Sandra Oh is feeling triumphant, exhausted, and a little like she just finished a marathon—a marathon performance, that is—two days after the Golden Globes. “Just straight up, it was so terrifying,” she tells me over Skype, sporting new fringe. “I had so much stress and tension about it, but by the end of Sunday night, I was exhilarated.”
Oh cohosted the Globes with Andy Samberg and, in an almost-too-good-to-be-true turn of events worthy of a Hollywood ending, won one herself for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Drama, for her role as MI6 operative Eve Polastri in the thrilling BBC America series Killing Eve. (The second season premiered April 7.) Just like that, she became the first person of Asian descent to host a major awards show and—with a 2006 Best Supporting Actress statue for Grey’s Anatomy—win multiple Golden Globes. (Within the month, she also picked up Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards.)
The moment was not lost on Oh. In a move considered deeply meaningful to many in the Asian community (myself included), the Korean Canadian actress honored her parents in her acceptance speech by bowing—the ultimate show of respect—and telling them in Korean that she loved them. In the opening monologue, she spoke of getting over her fear of taking the stage as cohost: “I wanted to be here to look out into this audience and witness this moment of change.”
“I was very clear on who my target was: young people of every color, people who have different body shapes or different abilities who have never been able to be up on a stage,” she says now. Yet she’s clear that one moment under the shiniest of lights is just that. “It’s a moment, right? Don’t hang everything on Crazy Rich Asians,” says Oh. “It’s OK if shit changes. Change is slow and long. But for this moment, let’s be together. Because, for God’s sake, I’m standing on that stage.”
My first memory of Oh is in the 2004 critically acclaimed film Sideways, in which she plays Stephanie, a scorned woman who breaks her lover’s nose with a motorcycle helmet after finding out he’s engaged to another woman. She did seven seasons of the HBO sports-agent comedy Arli$$, but it was her role as Cristina Yang in the long-running ABC medical drama series Grey’s Anatomy that catapulted Oh, who was on the show for 10 years, to fame. Her latest character, Eve, is headstrong and hell-bent—at the expense of almost everything, including her marriage—on catching assassin Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer).
“I’m grateful that it’s happened at 47,” she says of the recent recognition, “because I’ve done enough work on myself to really experience it. And then, too, it just has deeper meaning for me.”
Born and raised in Ottawa, the French-speaking Oh is the middle child—she calls herself the peacekeeper—in a family of high achievers. Her father was an economist, her mother a biochemist; her sister is a lawyer, and her brother, a geneticist with a PhD. She was equally ambitious, but in a non-textbook kind of way. At age 10, she started acting, found her calling, and decided against her parents’ wishes to skip a traditional four-year college in favor of attending the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal, paying for it herself. She found early success with a few leading roles in Canada, then, as aspiring young actors often do, decided to make the move to Los Angeles. Not long after, in 1995, she was met with resistance from an agent, a moment she would love to but simply can’t forget.
“She said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to lie’—and that was, I think, what was so painful—‘I’m going to tell you the truth,’” she recalls. “It was basically ‘Go back home and get famous, and then try and make a transition. Because I already have an Asian actress on my roster, and she hasn’t auditioned in three months. I don’t know what I could do for you.’”
She now links that fateful meeting to her reaction upon finding out she won the leading role in Killing Eve. “I was like, ‘What’s my part?’ When my agent said, ‘You’re fucking Eve,’ I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see myself in a leading role....It’s like a fucking shard in my heart. We work really hard because we love what we do, but we understand how important it is to be visible and to see ourselves, right? To catch myself in a moment where I’m still not doing that was really difficult.”
Yet, as someone whose spiritual practice is based in Buddhist philosophy and teaching, Oh is all about living in the moment. And this is definitely hers. She’s not just the star but also a co-executive producer of Killing Eve. She’s in what appears to be a loving, committed relationship. (Oh is fiercely private, and her publicist would confirm only that she’s had a boyfriend for a few years.) When asked about whether she’d want a family of her own, Oh replies, “I went through that period, I’d say in my mid to late 30s into 40, where it was like, I make a great living and I could do this on my own. And I didn’t. I have an extremely fulfilling life as an aunt, not only to my nieces and my nephews but also to a lot of my friends’ children.”
Now she’s reached a point where she has the luxury of being choosy about what roles she takes and what projects she wants to devote her hard-earned time to. For now, she just wants a break. “I know a big part of my job is to rest, do you know what I mean? The output is tremendous, and if you do not rest, you will not be balanced. And if you’re not balanced, you’re an asshole.”
Thandie Newton has to pick up her three kids from school in an hour, so she’s just going to cut to the chase. That’s why, within the first eight minutes of our conversation, she’s touched on Time’s Up, gender wage parity, the misconception that women can’t carry a show, and how sexual violence is “the rot at the core” of all inequality. “It just goes to show you that when it comes to trying to protect women and change the system, one in which patriarchy is the standard, there are many different issues we have to concern ourselves with,” she explains. Nice to meet you too, Ms. Newton!
That the focus of our interview is on capital-I Issues makes perfect sense if you’re at all familiar with her life. The 46-year-old Londoner has been acting for three decades, and she’s been outspoken about the perils of being a woman in Hollywood—and, frankly, in the world in general—since long before #MeToo. But now that her star is the highest it’s ever been, thanks to her role as artificially intelligent brothel madam turned revolutionary Maeve on HBO’s smash Westworld (for which she’s won an Emmy), she’s determined to dedicate her platform to the cause.
And Westworld is an incredibly apropos show to be on if your cause is women’s rights, a fact not lost on Newton. “It couldn’t have happened at a more relevant time, let’s face it,” she says. “Particularly Maeve, because she educates herself in order to revolt and beat them at their own game.” Then she adds, “Which was very satisfying.”
If you’re new to the show, here are the basics: Maeve is a robot “host” who spends most of the first season as a quippy madam at the titular theme park’s Mariposa Saloon. By the start of the show’s second season (production on season three began in March), her character has done a complete 180, gaining sentience and remembering a previous life in which she had a daughter taken from her. This recollection causes Maeve to reject her entire role as a sex object for park guests and become a powerful, deadly woman on a mission to find her kid. That change-up also took Newton from being a mesmerizing side character to the show’s genuine focal point.
She says she knew about Maeve’s pivot before she even accepted the role. Hell, it’s why she accepted the role. The character’s arc hit close to home for Newton, who is a survivor of sexual abuse. One experience, which occurred when she was 22 and which she’s brought up in interviews over the years, involved an unnamed male director. He filmed her audition, during which he asked her to touch herself intimately—something that she agreed to because there was a female casting director in the room. Years later, when Newton was in her 30s, she discovered the director had kept the audition tape and played it at poker games for other Hollywood insiders. When she began speaking out about this and other far worse abuse she has suffered, she was either ignored or disbelieved. And at the time it may have even cost her work. “I was very aware of the climate of sexual abuse that was going on around me, so I became the person you didn’t want to hire because I would call it out,” she says. “In retrospect, I can see many instances where not only would I not be employed, but other actors and actresses would not necessarily want to be associated with me.”
Even people who were supposed to be on her side often told her to sit down. “I had a publicist—and this is years ago—who told me that I should stop talking about having been sexually abused because it wasn’t good for my reputation,” she says. “When I parted ways with her, it wasn’t because I thought she was dreadful and wrong, and I felt ashamed that I was missing out on a really good publicist because of my behavior.”
The abuse took a heavy toll on Newton. “Probably the worst thing about having your innocence rocked is what stays with you,” she continues. “The sense of worthlessness, shame—these things are very hard to move on from. But you can.” She credits her husband (writer/director Ol Parker) and author Eve Ensler with helping her rediscover her self-worth. At a low point in her mid-20s, Newton says, catching a London performance of Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues “changed my life.” She and Ensler became friends, and ever since she’s been a hypervisible member of Ensler’s V Day Foundation charity, which aims to end violence against women worldwide through public action.
If Westworld’s mega hit status seems like a victory lap for Newton, she has no intention of coasting. The platform that once made her a lightning rod for criticism has now helped her signal-boost projects that share her cause, like the 2017 documentary Liyana, about orphans in Swaziland, which she executive-produced. Through her work with Ensler’s foundation, she also worked on the 2016 documentary City of Joy, about women in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have survived horrific sexual violence. Most recently, HBO announced that, thanks in part to Time’s Up, female actors on Westworld—namely Newton and costar Evan Rachel Wood—will make the same salaries as their male costars. “I was initially really shocked because it was such a leap from what we’d been paid before,” she says. “For years, it hadn’t even occurred to me to question it.”
HBO’s decision, suggesting a sea change in the industry, couldn’t happen at a better moment for Newton’s family. Her youngest daughter, Nico Parker, 14, starred in Disney’s live-action Dumbo remake earlier this year. “She’s amazing in it,” says Newton. “My husband and I were like, ‘What the hell, when did she learn that?!’ Because she’s only seen one of my films, and it was Norbit, for God’s sake.” She meditates on the idea of her daughter entering an industry that she herself has often criticized. “Nico is not at all naive,” she says. “The idea of her being paid less than a male costar? I’d like to see them try and get away with that.”
Elisabeth Moss was recently standing on a corner in New York City when some people drove by and heckled her out of their car window. “They were like, ‘We’ve been sent good weather!’” she says, giggling, from Toronto, where she’s filming season three of The Handmaid’s Tale, premiering June 5. “I was like, ‘That is so fucking awesome.’”
If you’re a fan of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, you know what Moss is referring to. The show is set in a near-future America; environmental calamity has caused the birthrate to nose-dive, and a theocratic government has imposed a caste system in which fertile women—handmaids—are enslaved and ritually raped by wealthy commanders in hopes of producing children for their barren wives. Moss plays Offred, the title character, whose resistance to the new world order is the show’s central conflict. Divested of freewill, the handmaids speak to one another in scripted pleasantries: “We’ve been sent good weather” is one. Another is “Praise be,” and Moss gleefully confesses to using it in casual conversation “in a not-ironic way. In real life.”
That strangers are parroting her lines back to her on the streets of Manhattan is some indication of the remarkable resonance of the series. At a moment when the slope between President Trump’s reactionary rhetoric and Atwood’s dystopic police state seems slippery, Offred and her sistren have become mascots for the actual liberal resistance, with women in handmaid costumes—red cloaks and white blinder like bonnets—popping up at political protests.
Seeing them lining the halls of the Hart Senate building during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Moss says, was “beyond something you could ever possibly imagine.” The Mad Men and West Wing alum is no stranger to buzzy TV, but she seems slightly shell-shocked by just how zeitgeisty her latest project has become. She’s still adjusting to the expectation that she talk politics in every interview. “It’s not like I did this to have a political platform,” Moss explains. “But at the same time, I’m an American. I’m a woman. I have things that I believe in as a citizen. There’s a responsibility there that I try to handle with as much intelligence as possible.”
There have been a few bumps in the road. Moss drew criticism when she called Atwood’s novel humanist, not feminist, and was castigated for having the gall, as a Scientologist, to front a show about religious persecution. The actress, who is bubbly and accommodating but refreshingly direct, doesn’t sweat the backlash. “If someone says something and someone else disagrees, they should absolutely be able to speak that opinion.” She does roll her eyes at how her feminism comment got mangled in the churn of Internet hot takes. “I played Peggy Olson”—her plucky Mad Men character—“for 10 years, for Christ’s sake. I’m the biggest feminist on the planet.”
The brutality of season two was so intense that some critics dubbed it torture porn. Watching the show can be exhausting; acting in it, I suggest, must be all the more so. But Moss, who grew up in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon to musician parents and has been working since childhood, opting out of both college and drama school, seems unaffected, sometimes oddly so, by her roles. (Whatever the opposite of Method is, that’s her.) “It can’t possibly wear on me. I have insurance. I have the right to certain things as far as my body goes at this time. It’s actually a privilege to be able to tell that story.”
In fact, she calls the set “my happy place” and her handmaid getup “a comforting thing to put on every day—like a favorite pair of jeans.” Moss is a producer on the series and admits that as we chat, she’s also watching dailies, “the bane of my existence,” on her iPad.
I forgive her for multitasking; she has a lot going on. In the Handmaid’s hiatus, she made four movies, including the recently released Jordan Peele horror film Us and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell. (The Kitchen is out August 9, and Shirley may do the film-festival circuit.) Moss raves about Peele as a director: “He really lets you go places that maybe you would think, That’s too much. There are no boundaries.” Her performance in Her Smell could also be described as “boundary-less.” She plays drug-addled riot-grrrl-ish rocker Becky Some-thing, who monstrously mistreats her bandmates, her ex-husband, and their young daughter, then sobers up to reckon with the damage she’s done. It’s a bravura performance and one that was technically difficult: Becky speaks in rambling soliloquies, plus Moss had to learn some piano and guitar to fake her way through her character’s sets. That, she was into: “You’re like, Oh, I get it. The coolest job is to be a rock star. We do those concert scenes. Obviously, you’ve hired extras. They’re being paid to cheer for you. You don’t care. For those three minutes, you are the coolest person in the world.”
Perhaps it’s why she’s been collecting guitars and wants to learn to play alt-country music, Brandi Carlile–style. Moss recently appeared in a music video for the singer-songwriter and urges me to listen to another Carlile track, a stirring ode to parenting called “The Mother.” The actress tells me she’s certain about wanting kids. “I’d like to have that experience of loving something more than you could ever possibly love anything other than yourself,” she says. “Of course you think about it when you’re 36. You’re like, How much time do I have?”
For the moment, she’s mom to two cats, Lucy and Ethel, and is close to her own mother, Linda, who lives a block away in her Manhattan neighborhood and passed down a die-hard allegiance to the Chicago Cubs. In the off-season, the actress has been getting her sports fix in Toronto by going to Raptors and Maple Leafs games. Does she go with her Handmaid’s costars? There’s silence on the other end of the line, and I can hear Moss blushing. “I go with a special someone who also likes the Raptors and the Leafs. He shall remain nameless.” Yes, the actress, who was briefly married to the comedian Fred Armisen, has a boyfriend; no, she’s not keen to discuss. “I learned you just don’t talk about it. Who really gives a shit whether or not I’m dating anyone? I hate to put that importance on it. I cringe a little.”
That angst is classic Moss. It’s why she shies away from talking about her craft (too pretentious) and why she prefaces answers to Handmaid-adjacent politics questions with a caveat: “We’re in the business of entertainment. You don’t want to take yourself that seriously or build yourself up to be something you’re not.” But here go probably has a little catching up to do. Case in point: At this year’s Golden Globes, when Taylor Swift sent Moss a video message professing her fandom, the actress responded, “I can’t believe she knows who I am!” Or when I ask how it felt to win an Emmy last year (two, actually, for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series)—finally, after seven nominations for Mad Men and Top of the Lake—she replies, “It’s a really cool thing to have happen. Now I’m good. I’m cool if it’s another 10 years. Or if it never happens again.” Little risk of that.
Correction: The print version of this article misstates Thandie Newton’s age during her sex-scene-audition. She was 22, not 16, during the audition and in her 30s when she heard about the tape. We apologize for the error.
This article originally appears in the May 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
Cover credits: Thandie Newton in Louis Vuitton dress, Chanel earrings; Elisabeth Moss in Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress, Foundrae Arrow Disk (on earring), Ana Khouri ear cuff, Ginette NY ring; Sandra Oh in Max Mara top, Eva Fehren earrings, Bulgari bracelet, Tiffany & Co. ring.
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