Sydney, 2022-03-16 15:11:42. Sandra Oh In Fighting ‘Internal Racism’ To Embrace Career Success, She Tells Asian Stories
TORONTO — If you ask Sandra Oh, the Pixar spotlight highlighting the emotional turmoil of a Chinese-Canadian girl entering puberty in Turning Red is a turning point — not just for Hollywood and its growing platform for underrepresented stories, but for her own career.
“I am so happy to be part of the Pixar family unit,” says a smiling Oh on a recent video call from Toronto before attending the Canadian premiere of the film.
Part of her happiness, she says, is that “turning red” is a sign of change, and that makes it a “point of celebration.”
She plays Ming, an incredibly loving but equally protective mother who is overprotective of 13-year-old Mei.
For the Ottawa-born actress, Ming needed to be culturally accurate, without any whiff of stereotype. She was eager to stray from the dominant Asian “mother of the tiger” figure.
“Ming is a complete personality,” Oh says. “My experience with my mother is not very similar to Ming, who can be seen as being overprotective and embarrassing her daughter really intensely. My mother was a very demanding person in other ways.
“But for me, as I have always tried throughout my career, to bring a complete humanity to each character, it is the truth, authenticity, and feeling behind the character that will resonate with the audience no matter what the situation. That is what is always most important.”
Toronto-born filmmaker Dom Shi says the commitment to authenticity is why she believes “no one else can play Ming,” and calls her the “Queen” of the group.
“We knew we needed an actress who had a big cast, who could play a character that was sharp and fierce, and also funny, warm, loving, cliched and a little bit crazy,” Shi says.
“But also who could set up all of that in such a way that the audience really sympathized with her and it could have just been Sandra. She added so much depth.”
Oh is only recently recognizing her skills in such complex roles, not to mention the fact that Hollywood has taken notice as well. When she was offered a role in the BBC/Bravo series Killing Eve, she said she couldn’t conclude which character they wanted her for.
That was fine after spending nearly a decade playing Dr. And then, she explained, Oh, a few job offers came their way.
So when it came to “Killing Eve,” Oh automatically assumed she wasn’t considered for the stubborn starring role – a role that would give her a second Golden Globe – citing an internal bias she had to work hard to undo.
“It’s complicated,” Oh explains. “That moment of inner racism, I don’t take it all the time. What I think has been important in the last couple of years, where so many people have come to the fore with the demand for racial justice and racial accountability, is you have to take a look at what’s going on inside of you.”
Even after being so successful on screen, Oh says it wasn’t easy to face these issues.
“For me, this thought was unconscious, even though I’ve spent most of my career trying to get rid of it. That’s how deep it goes.”
As the final season of “Killing Eve” draws to a close in April, Oh continues to take the lead: In the 2021 Netflix series “The Chair,” she stars as the first woman of color to head the university’s English department, and in the upcoming horror film “A Nation” of Produced by Sam Raimi, she plays a Korean-American mother who fears her mother is stalking her.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pioneer,[but]we need to keep all of these things at the same time — I can’t see myself because of internal racism and patriarchy and all the things that we all have a spell on,” she says.
“What makes me happy is that I am now really able to experience a career worthy of work being thrown into the world. I’m just starting to feel really grateful about it.”
It also helps that Oh has been instrumental in shaping her characters’ stories and lending her own Korean background, as executive producer on “Killing Eve”, “The Chair” and “Umma”.
Even with the latter, a psychological thriller, Oh was thrilled to see its own heritage and all its cultural intricacies given a big-budget platform.
“It’s a pity, because this is a Pixar movie where I play a very attentive, loving mother who does her best, and then Umma is a horror movie about a mother who probably isn’t doing her best,” Oh says with a laugh.
But she adds, “They have a similarity. You talk about the intergenerational trauma, the trauma of migration; those were the things we were trying to explore and that’s rare.”
It all goes back to the 2018 Emmy Awards when Oh was the first Asian woman to be nominated for a Leading Actress award. Although she didn’t win, she made a statement that evening that would splash across the shirts: “It’s an honor to be just Asian.”
Although Toronto’s “Turning Red” group manages to connect multiple cultural touchpoints with Oh, it rejects the idea that it has come full circle.
“I wouldn’t use the circle metaphor because it’s closing,” she says, forming a wave with her hands.
“I feel like my career is more of a wavy line. I hope you keep moving up and out.”
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on March 16, 2022.
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