Sandra Oh on battling ‘internal racism’ to embrace career success, tell Asian stories

Sandra Oh on battling 'internal racism' to embrace career success, tell Asian stories
Sandra Oh attends the Canadian Disney premiere of

If you ask Sandra Oh, Pixar’s spotlight on the emotional tumult of a Chinese-Canadian girl’s entry into puberty in “Turning Red” is a turning point — not just for Hollywood and its growing platform for underrepresented stories, but for her own career.

“I’m just so thrilled to be part of a Pixar family unit,” a smiling Oh says in a recent video call from Toronto before attending the film’s Canadian premiere.

Part of her happiness, Oh says, is that “Turning Red” is a sign of change, and that makes it a “point of celebration.”

She plays Ming, the incredibly loving but equally overprotective mother of 13-year-old Mei.

For the Ottawa-born actress, it was imperative that Ming be culturally accurate, minus any whiff of stereotype. She was keen to veer away from the controlling Asian “tiger mom” persona.

“Ming is a full-fledged character,” says Oh. “My experience with my mother is not so much like Ming, who can be seen as overprotective and embarrasses her daughter really intensely. My mother was an extremely demanding person in other ways.

“But for me, as I always have tried to my entire career, to bring a full humanity to each character, it’s the truth, the authenticity and the feeling behind a character that will resonate with the audience no matter what the situation is. That’s what will always matter most.”

The film’s Toronto-bred director Domee Shi says that commitment to authenticity is why she believes “no one else could have played Ming,” dubbing Oh “the queen” of the set.

“We knew we needed an actress who had a huge range, who could play a character who is sharp and fierce, also funny, warm, loving, a little kooky and crazy,” says Shi.

“But also who could ground all of that in a way that really makes the audience empathize with her and that could have only been Sandra. She added so much depth.”

Oh admits to only recently recognizing her own dexterity with such complex roles, not to mention the fact Hollywood had taken note as well. When she was offered a part in the BBC/Bravo series “Killing Eve,” she says she couldn’t deduce which character they wanted her for.

That was well after spending nearly a decade playing Dr. Cristina Yang in ABC/CTV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and earning five Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe. After which, Oh made it known, few job offers came her way.

So when it came to “Killing Eve,” Oh automatically assumed she was not being considered for the headstrong lead — a role that would bring her a second Golden Globe Award — citing an internal bias she’s had to work hard to undo.

“It’s complex,” Oh explains. “That moment of internalized racism, I’m not holding that all the time. What I think is important about the past two years, as a lot of people have come to the forefront with the demand for racial justice and racial reckoning, is you have to take a look at what’s going on inside yourself.”

Even after considerable onscreen success, Oh says those issues were not easy to confront.

“For me, it was how unconscious that thinking was, even though I spent most of my career trying to unhook myself from it. That’s how deep it goes.”

As the final season of “Killing Eve” comes to a close in April, Oh continues to take the lead: in 2021’s Netflix series “The Chair,” she stars as the first woman of colour to head a university English department, and in the upcoming Sam Raimi-produced horror movie “Umma,” she plays a Korean-American mother afraid her own mother has begun to haunt her.

“I’ve always felt that I was a lead, (but) we need to hold all these things at the same time — I can’t see myself because of internalized racism, patriarchy and all the things that we are all under the spell of,” she says.

“What I’m happy about is that I’m now able to really experience a career’s worth of work being put out into the world. I’ve only started to really be gratified about that.”

It helps, too, that Oh has been instrumental in shaping her characters’ stories and lending them her own Korean background, as an executive producer on “Killing Eve,” “The Chair” and “Umma.”

Even with the latter, a psychological thriller, Oh was thrilled to see her own heritage and all its cultural complexities granted a big-budget platform.

“It’s a pity, because here’s a Pixar film where I play a hypervigilant, loving mom doing her best, and then ‘Umma’ is a horror movie about a mother who maybe is not trying her best,” says Oh with a laugh.

But, she adds, “They have a similarity. You’re talking about intergenerational trauma, the trauma of immigration; those were the things that we were trying to explore and that’s rare.”

It all hearkens back to the 2018 Emmy Awards when Oh was the first Asian woman to be nominated for lead actress. Although she didn’t win, she made a statement that evening that would become splashed across T-shirts: “It’s an honour just to be Asian.”

Although the Toronto-set “Turning Red” manages to knit together multiple cultural touchpoints for Oh, she rejects the notion she’s come full circle.

“I wouldn’t use the metaphor of circle because it closes,” she says, forming a wave with her hands.

“I feel like my career is more of a wavy line. And hopefully it’ll just continue moving upwards and outwards.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2022.

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