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Sandra Oh, Before 'Killing Eve': From The BUST Archives

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To celebrate BUST’s 25thanniversary, we’re bringing some of our favorite cover stories online. Here’s our interview with Sandra Oh from our June/July 2005 issue.

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As impressive as The New York Times’ pronouncement that Sandra Oh “steals every scene” in the new ABC Sunday-night drama Grey’s Anatomy is, the fact that her part was originally scripted for a petite blonde is even more so. Starring in an ensemble cast weighted with strong, interesting women, Oh plays Dr. Cristina Yang, an ambitious medical intern eager to cut people open so she can put her training into practice. It’s not the first time that a role’s Caucasian specs on paper didn’t prevent Oh from auditioning for it. 

Oh arrives precisely on time for our “dinterview” at a restaurant in the Eastside L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake, not far from her house. “I could never live on the Westside,” she says, referring to fancier Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. “Too far from Korean food.” Wearing a brown turtleneck and plaid skirt, she looks chic but not showy and confirms the celebrity body-type stereotype: she’s diminutive, but her head looms large in person. Energetic and outgoing, she accommodates two women who want a picture with her, and she practically becomes BFF with the waiter after finding out that he, like she, is Canadian. She then proceeds to polish off a plate of linguini with clams and drink two glasses of merlot, the wine maligned in Sideways

Though Oh has worked steadily, playing the sassy, dependable Girl Friday Rita Wu on the HBO comedy Arli$$, a literate stripper in the indie movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana (with Daryl Hannah and Jennifer Tilly), and Diane Lane’s no-nonsense best friend in the yuppie drama Under the Tuscan Sun, it was the film Sideways that made her a household name. The wine-soaked midlife crisis comedy, which was co-written and directed by Oh’s then-husband, Alexander Payne (they have since split), burst out of indie-film obscurity to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, nominations for four other Oscars, and trophies from dozens of other awards events such as the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild. In the film, Oh plays Stephanie, a single mom who is refreshingly neither harried nor husband-hunting, and even more refreshingly, sexually adventurous and open. But when she finds out she’s being deceived by her boyfriend, she kicks his ass in filmdom’s most satisfying purse-whipping. Then she peels off on her motorcycle. 

It’s a tough act to follow in an industry where women are often stuck in last-century stereotypes. But Oh segued immediately into another exemplary role, this time on network TV, where she will gain access to her largest audience to date. 

Like her Grey’s Anatomy character, Oh is singularly driven and makes no apologies for not having hobbies and not practicing yoga. She does, however, support NARAL and NOW, and she rides her bike to work—something almost unheard of in L.A. 

LAURIE: Grey’s Anatomy gives me hope for the future of television. There’s depth to the characters. 

SANDRA: It’s really about the five interns. It’s about the women of the show. And that has to do with the focus of our creator [Shonda Rhimes]; she is a woman. When people ask me, “Why’d you go and take a television show?” I say, “Because it was a good part.” 

Often TV offers women better roles than in movies.

I understand why sometimes there is a kind of snobbery about television. It’s because with television you’re battling a lot. You’re going really uphill artistically because you have to sell stuff, and you have to answer to a lot of people. 

So this is the first time you’ve had to deal with things like the network changing a character’s abortion to a miscarriage…

And you’re like, “Who the fuck are these people? Who’s telling me to do this?” It just adds another layer of struggle to doing the work you want to do. But it’s a great part. And that’s where I think television is rare; it gives women the chance to really flourish. Because you have lots of shows that are centered around women. And you don’t have as many films that do that. I mean, how typical is the wife role or the girlfriend role? There’s always got to be a good-looking woman there. But she is just there, she is just an appendage. At least with our show, that is not the case.

Susan Sarandon has said that writers are not writing enough good roles for women who are past the ingénue age. But someone countered that by saying actresses’ agents won’t let the big stars see scripts unless they’re written by established writers; that the material is being written, but it’s not being seen because of the wall actresses build around themselves. 

There are many levels to that. But you just gotta [look at] where the fucking money is, man. You gotta [look at] who is producing [it]. A friend of mine, a wonderful casting director, is casting a show, and one of the characters is someone who is in her 40s—a female character who is dating a younger man. That’s a part of the story line. [But] the people who are running the [casting] room, the heads, are usually men. And they kept pushing the actress’ age down. And [the casting director] had people in the room, actresses, women in their 40s who were big stars in the ‘80s. They are fucking great looking, they’re hot, they’re talented, they have a name, they have power to them, and they’re the right age. Yet, the heads kept asking my friend to push down the age. “Find someone who is 30 who will play 45.” For me, that means the people in that room are afraid of those women. I mean, we can just talk about people who are afraid of those with power. ‘Cause I mean, that’s fucking it. If they felt comfortable about that in themselves, they would go, “I want to see Elizabeth Perkins.” And I am just pulling that name out of the air ‘cause I always liked her. And she’s, you know, a powerful lady.

Hollywood has such a reputation for sexism. Yet your show, for example, is created by a woman, showcases women, and is aired by a network [ABC] that has a lot of women in executive positions. 

But that’s one. That’s one. But, I will say, when I came into the room [to audition for Grey’s Anatomy], the person who was in the middle—who is obviously the most important person—was a black woman, and immediately my entire thing changed. [I thought], “We can play ball here.” She is going to understand me in a completely different way. I’m not saying that I cannot relate to middle-aged white men, ‘cause obviously I can—and a lot of them are my friends, and my family as well. But women speak to women in a different way than men speak to women. And if you were Korean, we’d be speaking in a completely different way. [There are] just other layers of similarity and understanding. 

Which brings us to feminism.

Wonderful.

Do you identify yourself as a feminist?

Totally.

What does that mean to you? 

Jeez…

A lot of women are afraid to commit to that word.

People who say that they don’t like that word have drunk some sort of Kool-Aid. What is wrong with them? Why are they so scared of the word? We need a new resurgence of female power. A lot of what the present administration is about is fear of female power, of world consciousness, which I feel women have an easier time with than men. We have an easier time communicating than men do. It’s our gift. It is not something to be shunned; it is something to be celebrated. It’s about power. Not economic or political power—it is about a deeper power. Because when you know who you are—when you are the same person to the man selling oranges on the side of the road as you are with [director] Steven Soderbergh—you don’t necessarily have to be affiliated with anything. Because if you are a good person, and if you come from love, that will affect everything else. 

Is there any aspect of the feminist movement that is near and dear to your heart?

I wish I was more defined like that, but I am not. I am a member of NOW and NARAL. I give my money. The right to choose is an issue that’s important to me.

"People who say that they don’t like that word [feminism] have drunk some sort of Kool-Aid. What is wrong with them? Why are they so scared of the word? We need a new resurgence of female power."

Canada is so much more progressive on that issue. Is it frustrating to live here where it’s more backward? 

It comes down to my identity as an American or a Canadian. I identify myself as a Canadian because I like the safety of saying, “Well, I could go back home.” You know, if I was gay, I could go back home and get married. So many people very close to me have gotten married, and the fact that they are not even recognized as human beings here is crazy. Canadians live and let live.

Do you have Canadian and American passports?

No, I don’t. I have not taken the citizenship thingamabobby. The only times I have been like, “I’ve got to get my citizenship,” are the past two elections. But I am a Canadian, man, and the thought of pledging allegiance to that flag, when I feel that there’s a lot that has to do with that flag that is deeply hypocritical…[Shakes her head]

Your Grey’s Anatomy character is ambitious, and she happens to be Asian, but I also picked up on an “Asian overachiever” stereotype from her. There were nuances that struck me. 

Even more than the intelligent stereotype that we have about Asians is that they’re passive. I tell you, I don’t know one passive Asian woman. I don’t know one. So, this is something that obviously is not a part of my upbringing or my knowledge. And anyone who is in the culture knows that, too. Yet the image of that is perpetuated. A person can be passive, right, but if you get to know that character, you begin to understand why they’re passive, and then they become interesting. I don’t mind playing the whore, the hooker, the brainiac, the really passive doormat—if it’s about them. I won’t do it if it continues to perpetuate an image I personally don’t believe in or think is unhealthy for my culture.

Los Angeles has a large Korean community. Are you identified with it? 

Yes and no. I grew up in a small town in Ontario. When I went to Toronto it was thrilling for me, because there were, like, five of us [Asian actors]. And then when I moved here it was so huge. It really rocked my world and made me feel very comfortable, that there are hundreds upon hundreds of Asian actors who had the same journey as me. I am speaking about the Asian film/theater community.

You’re more aligned with people in your field than, say, a part of town that’s predominantly Korean. 

Yeah. There’s a strong 50 of us working regularly here, who all know each other and have known each other for years and support each other. Instead of feeling competitive, we’ll call each other and say, “Yeah, I got this part, can you come play my mother?” 

You have no compunction about playing characters that are Japanese or Chinese, I see.

Yeah, I started that way. I played a Chinese girl, Evelyn Lau; the very first thing that I did was [the Canadian telefilm] The Diary of Evelyn Lau. I play Japanese characters, too. I encourage it. I completely understand saying that you want to be specific to the ethnicity, but that rule never applies to white people.

That’s true.

Ralph Fiennes can play an English person, a German person, a Polish person, a Jewish person. He can play anything, and no one questions him. He is a handsome, Caucasian-looking-ish man. So, to American audiences, Europe looks like that. Europe does not look like that. But that is the image we have been fed for 60 years, so we accept that. But what I have big problems with is when people put those limits on me. I just think, “Give me a fucking break. You have no idea what I am.” Because when you meet someone, you never say, “I met Joe Schmoe, and he’s Irish-French.” But there always has to be a quantifier or qualifier when it comes to me.

"I completely understand saying that you want to be specific to the ethnicity, but that rule never applies to white people. Ralph Fiennes can play an English person, a German person, a Polish person, a Jewish person. He can play anything, and no one questions him."

So tell me about the whole Oscars experience. The film earned five nominations, and by the time the Academy Awards happened, it had won lots of awards at other events, like the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. 

What is hard to translate is that it’s not an isolated thing. You’re not only [going to awards shows] in your life. At least, I was not only doing that in my life. When it first started, basically in Toronto at the Toronto Film Festival, I knew that I was going to start the TV show, and that is totally a full-time job. I was very thankful. I shouldn’t say that; I was kind of really more relieved that I didn’t have anything more to do with the film than I did. 

Really? 

To have that kind of acclaim and be working full-time on something is exceptionally difficult. There is no way you can do that and fully experience it when you’re working on something else. It is exhausting and thrilling in its own specific way. If anything[Grey’s Anatomy] really grounded me. 

In what way? 

This is my job. This is what I do every day. I bike to the studio, I show my badge, I get on some makeup. I gotta learn a lot of lines, and I gotta act. This is what I do. This is who I am. It’s not all of who I am, but [doing press and going to awards shows] is not my focus. My focus is working well every day. 

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I’m curious about your off-screen life. Are you a hiker? Are you a meditator?

No, I’m not any of those people. I don’t throw pots, I don’t paint, I don’t do yoga.

What do you do in your off time? 

I have no interests. 

That can’t be true. 

I wish I was more interesting than that. 

Really? It’s all about work?

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No, it’s not all about work. It’s all about loving acting. Do you know what I mean? I loooove acting. 

But when you have time off, what are you doing? 

Time off? [Both laugh] When I have time off, I go back home. I have a new niece, which is so exciting. Some of my dearest friends are in Toronto or Calgary. As you go on in life, your friendships are the most precious things. I can travel much more easily than people who have full-time jobs or people who are full-time mothers; I can take some time off and spend it with my friend and her kid. You’re gonna get more out of a conversation with a person who’s known you since they were 12 than you would rock climbing or seeing movies.

…said the movie actress. 

I’ve had a new love affair with my best friend. I’ve known her since I was 6 but we’ve been best friends since we were about 13. And I mean, she could not be more different [from me]. She’s a full-time mom in Calgary, Alberta. She’s also a life coach, but before that she used to sell insurance. We have almost nothing in common. But, you know, she has her life experiences. I guess my hobby is all of my friendships—trying to maintain that. 

When you’re in LA, what’s your circle like? Do your friends tend to be in the business? 

Oh, come on, are any of your friends not in the business? I’m trying to think of one friend who’s not in the biz. 

And yet you seem so balanced, it’s almost scary. As a devout reader of the tabloids, I get a sense that actors are faced with fierce competition, and then at work, they’re expected to be open and vulnerable on set. They come home, and the press is going through their trash. That’s why actors are said to have these crazy, unstable lives, doing drugs half the time and going to hookers half the time. Is any of that true? 

I think it’s all true, everything that you just said: going to hookers and doing drugs. It relates to how the industry coddles people. It does. But that speaks to how those people want to be—who they want to be and how much they’re challenging themselves. One thing that I find so interesting about acting is that you’re always alive with it. You’re constantly finding out why people are doing what they’re doing. I mean, that’s my job: to be able to play someone. You need to be aware enough to make your character unaware. The whole psychology of human beings; that’s my job. 

So how do you maintain your sanity? What are your rocks of reality? 

I’m the most blessed person in the world. I cannot expound to you enough how amazing my friends are and how amazing my family is. You know, as you grow older you just go, “I hate my family for certain reasons, but I am lucky! I had a happy childhood.” I’m close to everyone. 

Really? Do you talk to them on the phone a lot? 

Yeah. 

Every week?

No. [Laughs] [I do with] my sister. 

So you’re not on the personal-improvement treadmill?

No, it’s all about relationships for me. It’s all relational. 

Very interesting. 

I’m a big believer in drugs, too. [Both laugh

Now we’re talking. What kind? 

Guided drugs. I really believe in certain types of drugs. If you enter into it in a reverential kind of way, you can discover a lot of things. I’m a really big believer in that. And maybe eventually I’ll not even need that to be my entrance into letting go of, let’s say, ego, or just, like, being with the being. A lot of people just do drugs to kind of escape. 

What about music? What’s on the hi-fi these days? 

I listen to Canadian bands. That’s it. Every single CD I bought this year is all Canadian, all the time. 

So you’re a big Celine Dion fan; you’re a big Alanis Morissette fan. 

Celine! Alanis! I do like Alanis. I actually know one of the band members whose band is from Montreal called the Stars. And the Deers opened up for the Stars, and then it was just like, “What the hell is coming out of Montreal?” 

It’s the new Detroit.

Since last year I was just like, “Forget it. It’s all about Toronto and Montreal bands.” That’s all I listen to. 

Are there any particular bands or old records that give you comfort time and again? 

Anything that Björk does, I follow. Even the stuff I fucking hate. Because I follow her as an artist, and she’s not disposable. So I want to know what her next piece is. And you buy it and you go, “OK. Everyone’s pretending to be a drum. OK.” But what she has to say, I relate to it in such a visceral kind of poetic way. 

I want to go back to the Academy Awards; it was the first time you went. Was it fun or was it work? 

I was just so tired. It was so much fun, but it’s not like you come to it well rested. ‘Cause you’re on a circuit. You’re constantly on a circuit. I can’t tell you how many times I would work the whole day and then I would go to an awards ceremony and then go back to work—multiple times. The Critics’ Choice Awards, I worked the whole day up in Northridge [a city north of Los Angeles], then went down [to L.A.], got changed, we won, went back up. In the limo going back up to Northridge, I was taking off a Galliano dress and putting on my scrubs, taking off my makeup, taking down my hair, [and then when I arrived] they said, “OK, shoot.” It was thrilling, though. But I will tell you one thing. I mean, I’m sure all the readers of BUST already know this, but [when you go on camera], everything is touched up and all that stuff. Please let me reiterate: it takes an army of people to get someone ready for this. An army. Ar-my!

You look camera-ready right now and you don’t have any makeup on. 

Ar-my! Well, the thing is, this is totally chilled out and calm. It’s not the high-stakes thing that awards shows have turned into. At those, it doesn’t matter if you have a nice dress. When you get to that level, if you don’t have a dress at the designer level, and if you don’t have jewelry that is up to that level, and shoes, and a bag, and the hair that is up to that level, you immediately feel like an element is missing. There’s always joy and excitement in it, but I was very conscious of it the entire time: this is my job. I believe you need to approach it as a job. Because if you think that it is real, and that it is not a job, I think you start believing things that are not true. 

Tell me more about the Oscars.

My best friend who I was talking to you about was down [from Canada], and another good friend of mine was here, too. Got me up. Had a nice bath. And then they fed me. ‘Cause the whole process takes such a long time that you would have breakfast and then you need lunch. Also, you’re not going to eat until very late. I’m a person who needs to eat every couple hours. I brought, like, three granola bars to the Academy Awards. I ate them all. You have a hair person, a makeup person, you have a stylist and their assistant who will help you with jewelry. So in the morning they come and say, “This is all the jewelry, which one do you want?” My friend is there taking Polaroids of me. Again, this is the job element: you see which one looks better photographed. There’s an image that you are trying to control. What kind of image do you want to put out there of yourself? 

Did you hit any snags during preparations?

At one point I wanted to put my cigarettes in my bag, but those freaking bags the stylists give you, they don’t fit anything. It literally took three women to try figure out a good way to put cigarettes into the purse. It was so much fun.

What was the best part of the evening? Was it when Sideways won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay? Was it afterwards when you could let go at the party?

It was sitting there in the auditorium at the Kodak Theatre, and looking over at Virginia [Madsen] and at how beautiful she looked, looking over at Thomas [Haden Church], looking over at Paul [Giamatti] and then Alexander [Payne] and Jim [Taylor]. It was just, “We’re here!” It was an inside thing. There’s that, and the best thing about this whole awards thing, for me, was the kind of people that you get to meet. The amount of talented people you have access to is just extraordinary. 

So where did you go after? The Governor’s Ball?

Yeah, we went to the Governor’s Ball. And then Vanity Fair. I have never been around more famous people in my life.

I call that a “celebriteria.”

It was a celebriteria like you would not believe. It’s the kind of thing where you bump into someone and you go, “Oh, excuse me” and then they go, “Oh, excuse me.” But then you know who they are and you go, “Oh, OK, hi!” There is this weird kind of familiarity because I have seen them on television and they have seen me in a movie. I was coming out of the bathroom and within five feet I bumped into Cate Blanchett. And I had to have a conversation, I had to fucking talk to Cate Blanchett in front of the bathroom! And then up walks Regina King, who I’ve just loved for so long. When you feel you have so much recognition on your face because you know them and then you see that [same] recognition on their face, it’s a really new thing. Then—and this is in the same five feet—I walk a couple paces and there is Zhang Ziyi, the Crouching Tiger gal. Lovely lady. Talked to her for a bit, and then right in front of her is Tom Cruise. 

Do you ever get spooked by getting exactly what you hoped for your entire life?

It’s almost like I feel too lucky sometimes. I wonder when God is going to come down and say, “Are you kidding me? You have gotten more than anyone deserves. I am going to take it all away now.”

When you have friends who you think are very talented but are not having the luck that they should have, in their personal life or professional life, do you ever wonder why you got a break and they didn’t?

Yes, that exists. But you can never diminish your life. Ever. It is a disservice to your friends. [You will always be there] to support, to share, and that’s what they will feel—that genuine feeling from you. If you feel shame about how wonderful your life is going, that’s a judgment on how you feel about where they are. Especially women. Society is set up for us to dampen our lives, to dampen our power. I am so not buying into that anymore.

Story by Laurie Pike // Photos by Emily Shur

Makeup: Sharon Gault @ Magnet; Hair: Jamal Hamadi @ Magnet using Hamadi hair products; Styling: Ruth Kahn. Vintage Yves Saint Laurent dress and Vintage necklace (worn as a belt): both from The Paperbag Princess; ring: Fine Jewelry by David Webb; earrings: stylist's own

This article originally appeared in BUST’s June/July 2005 issue. Subscribe now.

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