Sandra stars as "Cristina Yang" on ABC's new series "Grey's Anatomy." The show is based on the daily personal and professional struggles of young student interns working at a rigorous hospital. Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Sandra Oh started ballet lessons at the age of four and performed in her first play at the age of ten. She started working professionally at age sixteen in television, theatre and commercials. After three years at the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada, she beat out more than 1000 other hopefuls and landed the coveted title role in the CBC telefilm The Diary of Evelyn Lau, based on the true story of a tortured poet who ran away from home and ended up a drug addict and prostitute in Vancouver. Her performance brought her a Gemini (Canada's Emmy) nomination for Best Actress and the 1994 Cannes FIPA d'Or for Best Actress.
Oh won her first Genie (Canada's Oscar) for her leading role in Double Happiness, a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a young Chinese-Canadian woman. She moved to Los Angeles in 1996 to begin the first of six seasons as Rita Wu, the smart and sassy assistant on the HBO comedy series, Arli$$, for which she won a Cable Ace Award for Best Actress in a Comedy. Her additional television credits include HBO's Six Feet Under, Showtime's Further Tales of the City and a recurring role on Judging Amy.
Her films include Sideways for director Alexander Payne, Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane, and Rick, with Bill Pullman and Agnes Buckner. Other film credits include Bean, Guinevere, The Red Violin, Waking the Dead, The Princess Diaries and Pay or Play. She also starred in Michael Radford's improvised Dancing at the Blue Iguana, a bleak and raw view of life in a strip club in L.A, and in the independent Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity. Her performance in Last Night, a Canadian film about the end of the world, led to her winning a second Genie Award for Best Actress in 1999. Never straying far from her theatre roots, Oh has also starred in the world premieres of Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters at the La Jolla Playhouse and Diana Son's Stop Kiss at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in New York, a role for which she received a Theatre World Award. She was also recently seen in the Vagina Monologues in New York. Oh will next star in the independent films Cake, Wilby Wonderful and 3 Needles. She resides in Los Angeles.
Sandra was born on November 30, 1970, in Canada. Born to Korean parents in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, Ontario, Canada. Her father and mother, who were married in Seoul, South Korea, both attended graduate school at the University of Toronto. She began her career as a ballet dancer and eventually studied drama at the National Theatre School in Montreal. She then starred in a London (Ontario) stage production of David Mamet's "Oleanna" and appeared as the title character in the Canadian television production The Diary of Evelyn Lau (1993) (TV), beating out over 1,000 applicants. Her list of awards includes the FIPA d'Or for Best Actress at the 1994 Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels at Cannes, France, two Genie Awards (the Canadian Oscar), a Cable Ace Award, a Theatre World Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. In January 1, 2003, she married writer-director Alexander Payne and their first film together was the Oscar-winning Sideways (2004).
More fun facts about Sandra Oh
Was a member of a National Champion Canadian Improv Team at The Canadian Improv Games in the late nineties.
When asked who her favorite rock-star is, she answered Wayne Coyne (lead singer of the Flaming Lips), the reason being he looks enough like her husband, Alexander Payne, for her to pretend her fantasy about being married to a rock-star is true!
Her personal quotes:
"You just don't care about what people think. But it's hard to do because people tell you what they think all the time. It's sort of nuts. We actors, we're a fragile bunch, and yet we need to be strong because 90% of our lives is rejection. You have to figure out what really is important."
"And on a Canadian set, everybody is equal. You get paid the same. You live together in barracks. You have a communal kitchen. You buy and cook your own food."
February 2005: Has a role in ABC's "Grey's Anatomy".
Sandra Oh moves forward from 'Sideways'
Sandra Oh, who played a freewheeling single mom in Sideways, gets tough as a surgical intern in ABC's medical drama Grey's Anatomy. But Oh, who spent six years on the cable TV series Arli$$, first had to dissect "more corporate input" than she expected in her first major project for a broadcast network.
"I find it challenging having to make decisions by committee," Oh, 34, says during a break on the set. "I was lucky on Arli$$. I basically got to do whatever I wanted because HBO is great for that."
The role of Christina Yang on Grey's Anatomy (debuting 10 p.m. ET Sunday, following ABC's hit series Desperate Housewives ) proved too good to resist, she says.
"I get to play a woman who is extremely ambitious and unapologetic and driven, and sometimes not very sympathetic," Oh says. "So you weigh the opportunity to actually do good work, but understanding the medium and who you're working for."
Oh returns to television after a series of films that included The Princess Diaries, Under the Tuscan Sun and Sideways, for which director/co-writer (and husband) Alexander Payne won the adapted screenplay Oscar. (The couple recently announced they had separated.)
Raised in Canada by her Korean-immigrant parents, she began studying ballet at 4.
"I had pigeon toes, and my mother heard that that was a good way to straighten them out," Oh recalls.
She got into theater at age 10 and, despite her parents' disapproval, began a professional acting career before she was out of her teens.
"It was very bad at that time," says Oh, who opted out of a university education. "In many Asian households, to not go on to higher education, that's like a big no-no. I know my parents' discouragement was for my own protection, and I'm really close to them now, but they didn't understand that there is value in this. That's because they didn't know."
In 1991, she left home to study at the National Theatre in Montreal. By 1993 she'd landed the title role as a teenage prostitute in the CBC television drama The Diary of Evelyn Lau.
Later, director Mina Shum cast her in the 1994 film Double Happiness and she starred onstage in David Mamet's Oleanna.
After winning numerous awards including two Genies, Canada's Oscar equivalent, Oh came to Los Angeles in 1995. A year later, she landed on Arli$$, winning a best-actress CableAce Award for comedy.
Oh has a number of upcoming independent features, including Hard Candy, 3 Needles and Cake, and in May she films Grace Lee's Smells Like Butter in Korea.
Still, big-budget American films offer her little more than supporting parts "where I'd come in for two or three days to play the best friend or their bookkeeper," she muses. "This is my career."
Even Sideways hasn't caused a flood of starring offers.
"But what's been really lovely is that now it's not just two scenes playing an assistant, which is where I was stuck for a very long time. So the roles are now a little more significant. There's a little more for me to do now."
"It's been difficult for her being a Korean-Canadian to garner work in America," says Grey's Anatomy co-star Isaiah Washington. "And that she's only one of a (small) percentage of Korean actors in the forefront, besides Margaret Cho, that's a huge responsibility."
That's not lost on Oh.
"I grew up never seeing myself on-screen, and it's really important to me to give people who look like me a chance to see themselves. I want to see myself as the hero of any story. I want to see myself save the world from the bomb," she says.
For now, though, she's content to save lives in a TV operating room.
"I think the roles in television are better for women right now," she says. "At this point I don't want to continue doing the same things I've been doing in film because it's very limited."
''Sideways'' couple announce separation
Director Alexander Payne and his wife Sandra Oh have gone from "Sideways" to splitsville.
The Hollywood couple "have mutually decided to separate," a spokeswoman told People magazine on Saturday. "They will remain friends."
The couple met five years ago, and were married in 2003. Payne wrote and directed "Sideways," which was nominated for five Oscars, and he shared the Academy Award with writing partner Jim Taylor for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Oh, a former co-star on the HBO series "Arli$$," was one of the stars of the film.
Sideways Captivates Independent Spirit Awards
This year's Independent Spirit Awards turned into a Sideways coronation, as the hit comedy won all six awards it was nominated for. In addition to taking Best Picture, the movie won Best Director for Alexander Payne, Best Screenplay for Payne and Jim Taylor, and acting awards for Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen. (The fourth Sideways co-star, Sandra Oh, got an honorable mention as the sole cast member who could drink all the others under the table.)
Sandra Oh to "Smell Like Butter"
"Sandra Oh, one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated film "Sideways," has signed on for the starring role in "Smell Like Butter," according to Production Weekly. To be directed by Grace Lee, "Butter" is a romantic comedy set in Seoul, Korea and Los Angeles and will focus on a Korean-American as she adapts to life in Korea. "Sideways" is currently playing in theaters."
Live Long And Prosper, Sandra Oh
Some may think Paul Giamatti the most maligned Sideways cast member from his lack of Academy Award accolades this year, but really the continually overlooked one is Sandra Oh.
A mainstay in Canadian cinema and a familiar face from various supporting roles on television and in movies, Oh has been on our radar from long before she married director Alexander Payne. Although as far as Hollywood couples go, they make for a pretty cute pair. Her thoughtful, textured performances in Double Happiness (1994) and Last Night (1998) make both of these films must adds to the rental list.
In 2002, Oh paired up again with her director from Double Happiness Mina Shum to make Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity about a single mom whose young daughter dabbles in Taoist magic to help her mother find love. It's the next film in the Asian CineVisions series, a group of traveling films programmed by the same group which brings the Asian American International Film Festival to New York every summer.
Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity plays tonight at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens at 7:30 pm and then again next Wednesday at Cinema Village also at 7:30 pm. Get 50 percent off future Asian CineVisions screenings by signing up for their mailing list on the website. Gothamist sure does love a discount on good movies and we know you do too.
Sideways: the movie Korean-Canadian Sandra Oh is great!
Tuesday night we went to see the movie Sideways the independent movie touted as one of the Year's best. It is a buddy movie about two male losers who go on a winery tour up the California coast. Actor Paul Giocometti has been nominated for best actor for Screen Actors Guild, and Virgina Madsen for best actress. But it is Canadian actor Sandra Oh who steals the show.
I first saw Sandra Oh in the CBC television production of Evelyn Lau's first book "Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid," for which she recieved her first Genie nomination. Next I saw her in Mina Shum's "Double Happiness," for which she won her first Gemini award for Best acting. Along the way, Sandra Oh caught the attention of Hollywood. She has been featured in such movies as "Last Night," "The Red Violin," "Under the Tuscan Sun," and "The Princess Diaries."
Born in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, Ontario, to Korean Canadian parents, Oh has the best lines in "Sideways." When we meet her she is working at a winery pouring wine for tasting for the two lead male characters... well maybe a little bit too generously. Jack says she is a very bad girl. She replies, "I'm very bad - spank me..."
Sandra goes on to develop a remarkably unconventional character who is a single mother raising a mixed race child. When we meet the woman that Oh calls "Mom," she is White. Definitely some cultural and ethnic puzzles to wrap the racial stereotypes and cultural expectations around. Sandra's character also rides a motorcycle hog wearing a skullcap helmet. Definitely not the "nice Asian girl" stereotype - but most definitely the sexiest and exciting in comparison to Virgina Madsen's character. While Jack's character goes on a lying promiscuous field trip in the week before his wedding, the real crime here is that Oh is not getting the best actor nomination.
Sandra Oh: Under the African Sun
Sandra Oh shines light on A&U’s Dann Dulin, and discusses her role as a Nun working in South Africa in 3 Needles, an upcoming AIDS film, her desire to spark greater public AIDS awareness, and her approach to keep today’s youth safe
America just hasn’t caught up with Canada. Up north, Canadian native Sandra Oh has already won two Genies for her dramatic film work and a Gemini for television, the equivalents of our Oscar and Emmy Awards, respectively. Here in the States, she is usually cast as the second comedic fiddle—but what a wonderful fiddle! For starters, check out last year’s film Under The Tuscan Sun, in which she portrays Patti, a pregnant lesbian and the best friend to a neurotic author, played by Diane Lane. Then there’s the mid-nineties HBO hit television comedy, Arli$$ (she won the Cable Ace Award for Best Actress in a Comedy), playing the sassy Girl Friday, Rita, to an ineffectual boss, Robert Wuhl’s Arliss Michaels. In 2005, she will be featured in the drama, 3 Needles, playing Sister Mary, a nun who is sent to rural South Africa to bathe, feed, and pray for those dying of AIDS.
Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, 3 Needles promises to be the cinematic AIDS event of the year. The film tackles the global epidemic by telling three different stories in three different countries, following the lives of a missionary nun in South Africa, a blood trafficker in China, and a porn star in the United States. The film explores the ways in which the pandemic seems to be driving us further apart when it might be bringing us together. The cast includes Chloë Sevigny and Olympia Dukakis, who play nuns, as well. “If you’re not familiar with Thom’s work, you should totally [she says the word in Valley-girl drawl] see his films,” gushes Sandra from our table at the funky historic Café 101, a noisy, hole-in-the-wall coffee shop located at the base of the Hollywood Hills.
It was Sandra’s idea to meet here because she lives nearby. When she bounded through the diner doors a few moments ago, I swiftly sensed her no-care-in-the-world demeanor and her wispy style. On-time, friendly, and forthcoming, Sandra sports a hip plaid skirt (purchased at a thrift store), a cherry red Margaret Cho Revolution T-shirt (she loves Margaret Cho!), and slightly elevated neon blue flip-flops, which nearly match the highlights in her long wavy black hair. She has that Audrey Hepburn look and presence—the playful girl next door with class and elegance. And she fits right in with the luminaries who frequented this eatery in days past: James Dean, Olivia de Haviland, and Carolyn Jones and her husband at the time, Aaron Spelling.
The waitress takes our order. Sandra orders veggie chilli, Caesar salad, and a Chai latte. She’s anxious to continue talking about her experience filming 3 Needles. “What I love about Thom and his films is they’re always about something deeply meaningful and personal to me, and obviously to him. His films are not necessarily mainstream.” Like The Event, which deals with AIDS, death, and choices; and The Hanging Garden, where a successful gay man returns home to confront his miserable childhood. Thom also wrote and directed both films. “Thom contacted me and before he told me anything about the film, I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ When I heard the project was about AIDS, I really got interested.”
AIDS shook Oh’s life in a big way last year, when her movement teacher from the National Theatre School of Canada died. He had been positive for many years, but his students never knew. “As students, it was none of our business to know. I was shocked when I got the news,” Sandra recalls as the waitress spreads platters of food on the table. Over the years Oh has contributed to several AIDS organizations, and her image from 3 Needles is presently being shown in a Canadian PSA, under the direction of Fitzgerald. It’s for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which raises funds for AIDS groups in Africa. Later this year, a similar PSA will be released. This one will be for Go Go Grannies, an organization of South African grandmothers who came out of retirement to provide support for other grandmothers who must raise their own grandchildren. This tragic situation is quite common in South Africa because so many in the middle generation have died from AIDS, leaving their children orphaned.
“I love Sandra Oh! She’s delightful, passionate, and an outspoken person” says a calm and collected Thom Fitzgerald from his home in Nova Scotia. He is now prepping for a September shoot in Thailand, which will stand in for China, for the second installment of 3 Needles, starring Lucy Liu. Thom remembers Sandra’s enthusiasm on the set of the first installment and how much he enjoyed listening to her argue politics with the Africans. For her portrayal of Sister Mary, Oh decided that her character was ‘a party nun,’ and knew how to dance. So no matter how depressed the other characters became, her character would remain chipper. At one point, Sister Mary takes a strong position in struggling to save HIV infants so that they can have a chance at life. Since they were filming in remote areas with no electricity, the locals had never been exposed to film or television. When they saw Sandra dressed in her nun’s habit they automatically assumed she was a real nun. “They treated her with such reverence,” laughs Thom. “What is so lovely about Sandra in the film is that she is a little ray of sunshine in the midst of a plague. But you know, she is always so pleasurable to watch on screen.”
Born in Ottawa to Korean parents, Oh began ballet school at the age of four. At ten, she was in her first play, The Canada Goose, playing the title role. Throughout high school, she was active in dramatics, excelling in improvisation and even winning a citywide competition. At sixteen, she started working professionally in TV, theater, and commercials. After three years at the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada, she landed a role in the London stage production of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Following that, she won the coveted role of Evelyn Lau, a tortured teen poet who becomes a drug addict and prostitute on the streets of Vancouver, in the CBC television film, The Diary of Evelyn Lau. Oh’s performance garnered her a Gemini nomination for Best Actress, and the 1994 Cannes FIPA d’Or for Best Actress. The next year, Sandra won her first Genie for Double Happiness, a bittersweet story about a young Chinese-Canadian woman.
In 1996, Sandra moved to Los Angeles, where for seven years, she appeared on Arli$$. Since then she has appeared on other TV hits, from Six Feet Under to Further Tales of The City. At your local cineplex, you may have caught her in Last Night, The Princess Diaries, Full Frontal, The Red Violin, or Bean. Famed critic Roger Ebert made a special note of her performance in Dancing at the Blue Iguana: “Sandra Oh goes out and does a striptease in front of the boy that she loves but doesn’t think will accept her. There’s a little tear that comes down while she’s upside down on the pole and that’s a very effective piece of acting.”
Acting is Sandra’s life. Indeed, her work in the theatre made her more aware of AIDS. “When I was in college in the early nineties, I was becoming sexually aware, and we started doing plays about AIDS. We did this one famous play,” she says not being able to think of the name. We toss around a few titles until I mention The Normal Heart. “Yes!” she says relieved. “And at this time condoms were more prevalent, and AIDS was becoming more mainstream. AIDS was on the cover of Time; it was a major news article worldwide.” Sandra takes a bite of salad, modestly covering her mouth while chewing. She continues: “I grew up knowing that one never has sex without a condom. I was lucky because my generation was educated about AIDS. My peers really don’t drink and drive as much as older people do because MADD [Mother’s Against Drunk Driving] was really big when I was a teen, so we were just indoctrinated that way.” Indeed, Oh comes from a milestone era, the first generation of kids where AIDS prevention was taught in the schools. She often got HIV tested, and even before her New Year’s Day wedding in 2003, she and her husband, Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), who recently directed Sandra in his film, Sideways, both found out their status. “I’m totally one of those people who got tested regularly. [When I received the results] I was so glad that I heard ‘Negative.’ Negative is good!” she says laughing, pushing her hair behind her ears.
What does AIDS mean to Sandra now? With elbows on table, she rests two fingers on her temples, and, after a pause, whimsically responds, “It’s still here.” Her cell phone rings, but she quickly turns it off. “I’m nervous about losing someone else to this monstrosity. I see other friends losing people, and this has been instrumental in helping me with my own death issues. What I’ve learned is that I truly believe our relationships continue after death. The grieving is the healing. Though I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist home—Koreans can be so crazy—I do believe there’s an afterlife. Good God, I hope so.”
Now Sandra drives the point home. “Why is AIDS still here today? Because Bush is in office. That’s one basic level but it’s a huge level. It all goes back to who’s leading us and who’s making these policies. It’s so important how you vote this year! There needs to be a resurgence in our domestic policy. How is education in the schools a threat?” she asks rhetorically. “We’re told, ‘It’s up to the parents to educate their children.’ But we all know that doesn’t work sometimes. Parents are f*cked up,” she sneers and in a Valley twang again. “It can’t only be up to the parents because some kids come from sh*tty homes.”
And Ms. Oh has something to say about the high numbers of youth today becoming infected. “First off, one has to figure out where teens are coming from. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, something chemically happens, so you can’t expect kids to have reason. Even though kids can seem really mature and savvy, they’re not. Because the younger generation didn’t experience the devastation of AIDS firsthand, they think HIV/AIDS is gone. So wrong,” she says loudly, as she sweeps crumbs from the table into her cupped hand and brushes them on a dish. “We used to do crazy things when I was a teen. I had no fear. And now I know some younger people who have this really invincible thing going on—it’s dangerous, guys! It all stems from self-respect. We need better HIV/AIDS education in the schools, and better support for individuals to strengthen their own identity.”
Sandra certainly has a sturdy sense of self, yet, though thirty-three years of age, she’s still kid-like. She’s fun, spirited, possessed with a sense of wonderment, and aspires to grow and better the world. May she never change.
One of the changes she’d make is for the entertainment industry to produce more HIV-themed productions. Several months ago she viewed HBO’s production of Angels in America. “[The play on which the movie is based] is a decade old, yet it’s still very relevant today. We need more works like this, and more films like Thom’s The Event. When AIDS is visible to people, they’ll talk more about it. AIDS will move to the forefront of people’s consciousness, which is where it should be. Then Americans won’t be as apathetic.”
Being politically minded and keenly aware, Sandra delivers her message through her art. Thus, she chooses roles wisely. At this point in her life, she is ready to take on more responsibility and become more deeply involved in the AIDS war. Presently, she is associated with NARAL, a pro-choice group, and she and her husband are a part of FilmAid, an organization that screens films in refugee camps. “Many of these people have never seen films like The Wizard of Oz. I strongly believe in the power of film. And I believe in the power of people to come to the rescue of those infected, and to put an end to this disease. But, at the moment,” she laments with a sigh, “AIDS is still here....”
“Getting to Know Ms. Sandra Oh”
For those of you who have HBO, you've probably heard of Arli$$. If not, you are missing out on Sandra Oh as Miss Rita Wu, a character that Asian women should be proud of!
She defies the sterotypes of submissive Asian women. As HBO describes it, "Rita is Arliss' no-nonsense Girl Friday, seven days a week. Rita's the one you want in your boat, ready to pass out life preservers and give directions. With enormous appeal and sass, she is often the moral voice in the AMM chorus, although she does have a certain weakness for Latin golf clients."
Before Rita, Sandra played Jade Li, a feisty Chinese-Canadian struggling actress in Mina Shum's Double Happiness A movie that every Asian Canadian and Asian American can relate too. You should definitely go out to Blockbuster and rent this movie!
We were able to catch up with Sandra to ask her a few questions about her experiences as a Asian Canadian actor.
JADE: What was it like living in Nepean, Ontario as an Asian Canadian?
Sandra: I can't really compare it to anything else (i.e. being non-asian). It was a great safe place to grow up, there weren't a lot of Asians around but it didn't really matter to me.
JADE: When did you decide that you wanted to go into acting, or to be a performer?
Sandra: Very early, the desire was there by 10 - but the real decision came after high school when I chose NOT to go to college.
JADE: First off, out of all the movies that I've seen, only a few have had an impact on me and Double Happiness was one of them. I remember watching, Double Happiness and laughing so hard at some of Jade Li's experiences. I thought it was about time someone brought out the Asian culture to mainstream. I personally related to it. Why and how did you get involved in "Double Happiness"? Did you know Mina Shum personally?
Sandra: I got involved in Double Happiness because Mina asked. It was a great part and opportunity. I had just finished the Diary of Evelyn Lau and Mina played the part of my social worker. She leaned over to me and said "you're not really 14 are you?" (I was 20) "Here, read my script!"
JADE: Is there a Hollywood-like enviroment in Canada? If so, is it hard for Asian-Canadians to get into this industy?
Sandra: No, the Hollywood paradign does not exist in Canada. It is extremely difficult to get a film made in Canada, even more difficult to get cast when you're a woman and not white. Because there isn't a great amount of output, there are simply fewer opportunities for good work, for any work.
Sandra Oh La La
Getting an opinion out of Sandra Oh is like opening Fibber McGee's closet. They just tumble out.
"I think all women should learn how to strip," she says enthusiastically over tea and cookies at my home. "I do. I really, really do. I'm not saying you should strip for money or for a crowd of people. I think it's a really healthy, extremely challenging thing to do."
Oh spent about four months learning how to strip for her latest film Dancing at the Blue Iguana, which opened in September at the Toronto International Film Festival (see Northern Stars review below).
She strips on camera, right down to a G-string. "It's good. I think people should see women with very small breasts," she jokes. "I think it's a noble thing to do in Hollywood -- look, we're real. We're proud A-cup people," she adds, laughing.
"I will tell you, it takes a long time to learn how to take off a pair of panties on six-inch heels." The actors, including Daryl Hannah and Jennifer Tilly, had a pole installed in the rehearsal hall. "I had to do so many push-ups just to pull myself up that pole."
PROUD OF OTTAWA ROOTS
Oh, who is 29 and lives in Los Angeles, is in Ottawa visiting her parents. She's proud of her hometown and takes umbrage that other actors claim kinship to it if she thinks they have no right. She doesn't believe Friends star Matthew Perry is from Ottawa until I show her an old Maclean's magazine with a cover story on him. "Oh, he went to Ashbury (College)," she says as she reads it, and makes a derisive snorting noise.
Oh says she likes Michael J. Fox for the way he's so proud to be Canadian. The irony is that he recently became an American citizen. He did, however, thank Canada when he received his Emmy for best actor for his role in Spin City.
Oh herself has been getting work in L.A. for about five years. The first show she did was If Not For You with Hank Azaria and Elizabeth McGovern. "I did two episodes and it was cancelled." She moved to the city in 1996 when she landed the role of the super-secretary Rita Wu on the HBO sitcom Arliss, but the show won't be renewed for another year.
In 1998, Oh starred in Last Night, the highly acclaimed apocalyptic film from director/writer and co-star Don McKellar. She says that role had little effect on her career. "A lot of my career is in the United States right now and one awful thing you learn as a Canadian is that your work in Canada does not matter in the United States."
She adds that "it's difficult to get leading roles (in the U.S.), especially -- and this is difficult and I don't want to get into it -- but especially if you're not white."
Oh will be seen on Further Tales of the City, the cable show based on the books by Armistead Maupin. A release date is not yet set. Oh was cast the day before she started the shoot in Montreal this summer and spent a week on it. She plays Bambi Kanetaka, a reporter who gets kidnapped and is the nemesis to Laura Linney's character. She laughs and says she found herself thinking one day on the shoot: "I can't believe this is my job because Olivia Dukakis is beating me up."
"AUDITIONS ARE HORRIBLE"
That's the fun part of her job, but she admits acting has a downside. "Auditions are horrible, they're horrible," she says, lowering her voice, "so all you ever want out of an audition as an actor is: one, you want to get the job and two, is to walk away saying, `I actually did some work today.'"
The audition for Dancing at the Blue Iguana turned out to be one of her toughest because it was completely improvised. "It was a terrifically interesting process. ... I swear every single actor in L.A. auditioned for it. You went into a room with eight actors ... and the rehearsal was a two-hour improv.
"It was a nightmare but it was fantastic for various reasons for me. I had never been into a strip club so the night before my audition I thought I should probably go into a strip club because this is what it's about. ... I went with a guy I was going out with. ... I felt so weird, and so out of place there and so awkward and obvious. And then I went to the audition. And it is so terrifying, it is extremely terrifying but at a certain point for me, something kicks in," and here she snaps her fingers, "and basically it's my life here in Ottawa, because I did so much improv growing up that it all kicks in and it's great."
For the audition, no one was assigned a character. Oh had to go in with a character of her creation in mind and then complete three trials. First, she went on stage and talked in character to an interviewer. Second, she had to go on stage "and pray to God, whatever your perception of God is, so you can reveal your inner life and your subconscious." Third was to improv with a group of other actors.
Dancing at the Blue Iguana itself was a process of improvisation for which Oh says the actors should be credited with the screenplay. The film follows the lives of strippers over the course of a week and she found it "a grueling, grueling project."
She describes the film as "raw in that we don't wear that much makeup. And we don't look that great. Do you know what I mean?" But, she adds with a laugh, "We look great in the dance sequences."
A look at one of Canada's brightest stars. She once considered a career in international relations but lucky for us, Sandra Oh chose a different kind of work. Since she first starred in the TV movie The Diary Of Evelyn Lau, Sandra Oh has gone on to a number of memorable roles, both in Canada and the United States.
Sandra Oh isn't a household name — not yet. But for the crowd at this year's Genie Awards, the 27-year-old from Ottawa born to Korean immigrants was the toast of the party.
Sandra's parents admit they hoped for a more traditional profession for their daughter. “I was really worried when she decided to go to theatre school,” says her mother. “It's a tough career to be successful really. She's very blessed.”
This year, Sandra's Genie Award nomination came for her performance in the film Last Night, in which the characters live out their final hours before the destruction of the world. Much to her surprise, she won a Genie for her role in Last Night — the second time she's taken home the award for best actress.
“If we had a star system, Sandra Oh would be a Canadian star.” -- Brian Johnson, Maclean's movie critic.
But like many actors who've been honoured before her, Sandra is now living and working in the U.S., picking up parts here whenever she can.
“Anyone who says what would you say to someone who wants to be an actor? I would say, if it's not a calling, don't do it. It's way too hard.” From her tiny apartment in New York City, Sandra reflects on the victories and the hardships of acting.
“I equate fame towards people who know your work, people who will see your work. But all that stuff, like with the Genies and stuff like that, it was so much fun. It's so much fun and it's nice when it comes, but that's not what it's all about.”
It may not be about the fame, but Maclean's movie critic Brian Johnson says she well deserves the accolades coming her way. “If we had a star system, she would be a Canadian star,” he says. “I think what makes her interesting is that she is very close to the surface. Her emotional presence is very transparent. She's right out there. She is. You know you talk to her off-screen and she's really sincere and warm and affectionate, and that comes through on-screen as well.”
“I finally realized that at least my mom understood what I was doing with my life, and gave me this kind of gift of permission and recognition.”
It came through as a child too. Sandra was the clown in the family. She wanted to be a dancer but lacked the discipline, so she switched to acting at about age 12. In high school, she was already doing improv. She told her parents she was going to be a journalist, but secretly applied to the National Theatre School — and was accepted. It was there she auditioned for the part that became her first break — in the film The Diary Of Evelyn Lau.
It's a wrenching story of a young girl who escapes an abusive home only to find that life on the street is no refuge. For Sandra Oh, who was 21 at the time, it was a difficult role: the character descends from being a street kid to drug user to prostitute.
“It was amazing,” recalls Oh. “I remember when Diary went to Cannes, to the Fipa festival, and I won... The reaction, when I finally realized that at least my mom understood what I was doing with my life, and gave me this kind of gift of permission and recognition. Because my parents wanted me to do something significant, as all parents must. They want you to do something significant, do something good for the world. They really didn't feel that acting did that.”
Her next film, Double Happiness is in many ways a mirror image of her own upbringing. She plays “Jade,” a young Chinese woman with strict parents who want her to marry a doctor and settle down. But “Jade,” like Sandra, wiggles out from under the pressure and pursues her dream: to act.
“Glad to be Oh so Canadian”
Sandra Oh, an actor's actor who commands the respect and love of her peers, doesn't need movie clues to figure out the differences between Americans and Canadians.
She feels it in her episodic career. In Canada, she is an emerging star. In America, she is an ethnic actress.
"I've only had the opportunity to do leading characters in this country," Oh muses on a return visit to Toronto. "The States is a different ball of wax, man. It's so impossible."
"At least the people I know in Canada don't doubt me, aren't concerned (about her origin as a Korean-Canadian from Nepean, an Ottawa suburb). That's not an issue."
One who doesn't doubt is Don McKellar, the Toronto writer-director-actor who cast Oh as his own love interest in his film Last Night, the Cannes and Toronto filmfest hit that is opening in theatres here on Friday.
Last Night is the story of what happens to a group of Torontonians during the last six hours in the life of Planet Earth. Some unnamed but universally known and accepted disaster is about to wipe out all life. So people struggle to spend their last hours in their own peculiarly creative ways.
In Cannes, McKellar was asked to defend why he chose to cast a woman of Asian heritage as one of his co-stars.
"Don was just dumbfounded by the question," Oh remembers with an edge of defiance in her voice. "I get that crap all the time (in Hollywood): Justify why 'this person' is up there on screen. But you don't have to justify anyone else in Last Night, because they're white. Here in Canada, I feel that I am not an issue, a f---ing issue."
The theme of Last Night, and McKellar's unique way of handling it, also amuses and encourages Oh. She recalls when Americans were dealing with the end of life on Planet Earth earlier this year in the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, two special effects-laden action movies.
"I've been thinking a lot recently about the differences between Americans and Canadians," says Oh, who works constantly in Hollywood movies and TV but never as the leading lady, "and you see it in the difference between our films and those two other films."
"Americans have this assumption to this right to do things to stop it all and change history. We accept it. We get to a deeper question of what would you do individually. As a metaphor, it is also extremely relevant: How do you want to live your life? The question really is: Do you live that last moment for yourself or for someone else?"
"American films are apocalyptic in such a crude, warlike way. We're more of a thinking culture."
That said, the 27-year-old is still living in L.A. and has just gotten away with playing a 13-year-old girl in a three-month run of a play called Dog Eaters. She is heading for another three-month play run, in New York, a drama called Stop Kiss in which she plays one of two straight women who fall in love with each other.
There just isn't enough work for her to survive in Canada. "You go where the work is," she laments of leaving the country and the circle of friends she loves.
Which leaves her living in a paradox and in artistic confusion. "More and more I'm learning that I'm getting to this place in my life where I don't give a sh*t because part of me thinks that's what it means to be a true artist," Oh says.
"You just don't care about what people think. But it's hard to do because people tell you what they think all the time. It's sort of nuts. We actors, we're a fragile bunch, and yet we need to be strong because 90% of our lives is rejection. You have to figure out what really is important."
Sandra Oh: “Double Happiness”
Discovering an exciting new actress at the movies is a double-edged sword. There's the thrill of seeing somebody who's unlike anyone you've ever seen and there's the disappointed knowledge that, given the state of Hollywood, her first big part could be the only good one she'll ever play. So, greetings, Sandra Oh, and don't slam the door on your way out.
She's the bright, sardonic star of Double Happiness, the story of a young woman torn between her Chinese parents' traditional beliefs and her need to be her own person. "I grew up wondering why we could never be the Brady Bunch," her character, Jade, muses. "But the Brady Bunch never needed subtitles."
With her throaty laugh and sturdy beauty, Oh is a born star. She's on screen virtually every second of "Double Happiness" and she's required to do a lot - over-the-top scenes from "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Joan of Arc" (Jade is an actress), romantic comedy in her secret relationship with a non-Asian boyfriend, drama as she and her folks reach a tragic impasse.
Oh is terrific and it's a good thing, because "Double Happiness" is the stuff of a thousand "That Girl" films. We've seen all these parent/child conflicts before and some characters are badly developed (Jade's boyfriend is supposed to be a stammering oddball, but we can see perfectly well that he's a Handsome Guy in bad horn-rims).
Writer/director Mina Shum has a lively sense of humor and a flair for scenes that tell a story visually. And her depiction of Jade's dilemma goes deeper than you expect it to, exploring the secrets her family agrees to keep from each other so they can remain a family. At first, these secrets are a source of the movie's abundant humor, but they become more serious as Jade realizes she must take responsibility for her own happiness. Shum gives the movie a daringly bittersweet ending, but it's the right one - for moviegoers, the arrival of Shum and Oh is double happiness, indeed.