Sandra Oh: Asian-Americans ‘recoil if we hear an accent’ on-screen these days

Sofia Richie and Scott Disick are a couple that shop together!

I like Sandra Oh a lot, and I feel like many people out there have a general warmth towards her. She’s not problematic in the least, she’s “the first” Korean-Canadian woman to do almost everything, and she has an earnestness which I really like. But… all of that means that Sandra is not a controversial person, and she’s not falling out of clubs or boning inappropriate men. She’s not a mess. So will anyone be interested in what she has to say about clothes, race, eggs and more? She covers the latest issue of Elle Canada, and I enjoyed this piece. You can read the full interview here. Some highlights:

How she got Grey’s Anatomy: “I decided that I’m only going to play characters that are essential to the plot, that conduct the narrative and therefore can’t be cut out,” she explains. Of course, the crucial step, she adds, “is that you have to get to a place [in your career] where you can say no.”

She prefers eggs to balls: When I ask how she “got the balls” to follow her heart, she quickly corrects me, saying she prefers to say “eggs,” before adding with a laugh and a shrug, “I’ve always had a large set of eggs.”

On the fact that Jodie Comer has a better wardrobe on Killing Eve: “It kills me! I go into wardrobe and see that bitch’s clothing, and I’m just like, ‘Can I get something above Uniqlo? No?’” She’s laughing, but she’s serious about the “huge” importance of fashion on the show. “What are you saying about a character’s mindset when she dresses over-the-top? Eve is always in neutral, basic tones, right? She’s always earthy, in a lot of turtlenecks. The beauty is in how she changes. She changes in fabric. She changes in line, in shape.”

She has an Instagram but barely uses it: “I know I’m supposed to do something with the pictures! But then I’ve left it to the next day, and I think it’s too late…and then a week goes by and it’s even later, and who’s going to care now? I keep missing the window….I am the classic ‘aunt’ who can’t make things work” and then does an imitation: “Honeeeey? Can you make it work? I don’t know what this is.”

On “color blind” casting. “But I’m in a place in my career now where I am specifically interested in roles that explore a character’s race. Because I can—and because I want our conversations to eventually move to a place that recognizes that it’s important. Let’s say it’s a show about a fashion magazine and the editor’s Black. You can’t just write this character without having the background of who she is. But that has been the primary storytelling for as long as we’ve been around… Asian-Americans, particularly from my generation, almost recoil if we hear an accent [onscreen] because of how laden in racism and misunderstanding [it is] and [how it’s a result of] not being in charge of the story.”

[From Elle Canada]

I grew up watching movies and TV shows “color blind” casting, where roles were written as default-white, then producers would hire Denzel Washington or Halle Berry or whatever. I think that was an okay transition to what Sandra wants, which is… color-conscious casting? Actually working to tell diverse stories about people of color instead of defaulting constantly to narratives for and by white dudes? It hasn’t been a smooth path, obviously, it often feels like we’re going backwards. As for the accent thing… as I get older, I hate hearing Asian-American actors doing an “accent” too. There are wonderful Japanese-American and Chinese-American and Indian-American actors who get hired to “play up” very crude accents and it’s always the f–king worst.

As for the Instagram… I barely use my Instagram either. I’m just not that generation, and neither is Sandra and it’s fine. Some people over the age of 35 can do it and still seem cool. Some of us don’t want to try. (Also: Sandra is 48 years old, which is INSANE.)

Photos courtesy of Elle Canada.

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19 Responses to “Sandra Oh: Asian-Americans ‘recoil if we hear an accent’ on-screen these days”

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  1. Cassandra says:

    She’d be horrified by Breakfast at Tiffanys.

  2. Mei says:

    I definitely agree with writing roles with different life experiences from all races in mind, but I don’t think that should be at the expense of hearing accents. We live in a world where people can travel and settle like never before, just because characters may have integrated it shouldn’t mean they have to speak with the regional accent of the story/character’s location. If the actor has been shoehorned in for added +diversity and are having to over-play a stereotypical accent then sure, it’s wrong. But it also sounds like a way to not encourage acceptance of people coming from different places when people just don’t sound the same and that’s okay! Learning to fully understand people who speak in a different way is just another skill.

    • Amelie says:

      I agree, accents are integral to a person’s identity too. I’ve grown up listening to my dad’s French accent in English and I attended a bilingual school as a child so hearing accents (especially French accents) was pretty normal for me as a kid. Not everyone speaks with an American accent naturally. There is a right way and a wrong way to do accents though often times the accent is done wrong since it’s usually for comedic effect and very stereotypical.

      It’s not the same thing obviously as an Asian-American having to do a stereotypical accent for the role but the French accent has been overdone to the point where I just roll my eyes when I hear it because it’s such a lazy idea.

      Speaking of accents, I started watching Knives Out on Amazon Prime last night with my parents who had never seen it. They can’t get behind Daniel Craig’s Southern accent which I admit was an interesting creative choice. He is so identifiable as James Bond and his posh British accent that they really couldn’t see him as anything other than James Bond pretending to be a detective from the South.

      • c8h10n4o2 says:

        Get them to watch Logan Lucky. Their heads might explode.

      • tcbc says:

        Craig’s southern accent is also terrible. But most British actors have terrible regional American accents. Even their vague newscaster American accents are not as good as people claim them to be, though.

  3. aang says:

    I’ve worked as an adjunct teaching English to undergrads who speak English as a second language. I love love love all the different accents in my classroom. English is pretty much the default global language and accents just make it better. I don’t use instagram much either but my cat has an account and she likes to post pics of herself regularly.

  4. Lightpurple says:

    In one of the first episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Katherine Heigl’s character Izzy had a patient who spoke only Chinese and she brought Sandra’s character in to translate and she pointedly told her that she was Korean and didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, don’t make assumptions. Sadly, it is something that we, as Americans, do all too often. A few years ago, my cousin moved from South Carolina to California for a job. Once he was settled, his wife, who is Korean-American but born and raised here, drove across the country with her brother and their dog and belongings. While driving through Kansas or Oklahoma, they stopped at a restaurant where the hostess told them nobody spoke Japanese. Fine, because neither did they but that’s quite the assumption. We as a people need to stop making those assumptions.

    On the small street where I live, my aunt and I are the only non-Asians. Even my boarder is from Bangladesh. In one household, the parents speak Cantonese. In another Mandarin. A third, English because the wife is Chinese and the husband Korean. The fourth household speaks a dialect of Mandarin from a very rural part of China that nobody else on the street understands. I can distinguish that there is there is a difference in how each one sounds, particularly the rural farmers from the woman teaching biochemistry at Harvard, so I can understand how someone getting it wrong in a movie or TV show would be really grating. I know hearing someone mangle a Boston accent drives me crazy.

  5. Case says:

    I think it’s important to write roles not necessarily about race, but in a way that authentically reflects how that person experiences the world around them because of their identity. A Black woman, an Asian woman, and a white woman experience the world differently in many instances, and I think it’s important to not write everything from the white perspective thinking it will fit when you hire an Asian woman for the role.

    At the same time, I think colorblind casting can really yield some interesting results, because sometimes it can organically add dimensions to the story that didn’t originally exist. Night of the Living Dead comes to mind. Even if you’re not a fan of horror, I’d encourage anyone to read about how colorblind casting — and casting a Black man in the lead role — impacted that story. It wasn’t written with racial or political undertones, but the mere fact that a Black man filled that role made the movie deeply political and carried a very different message at the end than it would’ve had a white man been in the role. It’s really fascinating.

    • molly says:

      And the only way to authentically write those diverse perspectives is to hire diverse writers. A white dude will never, ever get a woman POC right. There’s just no way.

    • Otaku fairy says:

      Good point.

  6. emu says:

    Haha love “got the eggs”

  7. Mia says:

    This is a very specific pet peeve of mine, but it really bothers me when Asian characters are given Anglo last names. I don’t know if it happens a lot or if it’s just b/c I notice it every time that it does happen, but I always wonder if the character is supposed to be adopted or what. It’s never explained. They just somehow have non-Asian last names.

    • Ginger says:

      I’ve met some Asian Americans w Anglo surnames bc they were adopted or took their husband’s last name. I also have a Latina friend whose last name is Chau bc it’s her husband’s.

  8. AMM says:

    Color blind casting can become problematic or help the story, but they have to be careful. One example is in Harry Potter. Hermione being cast as black really make a difference when you take into account the bigotry and slurs against her, and her fight to free the house elves because they were slaves. It’s not so easy as “we hired the best actress and they are interchangeable regardless of race , it doesn’t matter”. White Hermione and Black Hermione have different back stories and are affected differently by the bigotry in the wizarding world. I think Black Hermiones story is way more impactful, but I’m glad JKR only did it for the play, because she can’t be trusted to do it respectfully.

  9. Alyse says:

    The first thing I remember seeing her in was The Princess Diaries (The school principal fawning over Queen Julie Andrews) and ever since then I’ve been interested in her career (though funnily enough, never watched Grey’s)
    She’s awesome in Killing Eve – and looks amazing in that orange dress!
    I’m glad all her hard work has paid off into such great recognition & success :)