of that was so ripe for exploration.

Oh: I really loved how no one was shying away from, I felt, the potential judgment of what it would be to make a wrong decision, to be a bad mother. Because in the complexity of motherhood, it’s like, I’m sorry, people make their calls based on where they are, what they have access to.

Washington: When I hear you describe it, it reminds me so much of your extraordinary work on “Killing Eve.” You were so willing for her to do it wrong, be messy and be just on the absolute wrong side of judgment in her marriage, with her colleagues, with Villanelle. At the beginning of the journey of taking this role, how much of her arc did you know ahead of time?

Oh: I got the pilot that Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote, but I felt like I could see so much based on that pilot. Particularly, the interesting nature of Eve herself and the energy between her relationship with Villanelle.

Washington: Did you have any idea you would become these queer icons?

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Jen Mann for Variety

Oh: No, not at all. We were very isolated, insulated in our bubble, when we were doing this. We shot this in summer to winter of ’17. That fall was also #MeToo and Time’s Up. It was fascinating to be in the U.K., because I could feel, I could hear and read what was going on at home, but it was not the same in the U.K. But what I felt was “People are ready for something new, and here it is.”

Washington: I’ve never seen you work this physically, with all the stunts, and I wonder if that was different for you, using your body in that way.

Oh: I’ve got to tell you: Even more than that, I think being the only American on that set, in Europe, informed me more than the physicality. I’ve not even really talked about this, but there is something about constantly feeling like the observer or the outsider. I feel like Eve speaks slightly different than I speak. I feel like it’s the American who has settled in the U.K. for 15 years. A lot of my friends, who mostly are Canadian, who have been settled there for 20 years, they actually strangely have this weird kind of Scottish-y accent.

Washington: How was that in relation to being the only Asian woman on set?

Oh: Well, that I’m totally used to. Being the sole Asian person is a very familiar place for me. What was your relationship with the writers’ room?

Washington: I really feel like my job as a producer is to really have an eye on narrative, but also, I’m very interested in casting, I’m very interested in hiring, mostly in hiring practices and expressing our values of inclusivity.

Oh: How many scripts did you have before you started shooting?

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Jen Mann for Variety

Washington: I don’t know exactly, but they were all being rewritten throughout the process. But it wasn’t like on “Scandal,” when it’s week-to-week scripts. Network television is different. They’re barely keeping up. We’d always be happy on “Scandal” when you get a rewrite, because you know it would be better, but it was also like, “I have four hours to memorize a three-page monologue? Cool.”

Oh: I spent a lot of time with writers, and television is all about your relationship with the writer. What I was able to get from “Grey’s” is to have the responsibility and the relationship with the writer to be able to direct where she’s going. If something kind of came up which was like, “That is completely wrong,” I would go toe-to-toe with Shonda and a lot of the writers, which has been challenging. But I think ultimately, for the entire product and our relationship, if you’re fighting for the show, if you’re fighting for your character, people can tell that.

Washington: In the books, is Eve Asian American?

Oh: It’s based on a couple of novellas by Luke Jennings called “Codename Villanelle.” I don’t remember him really describing Eve and her race, but I could tell that, for me, my perception was — my projection was — that she was white.

Washington: I have noticed, at the top of Season 3, the scene in the grocery store and all of the Korean packaging, the Korean cash register. There’s a lot more, it felt to me, layering in of Asian identity than in Season 1.

Oh: Absolutely, and that is a slow process that I have been on my entire life — how to bring Asian American identity. Most of the shows that I have done have not been Asian-specific purposefully. When we did “Grey’s,” for at least the first 10 seasons we would not talk about race. We would not go into race, and that was purposeful. And, whatever, it was the right thing to do when it was. In Season 3, Burke and Cristina were getting married and there were the two mothers, the Asian mother and the Black mother, and I’m like, “Come on, there is a lot of story that we can do here!” But they didn’t want to touch it, for whatever reason. Now my interest is much more in bringing that story in.

So even at the beginning of Season 3 for “Killing Eve,” I had pitched Suzanne Heathcote, our showrunner. I was like, “Listen, I see Eve on a moped in Cambodia.” It was very important for her to feel anonymous.

Washington: Let me just say, it works so beautifully.

Oh: Can you speak a little bit about your experience on “Scandal”? Can you talk about the bits that you feel that you carry now in your elbow, your knee, your hips?

Washington: For one, when you do that many seasons of television, I don’t feel like there’s anything that I haven’t been asked to make real. It’s just a gymnasium of character, where you’re just required to, week after week, be in these heightened experiences of the most important moments of a person’s life, so that requires a level of athleticism almost.

Oh: Like an emotional athleticism?

Washington: Yeah. That’s right. And also, I will say a physical one, too, working 16-hour days. I would notice if I wasn’t hydrated, if I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I remember when I was pregnant, it took me twice as long to memorize. I actually remember being with you at a Producers Guild Award event, and we were both maybe presenting to Shonda. We were at a table together, and you were filming the next morning, and you had your scene pages at dinner because you were memorizing and working on your lines. And I was like, “She’s my people. That’s me!” I go to every award show with a monologue in my purse because I didn’t have time to not be doing that. I didn’t have the luxury of not working.

I felt like I, too, was very protective of Olivia Pope — and devoted. Maybe that’s the right word: I was so devoted to her. I have to say, I was inspired by performances like yours. You showed me the kind of honesty and depth that was possible. And it did mean sometimes that I would go to the writers and ask for changes, but I think I learned also how to try to be a real partner. I wanted to be a partner with Shonda, so I learned to lead with the good stuff.

Oh: That’s so good. I think I don’t have a great face for —

Washington: What?

Oh: Any of the writers who I worked with, I’m sure they know my face. What can I say? I have a Korean mom, and she’s got a tough face to place. She’s got a tough face!

Washington: It’s the truth. You’re a truth-teller, which is a beautiful thing.

Oh: I feel like, when I look back, because it’s been six years now since I left “Grey’s,” I feel like one of my biggest successes, for me, was I don’t feel I gave up. We did 22 episodes, but in the early years, it was 24. It was crazy. Then you have to kind of pick your moments of where you can lay off the gas pedal, because it is such a slog. There would be scenes that I would just go, I don’t know, 10 rounds on, and I know I was difficult. And I really respect all the writers there who rode it out with me.

Washington: What does that mean, you would go 10 rounds?

Oh: I would go 10 rounds in saying, “It’s not right.”

Washington: Ah!

Oh: You’ve got to do different levels with the writer, and then you bump it up and you eventually get to [Shonda]. You’ve got to bother her. When it felt like such an impasse, we would both be digging in our heels hugely. But just the friction itself, a lot of times a third thing would come out, and it would not be in my sight of consciousness at all; it would take that pushing against someone equally as strong. I started to learn how to trust that. And also, that the gold is in the resistance.

Washington: Tell me more about that.

Oh: When I feel like I’m resistant to a scene, or I can see a writer is resistant to something here, now I can get out of my way a little bit better. I think my ego has grown in a positive way to say, “I can see that is not about an attack. I can see that I don’t need to fight for that.”

Washington: I would find that with directors as well. Because it’s hard — sometimes in television, you have new directors all the time. Even on “Little Fires,” we had our dear beloved Lynn Shelton, who just passed, who was our real captain in terms of directing, but we had two other wonderful directors. But that shifting of directorial authority can be challenging as an actor when you’ve been playing this character for years.

Oh: I’m going to swing to something that I heard you say, where it’s almost those moments where you’ve given up where the transformation has come, and then you made the decision to take on television. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Washington: Yeah. It’s funny, because I remember “Sideways” and “Ray” came out in the same year. I remember watching “Sideways” and being so blown away by you. To be honest, I just wasn’t liking anything that I was reading in the film world. I wasn’t feeling inspired by the business, by the responses to my work, by the opportunities. When I read the script for “Scandal” that had a Black woman at the center of a story and she was a complicated anti-hero — in so many ways aspirational and in other ways very flawed — it just felt like a miracle. It felt like I was holding a miracle in my hands, to be reading that script.

Oh: I’ve got to tell you, I remember exactly where I was when I read that damn pilot.

Washington: Really?

Oh: Oh yeah. I was on “Grey’s.” We were on stage five. Someone snuck it to me, I don’t know who it was, but I got my hands on that pilot and I read it and I was just like, “How could I play Olivia Pope?”

Washington: Oh, for sure!

Oh: I remember going to Shonda, and it’s like, “How could I do this? What is this script? Could I do this too?” She goes, “No, you’ve got to play Cristina Yang!”

Washington: “You have a job, girl.”

Oh: But I also feel like it’s so wonderful and rare when you get in your hands something that you know is electric, that you can feel.

Washington: Yep. Yep.

Oh: I’m so glad it was you.