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Sandra Oh Goes to the Head of the Class in 'The Chair'

The award-winning actress shares the pain of anti-Asian bigotry and why her new show is arriving at just the right time

spinner image Sandra Oh stars in the Netflix series The Chair
Sandra Oh stars as Ji-Yoon Kim in "The Chair."
Eliza Morse/Netflix

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.

spinner image Sandra Oh attends the 33nd Annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert and Gala
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Tibet House

Oh Fast Facts

Age: 50

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.”

The best way to turn 50

I’m the type of person who has a birthday month and will tell everyone, “My birthday’s coming up.” [She turned 50 last month]. I’ve been saying that I’m 50 for a couple years. It’s something I wanted to get used to. I wanted to say, “My television age is younger, my acting character is a little bit younger.”

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The gift of turning 50

I’m extremely grateful to be in the midlife part of my life — being well into our lives and our careers — because you have a certain amount of agency, a certain amount of power and a certain amount of understanding what the deal is. You have an inner resilience. You realize, as we mature, there’s less and less that you can control. The only thing is, “Can I freak out differently?”

The gifts of a slowly returning world

I went to a play the other day and that was amazing. It was maybe about a third full, but it was wonderful. I have not gone back to the cinema, but at least I’ve gone back to the theater.

Lockdown souvenir she might keep

I do like working from home. Animation was very much still alive during COVID, which is the safest thing to do because you just go into a booth and don’t deal with anyone. I did a couple of sessions in a home recording booth Pixar sent me [for Turning Red, due in spring 2022]. For another animated film, [Disney’s 2021] Raya and The Last Dragon, I did some press [on Zoom], and it was the only time I ever met the other cast members. Everyone was in a different city and in many different countries. It was amazing.

And yet ...

When it comes to creating things, you really need to be with your fellow creators. You need to have that time and that proximity. Eventually it really needs to be in the same room.

Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.

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