TORONTO – Sandra Oh likes untangling the minds of complicated characters who are driven by factors they don’t understand.
As Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the Ottawa-born actress moved audiences for 10 seasons by peeling away the seemingly impenetrable layers of a cutthroat character who was ultimately vulnerable.
Now, with her Emmy-nominated role as an MI5 operative hunting down a female assassin on BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” she says she’s enjoying digging into a psyche she’s still trying to figure out.
“As Eve hunts Villanelle, I really feel like she’s hunting the parts of herself,” the Korean-Canadian star said in a recent phone interview, conducted just days before she was named as an Emmy contender for lead actress in a drama series for “Killing Eve.” The nod makes her the first Asian woman to be nominated in that category.
Not that Eve is aware she’s doing that.
As Canadian viewers will see when “Killing Eve” premieres Sunday on Bravo, Oh’s titular character starts the series in a slump of sorts. She’s sharp-minded and has ambitions of being a spy but is bored with her desk job.
Enter Villanelle, a psychopathic contract killer played by Jodie Comer, whose brazen murders intrigue Eve and ignite something within as she tries to find her.
“Here we find a woman who is in her mid-life, who has kind of plateaued … in her job that’s she’s fine at, and in her marriage, which is a fine and lovely marriage,” Oh said of Eve.
“She’s not really curious, she’s not really paying attention and she’s not a really vital person,” Oh continued from London, where she’s shooting season 2 of the series.
“But the fascination of a female assassin, let’s say metaphorically — here is a person who is committing the biggest transgression, and the style of this one person … is with flair, is without remorse, is with freedom, is with style.
“Those are the qualities that I felt were missing from Eve and I liked playing that.”
“Killing Eve” is based on the novellas by Luke Jennings.
The drama’s dark moments of violence are contrasted with dry humour and Eve’s funny, down-to-Earth quirks that stand out when she’s with her stodgy colleagues.
“I hope … you can see the spark of life in her,” said Oh, whose film credits include the wine-country dramedy “Sideways” and last year’s Canadian family tale “Meditation Park.”
“She herself might not be aware or engaged in her own self, so that’s where we find her — at the beginning not very confident in her instinct and not really committing to her own instinct, her own passion.”
English writer-actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the series and was a big lure for Oh.
“The most important points were the voice of the show, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s take on the show, the writing, and the second one is the fact that we’re delving deeply into a piece about female psychology,” Oh said.
“What is more interesting to me is seeing two human beings embroiled in a relationship that they can’t define or let go of.”
Eve realizes she’s deeply enmeshed in that relationship during a devastating incident at the end of the first episode, when Oh’s acting chops are in full force.
“Eve is very naive, she’s doing down a really dark pathway but she’s skipping down it until that scene happens,” Oh said.
“Then as you go along in the episodes, it gets darker and darker.”