Oh, the Places She’ll Go
Sandra Oh makes the bold decision to depart Grey’s Anatomy. The actress opens up about her two decades long career, half of which was spent on the highly popular ABC medical drama, and the other bold chances she’s ready to take.
by JIMMY LEE
Photographs by LEVER RUKHIN
Do you know, by the time you’re reading this, that Sandra Oh’s run on the hit ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy has come to an end? That with the season 10 finale, which aired on May 15, you will no longer be able to watch fresh episodes that feature an ambitious, hard-driving surgeon named Cristina Yang glowing from the small screen? That there will be one less stereotype-defying character that a magazine like this one can cite as the type of representation we wish American television presented on a more regular basis?
Last summer, Sandra made the announcement that this would be her final year on what has proven to be a groundbreaking series, with its diverse casting and storylines. And as season 10 wound toward its conclusion, the producers of Grey’s Anatomy amped up the suspense as to just how Dr. Cristina Yang would no longer be running around Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. One episode that aired in late March put her future front and center, as it tinkered with the space-time continuum and posited different potential flash-for- wards for Dr. Yang’s life.
It also allowed Sandra to give at least one more bravura performance, as her character was tested with one of life’s quandaries: what comes first, career or love? What do you choose to be your life’s priorities? The title of that episode: “Do You Know?”
Do you know, if you were in a similar situation, what you would choose? Would you stay in a job that provided stability, accolades and tremendous perks (like hanging out with one of your favorite bands—in this case, Wilco—because the lead singer’s wife is a big fan of the show), or would you leave because you wanted to continue to challenge yourself and grow as an artist and person? Would you be willing to give up the $350,000 per episode that Sandra reportedly was earning (along with two other original co-stars, Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey)? With over 20 episodes a season, that’s turning away at least $7 million a year.
Our lives are defined by the choices we make. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know, that only hindsight is 20/20, and we have no idea how our decisions today will play out over the course of our lives.
“It’s taken me 20 years to realize that I was so lucky to get a huge demand of work at the very beginning of my career, and how that set the template for everything,” says a reflective Sandra, 42, armed with hindsight clarity of a now two-decades long acting career.
Sandra’s journey here—to this place where her departure from a show makes headlines and causes TV bloggers to speculate endlessly about how her beloved character will be written out of the show—is the product of a series of pivotal choices she made, long predating this latest high-profile judgment call.
A proud Canadian, by way of Ottawa, Sandra knew early on that she wanted to be an actor, the first spark being ballet lessons and a love of performing before an audience. Then, at age 8, she saw a touring show of Annie, and the torch was lit.
“I really remember it quite viscerally, being in like the nosebleed seats, and I’m seeing those kids perform on stage, saying, ‘Oh my god, what the f-ck is that?’” Sandra recalls, as we share a pizza at a Los Angeles cafe in late February. At a few points during our conversation, which spans a discussion about everything from favorite bands (Wilco is apparently the soundtrack of her early life in L.A.) to the importance of meditation, she squeals delightedly about the fact that there’s potato on her pizza.
“And then I started acting when I was about 10,” she continues. “And during that kind of transition-y time, I really wanted to be a dancer, but I wasn’t good enough to be a dancer.
“And you know, that time is when you audition for the professional schools, and, no, I wasn’t good [enough]. And so I started acting.”
From that point on, she would perform in school plays and join an improv team at her high school. Then, instead of matriculating into one of two colleges where she gained admission, the University of Toronto and Carleton University, she opted instead to attend the National Theatre School of Canada. Her first big project after graduating was the title role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a TV docudrama based on the writings of a 14-year-old runaway who gets involved with drugs and prostitution. Her performance would earn Sandra a slew of awards and acclaim in not only Canada but also France. It would also set off an impressive string of roles for the young actress, including the lead protagonist in Double Happiness, directed by Mina Shum—her performance as a non-filial Chinese Canadian would garner Sandra a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar.
“Canada is much different than the United States,” notes Sandra, “because I never felt doors closed to me in Canada, as [in] who is the teller of the story. And I have felt it [in the U.S.]”
Sandra moved to Los Angeles in 1996, and despite some of those closed doors, managed in about six months time to land a role in Arli$$, an HBO series starring Robert Wuhl—not to mention a work permit (remember, she’s Canadian).
She played Rita Wu, the quirky assistant to sports agent Arliss Michaels, played by Wuhl, for seven seasons. There was also Sideways, the unexpected hit film that impacted America’s wine- drinking habits, co-written and directed by Sandra’s ex-husband, Alexander Payne. And, then, of course, came along a new medical drama called Grey’s Anatomy.
“Grey’s Anatomy, it changed all of our lives,” says Sandra, referring to herself and the ensemble cast. “And it was an extremely stressful time. And in those times, it’s very difficult to see what’s happening in the present moment. It’s only 10 years later when I get to say, ‘Oh, I remember the first year was so magical in a way.’ … And then it was like a rush for the next three or four years, until, quite honestly, the writers’ strike, and then we had a break. And then there was another section for the next few years, and now I feel like the past two years have been a section of time where it was like the end of work and the decision to leave.
“It’s like leaving a relationship in a really healthy way,” she says. “It’s like, ‘OK, I’m not growing in this relationship anymore. I love you, I know you love me, and I have to move on.’ … That’s the closest thing I can relate it to, you know, because it’s all about relationships.”
If Sandra sounds like a person who has been doing some deep self- reflection over the years, she has. She talks passionately about meditation, and how just sitting on a mat with other like-minded people who invite peace and gratitude into their lives have been so beneficial to her, as an artist and a spiritual person.
“I think that with time and introspection, when you’re taking time out to sit on a mat, you’re able to kind of forge a strong relationship with gratitude and purpose. But let me tell you, when I was in my 20s, I couldn’t see any- thing. I think it has to do with youth, as well, and I was just extremely driven. And it’s not driven by anything other than the need to act, you know? But I think that’s what time and particularly the experience of Grey’s Anatomy—basically having the safety of having a job, and being in a job for 10 years— [have changed].”
And that time and introspection led her to a place where she could comfortably say she was ready to leave the stability of this job that had won her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild statuettes, not to mention a legion of fans who embraced Cristina Yang’s fierce independence, sass and dry wit. A female character who didn’t feel the need to identify herself by the traditional tropes of wife and mother.
“All I can say when I made the decision, the feeling was,” Sandra says, then pauses a beat. “I’ve done my job. I have explored this character in every single direction, and now I need to grow. The reason I was able to come to that [decision] was because they wrote me such great stuff. And I feel like TV is where it’s at. Because, as an actor, you have the experience and the opportunity to fully flesh out a character.”
That kind of character development can’ t be accomplished in a two-hour movie, or even in a TV series that lasts a few seasons, she says. “My god, I got to have an experience that most actors never have.”
Growth as an artist and actor is obviously of monumental import to Sandra. Even with numerous movie credits and awards on her resume, she still takes acting classes. “One, I love it,” Sandra explains. “And two, I love it. I always want to grow.
“I feel like it’s not about producing, it’s not about getting better, it’s not about getting anything right. I’m at that place in my life where I’m not interested in that anymore. I’m interested more in the bigger mystery of it all, and how we can translate that to our work.”
She adds, “I’m a very process- oriented gal.”
Clearly, she is passionate about her craft, and that fuels a work ethic that her castmates admire.
“She’s very vigilant,” says Kevin McKidd, who has played her love interest Dr. Owen Hunt for the last few seasons. “Her scripts are completely covered in Post-It notes. It’s really inspiring to see a very established, confident actor very much engaged in the process.”
There are others, however, who choose to take advantage of Sandra’s fastidiousness.
“I make fun of how she keeps her scripts—so many Post-It notes! And I enjoy removing them!” says Chandra Wilson, another original cast member who plays Dr. Miranda Bailey, as well as prankster on the set.
“[Sandra] can’t stand it,” says Wilson, with a hearty laugh. “She always knows where to go, who did it.”
Wilson adds, “It’s all in good fun.” But she did refrain from teasing Sandra when shooting the “Do You Know?” episode; Wilson was its director.
“I was so incredibly honored to be entrusted with that responsibility,” Wilson says. So there was little time for her hijinks. “I didn’t make her break character. I was very good. I knew that it was really important to her, so I didn’t want to take that away. So we were good.”
When asked what she’ll miss about Sandra, Wilson replies, “We share our commitment not only to the product that we put out, but to the morale of production, to the morale of crew. We enjoy keeping that atmosphere up and lively and fun, and I think it’s because of our shared theater background.”
And she has no concerns regarding Sandra’s future. “Sandra, bless her heart, is an actress who has been fortunate enough to be on series television for almost 20 years, you know, because Arli$$ was on for seven seasons before Grey’s started. There’s all kinds of movie opportunities I know that are in her future. And television is always there,” says Wilson. “That’s kind of what you want at the end of the day, to be able to make choices as opposed to just having to take whatever you can just to work. That’s not the life she’s going to have to live, and that’s a nice position to be in.”
Sandra does have a few commitments post-Grey’s. She has a role in the upcoming summer film Tammy, to be released in early July. It’s a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy of Bridesmaids fame and The Heat, and in it Sandra is married to Kathy Bates. “We are in what I think is becoming a classic coupling—the gay couple are the normal, stable people in the world,” describes Sandra.
And after a short break from finishing Grey’s, Sandra will return to the theater, at Chicago’s Victory Gardens, and star in a production of Death and the Maiden that opens June 13. Written by Ariel Dorfman, it’s a play about torture and betrayal.
“[Sandra] read the play and fell in love with it,” says Chay Yew, Victory Gardens’ artistic director, as well as the director for Death and the Maiden. “She was a little, I would say, challenged by it, because it’s a very dark play. She said, ‘I need to do this.’ ”
Beyond that, there are no specific plans that Sandra offers up. But she does describe some types of characters that she wants to play. And, her choices, they just might raise a few eyebrows.
“I don’t mind playing the Korean prostitute, not at all,” says Sandra. Immigrant Korean shop owners and dry cleaners are also on that list.
“The next step for me is not about portraying how we’ re the same; it’ s about portraying our differences, exactly who we are,” she says.
This notion of our racial differences was one subject matter in which she thinks Grey’s Anatomy could have delved into more. “I will say, Grey’s Anatomy has never dealt with race. And that was up to [creator Shonda Rhimes].”
One of the reasons that the show is so admired is that it depicts a multicultural environment where the color of your skin or ethnicity is not a factor—it is the idealized post-racial society. But in a reality where race is still an issue and that it does indeed cause friction and animus, there is territory that Sandra thinks can be explored for dramatic and comedic purposes.
“It bummed me out because I feel like, this could be a great story idea, or even like a joke. But [Grey’s Anatomy’s producers] would not go for it, because it was a show choice.”
So Sandra is choosing to venture into some uncharted territory on her own. She describes an audition— “one of my worst auditions ever, but not because I was bad”—where she based her performance on a Korean grocery owner she came across in New York City. “She was mean, super New York-y. And I thought, I want to play that woman one day,” says Sandra. “And I had an opportunity to fold that [store owner] into another character I was auditioning for. So I did it all, like hair and makeup—because she was kind of over the top—and I did it all in accent. And I think [the casting people] were horrified.”
The idea of the immigrant being distinct intrigues her. “When I felt like I was trying to introduce that as a possibility for a character, a possibility as a comedic character, I think it freaked people out. Because, first, I think, it came across as racist. I’m like, no, we’re just not ready for it yet. We’re not ready to actually play our own, with our familial accents, you know?
“It is so hard having characters with accents. We don’t pay attention to the fact that we’re around people who have accents all the time. And somehow it is rarely translated onto screen.”
For decades, it seems Asian American actors have fought for the opportunity to play people who, like themselves, are ethnically Asian but speak perfect English. This is the part of the story where I note the irony of someone who just finished playing for a decade the ideal of what an Asian American actor can portray might be suggesting we take a step back.
“It’s not regressive at all,” says Sandra, “because, I think creatively that [New York store owner’s] story has never been told, not properly. That’s the shift we need to make; that the story is about ourselves. … I feel like now I’m interested in telling the story about, you know, an aunt and uncle who opened up a dry cleaners store. We still need to move stuff ahead.”
And if anyone is to be at the forefront of doing that, playing the immigrant store owner in an authentic, non-stereo- typical way, it’s probably Sandra.
Despite being a self-identifying Canadian Korean, what she has accomplished over the last 20 years has elevated her, in many ways, to be a role model for many Korean Americans, and Asian Americans, in her field.
The playwright Chay Yew, who is Chinese American, puts it this way: “[Sandra] has done years of trailblazing work, and that’ s wonderful. We need more [Asian Americans] to do it as well.
“What we [need to] do as diverse Americans is to cultivate the next generation leaders of color, as well as women, who will be able to open more doors. And Sandra has been nothing but a great symbol of what is possible.”
This article was published in the May 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).