TV - The Chair

With the new comedy series coming to Netflix on Friday, read an interview with The Chair's star Sandra Oh and writer/showrunner Amanda Peet...

Press Release

Sandra Oh has played a lot of memorable characters over her more than two decades in show business. But playing Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim in the upcoming Netflix comedy series The Chair still marked a unique experience for the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award winner. “I feel like Ji-Yoon is the closest character to myself that I've ever played,” Oh says with a nod to showrunner, executive producer and writer Amanda Peet. “There's something in the way Amanda wrote her. It was like Amanda was writing my own voice.”

The series, which debuts on August 20th, follows Oh’s Ji-Yoon as she becomes the first woman of colour to become chair of the English department at a fictional New England university. In her new position, she tries to meet the dizzying demands and high expectations of a failing English department. To learn more about the show’s origins, Oh and Peet’s unique collaboration process and the pressures of playing a woman in charge, watch the featurette and read their interview below.

How would you describe THE CHAIR?

PEET: THE CHAIR takes place at a fictional New England liberal arts college and it's the first time a woman of colour has been the chair of the English department. She's played by Sandra Oh and on her watch, one of her dearest colleagues does something transgressive in the classroom, and she has to decide how to navigate the fallout.

OH: In her first year as chair she is taking on patriarchy, sexism, ageism, what it is to be a single mom, being stuck between two cultures, speaking two languages, and it's all a comedy. So it's about many things. Mostly what it is, is what it’s like to live right now with all the things that I think everyone is going through -- questioning things, questioning patriarchy, questioning institutions, questioning the education system. And you basically just see this English department try and muddle their way through a controversial event.

How did the concept for THE CHAIR originate?

PEET: For a while Jay Duplass and I were batting around a movie idea about a widower who was becoming an empty nester. And that led to this idea of a female boss whose employee does something transgressive. What would happen if she were in a very long standing, intimate relationship with this person and thought he was -- deep inside -- a very good person and a person with a sound moral compass. What would that be like? Those two ideas sort of got mushed together and that's when I started writing.

How did you go about striking that really delicate balance in tone where the show deals with serious subject matter but is also hilarious?

PEET: I really feel like it's just hiring the right actors and then you just let them go. I'm definitely attracted to actors who are intrinsically funny.

How did Sandra get involved?

PEET: I stalked her.

OH: Amanda Peet has been stalking me.

PEET: Yes. It's really embarrassing. I saw her in the play Stop Kiss at the Public Theatre in 1998. I was like, who the fuck is that? ‘Cause she lit up my world. And then we briefly worked together and then I wrote this part and I thought “What actress who's in her forties, is really sexy and playful, can do a pratfall, is really funny, and also can do a romance— like has that ability to have that longing— and then can pass as someone who has a PhD?”

OH: I passed!

PEET: It was a tall order, but once I got her in my head, I couldn't stop thinking about her for it.

OH: It was fully formed. I could feel the world and mostly I could feel her voice in it and what I feel like she was driving at, hidden inside a comedic tone. But that's also the layered nature of the writing.

Can you describe your character Ji-Yoon?

OH: I feel like Ji-Yoon is the closest character to myself that I've ever played. There's something in the way Amanda wrote her. It was like Amanda was writing my own voice. She is a single mom who is very close with her dad. Her mother died when she was a teenager. She is, like many women, busy, working hard, taking care of an elderly parent, taking care of her child, working full time and trying to make change. She is deeply in love with literature and her students. And she's at a point in her professional life where she's ready to really try to make a change in the institution.

Ji-Yoon and Bill’s relationship is quite complex — romantic and funny and thorny — how did you work out the arc?

OH: What we worked really hard to establish is history and a long-term friendship and a lot of respect. You see this man respect this woman and, what also I love about this relationship is that, you see a male character basically say to a female character, “I am here for you. I'm supporting you. I want you to thrive,” and he's not giving up anything. You don't give up anything when you want someone to thrive. So actually, I feel like the relationship is a fairly modern one. They're both established in their career, just seeing how he supports her and how he is with Ji-Yoon's daughter JuJu. I think it's really hopeful and inspiring to see a friendship potentially bloom into a romance.

PEET: I really loved this idea that I'm sure we all have: which person in your life has crossed your mind as a candidate - romance wise - for “the road not taken.” I like the idea that they had a simmering attraction underneath this stalwart friendship and that's really what I wanted to explore. It was really important to me that you believe that their relationship has history and that they are long standing that when Bill makes his mistake, Ji-Yoon feels very torn. I didn't want it to be easy for her to condemn him, and I didn’t want it to be easy for her to defend him.

You have a stellar cast of actors with both fresh faces and then these heavy-hitting veterans. How did that come together?

PEET: We wanted to make a show with a “no assholes” policy. And Bob Balaban, Holland Taylor, Nana Mensah, David Morse? We won the lottery with this cast. We both discussed that we wanted to make a show where there were no straw villains. So we wanted to explore the idea that Bob Balaban’s character (Professor Rentz) was behind the times and hadn't reckoned yet with his own racism when confronted with the progressiveness and popularity of Nana Mensah’s character (Professor Yasmin McKay).

OH: And you also see the challenges that he's up against. There's so much experience within our cast. The way that they were able to come in and so deftly be able to speak about, I mean — Holland comes in and is just comic gold. And because she is so true as an actress, there are those different levels. And my God, David Morse, you have never seen him like this. Sometimes he would come up with stuff, and I'm like, “Dude, you’ve got to keep that, it's funny! Trust me.”

Sandra, you mentioned that when you received the script it was the first time seeing an authentically Korean name in there. How did you react when you saw the cultural specificity?

OH: When I saw the name in the pilot, it was one of the first things that just lit up something inside, actually seeing a Korean woman's name on the page. And that that would be my character’s name and all the characters around it would have to say my name correctly, and that was just a beautiful, sparkly gem that made me go, huh. It meant a lot to me.

Why do you think the field of academia is right for this kind of comedy?

PEET: I wanted to make a workplace show. But even before that — I have a teenager in my house and my daughter is already having conversations like, “why do we assign meaning to gender?” That’s dinner conversation. I felt like the academy was a really good place where you could have multi-generational interactions. And, we could have that friction where you have these young kids who are just becoming adults. And then people like us who were in the middle, and then the older generation.

OH: It explores how behind the times higher education can be. But, it wants to be, and can be, at the forefront of thought. It could be a place where movements begin or young people are really starting to explore concepts or opinions for the first time. It should be on the forefront. But I feel like we all know it needs to question itself just like all of us at this point need to question ourselves.

PEET: I think most old institutions— no matter the field — are due for a reckoning right about now. I have a teenager and I feel the pressure to keep up with her...with how progressive she is.

Sandra, you also serve as an executive producer on THE CHAIR. What was your collaboration with Amanda like?

OH: She directs and writes and communicates from this very powerful part of womanhood. And I love it. The character Bill is very much inside the Korean culture that surrounds this. He goes to the hundred day celebration of a Korean baby, which is called a Doljabi. What I loved about the show was that my character is not in that scene. It's not like you're going to see this through the comfortable Korean-American characters' eyes. No! You're going to experience it through Bill's eyes. And I just love that. Meanwhile, I'm off doing something else. I love that nothing was too precious. We would definitely have discussions about stuff, but it wasn't what the show is about. It's about what the character is going through. The character is trying to speak to her father. The character is trying to make a bridge between her father who speaks Korean and her daughter who speaks English. So any kind of specificity is not about getting it right, let's say, for a Korean-American audience at all, it's about getting it right for the characters and this family specifically.

PEET: We both wanted to explore how exhausting it can be to, first of all, be a woman in a supervising role, but also to be a person of color on top of that. You have to do your job, then you also have to navigate all of this subliminal shit that goes on because you represent a change in culture. When you are a woman of color you’re constantly being put to the test in covert ways (and blatantly) -- white men don’t experience this added pressure when they are ascending the ranks of their professions.

Amanda, what was it like collaborating with Sandra as both actress and executive producer?

PEET: She might as well be a writer because her notes are spot-on and her attention to story is so rigorous, that I really feel like she should try it at some point. Our partnership was incredible because of that, because I had this asset. She’s an extraordinary actress, but then also she's very good at story. She also really takes care of the crew and the rest of the cast. She's a beautiful leader because she's a movie star, but she isn’t aloof. Especially during COVID she could have just disappeared into her trailer and not attempted to get to know anyone, but she learns everyone's names. I think because she started out in theater, she really wants it to feel like a company and that includes the crew.

What do you hope people take away from THE CHAIR?

PEET: Hopefully it's funny! Ji-Yoon accepts this promotion while she’s raising a youngster, while she's trying to find romance, while her department’s in danger of going under. I'm hoping that there'll be a lot of women who will relate to the dizzying amount of pressure. And yeah, and I think a lot of people are talking about what constitutes an apology when you transgress or you hurt a group of people, whether you meant to or not, what constitutes a true apology? People, I think, are more open to talking about their own biases and are more curious and open about it, as a point of discussion. I'm hoping people will be interested in it for that reason too.

Images & info - Netflix/ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX © 2021
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