Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve,” “The Chair”) and Jung Ho-yeon (“Squid Game”) quickly team up in our photo shoot for Variety‘s “Actors on Actors” presented by Apple TV+. They went viral on the internet in February when Oh congratulated Ho-yeon on winning the best performance by an actress at the SAG Awards, posing for selfies with the cast of Netflix’s “Squid Game.” But this feels more intimate. Or, as Oh puts it to Ho-yeon, who started out as a model: “Immediately we’re so close; immediately, you sat on my lap.” By the end of the conversation, the two are making dinner plans so they can continue talking off-camera.
In between, they discuss how the representation of Asian people has changed in popular culture since Oh played Dr. Cristina Yang in “Grey’s Anatomy”, and the importance of taking care of yourself – especially as Ho-yeon navigates global fandom for the heroic defector Kang Sae-byeok of “Squid Game”. With “Killing Eve,” another TV series that captivated viewers around the world, ending after four seasons, Oh talks about how she went to say goodbye to her spy character.
SANDRA OH: I think we both feel like being here together, having this conversation and being filmed together is very special – and I’m curious about your point of view. This is a real change for us as Korean Americans, and I’ve always been interested in the native Korean perspective. How do you see us as Korean Americans?
JUNG HOYEON: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because when I came to the United States to campaign for the “Squid Game,” I met a lot of Asian Americans who said, “Oh, thank you for representing us. Oh, we are so proud of you.” At first, I was just happy. But I also think about “I came from Korea, I lived in Korea most of my life – can I represent them?”
OH: I’ve thought about it a lot for you too, and I just want to take it away from you. Because it’s a big responsibility that feels familiar to me. The other day, I was driving. On Sunset Boulevard, it’s like you’re taking down American capitalism, and you see what Hollywood or American capitalism is showing that we should follow, what we should buy. And you are there. You’re on the side of a building – like, “Oh, there’s my girl.” But I will also say that there were probably two more billboards where there is another Asian model and another model, I think maybe she is mixed race. I don’t know how many times I’ve driven Sunset Boulevard – like, a billion. And I don’t think I would have seen this four years ago.
HO-YEON: Four years ago?
OH: I’ve only been speaking for four years, because I’ve had this question, I think, my entire career, which is, “How much do you think things have changed for Asian Americans?” I just say for maybe 2019 that I feel for us as Asian Americans that things have changed. So I understand this doubt you have. You are a very important part of image creation for Asian Americans. I think change, openness and growth are coming. So while I want to thank you for that, because I do, I also want to relieve you of any kind of – it’s impossible to relieve you of pressure – but I want to somehow relieve you of pressure for that.
HO-YEON: I’m trying, but all I can do is keep trying not to overthink that responsibility, but also worry about that responsibility — like, try to balance it out. Things go so fast for me because it was just my first project. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to be an actor,” and then I auditioned and then I got it. Suddenly, Ho-yeon, you are here!
OH: An international superstar.
HO-YEON: And then people recognize me, and even you. I was a kid in Korea, and “Grey’s Anatomy” was a big thing in Korea because of you, and you’re an icon of ours. So when I met you at the SAG Awards, you know me, and it was like, “Wow.” Everything I’m saying or where I’m going, it’s like people are starting to…
OH: Pay attention.
HO-YEON: Yes, and I never care about so many people’s opinions of my life. I don’t even want to hear my mother’s opinion.
OH: But this is different. That’s totally different. There’s the internet, and then there’s your mother. It’s very difficult what you’re doing and it’s very isolating because a lot of people don’t understand your experience. So how have you felt so far that you are staying healthy, balanced?
HO-YEON: I ask a lot of questions for more experienced people like director Hwang [Dong-hyuk] from “Jogo da Lula”, … [Lee] Jung Jae and [Park] Hae-soo, like the people around me. It’s good to share thoughts. You’ve been in this industry for –
OH: For a long time. The thing that I think is the closest is when “Grey’s Anatomy” came out – my life changed a lot. And it’s hard to imagine, because that was almost 20 years ago, so the context is very different, but the stress is the same – or the confusion is the same. And I think that’s why my question to you is, how are you taking care of yourself? Because I honestly feel like I got sick. I think my whole body was really, really sick. Even if you keep working, right?
OH: It’s like, “Oh, I can’t sleep. Oh, my back hurts. I don’t know what’s wrong with my skin.” I learned that I had to take care of my health first. But that’s not just your body, right? This is your soul. That’s definitely your mind. Do you know what I mean? Because you can’t depend on anyone else. You have to somehow find it within yourself.
HO-YEON: Two weeks ago, I went back to Korea and took a break for just one week. And I didn’t respond to emails about people’s schedules and contact. Because before I went back to Korea, I was in London, and then I got sick, literally.
OH: Very ill.
HO-YEON: So sick, my body. At that moment you realize that “Oh. Maybe that was too much.” I think I try all the time to be me, healthy, but it’s not going to be easy, and I’m still going to make mistakes. I’m struggling but trying.
OH: I imagine you are in a very high state of demand. Our job is not just to photograph; this is a very pleasant part of our job. We can sit and talk, but this is a full day’s work. And it’s a certain kind of outlet that might be wearing thin. And now, as I get deeper into my career, the more time I realize I have to spend on my creative self: this could be sleeping, this could be walking in the woods, this could be meditating, this could be actually going to class, this could be all these things. Because I realize that this part sustains all the – almost the immediacy, the ability to be present. As I think almost everyone has seen, “Squid Game” is about ultimate survival, so within that, there’s a lot of violence. I’m curious to know how director Hwang led the company of actors. How did he lead, as a director, how to appropriate these situations? Did you shoot mostly in order?
HO-YEON: Mostly in order, yes. Especially the games, so we can get a sense of where we have to go. And then just the fact that he never let us act like actors – he was always thinking about our character, every character. Maybe we were making too many jokes about it. So we don’t feel so intense. We were happier for being intense, I think.
OH: Glad to be intense. That’s great.
HO-YEON: Maybe it’s weird to say this, but while I’m filming my death scene, I was so happy. It was the most comfortable scene I’ve ever had. It’s because I’ve been living with my character for a few months, and then there’s a point where I have to let her go, and I kind of feel like I can happily let her go, because I can understand. Maybe not fully, but I’m the one who understands her the most in this world, so I know her stress, and I know what her life was like. [such a] fight and hard. So it wasn’t too bad or sad.
oh: When you really express the truth of a character, even when you’re saying goodbye, it’s very satisfying.
HO-YEON: “Killing Eve,” you’ve been filming for four years, right? How was your experience?
OH: “Killing Eve” was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, because I felt like so much of the whole show is about Eve’s inner life, at least. One really great thing about television is that you’re creating it, or you’re creating them, in real time. So I really felt happy to have seen an image of me as Eve since season one, and I saw an image of Eve in season four, and I felt like they looked like two different people. Because people change. People can change. This character has changed. So I felt, ultimately, emotionally, for Eve to start like “I have a normal life, I’m basically happy,” but in the end, she’s lost everything — but in survival she’s gained more of herself as a whole woman. It’s a play about the female psyche. And within that: how does one really grow and expand as a woman? That’s why her relationship with Villanelle is so transformative, but also difficult. Sae-byeok starts very closed. The way she opens up a little bit is authentic. We see how she has it, because she trusted this character, because she knows you have that responsibility, but that’s not easy to do. I found it very challenging in “Killing Eve”. And satisfying, because I felt what I put in was real, at least I hope.
HO-YEON: I kind of agree 100% with that. While I’m studying acting, the complexity of a human being isn’t just an answer. But sometimes we’re not just like – we can’t say that person is that. What I admire about his acting is all kinds of scenes, his face has this complexity. You don’t build just one thing.
OH: It’s our job to be able to choose right now. And for me, myself as Eve, it’s like when you have a character that I’ve been able to develop for four seasons — I’ve thought a lot, absolutely, about what I want that ending to mean.
HO-YEON: And what was it like?
OH: I still go to this question. So what’s the meaning?
HO-YEON: I talked about this recently with Hae-soo, who played Sang-woo in “Squid Game”. So when we’re filming, we’re trying to plan our character. But while we’re filming, we don’t get to know 100% of this character or this situation. But after the TV show came out, we watched it and got people’s reaction — and then we rearranged it.
OH: I really agree. When you start getting questions about “What is this, what is that?” I think, honestly, sometimes it’s the first time I start thinking, “What did I mean?”
HO-YEON: I want to ask you something. You build the relationship with the other actor’s character with “Killing Eve” and also “The Chair.” So how do you communicate with the other co-actor?
OH: You’re choosing Jay Duplass who played Bill in “The Chair” and Jodie Comer who played Villanelle in “Killing Eve.” Completely different. Jodie and I didn’t really talk much, because there was so much magic going on that we both knew: Let’s not touch this. We’re just not going to talk about it. It will be very ambiguous. And I think that’s what really works between the two characters. You don’t know what’s going on between them. They really don’t know what’s going on between them. In “The Chair,” my character, Ji-Yoon, and Bill were longtime teachers and friends, but there’s a romance going on. We found that whenever we were in a scene, we somehow got physically close or fought over something. And always, these physical moments basically mimicked sex. So we always liked to fight, but it felt like we were having sex. So it was really hilarious how it developed naturally, because you have a physical narrative, but it was because I would say Jay is – I love him. It was very, very fast. OK, let’s get naked. OK, let’s do this. And he was very willing. It doesn’t always happen that way, believe me.