Sandra Oh on 'The Sympathizer' Finale and 'Grey's Anatomy'


Sandra Oh has come to realize that with great power comes great responsibility. Since wrapping up her run as Dr. Cristina Yang on the venerable ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy a decade ago, Oh has looked to champion stories that deconstruct and explore the nuances of Asian American identity.

Her latest TV project, The Sympathizer, which recently wrapped up its run on HBO, makes good on that promise. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen and co-created for television by Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, the seven-part limited series tells the story of a man known simply as The Captain (Hoa Xuande), a police captain for South Vietnam who has actually been working as an undercover agent for North Vietnam’s Communist regime for years.

After being forced to flee to the United States during the fall of Saigon, The Captain — who, as the son of a Vietnamese mother and an absentee French father, has never quite felt like he fit in anywhere — continues to spy on the surviving remnants of the South Vietnamese military for the communists back home while attempting to rebuild his life in Los Angeles, where he went to college. Oh plays Ms. Sofia Mori, a Japanese American secretary in the “Oriental Studies” department of a college resembling UCLA, with whom The Captain begins to have a sexual relationship.

As Ms. Mori and The Captain begin a steamy romance, they bond over their shared experience of feeling like outsiders. Whereas The Captain represents the perspective of an Asian refugee grappling with a sense of displacement in the West, Ms. Mori — who Oh describes as a “very liberal, modern [and] liberated” woman — represents the generations of Asian Americans who have felt a need to assimilate as an act of self-defense, so as to avoid feeling othered.

“Ms. Mori identifies at the very beginning probably a little too strongly with being an American. You see her push against even The Captain in terms of how she’s trying to identify herself outside of the refugee community,” Oh tells The Hollywood Reporter. For instance, when a racist professor calls her “exotic” in the second episode, Ms. Mori makes it a point to double down on her “Americanness” by mentioning that she was born in Gardena, California, effectively denying her Asianness in the process.

Over her five-episode arc, Ms. Mori begins to reflect on the reasons for her assimilation and, in turn, questions and reexamines her own cultural identity — but not with help from The Captain, whose life as a double agent prevents him from being completely honest with any of the people in his orbit. “As a supporting character, there are a lot of things going on off-screen. Hopefully, you can feel it, but there’s a chunk of time when The Captain is not in contact with Ms. Mori. If there was a show about Ms. Mori, you would see the fact that she wanted that connection [with The Captain], but The Captain himself is unknowable and is not willing to be known,” Oh says.

After The Captain leaves Ms. Mori high and dry in the fourth episode to work as an interpreter-slash-consultant on a film that ultimately sensationalizes the violence of the Vietnam War, Ms. Mori begins to get romantically involved with Sonny (Alan Trong), an investigative reporter for a Vietnamese American newspaper who, besides threatening to blow The Captain’s already very fragile cover, encourages Ms. Mori to look into her own history. By the time that The Captain catches up with Ms. Mori in the fifth episode and learns she has begun seeing Sonny in his absence, Ms. Mori has undergone an off-screen transformation, having developed a newfound appreciation of her cultural heritage.

As the show progresses, “Ms. Mori becomes a little bit more relaxed,” which is reflected in her hair, makeup and wardrobe, Oh explains. “At the very beginning, Ms. Mori has this kind of tough, smart-alecky, His Girl Friday feel to her, and then she grows into someone who’s just like, ‘Why am I doing that? Why am I behaving that way?’ She starts questioning it because Sonny is trying to take responsibility for his choices, which is something that The Captain absolutely cannot do.”

The complex relationships between The Captain, Ms. Mori and Sonny come to a head in the sixth episode. Under orders from his general (Toan Lee), who is concerned that Sonny could publish intel that would ruin his secret mission to take back military control of Vietnam, The Captain murders Sonny in the latter’s apartment. One could also argue that The Captain still holds a grudge against his nemesis for having an affair with the woman he loved, and those emotional reasons are the driving force for him to commit an act that he would later come to regret.

Regardless of the intent, Ms. Mori quickly pieces together The Captain’s true identity. But rather than turning him into the authorities, she gives him a fake alibi before severing all ties with him. For Oh, Ms. Mori’s final act of kindness for The Captain stems from a deep loyalty that she feels — yes, as former lovers, but more so as Asian Americans.

“I think she is very much saying, ‘I see all of you and I never want to see you again, but I am going to stay loyal [and not turn you in], because no good will come out of me saying what I know,’” Oh shares as her interpretation of Ms. Mori’s final scene. “‘No justice is going to be had if I hand you to the white police. You need to go back into your community, and you need to go away. Your community has to deal with you. The justice is going to have to come through your community. I’m not going to let the justice come from the white system; I’m going to leave your justice to your community.’”

Sonny (Alan Trong), Ms. Mori (Sandra Oh) and The Captain (Hoa Xuande) in The Sympathizer.

Hopper Stone/HBO

Equal parts spy thriller, dark comedy and political drama, The Sympathizer challenged popular Western depictions of the Vietnam War and its devastating aftermath by centering the perspectives of this story on the Vietnamese diaspora who have carried the pain and trauma of the conflict for generations.

Oh, who was approached by longtime collaborator (and compatriot) McKellar about starring in The Sympathizer, says she was most interested in using her voice to support the predominantly Vietnamese cast, many of whom had not acted professionally before and were in the process of earning their SAG-AFTRA cards. As one of the two major names acting in a supporting role on the show (the other being Robert Downey Jr., who plays four different characters that are meant to represent the American establishment), Oh took it upon herself to answer any questions her less experienced costars had about navigating a big-budget Hollywood production and made little suggestions to the producers and HBO about how to increase on-set harmony, such as putting all of the cast members’ chairs together and eating altogether in the same room.

“In some ways, [doing The Sympathizer] was a choice based on working relationships, and then it really also encapsulated or included a purposefulness of how I want to be as an actor — not only onscreen, but off,” Oh says. As someone who distinctly remembers the nerve-wracking feeling of walking onto a major set for the first time, she wanted to make herself available to be the kind of advocate and resource that she wished she had at the start of her career. “It really became something deeper for me, because I could really suddenly feel the past 30 years when I would walk on set.”

That kind of support extended beyond filming. During production, Oh urged the producers and network to hold advanced screenings of The Sympathizer in Orange County, California, which is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. “We’re still going to obviously show it everywhere, but you need to give respect,” Oh recalls telling her collaborators, who were able to put together screenings in the O.C. and San José. “I believe that if you make [Asian-led projects] the way that you make other regular white projects, it’s not going to be the same. You just can’t make stuff the same way. You’ll miss a lot, and you’ll miss the mark. You need to do much more community outreach.”

She adds, “I really, really wanted the cast to have as much shine time as possible, and that was really important. When we screened that in the O.C., a lot of people [involved in the show] said that was the theater that they grew up going to, and here they are now in a line doing a Q&A with almost all of the primary cast, and everyone gets asked a question and everyone speaks in front of the audience.”

Listening to Oh speak, one can’t help but wonder how much she’s endured in the three decades working in the business so that those after her would not have to face similar struggles. When asked if she could pinpoint a specific moment in her professional life when she found herself having the same conversations that The Captain has with Niko — the arrogant auteur, played by Downey Jr. and based on Francis Ford Coppola, who is making a film that exploits, rather than honors, the victims of the Vietnam War — Oh makes it clear she’s been fighting that kind of battle her entire career.

For Oh, the fact that the fourth episode “rides that edge between comedy and tragedy” and pokes fun but remains truthful to how those films were made is what makes it so effective as a scathing satire. “There’s something in the hilariousness [of those moments] that has transformed how awful that has always made me feel [as an Asian American],” she says. “Suddenly you can laugh at that; suddenly you can have another experience with those images, other than what has been going on for 50 years.”

From Grey’s to The Sympathizer

For a generation of Asian Americans, Oh’s portrayal of the brilliant and unapologetically driven Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy marked the first time they felt seen on television. When she left Grey’s at the end of the show’s 10th season, in May 2014, Oh admits that she wanted to create a bit of distance between herself and Cristina. For four years, she waited to take on her next role — an experience that she once likened, in a THR roundtable, to falling in love. It wasn’t until she read and landed the role of Eve Polastri on Killing Eve that she felt she could give “another big chunk of myself” to another character.

Now, Oh speaks of the past characters she has played almost like an old friend that she doesn’t talk to anymore — they may no longer be in contact, but she still has fond memories of their time together. She speaks diplomatically about not wanting to choose one character over the other, and being able to hold all of those disparate women at the same time (“I just hope you enjoy the work”), but she still holds affection for the role that cemented her place in pop culture. “I would not be here if it weren’t for [Cristina], but she also just didn’t happen. I made her,” she says with a hearty laugh. (Oh and Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes have both spoken separately in the past about how Oh, determined to make sense of her character’s actions and motivations, would repeatedly “fight” for Cristina in production meetings.)

Oh has reiterated, on numerous occasions, that she has no desire to reprise her role on Grey’s. (On a recent red carpet, in response to the dreaded question, she confirmed that she does not plan to return “anytime soon.”) In fact, she has now been off the medical drama longer than she was on it. But how does she feel now about the role that has kept her part of the cultural zeitgeist?

“I love that people still love Cristina. When there is a 15-year-old girl — and she wasn’t even born [when Grey’s premiered in 2005] — who then comes to me and is like, ‘I’m in medical school because of Cristina,’ I love it,” says Oh. “I never, ever forget how important Cristina is. I never do because those 15-year-old girls find me, and now 10 years on, I have much more appreciation for their appreciation.”

While she explored nearly every facet of Cristina’s personal and professional life in 10 seasons, Rhimes decided that the character’s race was not going to be a topic of discussion — a decision that Oh has acknowledged was simply reflective of that era. Now, instead of simply being visible onscreen as an Asian American, Oh is interested in exploring the racial identity of her characters — whether that’s explicitly written into the scripts or an additional layer that comes with her inhabiting a role.

Take The Sympathizer, for example: “Here’s a story that has been told for its entire existence from one point of view, which is a white Western patriarchal point of view,” she says, “so questioning who carries that history and being a part of a project that questions that history and also presents another history — I want to be a part of a story like that.”

She continues, “I’d be curious to know what [making The Sympathizer] has been like for our Vietnamese cast, particularly those who are a little bit older, who have maybe much more of a personal understanding and experience with the war. I know for a couple of them, it’s been a real healing and transformative experience. And what better thing to do than to be a part of that?”

All episodes of The Sympathizer are now streaming on Max.



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