Despite a long and varied award-winning career, Canadian/South Korean actress Sandra Oh says her Asian American character in Netflix’s new series, “The Chair,” is the closest role to herself she has ever played.
The series, which bows Aug. 20 from showrunner/actress Amanda Peet, features Oh’s character Ji-Yoon, who becomes the first woman of color to become chair of the English department at a fictional New England university. In her new position, Ji-Yoon tries to meet the dizzying demands and high expectations of a failing English department.
Netflix interviewed Oh and Peet about the series and the collaboration process and the pressures of playing a woman in charge.
How did the concept for “The Chair” originate?
Peet: “For a while [producer] Jay Duplass and I were batting around a movie idea about a widower who was becoming an empty nester. And that led to this idea of a female boss whose employee does something transgressive. What would happen if she were in a very long standing, intimate relationship with this person and thought he was — deep inside — a very good person and a person with a sound moral compass. What would that be like? Those two ideas sort of got mushed together and that’s when I started writing.”
How did Sandra get involved?
Peet: “I saw her in the play Stop Kiss at the Public Theatre in 1998. I was like, who the fuck is that? ‘Cause she lit up my world. And then we briefly worked together and then I wrote this part and I thought “What actress who’s in her forties, is really sexy and playful, can do a pratfall, is really funny, and also can do a romance — like has that ability to have that longing — and then can pass as someone who has a Ph.D?”
Oh: “I passed!”
Peet: “It was a tall order, but once I got her in my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about her for it.”
Oh: “It was fully formed. I could feel the world and mostly I could feel her voice in it and what I feel like she was driving at, hidden inside a comedic tone. But that’s also the layered nature of the writing.”
Sandra, you mentioned that when you received the script it was the first time seeing an authentically Korean name in there. How did you react when you saw the cultural specificity?
Oh: “When I saw the name in the pilot, it was one of the first things that just lit up something inside, actually seeing a Korean woman’s name on the page. And that that would be my character’s name and all the characters around it would have to say my name correctly, and that was just a beautiful, sparkly gem that made me go, huh. It meant a lot to me.”
Sandra, you also serve as an executive producer. What was your collaboration with Amanda like?
Oh: “I love that nothing was too precious. We would definitely have discussions about stuff, but it wasn’t what the show is about. It’s about what the character is going through. The character is trying to make a bridge between her father who speaks Korean and her daughter who speaks English. So any kind of specificity is not about getting it right, let’s say, for a Korean-American audience at all, it’s about getting it right for the characters and this family specifically.”
Peet: “We both wanted to explore how exhausting it can be to, first of all, be a woman in a supervising role, but also to be a person of color on top of that. You have to do your job, then you also have to navigate all of this subliminal shit that goes on because you represent a change in culture. When you are a woman of color you’re constantly being put to the test in covert ways (and blatantly) — white men don’t experience this added pressure when they are ascending the ranks of their professions.”
Amanda, what was it like collaborating with Sandra as both actress and executive producer?
Peet: “She might as well be a writer because her notes are spot-on and her attention to story is so rigorous, that I really feel like she should try it at some point. She’s an extraordinary actress, but then also she’s very good at story.”