Sandra Oh has been dancing with death and serial killer Villanelle on Killing Eve since 2018, so she could do with a laugh.
That’s one of the reasons the Canadian-American actor took on the role of Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly appointed head of a prestigious but struggling college’s English department in Netflix’s comedy-drama series The Chair.
As rewarding as she finds Killing Eve, Oh said, its darker elements make it “hard for me to shoot the show…. I feel like I’ve wanted to live in a comedy space.”
The six-episode The Chair, out Friday on the streaming service, blends humour with the daunting challenges that Ji-Yoon faces at a school beset by financial woes and generational clashes.
Enrollment in the English department is down and most of the professors are older, white and stuck in their ways — which doesn’t go down well with the politically correct students of Pembroke University.
Ji-Yoon’s relationship with her headstrong, grade-school daughter Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla) is rocky as well. The series from actor-turned-showrunner Amanda Peet attempts to show family relationships in a realistic and complex way.
“I moved into the mother part of my career, and usually it’s kind of been a death knell for actresses,” Oh said. “I realise it’s because the parts for the mother aren’t that great. But the ones that I am playing are very full, multidimensional and rich to play.”
While most of the show’s cast, which includes Jay Duplass, Holland Taylor, Nana Mensah and Bob Balaban, have been to college, Oh didn’t attend.
Indeed, the show’s focus on academia was not a pull for the Canadian-born daughter of South Korean immigrants. It was her character’s name that she noticed first.
“I can, very slowly over my career, note the change that has happened, to be actually able to put a Korean name and have all the characters say your name. It really appealed to me,” she said. “It says something because it normalises things that you don’t realise that in everyday life (are) normal. So it needs to be normalised on screen.”
The Chair was filming in Pittsburgh in March when a series of shootings in the Atlanta-area left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Oh felt compelled to make her voice heard at an anti-violence rally on a Pittsburgh street corner.
“I just knew I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to gather with other Asian people,” she said. She discussed it with the cast and crew, “who really responded so beautifully because these things are important to them as well. So even though it was a tricky time during Covid, because we still need to do our jobs and continue shooting, it was very important to all of us to be in (the) community and to hear each other.”
Oh said she hopes her screen portrayals make a difference when it comes to representing people of Asian ethnicity.
“I feel like what I can do in my work far outweighs anything that I could possibly say in a rally or a tweet or even in an essay because that’s not the medium that I am at my best, that I feel I can communicate the most in.”
Oh has been in London filming the final season of Killing Eve, which in 2018 earned her a best drama series actress Emmy nomination — the first for an Asian actor in the category. She’s had two other nominations in the category since. She’s hoping to tie up the twisted relationship between her character, Eve Polastri, and serial killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer), while remaining “truthful″ to the characters.
There’s another role of Oh’s that has touched audiences: her portrayal of Dr. Cristina Yang in the long-running hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy. Oh left the hit show in 2014. Early in the pandemic, people stuck at home tuned in to — or discovered — the show and gathered on social media to discuss plotlines from recent and older seasons.
“I do think the show was a real comfort to a lot of people during the pandemic,” she said. “It’s amazing to be a part of a show that gives that type of comfort or familiarity to people. It’s a great, great privilege. I’m happy if people rediscovered it or discover for the first time.”