Sandra Oh, Amanda Peet create Asian-American characters who resonate

(Sandra Oh leads the cast of The Chair)

During a bleak Pittsburgh winter, while the world was still in limbo, 12-time Emmy-nominee, SAG Award- and Golden Globe Award-winning actress Sandra Oh was hard at work producing and acting in Netflix’s The Chair. Oh, along with show creator Amanda Peet and costar Jay Duplass, talks to Emmy Magazine about the making of the six-episode comedy premiering Aug. 20.

The first time Peet saw Oh perform was in Diana Son’s play Stop Kiss at Manhattan’s Public Theater. “It was one of those seminal moments in my acting career because I couldn’t understand how she was so real,” Peet says. “How was she doing that? I was totally blown away.” So when she was penning the series about intergenerational relationships on a college campus, she wrote Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon Kim, with the actress at the top of her call sheet. She went as far as recruiting a mutual friend, actress Sarah Paulson, to nudge Oh to read the pilot.

Oh was immediately drawn to Peet’s script; and after signing on to star in and executive produce the series, she entered the writers’ room to help hone Ji-Yoon’s character and journey. “I have felt that a few times in my career—and I think my sense of that is getting honed—where I’ll get a piece of material and I will immediately understand the writer’s voice,” says Oh. “And I absolutely found that with Amanda’s. Particularly the humor and the world that she was trying to build and that she gave a lot of space for Ji- Yoon and me to create a really fully fleshed character.”

In the Emmy cover story “Pause and Effect,” Emmy talks to Oh about her role in The Chair—the first female chair of the English department and one of the few staff members of color at the fictional Pembroke University. Ji-Yoon is eager to change the world of academia and the realities of old, white and male dominance. But she and her best friend, Yaz (Nana Mensah), the only other woman of color in the department, diverge in their pursuits of equity, providing layers of conflict and nuance that make the story so captivating to Oh, Peet and the cast.

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“In some ways, when you have perspectives that are not white, they can be seen as a monolith,” Oh says. “The African-American experience is not the same as the Asian-American experience and not the same as the Latinx experience; so when you finally see two characters of color coming at a subject from their different perspectives, it’s very thrilling and very satisfying. This is the stuff that I’m interested in playing.”

To accurately capture the world of Pembroke, Peet was committed to more representation in the writers’ room and hired young writer Jennifer Kim for her first staff writing job. “Because I’m so old,” Peet says, “and we had a fair amount of middle-aged people, it was really important to have someone who had graduated from college more recently.” Kim, who grew up watching Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, was enamored by the “icon.” “I just stared at her while she was sitting across the room because I was so nervous,” Kim says. “But I was happy to try to bring more specificity to a college-student perspective.”

In the midst of the pandemic, Peet shares how vital Oh was in creating an inventive and welcoming atmosphere on set. “I love that [she and costar Jay Duplass] both recognized and shared the desire to make it feel like a company, especially during COVID,” Peet says. “She is the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Duplass adds. “She never misses a beat. She’s extremely precise and fully emotionally available. She’s a dream.”

The award-winning official publication of the Television Academy hit newsstands Aug. 17. The Chair premieres tonight on Netflix.