Sandra Oh struggles against ‘internal racism’ to achieve career success, tell Asian stories

Sadaf Ahsan, Canadian Press

Published Wednesday, March 16, 2022 3:09 PM EDT

Last Updated Wednesday, March 16, 2022 17:03 EDT

TORONTO – If you ask Sandra Oh, Pixar’s spotlight on the emotional turmoil of a Chinese-Canadian girl hitting puberty on “Turning Red” was a turning point – not just for Hollywood and its thriving platform for underrepresented stories, but for her own career. .

“I’m so excited to be a part of the Pixar family unit,” said a smiling Oh 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 deeply loving but equally overprotective mother of 13 year old Mei.

For an Ottawa-born actress, Ming has to be culturally accurate, without any stereotypes. She was eager to deviate from Asia’s controlling “mother tiger” persona.

“Ming is a complete character,” Oh said. “My experience with my mother was unlike that of Ming, who can be seen as overprotective and humiliating his daughter greatly. My mother was a very demanding person in other ways.

“But for me, as I have always tried throughout my career, to bring full humanity to each character, the truth, authenticity and feeling behind the characters that will resonate with audiences no matter what the situation. That is what will always be most important.”

Toronto film director Domee Shi says that commitment to authenticity is why he believes “no one else can play Ming,” dubbing Oh the “queen” of the set.

“We knew we needed an actress who had a wide range, who could play a character that was sharp and fierce, as well as funny, warm, loving, a little bit kooky and crazy,” said Shi.

“But also who can base all of that on in a way that the audience really empathizes with and that’s just Sandra. He adds so much depth.”

Oh admits he recently acknowledged his own dexterity with such a complex role, not to mention the fact that Hollywood is watching him too. When she was offered a role in the BBC/Bravo series “Killing Eve”, she said she couldn’t figure out which character they wanted for her.

That’s good after spending nearly a decade playing Dr Cristina Yang on ABC/CTV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and earning five Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. After that, Oh announced, several job offers came to him.

So when it came to “Killing Eve,” Oh automatically assumed that she wasn’t considered for the stubborn lead — a role that would earn her a second Golden Globe Award — citing internal biases she had to work to undo.

“It’s complicated,” Oh explained. “That moment of internalized racism, I don’t hold onto it all the time. What I think is important about the last two years, because a lot of people have come to the forefront with demands for racial justice and racial reckoning, is you have to look at what’s going on inside of you.”

Even after the big screen success, Oh says that the problem is not easy to deal with.

“To me, how unconscious that thought was, even though I spent most of my career trying to get away from it. That’s the depth. ”

As the final season of “Killing Eve” ended in April, Oh continued to lead: in the 2021 Netflix series “The Chair”, she played the first woman of color to head the university’s English department, and in Sam Raimi’s upcoming horror film “Umma.” ,” she plays a Korean-American mother who is afraid her own mother is starting to haunt her.

“I always felt that I was the leader, (but) we need to hold onto all of these things at the same time – I can’t see myself because of internalized racism, patriarchy and all the things that put us all under a spell. of,” he said.

“What I love is that I can now really experience a job commensurate with the career it puts out into the world. I’m just starting to get really grateful about that.”

It also helps that Oh has been instrumental in shaping the stories of his characters and lending them his own Korean backstory, as executive producer on “Killing Eve,” “The Chair” and “Umma.”

Even with the latter, a psychological thriller, Oh is thrilled to see his own legacy and all its cultural complexities given a big-budget platform.

“It’s a shame, because this is a Pixar film where I play a very alert, loving mother doing her best, and then ‘Umma’ is a horror film about a mother who may not be trying her best,” Oh said with a laugh.

But, he added, “They have something in common. You’re talking about intergenerational trauma, immigration trauma; those are the things we try to explore and they rarely happen.”

It all goes back to the 2018 Emmy Awards when Oh was the first Asian woman to be nominated for lead actress. Even though he didn’t win, he made a statement that night that would go viral on T-shirts: “It’s an honor to be Asian.”

Although Toronto’s “Turning Red” set managed to knit a few points of cultural contact for Oh, she rejected the notion she came full circle.

“I’m not going to use the metaphor of a circle because it closes,” he said, forming waves with his hands.

“I feel like my career is more like a wavy line. And hopefully it will continue to move up and down.”

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

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