‘The Chair’: Sandra Oh and Amanda Peet on filming their new Netflix show during the pandemic

The Netflix series “The Chair” is a perfect showcase for Sandra Oh’s comedic chops. The actress, best known for her dramatic work in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and BBC America’s spy series “Killing Eve,” has a field day in as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chairman of the English department of a storied but less than Ivy league college. The department is in disarray with enrollment dwindling as well as the minds of some of the elderly professors (Holland Taylor, Bob Balaban). She also must deal with the racism and sexism that is steeped in the department and her workplace lover (Jay Duplass), a professor who seems to be spiraling out of control.

Variety’s Caroline Framke observed: “If ‘The Chair’ does nothing else for the TV landscape, let it legacy be that it has given Oh the starring comedic showcase she’s long deserved. The show absolutely includes some moments of real pathos….yet even those scenes tend to feature Oh’s impeccable comedic timing. Oh consistently does the kind of acting that can smooth bumpy scripts to sell just about anything…she gets to act the hell out of her role, and what a treat to get to see her do it.”

“I would watch Sandra Oh read the phone book,” noted Amanda Peet, the actress who is the creator, executive producer, and writer of “The Chair” during a recent Variety Zoom discussion. Peet is married to executive producer David Benioff (“Game of Thrones”). “The fact that other people wanted to come along on this ride was very exciting to me,” Peet said of its popularity when it premiered in August.  “Obviously, we are tackling some issues that are going on in our current culture, but we also really wanted to make it fun and make it funny and approachable. So we were over the moon.”

Oh, who is nominated for a Critics Choice Award for her performance, felt like the series landed in “this perfect little pocket with extremely relatable characters in a setting that of people are familiar with. It does touch on a lot of current subjects, but I think people like smart comedy.” The series, Oh explained was shot in Pittsburgh during “very deep” Covid time before there were vaccines. “There was such energy,” she recalled. “It was frightening as well, too. It was a very, very tough shoot, but I could feel there was a certain type of energy because there was a lot of tension and a lot of nervousness. But the way that I felt, every single person in the cast, and also the crew, leaned into the show, really leaned in and really connected.”

“Most of us were staying in hotels that served no food because the hotels didn’t haven’t kitchen at the time,” said Taylor. “It was a really hard atmosphere and frightening, as Sandra says. I noticed that it all disappeared when we were at work. It was a playful experience with all of us, I think. It was very engaged and engaging. Sort of the outside world, which was a very forbidding one did go away during it.” Taylor never considered “The Chair” a rom com set in the world of academia. “I thought of it as a show about eight or 10 people in a world of people who were interconnected Those shows are interesting if the people are real and if their behavior is real. “

“The Chair” was born because Peet wanted to work again with Duplass. Back in 2015, Peet was one of the stars of the HBO comedy series “Togetherness.”  Duplass, who created, wrote and directed with his brother Mark, played Peet’s boss. “I thought his acting was really of the hook and transparent. I think I sent him texts [saying]  ‘you just can’t roll into acting at age 40 and be this good.’ It’s actually infuriating, and I continue to think that.”

“I agree,” said Oh. “Jay, that’s got to be the highest compliment in the world to know that somebody wrote a part with you in mind.” “It’s insane,” quipped Duplass. “I kept telling [Peet] along the way, ‘I can’t topline a TV show. Nobody knows who I am.’ It’s insane and inappropriate that I am starring in this television show with these phenomenal human beings. But I just trusted Amanda’s instinct and her belief in me. I do feel like there was this kismet between us on ‘Togetherness” in a way we were kind of able to reinvent thing in ways that we couldn’t imagine.  I just kind of drafted off of that including going to Pittsburgh in peak COVID and risking my life to make a television.”

“And showing your butt,” added Peet . “And showing my butt in a parking lot in an airport that may or may not have been approved by TSA,” noted Duplass.

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