Story by Michelle Woo.
Photos by Lever Rukhin.
After nearly a decade of breathing life, love and humanity into Grey’s Anatomy’s beloved Dr. Cristina Yang, Sandra Oh is looking in a new direction. The woman whose eyes — and every emotion behind them — changed the way we look at Asian women on the screen, is now turning her attention to the next generation.
It’s nearly impossible to sit at a table with Sandra Oh inside a Korean café in Los Angeles and not study her face. That face. The one that, throughout her 10-season run as hyper-driven surgeon Cristina Yang on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, has said so much with every subtle movement — a crinkle in her forehead, the flutter of her eyelids, the quiver of her chin. The face that made fans gasp for air when she was abandoned at the altar, grin in satisfaction every time she fired off one of her sassy one-liners (“I am laughing, just not externally”), and loyally watch her navigate years of twists and turns, from an icicle stabbing to a plane crash to PTSD.
Just where does that expressiveness come from?
“That’s a really good question because I have no idea,” Oh tells me, touching her cup of latte with the foam shaped into a heart. “You’re not conscious of it, like you’re not conscious of how you’re looking at me: your head is slightly tilted, your eyebrows are slightly up, your eyes are open and your mouth is soft. You’re not conscious of any of that.” She does say that people, particularly men she’s dated and her mother, have often pointed out her inability to mask her emotions. “If I’m angry inside of me at a three, it comes across as a 10.”
We end up talking a lot about faces, a topic the actress has passionate feelings about. Wearing a fitted navy blazer, her hair a plump array of ringlets (she has naturally wavy hair), Oh says she once read a magazine article about the rise of plastic surgery in Korea influenced by K-pop stars, and it still upsets her. “I was taking a shower and just thinking about that,” she says, leaning in intently as she speaks. “It’s a very dysfunctional thing. Korean women don’t even know what they look like. Before even finding their own identity, they change it. I find that so … antihuman.”
At 42, Oh wants to help empower young men and women, particularly those discouraged by the lack of faces like theirs in movies and on television. Having just hung up her white coat for the final time on Grey’s, a show she’s dedicated nearly a quarter of her life to, winning a Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations for her role, she ponders where to go from here. She’s going to act, no doubt — she’s in the upcoming comedy Tammy with Melissa McCarthy, which hits theaters on July 2, and she’s starring in a play in Chicago this summer called Death and the Maiden.
But she’s also looking to do more. “You get to a point in your life when you realize you can do things in a more concrete way,” says Oh, who comes across as soulful and introspective. She wants to be part of a shift that moves society forward in its representation of people of color, which involves seeing more Asian American actors propelled from clichéd sidekicks to rich and meaningful characters. Pausing for a moment, she tries to think back to when Asian American women first started taking on television parts that historically weren’t available to them.
“If you go back to, I dunno, 10 years ago, Lucy Liu was on, ummm, what’s that show?” Oh asks.
“Ally McBeal,” I reply.
“Yeah, she was on Ally McBeal, and … who else was there?”
“There was … Margaret Cho.”
“Yeah, well, Margaret had her show, like, 20 years ago,” Oh says. “So we’re tapped into this industry and those are the only two people we can think of? That’s really, really sad. I know that we have more than a handful that we can point to now, and it’s really about bumping up those numbers, you know?”
The issue is one that hits her deeply. Oh has an email that she saved from her producer, who wrote to tell Oh something her daughter had randomly said at dinnertime. The producer’s daughter is 10 and adopted from China.
She pulls out her iPhone and looks for the message. “Here, I’ll read it,” she begins. “She said, ‘I used to think I was kind of ugly because I had squinty eyes, and then I met Sandra and she has squinty eyes and is beautiful, and now I don’t think I’m ugly.’” Oh puts down her phone and takes a slow breath. “When I read that, I burst into tears because I felt like that when I was 10, and if someone as beautiful and as full of life as she is can feel that way, then how many other 10-year-old girls feel that way?”
She shakes her head. “I just keep thinking, how can I transform this?”
THE LACK OF DIVERSITY in the Hollywood landscape is part of the reason that Oh feels “so lucky, sooooo lucky” to have been able to play the nuanced, emotionally complex role of Cristina Yang. Part of the original crop of surgical interns at Seattle Grace Hospital when the show premiered in 2005, Cristina became what Slate television critic Willa Paskin proclaimed “one of TV’s most original and influential characters.” She was quick-witted, sarcastic, competitive, brutally honest and unyieldingly loyal — her friendship with main character Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) was a pillar of the show.
Prior to filming the season finale (which aired after press time), Oh felt like she was getting off a “fast-moving train,” and the fact that she would never scrub in again hadn’t fully hit her. She did, however, find a moment to plot out which items she would steal from the set. “I took a rug from Cristina and Owen’s [Kevin McKidd] apartment that we stood on for I dunno how many years,” she confesses. “And you know, I’ll probably take my stethoscope.” McKidd, who plays Cristina’s on-again-off-again love, says he’s going to miss the marathon workdays he spends with Oh, who introduced him to the practice of meditation and would play with his kids whenever they visited the set. “With most actors, when you talk to them, they’ll nod while looking on,” says McKidd. “When you talk to Sandra, she’s engaged and really listens and there’s no bullsh-t. She’s a deep-thinking, compassionate human being.”
As for why she’s leaving Grey’s, Oh says, “I feel like I’ve completed my job. Working with the writers, we’ve unearthed every stone.” While she says it’s too early to really see the ripple effects from a primetime television show where almost half the cast are men and women of color, Oh believes she was part of something monumental. “I just haven’t felt that there’s been another show that has brought so much light to a different type of casting as ours did,” she says. “It’s the magic of time. It was the right time in society, in the culture. It was the right grouping of people.”
Beyond race, the series was also gutsy in other ways. A couple seasons back, Cristina had an abortion. A child simply would have shattered her career, the one by which she defined herself. “There was no fanfare about it,” says Oh. “That’s how far we have come as women. My character was making that decision based on what was right for her as opposed to a medical emergency or her being attacked or reasons that would otherwise have been more palatable.” She points to the fact that Cristina had also gotten pregnant early on in the show, in 2005, but before she could have an abortion, she lost the baby. Over the past decade, she says, there’s been “a shift.”
“I really tried to create a character who followed herself,” Oh says. “[Grey’s creator] Shonda Rhimes, the writers and I were very interested in creating the kind of character who is not bound by a husband, not bound by a family, and is only really committed to herself and who she is in the world.”
How she became that character — and how she becomes any character she plays — is a calculated process in itself. “You can see Sandra’s dedication in the look of her scripts,” says costar Chandra Wilson, who plays no-nonsense surgeon Miranda Bailey. “They are completely marked up with highlights and colored tabs and notes that are full of intention. It doesn’t matter the size of a scene — she wants to be honest every single moment.”
Oh’s supreme focus revealed itself early on in her career. Her big break came when, at age 19, she beat out more than 1,000 young women for the title role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Canada’s made-for-television film about a tortured poet who flees her disapproving parents for a life on the streets. At her audition, she asked the producer and director for a moment to focus. Then she laid on the floor for five minutes. “I love that girl,” Oh says with a laugh, reflecting on her younger self. “She didn’t know you’re not supposed to do breathing exercises in the middle of a f-cking audition. She only knew to follow her own instinct.”
The actress says she gets her audacity from her mom and dad — a former research scientist and businessman, respectively — two people who, as she describes it, “freakin’ left Korea in the mid-’60s and just changed their lives.” Oh adds, “The insanity and challenge of my parents’ generation going through occupation, living through occupation, living through the second World War, living through the Korean War, then coming out of the Korean War and then in their mid-20s, coming to America — that to me is fearlessness. It’s like, hey, I’m gonna go to some American school and not know the language and then get a job. I mean, who does that? Immigrants do that.”
Oh gets philosophical as she ponders what drives success. “There are so many articles and books and studies about this generation not being challenged, and my belief is that if you’re challenged, you find out who you are much quicker,” she says. “Privilege is such a trapping because it’s a longer road to ever finding out who you really are. You have to be able to say no to a safe place.”
For Oh, who grew up in a suburb of Ontario, Canada, that meant pursuing acting in spite of her parents’ objections, trusting that they would still love her and ultimately understand her. A self-described “extremely hyperactive, hyper-sensitive kid,” Oh began performing when she was 10, playing the Wizard of Woe in a musical operetta called The Canada Goose. She trained in ballet, then studied drama at the National Theatre School in Montreal and went on to star in a London, Ontario, stage production of David Mamet’s Oleanna. “I just lucked out,” Oh says of her path. “I lucked out with the family I had. I lucked out with where I grew up. I lucked out in a lot of ways where, in my early years, I didn’t encounter anything that crushed me.”
More than luck, though, Oh’s evolution is the result of careful decision-making, beginning with the characters she chooses to play. Those have ranged from the dual-life-living artist Jade in the film Double Happiness to the inscrutable personal assistant Rita Wu on the HBO comedy Arli$$ to the asskicking wine seller Stephanie in the Academy Award winning indie megahit Sideways. Oh says she made a commitment to herself early on that she wouldn’t take on stereotypical, throwaway roles. “There are certain bars that you strive for, that you set for yourself, and then hopefully you’ll achieve that bar and then you’ll get another bar,” she says. “So at one point, that was a bar. I said, no more ‘prostitute to the left.’”
Then she chuckles and adds, “But one of the prostitutes that I’ve played — I haven’t played that many — was in this wonderful film called Waking the Dead that Keith Gordon directed. I played the Korean prostitute, and I didn’t want to go in on it, but then I decided, well, someone’s going to take this part and it should be me. It turned out to be a really, really positive experience. Keith was a wonderful director, and it became much more than a cursory part. I think I had no dialogue, but my goal was that if the camera was ever on my face, people would think, ‘What’s going on with that character?’ It
was about her inner life.”
When asked if it frustrates her when other Asian American actors take on token roles, she says with zero hesitation: “Never. Never ever, ever. Ever.
“It is hard out there,” she explains. “Doing what we do as actors is crushing every day. If anything, I search for the magic that they are bringing. Because they better bring it. Every actor has a choice, an opportunity to transform something. If you enter into a situation where there’s no room for transformation and you feel comfortable playing something that’s demeaning, then that’s on you. But there’s a whole range of what is right for you as an artist. Let’s say this character is a completely demeaning character and that demeaning character is essential to the story — I’d wanna play that.”
Oh believes the issue of responsibility as an actor of color is “very complex.” She says, “I don’t think you can rule out responsibility. If you so choose to take it, it’s there. But I also feel as much, if not more, responsibility to who I am as an artist. The next step for me is to try to figure out that balance. Having said that, one serves the other. If you are true to yourself as an artist, you will do good work. If you do good work, if you do truthful work, you will represent a culture well because you will be seen, hopefully, as an artist that’s worthwhile and someone who we want to see telling our stories.”
One of the stories Oh will be telling post-Grey’s is that of Paulina, a former political prisoner who encounters the man she believes raped and tortured her 15 years earlier, in the award-winning play Death and the Maiden at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater starting June 13. Director Chay Yew, one of the first people Oh met when she moved to Los Angeles, calls the actress “a shining bright light. She is able to fiercely love and embrace all the characters she embodies, despite their flaws, shortcomings or darkness. In turn, we find ourselves in every character she portrays.”
To center herself, Oh meditates every day in her Los Angeles home — she’s on the board of a nonprofit meditation group called InsightLA. Her best days, she says, always involve “family and friends and some sort of creative work.” She keeps her personal life private and doesn’t consider herself a celebrity (“I detest that word,” she says). And now with Grey’s behind her, she’s looking to do something — something more.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Oh says it was a “game-changer,” explaining, “I could feel the rumbling inside of myself because I somehow felt I was part of that change.” Now, more than ever, she wants to encourage Asian Americans to be bold. She’s involved in community outreach and says she’s open to starting a dialogue on race, in Hollywood and beyond. “I’m trying to teach Asian American girls that they are perfect the way they are and all they need to do is discover themselves,” she says.
If they ever need some inspiration, they can simply look at her face.
This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here.
Stylist: Anita Patrickson for The Wall Group
Makeup: Georgie Eisdell for The Wall Group
Hair: Christine Symonds for The Wall Group
Location The Legendary Park Plaza Hotel