Why Sandra Oh Is Stepping Outside the Box for Spy Thriller 'Killing Eve' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Sandra Oh is on the hunt.
In the BBC America spy thriller Killing Eve, from executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and based on the Villanelle novels by Luke Jennings, Oh plays Eve Polastri, a bored, desk-bound MI-5 officer who becomes entrenched in the high-stakes world of a brilliant psychopathic assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer) -- the latest killer she's been ordered to bring down. As their cat-and-mouse game intensifies, Eve's obsession with Villanelle reaches dangerous proportions.
“At the beginning, you see Eve in a fairly insecure light -- and not very confident -- and we’ll see her grow from there," Oh tells ET, sharing traits of Eve's that she's particularly fond of: "She is quite unconscious and it’s always fun to play someone who doesn’t know why they’re really doing something because you’re constantly in the mystery. I try to live my life as consciously [and] as awake as possible, so it’s great to play someone who isn’t. And as the eight-part series continues on, you’ll see my character and [Villanelle] make a lot of mistakes, go off the rails, and get swept up and taken by the energy that is driving these two characters closer together.”
As the series progresses, Eve's infatuation with Villanelle grows to unhealthy levels, the ruthlessness with which the young killer operates under an addiction Eve grows increasingly desperate to unpack and solve. One major contributor, Oh notes, is the void Eve feels in the mundanity of her life -- both professionally and personally.
“Eve doesn’t know what is driving Villanelle and I think it’d be interesting for every woman, particularly playing this middle-aged character who is a spy with a handbag, to ask: 'What is driving you towards coming into contact with a young, youthful, beautiful, strong killer?'" the Grey's Anatomy alum says. "Villanelle definitely holds elements and characteristics that Eve very much needs in her own life.”
Though the first two episodes barely scratch the surface in answering Villanelle's modus operandi, Oh promises that the picture becomes much clearer as to the ultimate endgame when Villanelle's complex history gradually reveals itself. “We will eventually get into Villanelle’s past," the 46-year-old actress hints. "It’s always interesting to ask what drives characters. What drives us?”
Oh shared that one of the key reasons she signed on for Killing Eve was Waller-Bridge's depiction of two fiercely intelligent women at the center of a spy story. As one of a handful of visible Asian actors working in film and television, Oh was candid about the importance in making sure that she played her part in showing that people who look like her are capable of subverting stereotypes.
"I feel acutely aware of how important it is and I absolutely want to be a part of it in the best way possible. The best way possible that I know how is to find the most interesting material and to do my best work for it. It’s too important to not care about it or to not try and be out of the box in some sort of way," Oh says, adding that Killing Eve is very much a female-run series. "The central voice of the show is a woman. The lead characters are women. The people producing are women. There is still a lot more work to do in diversity in front and behind the camera, but to be actively involved in creating something... Where can I go and see myself in some way?”
Oh added that she hopes the Asian community continues to be proactive about getting their voices and stories out into the world (a la the upcoming big-screen Crazy Rich Asians adaptation and TV's Fresh Off the Boat), revealing why she's more comfortable navigating this through creative avenues with roles like Killing Eve rather than politically.
“Definitely understanding deeply that it’s not enough and to encourage our own community to find its own voice in its own way, that’s one thing that I feel we have not found our own footing yet because it has to be from us, uniquely in us, and there’s a lot to explore in that because Asians are very, very diverse," Oh says. "Having been actively working in this space, where there has not been much representation at all and being some of the only visible faces, and I feel like this is the only way that it works for me, I only look at it creatively. Any other way just isn’t right for me."
As for Killing Eve, it's a roller-coaster ride of nerves, tension and unexpected twists.
“I hope people enjoy it," Oh says. "The way Phoebe takes the piss out of the thriller style and the stereotypes of who’s usually in these lead parts, it’s dynamite.”
Killing Eve premieres Sunday, April 8 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.