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Sandra Oh is not just going to college, she’s practically running the joint. That’s because the award-winning actress (Sideways, Grey’s Anatomy, Killing Eve) who never matriculated in real life now helms the English department at fictional Pembroke University in the new Netflix original series The Chair (streaming Aug. 20). Oh took a moment to share with AARP why she thinks The Chair really resonates right now, how she personally deals with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and why she’d been telling people she turned 50 several years before she actually did.
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Handling the irony of roles versus real life
I think my parents knew that none of their children was going to be a doctor, so I just had to play one [Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy]. And among the cast of The Chair, I can proudly say I’m the only one who never went to college. Everyone is highly educated except for the person playing the chair of the department.
Oh Fast Facts
Birthplace: Nepean, Canada.
Greatest hits: Grey's Anatomy, Sideways, Killing Eve, Under the Tuscan Sun, Arli$$
Early breakout hits still among her best work: 1994's The Diary of Evelyn Lau and Double Happiness
Language fluency: Korean, English, French, Spanish
Award winner: 12 Emmy nominations (for Grey's Anatomy, Killing Eve, hosting SNL and The Golden Globe Awards); 4 SAG awards; 2 Critics Choice awards; 2 Golden Globes; 2 Genie Awards (Canadian Oscar equivalent)
Lessons from a dark pandemic
I do feel like we are emerging from a very challenging tunnel. It was so intense. There’s this saying in the British world: “Practice like your hair’s on fire.” I feel very much like that. It’s so important to live well. I’m not talking about taking care of just yourself. Hopefully [that’s true] for everyone.
Surprising gifts of a dark pandemic
We taped right in the middle [of COVID] during January, February and March in Pittsburgh. It was pretty intense. Even though it was extremely challenging during COVID, it was so fulfilling in a lot of ways. The pandemic made for a common challenge. We are all having to deal with the same thing and having to ignore that while trying to do our jobs to the best of our ability. There’s something about it that brought the whole company together.
Finding common cause in tragedy
The massage parlor shootings in Atlanta happened while we were filming. I remember waking up on Saturday and thinking there has got to be a rally somewhere. First I invited just the Asian crew members. Then I was like, “Why don’t I open this up to ...” It was tricky, though, to invite your crew to a rally where there’s going to be a bunch of people in the middle of a pandemic. But I invited the crew if they wanted to come join, and many of them did. I felt so good about that. It was good for us to be together. It was good for them to see our crew members, some who are Asian. Several of us spoke at the rally.
Handling racism and bigotry as a person of color
The way that I deal with it is deeply in my work, which has to do with all these subjects. [In The Chair, Oh plays the first woman and the first woman of color to run the English department.] That’s the whole practice of it; that’s my statement to what’s going on. When people say, “What are my thoughts?” I say, “Here just watch this.”