Actress Sandra Oh, best known for her role as Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” recently opened up about how racism in Hollywood has affected her life.
Oh, who is starring in BBC America’s new drama series “Killing Eve,” spoke to Vulture about a revelation she had when she was first talking with her agent, Nancy, about the show. Oh said she suddenly realized just how much she’d “internalized” the industry’s racism.
“I was quickly scrolling down the script, and I can’t really tell you what I was looking for. So I’m like, ‘So, Nancy, I don’t understand, what’s the part?’” the Korean-Canadian actress recalled in a Vulture article posted this week. “And Nancy goes, ‘Sweetheart, it’s Eve, it’s Eve.’ 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?”
She’d instinctively assumed that she wasn’t being considered for a lead role, Oh explained. And she noted that Hollywood’s treatment of people of color had certainly contributed to her mindset.
“I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why?” she told Vulture. “After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, ‘Oh my God! They brainwashed me!’ I was brainwashed!”
“Killing Eve” marks the first time that the actress has been cast in a lead role on a major television series. But Oh was widely regarded as a pioneer even before the new program for her time on “Grey’s Anatomy.” She was one of the only regular Asian cast members on U.S. television and even received a Golden Globe award for her performance. The significance of that role to those of Asian descent isn’t lost on Oh, either.
“Young Asian people who come up to me have a certain vibration, and I receive it, and I understand it, and I feel emotional just talking about it,” Oh told Vanity Fair this month. “I’m here for you. And I’ll continue doing everything I can to fill something that I know you need right now, that we don’t yet have as a community.”
Against the backdrop of the current entertainment landscape, Oh’s achievements are particularly impressive. A study of diversity in Hollywood found that barely more than 3 percent of film roles in 2016 went to Asian actors, compared with the more than 78 percent that went to white actors. In broadcast scripted shows, 5 percent of the roles during the 2015-2016 season went to Asian actors, whereas 66 percent went to white actors. The numbers are even bleaker when examining roles in cable scripted shows.
What’s more, another recent study of Asian representation in U.S. television found that the majority of shows still fail to feature a single Asian-American or Pacific Islander at all in the main cast. And those who do make it on the small screen are often the token AAPI character.