Sandra Oh doesn’t have much down time. The Screen Actors Guild award-winning and Golden Globe award-winning Canadian actress is starring in two series back-to-back. After the third season of the hit BBC show Killing Eve premiered in April 2020, she jumped into an entirely different role playing English professor Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim at a prestigious New England university in The Chair (which streams August 20 on Netflix). The series was supposed to shoot in 2020 but production was pushed to this year due to Covid-19. The series follows Dr. Ji-Yoon as she navigates her new role as the chair of the illustrious English department at Pembroke University. The poetry professor is faced with a new set of challenges like diversity, politics and tenure within academia. Plus, her relationship with her adopted daughter and her romantic dalliance with friend and fellow professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) complicates matters.
For this project, creator, producer and writer duo Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman brought on Daniel Gray Longino (Pen15) to direct the six entertaining and funny episodes. We spoke with Sandra Oh from London, where she’s shooting the fourth and final season of the Emmy-nominated Killing Eve, about her own experiences in academia and shooting two, very different, series back to back.
Where did you film The Chair?
We filmed the show in Pittsburgh at several colleges in 2021. Pittsburgh has a lot of colleges and we were able to get the locations that were not being used due to Covid-19.
How did having Amanda Peet, an actor herself, as a writer and creator inform this experience?
Dan and Amanda really worked well in tandem together. It was like having a positive mother and father parenting the crew together. Amanda is so smart and has great language and instincts. She really understands what it is to be an actor. Her ability to translate her thoughts about a scene or a direction are so clear. Dan also has great language. I like to work closely with a showrunner or creator because that’s where collaboration happens. This was a very collaborative set. It needed to be because there was so much pressure and so many challenges shooting this during the pandemic. It was definitely ‘the best idea wins.’ Everyone was all hands on deck.
You’ve been able to do two television shows back to back, something you couldn’t do when you were starring in a network show like Grey’s Anatomy. Do you have more free time now to do multiple projects?
It’s nice to report that I have no free time at all. But also underneath your question is how we make television now and that has shifted. Ten years ago, you would not have been able to do a television show and then another television show. But now we’re in a different time, there’s so much more freedom. You can do multiple things. It keeps you busy.
What was your own academic experience like?
I don’t really have an academic experience. I kind of have that as a badge of honor. I went to the National Theatre School in Canada. That’s my only secondary education. It’s great to be a poser in that world though.
What’s more political, academia or Hollywood?
That’s a really good question. I mean, who knows. I can’t personally comment on academia aside from now playing in that world, but trying to make change in an institution that is very old and very established is very slow and very difficult. The point of view and approach to change has to be different and has to be forged through a very individual and honest take. The wins and the losses become less white or black. It’s really about connection. You hold seeing Ji-Yoon actually teach until the very end. You see her in her element and why she loves what she does. I connected to that deeply. Ji-Yoon loves being a teacher. She loves the relationship of sharing this passion with students that is a defining part of her identity.