Visible Women

Why Sandra Oh was surprised to be cast in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s new drama

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Moya Crockett
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The actress plays the lead in Killing Eve – but as an actor of colour, she didn’t expect to be offered the part.

Sandra Oh has been a recognisable face and name in Hollywood for years. She’s not Angelina Jolie-famous, but she’s established, thanks in large part to her long-running role as Dr Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy. Oh played the deadpan surgeon in the hit hospital show for almost a decade between 2005 and 2014, before leaving to pursue other projects. Since then, she has appeared in various indie films, leant her a voice in a children’s TV show and popped up in the anthology series American Crime.

But until this year, Oh had never been the star of her own show. That’s now changed with her role in Killing Eve, the hit new TV drama by Fleabag creator-writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

In Killing Eve, Oh plays frustrated MI5 officer Eve Polastri, who becomes obsessed with tracking down a psychopathic female assassin named Villanelle (Jodie Comer, last seen playing a much younger ‘other woman’ in Doctor Foster). The show is based on a series of books by Luke Jennings, and the first episode aired on BBC America on 8 April to rave reviews: it currently has a 100% “fresh” approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Oh garnering particular praise for her performance.

Yet in a new interview, Oh says that she was stunned to be offered the part of Polastri because of the lack of lead roles for actors of colour in mainstream TV. Speaking to Vulture, she said that when she first read the script for Killing Eve, she never imagined that she was in the running to play the lead role.

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

“I was quickly scrolling down the script, and I can’t really tell you what I was looking for,” she explained. “So I’m like, ‘So Nancy [her agent], I don’t understand, what’s the part?’ And Nancy goes ‘Sweetheart, it’s Eve, it’s Eve.’”

“In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve,” Oh continued. “I think about that moment a lot. Of just going, how deep have I internalised this? [So] many years of being seen [a certain way], it deeply, deeply, deeply affects us… I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why?”

Many years of experiencing racism in the film and TV industry had reduced her expectations of what she could be offered, Oh said.

“After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realise, ‘Oh my god! They brainwashed me!’ I was brainwashed! So that was a revelation to me.”

Oh with Phoebe Waller-Bridge (second left) and Jodie Comer (second right) at a Killing Eve screening in Cannes 

Oh said that while she’d undeniably found it more difficult to get parts as a Canadian-Korean actress, she had always refused to be defeated by it.

“Racism exists. Let’s start there. I felt it, and I have felt it deeply. And I’m extremely fortunate. So I’m not going to not say that it’s not there, because it is,” she said.

“But it’s changing the mindset that being an actor of colour, person of colour, that you’re at a disadvantage in the creative life. That you don’t have opportunity. It’s all how you see the opportunity.

“And the clearer and deeper you get into what you really want, you just become a better artist… If what you want is to connect, if what you want is to be a great artist, I think you can find your way. Even within this giant paradigm that a lot of times doesn’t include people who look like us.”

Killing Eve will premiere on BBC One and BBC Three later this year.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of brilliant women, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / BBC America