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Sandra Oh on Stereotypes, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and Her First Lead Role on ‘Killing Eve’

5 minute read

Four years after leaving Grey’s Anatomy, Sandra Oh finally has her own show. She stars as MI-5 desk jockey Eve Polastri, a woman undergoing a mid-life crisis before she discovers psychopath-turned-assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) on BBC America’s Killing Eve. Eve and Villanelle begin a game of cat and mouse in which the two increasingly become obsessed with one another.

Oh immediately fell in love with the suspenseful but surprisingly funny show, written by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But when Oh first flipped through the script, she was confused about which role she was being asked to play. “She assumed we wanted her for someone other than Eve,” Waller-Bridge told TIME. “Which is crazy to think about because she’s Sandra Oh. She’s brilliant.”

But years of playing the best friend had conditioned Oh to assume that she wouldn’t be asked to play the lead. Even now, Oh becomes one of just a handful of Asian actors with the lead role on a TV series. “Not often am I blessed to make the choice to collaborate with someone brilliant,” says Oh of Waller-Bridge. “This was an easy choice.” Oh spoke to TIME about life after Grey’s and finally snagging her own series.

TIME: Killing Eve is in some ways a classic British mystery. But it also has the same irreverent tone as Fleabag.

Sandra Oh: It’s not the same type of humor, the same type of style as Killing Eve. But the underlying voice, and that is one that is smart and surprising and naughty and daring. Phoebe’s instinct is to take what you expect and flip it around on the audience.

I’m really proud of the show’s tone. It was tricky to perform because it’s a thriller. But there are some parts that are really hilarious. You so rarely get to be creepy and hilarious at the same time,

How would you characterize Eve?

You see her at the very beginning, and she’s someone who has kind of plateaued in her life, but there is this darker, more mysterious interest that is driving her. She is obsessed with female assassins because they represent this freedom from inhibition. She’s curious about their finesse, their beauty, their style because she is lacking those things. And it really becomes inflamed by the psychopath Villanelle coming into her life.

A lot of fans of the Villanelle novellas assumed Eve was white. You’ve talked about how TV executives assumed that Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy was white before you were cast. How do you deal with this bias in casting?

Most people assume, unless it’s otherwise specified, that every character on the page is white. There are certain people who can be open-minded and see beyond that unconscious bias when they’re casting and certain people who can’t. I’ve worked with a lot of the people who can, and they happen to be women and women of color.

There are people who get me and people who don’t. And I don’t care to work with the people who don’t get me. For the majority of the career, someone has had to step in and change the character.

Ellen Pompeo recently opened up about negotiating her salary on Grey’s Anatomy. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Hollywood needs to be more transparent about salaries to deal with the pay gap. How do you think Hollywood can close the gap?

These things are extremely complicated. But I can say so far, it has not been a transparent universe at all. I think people are really shocked by the disparity.

I think it would be very difficult to force industry-wide change among actors. If the burden is on the actors to be more transparent, some people are going to push back. If anything, it should be the studios who are more transparent about what they’re paying people. That would be great.

What’s it been like trying to redefine yourself after Cristina?

It used to be that you would watch a character on a show, and then they would go away. Now, you could be watching the very first episode of Grey’s Anatomy right now even though we shot that 15 years ago. So the idea of a character’s lifespan is much longer than it used to be. You can still see them, be with them, watch them, have a relationship with them.

I really hope that people come with me on Eve’s journey because she’s a very interesting character. I am so constantly amazed by people’s care and love for Cristina Yang. It makes me so happy to know that that still exists.

But I’m also an actor who grows and I haven’t been with the show for four years. For me, I’m fully committed and fully in the character of Eve.

What’s compelling about Eve?

She gets out of control. Anyone who has been obsessed or been in a mad love affair, sometimes you don’t make the right decisions. And she gets out of control, which I love.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com