Sandra Oh: ‘The Chair’

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The Chair Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in Episode 106. Photo by Eliza Morse/Netflix.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actress Sandra Oh, whose latest role is as the Chair of the English department at a prestigious university in Netflix’s “The Chair.” Oh also stars in “Killing Eve,” and she played Christina Yang for ten seasons on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Oh tells the Treatment she loves the medium of television because it allows you to see a character change over time. She says “The Chair” incorporates many of the challenges she has dealt with as a woman of color navigating the entertainment industry. And she talks about how connected she feels to many of her characters.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition.  I'd be hard pressed to think of an actor who has come through on TV in the 21st century in three such different and powerful roles: going from "Grey's Anatomy" to "Killing Eve" to her newest, "The Chair" on Netflix in which she stars and is also one of the executive producers. Of course, I'm talking about and speaking to Sondra Oh. These three roles I'm talking about, I think they're so interesting because they're about their relationship to power and how they understand it as a woman of color, what that means to them. 

Sandra Oh: Something like with Cristina Yang, from "Grey's Anatomy," she definitely started as the student and of course, ten years into it, she became the surgeon, so she grew in her power. And then Eve Polastri [from “Killing Eve”] comes in, in somewhat of the searching position. She doesn't know all the answers and is trying to deal with the 12 or MI6, and is always an underling to the power. Ji-Yoon Kim in "The Chair," while she comes in, in a certain position of power, as the chair of the English department, [regarding] your comment about being a woman of color in relationship with power, I think it's most clearly defined in "The Chair, and not so much defined as just grappled with in "The Chair.”

In "Grey's Anatomy" and "Killing Eve," we don't go into the characters' cultural background. And that's just I think, a sign of the times when the shows came about, and also just the content of it. And again, that just highlights how, for me, and I think also for the landscape, how different "The Chair" is and definitely how the show takes on the challenges of what it is to be a woman of color in a position of power.

KCRW: When we meet your character in "The Chair," just thinking about that great first scene she has with her staff, where she's told, you can sit at the head of the table, and she says, yeah, I think I will. In "The Chair, it's really about negotiating all the politics of being in an institution.

Oh: Agreed. When you are on set, and you're in any type of leadership role, you're having to manage so many fires and so many personalities and so many dynamics. So while managing that, trying to push your own goal forward, and to have balance between the rules of the institution, and then the makers, you could say the studio and the artists, you're constantly having to shift. And I think that's what we see Ji-Yoon doing a lot, and it's really, really hard work. 

There's this scene between Professor Kim and Yazmin McKay, played by Nana Mensah. So Yaz is the young Black professor who I am trying to push her tenure through. And we have this conversation where Yaz's character says to Ji-Yoon, basically, you're running around playing nice when you should be running this institution. That interchange for me is one of my favorites because I felt, for the first time, like I was in a scene about two women of color, who are different colors, who are talking about stuff in a way that I know that I have talked about. From Ji-Yoon's point of view, it's like, you are not yet in this position of power, and if that's your interpretation, that I am being nice, when I'm really actually trying to make change for you, and for us, and for the greater good, I can really see how those two characters really misunderstood each other at that moment.

KCRW: There are so many of these instances where she's kind of code switching in real time, and explaining herself, but also apprising people of the situation as you were talking about what she does with Yaz. And I think that watching this, where it's almost in subtitles for mainstream audiences, is really, really great. 

Oh: Yeah, I think another one of my favorite scenes is when she's trying to explain to Yaz the compromises she's made and had to make to get her greater goal, and her greater goal is basically to get tenure. What she has to compromise is that a distinguished lectureship that she had promised, she has to give to David Duchovny. And Yaz is rightly incensed, and Ji-Yoon is trying to explain, not from the point of view of making excuses, but that this is as far as I could take this ball. It took me a lot to get you this far. But she also understands Yaz's position that she is being seen as upholding this institution that continues honoring and giving place to the white male patriarchy who has run the institution forever.

KCRW: I've got to think that so much of "The Chair" resonates with you, because it's the kind of questions that you've been answering in one way or another, and trying to get past answering for your career?

Oh: Yes. Because my answer, ultimately, to all that is the work. So let's just talk about the work. What is it like? Well, I just played her. You want to know what it's like? Watch the damn show.  

What I really hope that people can get while watching this show is just wondering: what would you do in that position? What would you do? To be commanding respect or commanding power? You can't lead like that. That's not how you lead. All you can do is hopefully be true to yourself and your intentions kind of flow through. That's what I'm trying to do with Ji-Yoon. 

The Chair (L to R) Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon, Nana Mensah as Yaz and Holland Taylor as Joan in episode 106 of The Chair. Photo by Eliza Morse/Netlfix.

KCRW: Bill, who's played by Jay Duplass, is one of your colleagues, a professor there who's got himself in some trouble by being baldly politically incorrect in response to another problem that he set into motion. I was always thinking about an old TV show like M*A*S*H where a character like Bill would have been Hawkeye Pierce, who'd just cruise through the world and say whatever he wants to say. And as long as he's being funny, it would be okay that he was making fun of power. We're not realizing that he's part of the power structure he's making fun of.

Oh: Beautifully put. You're right that I feel like he does present as that type of character like Hawkeye Pierce, who's kind of charmed in that way. And he's charmed without really understanding his privilege and position. Ji-Yoon is extremely aware of it and she says this line to him: Don't be one of those people, those men who just kind of go through life thinking that things like this can happen, and you can just brush it off like that and there are no consequences. That's what Bill really gets through this piece is that there are consequences, and he has to take them. 

KCRW: We met shortly after you'd done this play at The Public that I can't stop thinking about now in these times we're in. The play is about somebody who's brutalized because of intolerance. 

Oh: True in so many ways. So "Stop Kiss" is a beautifully constructed play by Diana Son, that you just see these two women who come to New York. One is a newcomer to New York. The other is an established New Yorker. They're, for all intents and purposes, straight women. And they have this time together and they realize that they're falling in love. And the play is centered around a hate crime that is instigated by their first kiss. 

That's what Amanda Peet saw me in. You know, you have fellow artists whose work moves you, and you don't know whatever that is, and I think that might have been a moment where she was like, oh, who is that? And then, Amanda and I actually did a short film together like a gazillion years ago. 

KCRW: You're talking about Amanda Peet, who's one of the creators of "The Chair." I was thinking about it in light of the way, there's a big sort of town meeting with Bill's character and the students. And, that play is about the way a truth will resonate differently with other people. Everybody tries to explain it in their way. But as they do, thinking about especially all the men in "Stop Kiss," how it doesn't quite make sense to others as they try to talk about it. 

Oh: Now I'm just thinking about the play, you're right, the way that it also is constructed, it is from a bunch of people's different points of view. And it's actually the very last moment where you see the love between the two women expressed. One of the many things that that I like about "The Chair is that you're seeing different people's point of view from this one incident that happens with in Bill's class, and hopefully you're seeing it from the student's point of view, from a TA's point of view, Ji-Yoon's point of view, Bill's point of view, and the dean's point of view. I mean, that's where we are right now; everyone's interpretation is everyone's first reality. And people going down that road, in any kind of a hard line makes a conversation pretty difficult.

KCRW: I think with any artist, you're creating work based on who you are, there's a kernel of truth in it. And so often these characters that you've created, I think that really resonate with people, it's about these women and their relationship to power, and who they are, and where they want to be, how these institutions can thwart that, in some way. And I think it's remarkable that what you've done, and you talk about these characters, I think they stick with you for the reasons that we're talking about.

Oh: I could not even begin to express how profoundly on a cellular level I am in these characters, all of them. We're not talking straight lines at all, but in ways that I would never reveal I have such an intimate relationship with them. The amount that I feel like I invest and I invested in all those characters is also the profound joy of my job. You have the ability to live these lives. This is also what I really love about television. You get so many chances to tell the story, not just one 90-minute story; you get chance after chance to live this life and to try and unlock the mystery of this character's life. Did you see the animated film "Millennium Actress?" 

KCRW: Yes, absolutely. 

Oh: When I saw that, that was the time where I felt like my relationship with my work started shifting. From what I remember from the movie, this camera crew is asking this famous Japanese actress about her life, and she kind of revisits all her roles. And I think of this in a kind of Buddhist psychology kind of way, where you see that she is trying to unravel a mystery, like, basically this deep curse that someone put on her and that with each role that she takes on, she is trying to unravel this mystery, or this curse. One of my meditation teachers said to me once, it's just very interesting what you do as your profession. You get to play life after life after life. For me, it just shifted my appreciation for characters. And what you're really trying to do that does not have to do with you, but has to do with you, but does not have to do with you is: how do I serve this character? Why is she here? What is she trying to say? How can I do this for her?

One of the things that I'm very proud of in "Grey's Anatomy" is I had a ten-year period. People change in 10 years, but also people stay the same. And I really felt like I was able to grow that with Christina Yang, that you really believe change. That's also what I'm trying to do now closing up "Killing Eve" here in London, is that you've seen the character of Eve actually change. And of course, you see that happened to Ji-Yoon in those six episodes.

But it's such a great profession. I really, really love being able to do that. When I see people in the business community or leadership community, or when I get texts from friends who are people of color, who are in leadership roles, or ex-professors or whatever, who went through like, crazy cancel culture kind of stuff, and they text me to say, this is how I felt seen, or this meant so much to me, It all fits for me.



Rebecca Mooney