Ji-Yoon Kim, the woman at the centre of Netflix’s The Chair, swears (accidentally) in front of her child. She forgets things (often). She pleads (desperately) for her babysitter to stay after her young daughter triggers her by walking in on her while she’s peeing. Ji-Yoon, like many other single mums out there, is just trying to keep it together.
At work, things are arguably worse. As Pembroke University’s English department’s newest chair, Ji-Yoon bears the burden of being not only the first woman, but the first woman of colour in her prestigious role; she’s constantly balancing her efforts to move the department forward with appeasing the stubborn naysayers in charge.
“As the series goes on, you see layer upon layer of all the very real-life pressures, dynamics, and relationships that Ji-Yoon needs to fulfill as a daughter, as a mother, friend, colleague, as someone who's ultimately management between her department and the university’s trustees,” Sandra Oh, who plays Ji-Yoon, tells Refinery29. It’s the kind of role that seems daunting, rife with conflict and heaviness — but for Oh, it’s a welcome challenge. “It's always great to play that character, where all the challenges continue getting piled on.”
Oh certainly has experience embodying characters who’ve endured hardship. There was the breakout role she played for over a decade, Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Cristina Yang, the tough but loveable surgeon whose path to greatness was constantly thwarted by traumatic events. Then there was Killing Eve’s Eve Polastri, an MI6 agent whose obsession with a devious assassin completely upends her life. Oh’s most celebrated characters, however, persist thanks to their sheer will and passion for what they do — in fact, they tend to put their careers before almost anything else.
Ji-Yoon is no exception. She’s driven by her fierce dedication to modernise and diversify the beloved department that moulded her. But unlike Cristina or Eve, Ji-Yoon is also passionate about improving her relationship with her adoptive daughter, JuJu (Everly Carganilla). But she’s not a flawless archetype of the aspirational woman, and has trouble hacking the whole working single mum thing. Capturing that real parental struggle was Oh's — not to mention The Chair creator and showrunner Amanda Peet — exact intention.
“[Peet] and I were very interested in exploring ‘the good enough mother’ — when you feel disconnected with your child, when you cannot connect, when you have true doubt, because I just think that's true,” Oh says. “Or you really say the wrong thing, or you've got to dump your kid with your dad because you don't have any other options. We wanted to explore that reality and pressure while she's doing her job.”
"I don't have Ji-Yoon’s life. I play her and hopefully bring you some joy and comedy, and also some pathos. But this is all real for the majority of women out there. And that's who I really thought of."
Not only is Ji-Yoon coping with the impossible standards of being a modern woman, she’s also doing her best to share elements of her Korean heritage with her daughter while honouring JuJu’s own background. Acknowledging that nuance was important to Oh, and a layer that was talked about extensively and carefully behind the scenes. “It all shifted when Amanda cast Everly,” Oh says — the actress, who tends to gesture animatedly with her hands, gets even livelier as she talks about her young co-star. “We decided to honour Everly's Latinx heritage. We thought that would be an interesting dynamic. It's very easy to get a tremendous depth in storytelling by just juxtaposing language or different ethnicities against each other, which we explore between Habi [Ji-Yoon’s father, played by Lee Ji-Yong] and JuJu, and also by bringing Bill [Jay Duplass] into it.”
The key to bringing the two closer isn’t some one-and-done magic trick or a tempering of JuJu’s quirky spirit; instead, it’s Ji-Yoon’s friend and coworker Bill, who quickly endears himself to JuJu in order to distract from the difficulties he faces in his own life. “It was very important that the child advocate for themselves or the child had an advocate, and that's not necessarily the parent,” Oh says. “JuJu cannot connect with her mom at this moment, but connects with Bill, and that's heartbreaking and confusing and doubtful for Ji-Yoon. But I do feel like the relationship between JuJu and Bill is something that JuJu needs, and that helps her express herself and aids in her discovery of her identity. It was great to build that all altogether because I haven't seen that type of storytelling.”
Admitting that you need help, especially when it comes to the kind of familial intimacy that most people assume comes naturally, is extremely difficult to do for most people, let alone high-achievers who are used to relying on themselves. But Ji-Yoon accepts that it’s worth it if it means having a chance to bond with her daughter. Oh says her understanding of aspects of life she hasn’t personally experienced, like being a professor or a single mum, comes with her maturity as an actress. “I don't have Ji-Yoon’s life, she says, “and all the women who are really doing what Ji-Yoon is doing. I play her, [and] hopefully bring you some joy and comedy, and also some pathos. But this is all real for the majority of women out there. And that's who I really thought of.”
It’s at the intersection of joy and comedy that Oh shows her mastery of the dramedy genre. Watching Ji-Yoon’s failures, viewers feel sympathetic for her plight as a working mum, but it’s hard to wallow in pity when she is just so funny. Through high-stress situations and hardship, Oh delivers deadpan moments of levity without coming off as over-the-top or insincere — she straddles both at once with ease. Comedy, Oh says, is a “natural preference” she has. Cristina and Eve are very difficult people, yet still carry a specific sense of humour that endears you to them. “I think it's the most relatable type of storytelling,” she says. “If there are things that you want to say or things that you want to explore, you have a wider avenue with comedy, and it's close to real life. What makes it funny is that it's not funny to the character. I don't live my life like it's a comedy — I live my life like it's my own drama, but there are clearly comedic elements to it. It's a much more openhanded way of presenting a story.”
The authenticity Oh brings to her characters stems from this ethos. And even when she isn’t in character, she's not idyllic or perfect — she's real. And as Cristina, Eve, and now Ji-Yoon have shown us, that’s even better.