The team behind the BBC America series “Killing Eve,” which debuted earlier this year to glowing reviews, has much to celebrate: The series earned two Emmy nominations Thursday, one for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, for outstanding writing for a drama series, and another for its star, Sandra Oh. For her role as Eve Polastri, an M15 officer who becomes obsessed with a merciless hit woman, Ms. Oh, who was born in Canada to Korean parents, is believed to have made history as the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for best lead actress in a drama series.
On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Oh spoke about her groundbreaking nomination and her feelings about the possibilities for more diverse representation in Hollywood. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It’s wild to imagine that, in 2018, we’re announcing you as the first Asian woman nominated in your category.
You want to know what? Let’s celebrate it, man. I’m serious, just [expletive] celebrate it. It’s like, we’ve got to start somewhere, we’ve got to start somewhere. And I’m happy to get that ball rolling, because what I hope happens is that next year and the next year and the next year, we will have presence. And the presence will grow not only to Asian-Americans, you know, from yellow to brown, but to all our other sisters and brothers, you know, our First Nations sisters and brothers. Our sisters and brothers of different sizes and different shapes. If I can be a part of that change, like [expletive] yeah, let’s celebrate it.
The subject of representation is everywhere now in film and TV, but do you feel that the tide is really changing? Or are you more along the lines of being cautiously optimistic?
I want to try and find another word for “cautiously optimistic” because having been in this business for my entire [expletive] life now, I know and I realize that change is slow, right? Again, let’s try to celebrate it. And to be patient, maybe that’s it — to be patient and to be relentless about making the change happen. We can say the same thing for any kind of representation. It’s still slow.
I mean, women [laughs] — can we talk about women for a second? The change is slow, but let’s just continue pressing on with the change. I’m not going to say that the tide has changed, no. But what I do feel is that people are more open. And what I mean by people — I think people who have been in power, which have mostly been white men, and people who are white, they listen now. They not only listen and are open, they make the effort for change. I do feel that has changed. I can feel it now because of the way I can push: ‘Hey, what about this? Hey, what about that?’ Trust me, I’m relentless.
Your role on “Killing Eve” seems like an example of the tide’s changing. Do you see other things happening behind the scenes in terms of that openness you’re feeling?
It’s slow, but it’s building. What I’m waiting for us to see, in a much more significant way, is the difference between its being open and its actually growing. Let’s say, something for the Asian-American community: It’s not that there’s just suddenly jobs available, right? We’re talking from the beginning, where people are being trained — that people are able to let go of being a doctor and a lawyer and feel free to want to be an artist, you know what I mean? It’s not only in Hollywood, it’s within our own community, to be able to see that there is a place for us, and for us to step into that place. In some ways, it’s difficult to step into that place if we don’t feel that there is a place for us. So the opening of opportunity has to not only be there, but be there in a much more muscular way.
And it’s also moving into the places of complex storytelling. It’s growing the depth of who we see ourselves to be, and who we see ourselves as — and that it’s not just one type of face or one gender.
You’ve been nominated five times before this for your performance on “Grey’s Anatomy” but that was for best supporting actress. What has it been like for you to finally no longer be the best friend or the side character?
I take it extremely seriously to do absolutely the best work possible, and the truest work possible, because I feel like that is what’s going to resonate not only for myself but hopefully for an audience. And there just aren’t yet a lot of varieties of images that my community can pull from.
It’s not my primary focus: My primary focus is to be the truest artist I can be, that’s it. Right? But I am absolutely aware of the significance and take it very seriously because we need it. Not only just for my community — and hopefully what that means to be represented and seen — but also for culture. We’re a part of it. Let us not only see ourselves, but let others see us.
Do you have a favorite moment that resonated with you while exploring your character, something you discovered about her that really delighted and surprised you?
Yes. In Episode 5, which is my favorite episode, right before she meets Villanelle [the hit woman, played by Jodie Comer], you find Eve at a bus stop. And honestly, my favorite things to play are Eve’s private moments, because she is not so aware of herself, and that’s always so juicy to play as an actor. And she is at this bus stop and she sees the window, there’s a crack in the window, and for some reason she just wants to smush it, and she does. At one point they pulled that scene out, and I was like, No, you’ve got to put that scene back in, because she’s about to come face to face with Villanelle. She needs to break through something. That was one of my favorite scenes to play.
Season 1 ended on such a highly intense note. Where do you see the show, and your character, going from there in Season 2?
I want them to find each other again … I do have the sneaking suspicion that Eve is going to continually be wrestling with her own soul as she explores darker parts of herself, and parts she really needs to explore.