Sandra Oh (‘Killing Eve’) on how BBC America show could actually be about ‘a woman’s freedom’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Sandra Oh just added two more Emmy nominations as a producer and star of “Killing Eve “to her career total of 12 overall. The actress has notched three consecutive nominations in Best Drama Actress, losing to costar Jodie Comer last year.

Oh recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about exploring her character, Eve, her lack of Emmy wins and where change can from in the industry. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Now, I was so proud of Eve early this season because it seems like she was really making sensible decisions. But that kind of fell apart by the end of the season. Not that she necessarily has the capacity to do it, but what kind of big moves do you think Eve should make in order to lead a fulfilling life?

Sandra Oh: I don’t know if a fulfilling life is in her cards. One of the things that I really love so much about the show is it will give the time and space for a character to figure out her own life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. Like, in some ways, a fulfilling or happy life, let’s just say, by the end of Season 3, Eve knows she’s never gonna have that. That whole idea of what she seemed to have had and what she did have in the pilot, three seasons ago, she really left. She left actively and she was also pulled away from and so by the end of it, I think that she has a much more poetic but — what’s the word — realistic outlook on her life, and it’s a little bleak (laughs). It’s a little bleak. But, I think she’s freer, and as time has gone on, I’ve been wondering, like, “Oh, is it really actually about a woman’s freedom?” I’m as curious as it is, because when you’re playing it, you don’t exactly know and you don’t really want to exactly know what might be the larger themes of the character because you’re in the middle of living it. But the idea of a happy or fulfilling life that might look a certain way is no longer, I don’t think, in the cards for Eve. And I think she’s really OK with that.

GD: It’s something I always wonder about with this show, how long Eve and Villanelle can keep running into each other without some kind of finality. But it sounds like you think that the dynamic has actually changed for good with the third season finale.

SO: I do. I think that by the end, there’s a scene, no spoilers, but spoiler, at the end of the third season, they meet on a bridge and they have this long discussion and there’s actually a scene prior to that where they kind of start this discussion. And what I feel is, after all the mayhem and violence and the chasing and the running away and trying to get to all this stuff, they actually kind of come together. They come together in a way of, like, “Actually, you’re the only one that I can kind of trust and depend on because you’ve been going through your own war. I’ve been going through my own war. And I just need to rest for a second and actually, the only person I can rest with is you.” Which has not been the case for almost three seasons, but in a way, I’m really glad that we got to that point because it was really, really hard to find an organic way to move that very, very palpable and explosive dynamic that they have with each other. But it felt true to me that in some way, they’re the only ones who really understand each other and they’ve come to realize that.

GD: You’ve actually got 12 Emmy nominations now without a win. But you have won two Golden Globes. You’ve got SAG Awards for both “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Killing Eve.” We’re an awards website, so you just defy all of our statistics. What’s going on here? Why can’t you win an Emmy?

SO: (Laughs.) I love that you’re asking the actor, “Why can’t you win an Emmy?” I actually didn’t even know that I had 12 Emmy nominations. I could say I don’t know, because that’s true. I mean, there’s a lot of things at play here. I don’t know. I don’t want to be attached to it. You know what I mean? And then also, and this is for me, a discussion that I’m not yet ready to have but I’ll put it this way, Riley. I’ve been in the game for a long time, and there are not ebbs and flows to it, there are waves going on. And I feel like there are certain waves that you can only see when you have time and I feel now that I get my approach to it, even to your question, is much wider, because there are so many things that are completely, of course, not in my control. If people vote, they do, they don’t. But there are certain waves of things that I think only later on can we possibly see, “Oh, there was a shift here and there was more of an acceptance here or when are things ready to be recognized?” That in some ways obviously has nothing to do with me. It has to do with flows of what is in and not so much the zeitgeist. I think what is coming into culture and not, what is flowing through culture and not…

GD: I’m not sure I do understand, actually.

SO: OK, so I’ll say for this. Only in, really, the past year for me, feeling as an Asian-American actor, do I actually feel change. But I’ve also been in a long enough time that this is just a feeling I’m having. There is a difference between feeling or people showing up on covers of magazines to then actually things being produced and then promoted and then it being received. Because the whole development, I think, of storytelling, especially in different and diverse voices, has to be developed. That takes time. So right now, it’s taken, again, I’ve been in this game for a long time. It’s taking my entire career and of course, obviously, before that, for even Asian-American stories to be anywhere near the forefront of being interested where you have an entire industry now turned their eye to, “Oh, we’re interested in telling those stories.” That’s great. The interest might be on there. But then there’s a lot more steps. I’m trying to tie it in a way where I’m not exactly sure because I’m still working this stuff out right now. There’s something in your kind of, I think, in some ways, hilarious question, after 12 nominations, why haven’t I won an Emmy, that potentially might be tied into larger cultural waves of what is being recognized and noticed in a certain time or not. Also, what I think is really interesting for this time right now, all the structures that we’re used to, health, policing, education, Hollywood is also a big structure. Someone like me has been on the outside of it, even though on the inside of it, on the outside of it for a long time. So even holding yourself on, even though I know the importance of being validated this way, you need to kind of question or at least for me individually as an actor and as an artist what the need is to be validated. Basically, I know your question was kind of like a tongue-in-cheek one, but it does make me think that, I don’t know. It’s not like I’m gonna say it’s totally fine. But it is, I think, interesting to try and gather some sort of meaning from.

GD: Yeah, I did want to say something along those lines, though. “Killing Eve” came under a lot of fire a couple months ago for its all-white writers’ room, which I found so curious. Not that there was an all-white writers’ room because I feel like that’s actually very common. But the show is so far ahead when it comes to women, when it comes to having an Asian or an LGBT lead. So I was kind of thinking, if this is the backlash that needs to happen for the whole industry to change, then so be it. But anyway, first of all, has anything resulted behind the scenes on “Killing Eve” in response to that?

SO: I’m really happy to talk about it because right now, just in your question, it’s multilayered and what I think is very, very difficult on things like social media, there’s no nuance and there’s no understanding of context, which I understand. But that is true. And exactly what you’re saying, what was lost in that moment, I think the context of when the photograph came out, was not a wise decision and not mature. But what I can also see is here are writers in their bubble and they finally finish and they want to celebrate it. So potentially there was maybe not so much wise choice in the timing of it, but also what we’re forgetting or what is being lost in it is the actual win, that it was all women, and also, exactly what you’re talking about, this is a show where one of the leads is an Asian-American woman and the other lead is a character who is an LGBTQ character. Let’s not lose sight of that, and I don’t think people have and I don’t think the fans have. I understand. Trust me, I understand people’s defense and people’s call for diversity to happen. I really, really do and I am there a thousand percent and I think it’s notable to see, twofold, the desire for people for change and to also the reality of what it is. I wish for, as we all do, but it wasn’t the case. Last year, the season before it was a room for all women. And I celebrate that, too. Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] is a woman. It’s been head by female and young writers and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that.

But I will say in the specificity of our show, in particular, I was exceptionally happy of how open Suzanne Heathcote was for the beginning of the show, because we really talked about this a lot and she basically was very open to everything that I pitched her, which was at first I pitched the beginning of the season that Eve is on a moped in Cambodia, totally off the grid. And then she ran with that idea and then set her in Koreatown in New Malden, which was much less romantic, but I think very right. Very right for the character, because there’s always something very normal and relatable about Eve and to set her in a city suburb outside of London that has the largest Korean community in Europe, I think, was perfect because we got to do both things, which is still that she is feeling off the grid and the reason why I’m saying this to you is that I felt a real handle on my character’s culture and that Suzanne was very open to writing for that and everyone got behind it because it’s rare to get settings like that. I would say on not so much American TV, but let’s say on British TV, I don’t know how many times, if ever, you’ve seen that many Korean also speaking in Korean on British TV.

That means something. It might not mean necessarily anything to a majority of the people, but I would say it would mean something to Asian people seeing it. It’s like, “Oh, we see this setting. We see a restaurant setting. We see her making her own food. We see her hearing her mother’s language.” It gives you a different sense of how the character is settling after this trauma, why she wants to be in the back of the kitchen, how she needs to feel safe and in one way, it looks like she’s just working in the back of the kitchen and her life is kind of coming apart. I never thought that. I wanted to get a setting and I know Suzanne and I wanted to get this setting where you see how she goes back to the fundamental things like food and language to make herself feel safe and that’s actually how she’s healing and we were able to do that in a very, very specific cultural way that was speaking specifically to Eve’s culture. And that’s because Suzanne is the writer that she is and I do have the power that I do to be able to take responsibility for that.

So again, I am so happy that people are open for change and people are demanding change and wanting it and it’s just like, please understand for those of us who are in the trenches of it and who are doing our best, I say this all the time, it’s like, “Yes. And just be patient.” Not that things aren’t going on, but it’s really, really hard to change things. I’ve been trying to change things for a very, very long time and I feel like I’m doing it organically in my own way. Here I am speaking to you when you get to ask me why I haven’t won after 12 Emmy nominations. But it’s like, I then bring that experience to every set, project, writer, and the change happens that way. The real change happens that way.

The real change is not gonna happen just because you stick a bunch of writers of color in a room that don’t have the power to change anything or who don’t have a relationship with the material. So then let’s say the higher-ups just check off a box because we have a diverse room. No. It’s not the same thing. I don’t think that when you start writing diverse stories that you can just write it or create these shows in the same way that shows have been created. It’s not that. The conversations have to be different, just as the support that the writers, I think, need to have to tell those stories in a cultural-specific way. They need support and then they need development and we as, I think, audience members have to be patient for that development process. Not that it doesn’t happen, but for the bumps along the way. So let’s say you’re saying that this photograph that came out, that’s a bump along the way. That’s a bump. Don’t write it off. Please don’t write off my entire career of what I’ve had to do to get to this point, to be able to share this show with you that because the room doesn’t reflect my face, that it’s something to be canceled. That’s just also not mature or wise either. I guess that’s a long-winded way to talk about that.

GD: That’s what I want to hear. I feel like what I’ve perceived over the years in doing these interviews and reading the credits on shows is that you really achieve representation either onscreen or in staffing behind the camera. It really has to come from the showrunner or someone who outranks the showrunner, so to speak.

SO: Yes.

GD: You were an associate producer on the first season. At this point, you’re up to executive producer. I’m wondering how much pull you feel you have in that regard.

SO: The reason why a producer credit is important to me as an actor is the way that I choose now to work with writers. Writers are the creators of TV and I want to be able to continue an access and a certain voice in that room, so the creative arcs of things I’m able to have an influence with and that, I feel, I’ve learned along the way and that I’ve been able to establish and in a much more definitive way with “Killing Eve.” There are in other more technical, kind of producorial ways of budget, where we’re gonna shoot it, I mean, like, honestly, I’m happy because, like, try and shoot in COVID times, (plugs ears) la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. Someone else can deal with that. But always to have a voice in the room regarding larger creative storylines is extremely important to me, so, example, like what I was saying at the beginning of Season 3, to be able to really work very closely with Suzanne regarding that or when certain storylines come up or there’s just chaos on set as it always is because television is a living, breathing thing, it’s like, we’re late on scripts, we need this. To be able to come in and to assure people that a creative tentpole is holding firm, that’s the role that I’ve tried to play and I’ve really tried to develop.

GD: And finally, you were on “Jimmy Kimmel” a couple months ago. You were wearing a T-shirt with an iconic Canadian on it. You said that almost every Canadian would be able to identify him. So being Canadian, of course, I have the exact same shirt.

SO: (Laughs.)

GD: There it is.

SO: That’s fantastic!

GD: So you were explaining who he was and then Jimmy Kimmel started mocking you. So I was hoping you could kind of finish that up and talk about who this is.

SO: I mean, I totally understand. Every country has their icons and Canadians have a lot to be proud of that, I mean, at least I consider him. David Suzuki is one of our icons. Those of us who have been following him and basically following what he’s been saying this entire time, it’s like, well, he said it. He said it 30 years ago, 40 years ago of just our relationship with the environment. He was the one to say it. So whether or not Jimmy or anyone else understands it, I’m glad that we as Canadians do. I’m so happy that you have that T-shirt. Because he’s also kind of great, you know what I mean? Like, it’s our own inside joke. It’s our own inside pride.

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