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To hear Sandra Oh and Holland Taylor talk about The Chair, one might think the actresses were in a months-long race against time. “How long were we together — two months? Three months? We shot The Chair while we were sprinting,” Oh recalls during a transatlantic Zoom call with Taylor. (Oh, having just wrapped the final season of Killing Eve, was on vacation in Barcelona; Taylor was home in L.A.)
“I felt like every scene began with an announcement,” says Taylor. ” ‘OK, we’ve got to get through this by 11.’ I was there thinking, ‘It’s 10:43!’ ”
On the academia-set limited series, Oh plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly appointed (and first female) English department head at a prestigious liberal arts university. As she balances a problematic relationship with a popular but reckless professor (Jay Duplass), Professor Kim also must manage a trio of tenured professors — Taylor’s Joan Hambling among them — who fear being pushed out of their jobs as the administration (and its students) embrace a more democratic and immersive style of instruction. The pair reunited for a conversation about the Amanda Peet- and Annie Julia Wyman-created comedy in which they reveal how they jumped right into their characters from the start.
It sounds like The Chair was a fast-paced, all-hands-on-deck production.
HOLLAND TAYLOR We shot in Pittsburgh in January and February, part of March — it was pre-vaccine, at the height of COVID. I felt a lot of anxiety. But Sandra was working at such a fever pitch. You just came in with your head down to do the scene. With Sandra, you don’t know when she’s begun — she’s so completely in it and natural.
SANDRA OH It was an amazing and challenging experience to shoot. I think The Chair worked because everyone who was involved had a tremendous amount of experience in television. Everyone who came had, like, 20-plus years. That’s the only way we could have made it because everyone immediately could sense what was needed. For me, it was like instead of running a mile, suddenly you have to do the 100-meter sprint.
One of my favorite scenes between Joan and Bill [Duplass] is at the cocktail party, and Joan is clearly buzzed. What Holland does so brilliantly with Jay is she establishes a long-term relationship, and what he establishes is that he has been around her when she’s drunk a million times. And they have this type of dynamic, which is riding on the edge of many things. I talked to Amanda about [how much I loved it], and she said, “We shot that in four and a half minutes.”
TAYLOR We had just met — I didn’t know Jay before. I just went and played a significantly older woman with a much younger man who has a very pleasing relationship going both directions — she’s affectionate, somewhat bossy and playful. The only way to do that was to literally go there in one step.
It’s amazing to hear how quickly you shot the show, because your characters have such a long history together — and their relationship changes drastically throughout the series once Ji-Yoon is promoted, essentially becoming Joan’s boss.
TAYLOR You don’t see that change happen. You see that Joan is very disappointed a couple of times by Sandra’s character, and she’s not really aware of it. She’s juggling so many things, and Joan kind of gets dropped by the wayside. There isn’t time enough for her to absorb how upsetting this is at the other end. But that causes a rift. From Joan’s point of view, she’s just sort of hapless and helpless — she feels incredibly marginalized and dumped. She joins in with this cabal that wants to stage a coup, but she hasn’t thought about it deeply at all. That’s a tricky thing to play — her self-absorption and her anger has to be such that she’s just not even thinking of Ji-Yoon. She’s just thinking of herself.
OH You said that exceptionally well. The way that we were able to establish a relationship [was leaning] into a fellow actor who is extremely experienced. You’re going to get a good sparring match, and then hopefully what happens is that you then automatically get chemistry and a dynamic is created.
What parts of these characters were you most excited to play?
OH For me, it was really about being as open and flexible as possible. On set was where I think everything just happened for us. It was a very interesting dynamic, because it was the height of COVID. And we all had this tension. But honestly, I feel that tension created an interesting chemistry among the entire cast, because everyone in the show is under threat of being nixed, right?
TAYLOR It was a unique pleasure to do this part. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any opportunity I’ve ever had to play somebody who was just, like, a pile of laundry. I mean, she’s at the end of her everything. I wore literally no makeup except for lipstick. I did not touch my hair — I combed it, that was it. My clothes were sort of rumpled, and I wasn’t careful about how I put them on. Amanda gave it to me right at the top when she said, “She’s at that point in her life where she’s not edited.” So I could say anything, I could do anything, I could shove you on the shoulder if I felt like it. I could just be outside the normal boundaries of civil correct behavior. It was a great liberation.
What kind of preparation did you do for your characters, particularly when it comes to the academic world?
TAYLOR To be a scholar of medieval literature, you have to speak fluently and write fluently in the old forms of five or so languages, European languages, plus Greek and Latin. You have to know these like a scholar. Joan is deep in the cave of scholarship. As opposed to another professor I played, a law professor in Legally Blonde who was standing high on the pinnacle of the law, I saw [Joan as a] very gnomish character in the cave, looking up through her spectacles — which have gotten thicker every year as she pores through her books. It made her very fusty and fussy.
OH As we’ve been promoting The Chair, I’ve come to really value people who come from an English [department] background who share their experience — “Oh, I was a part of my department,” or, “I tried to run it.” The experience of actually being the department chair … it is not awesome. It’s a hard, very relational place to be. I approached Professor Kim mostly from that way. You don’t see Professor Kim teach until probably the last episode. You see how she is relationally with all the members of her department, with Bill, with her father, with her daughter — barely with herself.
I’m curious if there are parallels between the entertainment industry and academia that you drew from — for example, academics have the publish-or-perish mind-set, which I imagine might be similar to the way an actor thinks of their career, always thinking ahead to the next three or four projects.
TAYLOR Looking ahead to my next three or four projects? That’s charming. (Laughs.)
OH I can speak to the responsibility I felt being an EP on the show. If you’re the type of actor who decides to take this on, if you’re at the top of that call sheet, there’s responsibility there — you help to set the tone of the entire production. And that is your choice. I felt very, very aware of Ji-Yoon as a manager. And I will also absolutely credit Jay Duplass, because he is an excellent leader — I mean, he’s also a filmmaker. He does not approach his acting job solely as an actor, and I feel like I don’t either anymore.
What is it about the world of academia that makes it such a perfect setting for a workplace comedy like this?
TAYLOR It has hierarchies. It has a social structure within a small town, with kids who are suddenly away from home. Amanda Peet is so gifted at making a stew — she throws everything in it. And this is not a story like The Paper Chase, which looks at academic issues in a way that’s very literary. Would you agree, Sandra?
OH It’s very situational. A college is a real microcosm of the real world. Amanda has said she sees it as a workplace comedy, and it’s a great place for comedy, for misunderstanding, for heated issues. It’s just a great choice for a setting.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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