Film Forward

The Heartbreaking Reason Why Ex-‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Star Thought She’d Never Get A Lead Role

"Oh my god! They brainwashed me!"

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

For Sandra Oh, finding success has been a 30-year journey. Despite the fact that she spent 10 years on Grey's Anatomy as Cristina Yang — a role that earned her a Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations — life after Shondaland hasn't been as prosperous as you might think.

Now, though, Oh is playing the titular role on BBC America's Killing Eve, from Crashing and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In an interview with Vulture, Oh talks about the fact that it took her a long time to find the perfect project and about being able to say no to things she didn't want to do. That said, Oh also acknowledged that "racism exists" and that being a Korean-Canadian came with its own set of battles to fight in the entertainment industry.

"I felt it, and I have felt it deeply," Oh explained, expanding on that unfairness. "And I'm extremely fortunate. So I'm not going to not say that it's not there, because it is."

The 46-year-old actress recalled that, upon first getting the script for Killing Eve, she admitted to her agent that she didn't know what part they wanted her for. That's when her agent said she was going for the lead role of Eve Porowski, an MI5 agent who becomes obsessed with finding an assassin named Villanelle. This took Oh somewhat by surprise.

"In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve. I think about that moment a lot. Of just going, how deep have I internalized this? [So] many years of being seen [a certain way], it deeply, deeply, deeply affects us. It's like, how does racism define your work?" Oh told Vulture's E. Alex Jung. "Oh my goodness, I didn't even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why? And this is me talking, right? After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, 'Oh my god! They brainwashed me!' I was brainwashed! So that was a revelation to me."

The feeling Oh describes is likely one that many people of Asian heritage experience in the Western world. According to UCLA's Hollywood Diversity Report 2018, the share of film roles that went to people of Asian heritage in the top movies of 2016 was just 3.1 percent. When it comes to TV shows from the 2015-2016 season, the study found that people of Asian heritage were represented in 5 percent of roles on broadcast scripted shows and 2.6 percent on cable scripted shows. And this is just representation in front of the camera — don't get us started on what it looks like behind the scenes.

For every Crazy Rich Asians, an upcoming film adaptation of Kevin Kwan's 2013 novel with a cast consisting of all people of Asian heritage that's out August 17, there are films with no people of Asian heritage to be seen. Or, worse yet, there is whitewashing or Asian erasure. And, on TV, for every Fresh Off the Boat there is a show with no presence of actors of Asian heritage at all. These are exceptions to the rule. This is why, as Oh explained, 1993's Joy Luck Club was so meaningful.

"And we haven't even scratched the surface of how deeply we need to see ourselves represented. And how it's not just leaving the images to the outside voices. It's finding it within ourselves. I've been thinking about us and our community a lot. How do people understand us more? How do we connect? Something I feel we need to explore more in our own communities, ourselves, is to know who we are," Oh added. "But it's changing the mindset that being an actor of color, person of color, that you're at a disadvantage in the creative life. That you don't have opportunity. It's all how you see the opportunity. And the clearer and deeper you get into what you really want, you just become a better artist."

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