‘My Whole Body Was Sick’: Sandra Oh and Jung Ho-yeon Get Honest About Fame’s Toll on Mental Health

Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski

Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve,” “The Chair”) and Jung Ho-yeon (“Squid Game”) bond quickly at our photo shoot for Variety‘s “Actors on Actors” presented by Apple TV+. They’d gone viral on the internet in February, when Oh congratulated Ho-yeon for winning best performance by a female actor 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 got her start as a model: “Immediately we’re so close; immediately, you sat on my lap.” By the end of their 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 portrayed Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and the importance of taking care of yourself — especially as Ho-yeon navigates the global fandom for the heroic defector Kang Sae-byeok from “Squid Game.” With “Killing Eve,” another TV series that has captivated viewers around the world, ending after four seasons, Oh talks about what it felt like to say goodbye to her spy character.

SANDRA OH: I think that we both feel like being here together, having this conversation and being shot 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 been always interested in the native Korean perspective. How do you see us as Korean Americans?

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JUNG HO-YEON: I’ve been thinking a lot about that, because when I came to the U.S. for campaigning for “Squid Game,” I met a lot of Asian American people who said to me that “Oh, thank you for representing us. Oh, we are so proud of you.” At the beginning, it was just happy. But I also think about “I came from Korea, I lived in Korea almost my whole life — am I allowed to represent them?”

OH: I thought a lot about that, too, for you, and I just want to take that off of you. Because it is a large responsibility that feels familiar to me. The other day, I was driving. On Sunset Boulevard, it’s like you’re driving down American capitalism, and you see what Hollywood or North American capitalism is showing what we should follow, what we should buy. And you are on there. You are on the side of a building — like, “Oh, there’s my girl.” But then also I will say there were probably two more billboards where there is another Asian model and another model, I think maybe she’s mixed race. I don’t know how many times I have driven on Sunset Boulevard — like, a billion. And I don’t think I would’ve seen that four years ago.

HO-YEON: Four years ago?

OH: I’m only talking four years ago, 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 only say to maybe 2019 that I feel for us, as Asian Americans, things have changed. So I understand that question that you have. You are, in the image-making, a very important part for Asian Americans. I do think the change and the opening and the growth is 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 the pressure — but I want to somehow relieve you of the pressure for that.

HO-YEON: I’m trying, but all I can do is just keep trying not to overthink this responsibility, but also care about this responsibility — like, trying to make the balance. Things go so quick for me, because it was just my first project. I was like, “OK, I’m going to be an actor,” and then I did an audition 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 little child in Korea, and “Grey’s Anatomy” was a huge thing in Korea because of you, and you’re icon of us. Then when I met you at SAG Awards, you know me, and that was like, “Wow.” Everything that I’m saying or where I’m going, it’s like people starting to —

OH: Pay attention.

HO-YEON: Yeah, and I never care about that many people’s opinions of my life. I even don’t want to listen to my mom’s opinion.

OH: That’s different though. That’s totally different. There’s the internet, and then there’s your mom. It’s very difficult what you’re doing, and it’s very isolating, because not many people at all understand your experience. So how have you felt so far that you are keeping healthy, keeping balanced?

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Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

HO-YEON: I ask a lot of questions to people more experienced, like director Hwang [Dong-hyuk] of “ Squid Game,” … [Lee] Jung-jae and [Park] Hae-soo, like the people around me. It’s just good to share thoughts. You’ve been in this industry for —

OH: For a long time. The thing that I think that is the closest is when “Grey’s Anatomy” came — my life changed very much. And it’s tricky to imagine, because this is 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 feel like, honestly, I got sick. I think my whole body was very, very sick. Even though you keep on working, right?

HO-YEON: Right.

OH: It’s just 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 only your body, right? That is your soul. That is definitely your mind. You know what I mean? Because you can’t ultimately depend on anyone else. You have to somehow find it within yourself.

HO-YEON: Two weeks ago, I went back to Korea, and I took just a one-week break. And I didn’t answer emails about schedule, and people’s contact. Because before going back to Korea, I was in London, and then I was sick, literally.

OH: So sick.

HO-YEON: So sick, my body. In that moment you realize that “Oh. Maybe this was too much.” I think I just try all the time to be me, healthy me, but it’s not going to be easy, and then I’m still going to make mistakes. I’m struggling, but trying.

OH: I imagine that you’re in a very high state of demand. Our work is not just shooting; this is a very enjoyable part of our job. We get to sit and we chat, but this is a whole day of work. And it’s a certain type of output that can be depleting. And now, as I’m deeper into my career, the more time I realize that I have to spend with my creative self: That could be sleeping, that could be walking in the woods, that could be meditating, that could be actually going to class, that could be all those things. Because I realize that part sustains all the — almost the immediacy, the ability to be present. As I think almost the entire world has seen, “Squid Game” is about the ultimate survival, so within that, there’s a lot of violence. I’m curious how director Hwang led the company of actors. How did he lead, as a director, how to take hold of those situations? Did you film it mostly in order?

HO-YEON: Mostly in order, yeah. Especially the games, so we can have the sense of where we have to go. And then just the fact that he never let us act just like acting — he was always thinking of our character, each character. Maybe we were too much making jokes about that. So we didn’t feel that intense. We were more joyful to be intense, I think.

OH: Joyful to be intense. That’s great.

HO-YEON: Maybe it’s weird to say it, but while I’m shooting my death scene, I was so happy. It was the most comfortable scene I ever had. It’s because I’ve been living with my character over a few months, and then there is a time that 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 can understand her most in this world, so I know her stress, and I know how her life was [such a] struggle and hard. So it wasn’t that bad or sad.

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Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

OH: When you get to really express the truth of a character, even when you’re saying goodbye, it’s very satisfying.

HO-YEON: “Killing Eve,” you’d been filming over four years, right? How was your experience?

OH: “Killing Eve” was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, because I felt so much of the entire show is so about the internal life at least of Eve. A really great thing about television is that you are creating her, or you’re creating them, in real time. So I really felt pleased that I saw an image of myself as Eve from the very first season, and I saw an image of Eve in the fourth season, and I felt they looked like two different people. Because people do change. People can change. This character has changed. So I felt ultimately, emotionally, for Eve to start out as in “I have a regular life, I’m kind of basically happy,” but at the very end, she’s lost everything — but in survival has gained more of herself as a whole woman. It is a piece about the female psyche. And within that: How does one actually authentically grow and widen yourself as a woman? That’s why her relationship with Villanelle is so life-changing, but also difficult. Sae-byeok starts very closed. The way that she opens up a little bit is authentic. We see how she has, because she’s trusted this character, because she knows you have this responsibility, but that’s just not easy to do. I found it very challenging on “Killing Eve.” And satisfying, because I felt like what I laid down was real, at least hopefully.

HO-YEON: I kind of 100% agree with that. While I’m studying acting, the complexity of a human being, it’s not just there is only one answer. But sometimes we’re not only like — we cannot say this person is this. What I admire about your acting was every kind of scene, your face has that complexity. You don’t build just one thing.

OH: It’s our job to be able to choose in this moment. And to me, myself as Eve, it’s like when you have a character that I was able to develop for four seasons — I thought a lot, absolutely, about what I want that end to mean.

HO-YEON: And what was it like?

OH: I still go for that question. So what is the meaning?

HO-YEON: I talked about this recently with Hae-soo, who played Sang-woo in “Squid Game.” So when we are shooting, we are trying to plan our character. But while we are filming, we couldn’t know 100% of this character or this situation. But after the TV show came out, we watch it and we got the reaction of people — and then reorganize it.

OH: I actually agree. When you start getting questions about “What is this, what is that?” I think that’s honestly sometimes the first time I start thinking of “What did I want to say?”

HO-YEON: I want to ask something. You build up 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 a lot, because there was so much magic that was going on that we both knew: We’re not going to touch it. We’re just not going to talk about it. It’s going to be very ambiguous. And I think that’s some of what really works between the two characters. You don’t know what’s happening between them. They don’t really know what’s happening between them. In “The Chair,” my character, Ji-Yoon, and Bill were both professors and were longterm friends, but there is a romance happening. We found that whenever we were in a scene, we would somehow immediately get physically close, or we would fight over something. And always, those physical moments basically mimicked having sex. So we were always like fighting, but it looked like we were having sex. So it was actually hilarious how that just naturally developed, because you have storytelling physically, 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, trust me.