Your moment has come.
The producer and director have looked at 3,000 actors. They've been everywhere - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto - seeking a young Asian who can play a teenage drug addict and prostitute on Vancouver's skid row. Now it's your turn: an audition for what may be your first feature film.
You're a complete unknown, barely 21, green as Kentucky bluegrass, still enrolled in theatre school, not even a professional. You've taken a late-night bus to Toronto from Montreal, slept in the bus station, done vocal warm-ups in a public park.
Excuse me, says Sandra Oh. I need a minute to get focused.
Of course, they say. Please, go ahead.
You lie down on the floor, on your back, a very strange thing to do. The room is silent. A long minute passes, then a second one, then five. The producer, Maryke McEwen, and the director Sturla Gunnarsson, exchange glances. What exactly is going on here?
Five more minutes pass. You have not moved, but other toes are tapping. Important people are being kept waiting. You are either crazy or courageous - perhaps both. Never mind. This is your process and you will honour it.
Sandra Oh continues to lie on the floor.
Finally, she gets up, does the reading, nails it.
She lands the part, the lead role in a CBC movie, The Diary of Evelyn Lau. The production later suspends shooting so that she can graduate. Later, her performance is nominated for a Gemini at home, and wins a FIPA d'or for best actress at Cannes.
Not half bad for first time out of the box.
"You put her on the map," I said to Gunnarsson.
Not at all, he demurs, 14 years later. "She put herself on the map. She stood out from the beginning. She had then what she has now, a tremendous emotional accessibility and a steely inner core. And the theatre training: mime, masque, improv, method. She could do it all."
A balmy April afternoon in Los Angeles. Sandra Oh slides her grey Prius into a spot right in front of the Edendale Grill, an under-the-radar bistro, once a fire station, not far from her L.A. home. An elfin slip of a thing, 5 foot 5, she's wearing a knee-length, linen, cream-coloured jacket, a cream blouse and grey slacks, minimal makeup, and carries a tiny black Marc Jacobs bag.
In many ways, these are the best of times for Oh. Grey's Anatomy, the ABC medical series in which she co-stars as Cristina Yang, a talented, nakedly ambitious surgical intern, is America's seventh most popular show, with an estimated 19.2 million viewers a week. In drama, it's second only to CSI.
In two seasons, her performances have won her a Golden Globe, two Screen Actor's Guild awards and two Emmy nominations. Before Grey's, Oh had logged seven seasons on HBO's Arli$$ as Rita Wu, the feisty assistant to Robert Wuhl's sports superagent. She also played major parts in the smash indie hit Sideways - directed by her (now former) husband, Alexander Payne - and in Under the Tuscan Sun, directed by Audrey Wells. And she has appeared in some 30 other films, including a recent cameo in Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration, a voiceover in Mulan II, and leading roles in Mina Shum's Double Happiness and Don McKellar's Last Night. You'll have to look hard to find a bad review.
At 35, Oh is now believed to be earning in the vicinity of $250,000 (U.S.) an episode for Grey's Anatomy -- a prime-time star in the very prime of life.
Remarkable, by any measure. It's all the more so because Sandra Miju Oh -- her middle name means "pretty pearl" -- is of Korean descent. Unfair though it is, the rules have always been different for non-Caucasian actors. Call it racial profiling. Call it stupidity. The fact is, members of racial and ethnic minorities don't win as many parts. They can't win them because they don't get invited to the auditions. Or if they do, they're not serious candidates, unless the part expressly calls for an Asian, Hispanic, aboriginal or African-American.
"When it comes to getting acting roles," Oh once said, "I cannot compare myself to a white girl. If I did, I'd probably die." Even now, she says, "I rarely get work by auditioning. It's very difficult to get into the rooms. I went through a really depressed period, where I had no access. The things that have come up for me have been as a result of being seen in Canadian films or short films or onstage. I've been here almost 12 years. Not much has changed."
So for Oh, daughter of middle-class Korean immigrants to Canada, to have become one of the biggest stars on American network TV is simply extraordinary. But be careful what you wish for.
Yes, she concedes, nursing a Manhattan on the Edendale's back terrace: "I'm very happy. My life is fantastic. I'm so grateful for this job, and I've never worked harder. But life is so much more complicated."
With A-list status comes the whirlwind. The noisome swirl of publicists, stylists and show groupies. The sweat-stained swarms of paparazzi and gossipmongers. The wholesale, careless invasion of your private space. Unmarked black SUVs park outside your house. In the gossip sheets, there's rampant speculation about your love life. You attend a play and find people outside the theatre holding your photo and asking for autographs. Your divorce papers turn up on the Internet. This is not what you bargained for.
Success, in short, is not an unalloyed blessing. "You yourself can get lost" in it, she says, becoming a product for sale. "It's interesting. You get to a place where you, as an artist, can do the kind of work you want and reach a wide audience, but it brings a whole different set of challenges."
It would be dead simple for Oh to become completely immersed in the Hollywood hustle. She has all the right credentials. Nod your head and the train of panderers arrives, serving whatever your heart desires.
Oh refuses to nod. Apart from mandatory red-carpet appearances, she avoids the limelight. She often carries an umbrella to thwart paparazzi cameras. One of her favourite restaurants is not The Ivy in chic West Hollywood, but a hole-in-the-wall called Nozawa, in a nondescript strip mall on Ventura Boulevard, run by what she playfully calls a sushi Nazi, a tall Japanese chef with a droopy eye. Her home is in L.A.'s eastern 'burbs, near Glendale, not in Santa Monica or Venice Beach, which she calls "a little bit skanky."
In interviews with the press, she politely declines to talk about any therapy she might have undergone ("No"), her current relationship with Andrew Featherston, drummer with the indie band the Hereafter ("No, no, no"), or her three-year marriage to director Payne, which ended in 2006 ("No, no, no, no, no") or the recent controversy that erupted on Grey's Anatomy after co-star Isaiah Washington (Oh's love interest on the show) referred to another cast member, T.R. Knight, as a "faggot."
"I've learned my lesson over and over again," she says. "You just can't talk about it. I choose not to."
But she does acknowledge that the incident had an impact on the show, the cast, the crew, the network.
Oh's social life in Los Angeles is not spent in the fast lane. Her closest pals are other low-key Canadians. There's writer Doug Barber, a long-time friend, who is renting her coach house. There's Patrick Gallagher, a National Theatre School classmate, whom she helped land a role in Sideways and who recently scored in Night at the Museum. There's Vancouver's Kristin Lehman, now starring in Fox's new series, Drive; Lehman's fiancé, actor Adam Reed, whom Oh grew up with in Ottawa; Edmonton's Nathan Fillion (also in Drive); Toronto's Waneta Storms, another NTS alumna, who recently stayed two months with Oh and who plans to return next month.
On free evenings, the group often assembles to play The Settlers of Catan, a board game about taking over the world. "We brutalize each other," says Oh. "It's no holds barred." Canadians taking over the world? Only in board games.
The woman who runs Oh's website, Margo Purcell, is her oldest friend; they grew up two doors from each other. Purcell lives in Calgary now, but they still talk at least twice a week.
During her 12-week hiatus from Grey's this summer, instead of doing another film or off-Broadway play, Oh is taking it relatively easy. "I did a play last year in New York [ Satellites, at the Public Theatre]and I think it almost killed me." This year, laden with gifts for her nieces, she'll fly to Vancouver to see older sister Grace; to Toronto to see her younger brother, Ray (she keeps an apartment there); and to Ottawa to visit her parents and old friends.
Sandra Oh is still doing it her way - lying on the floor, grounded.
Oh grew up on Camwood Crescent, a quiet street in Nepean, a suburb of Ottawa. Her parents, Joon-Soo (John) and Young-Nan, had come to Canada in the late 1960s, via graduate school in Detroit, having fled the political turmoil of South Korea. They worked hard - her father was a businessman, her mother a biochemist - went faithfully to church, motivated their children to achieve, and held regular family council meetings to discuss issues that involved them all. Grace is now a crown attorney and mother of two in Vancouver; Ray is completing a PhD in medical genetics in Toronto. But even today, about once a year the Ohs hold family meetings with their adult children.
A pivotal one occurred in the spring of 1990. Over the sometimes vehement objections of her parents, Sandra had determined to pursue a career in theatre. An A student through high school, president of her class, she'd been offered a four-year journalism scholarship to Carleton University. He parents urged her to accept. The acting profession was difficult enough, they argued, without the additional burden of her race. Get the degree first, they said, then you can act all you want. And the Ohs, high achievers, viewed theatre as somehow déclassé, not a profession that would serve humanity.
Sandra resisted that argument vociferously. "They just didn't understand," she says. "Most parents, especially immigrant parents, would not want their child to go into something as intensely insecure as acting. I know they did it with my best interests at heart. And I am eternally grateful for the struggle."
Compared to that seminal domestic challenge, she adds, the obstacles encountered in stage, film and television have been child's play.
The family debate had been gestating for years, of course. Oh's appetite for the stage began early, at age four, when she started ballet classes. She was very good, but not good enough: In her early teens, she recognized that her talent was not likely to vault her into the elite corps, and she hung up her toes. But long before then, she had seen and been mesmerized by a production of the musical Annie, watching it from "the nosebleed seats" at the National Arts Centre. "I basically freaked out," she recalls. "Like, I had to do what they were doing."
Oh started appearing in class plays, including The Canada Goose, at 10 - she can still recite her part. "I was the emcee," recalls Purcell, "and she was the Wizard of Woe." Purcell remembers Oh as a top student. "Once, she got an eight out of 10 in dictée, French spelling, and she would not accept that. A nine was acceptable, but not an eight. The teacher had to console her."
Her sister Grace says she and Sandy, as they called her, regularly put on plays for their parents and anyone else who wanted to attend. "My sister is a big personality," she says. "She's very funny, very loving and generous, direct and to the point. She does not put up with a lot of nonsense. And she's very driven. She always knew what she wanted to do, and she worked very hard to make it happen. I envied her for knowing."
By high school at Sir Robert Borden, Oh was already working with community drama groups, the Ottawa Improv Games and Skit Row High, a comedy troupe. "That improv work and training was hugely formative," she says. "I've used it in my life and my work constantly. I did it all the time on Arli$$, and when I did a cameo [as vice-principal Gupta]in Garry Marshall's The Princess Diaries, his entire direction to me was 'Go make funny.' " Marshall liked what he saw: Originally scripted for one scene, Oh ended up in several.
And then, after high school, the elephant in the room: the looming rhubarb at home. Oh applied to a drama school in New York, but was rejected, then auditioned for Concordia University's theatre program. That path would have yielded a degree, and might have been an acceptable compromise, but she failed that audition, too - bombed, in fact. Some of her friends think it might have been by unconscious design.
She was accepted, however, at the National Theatre School, doing a scene from Macbeth as part of her audition.
Oh's pitch to her parents was that she would give acting a try for a few years and, if that failed, return to school. "We did not say 'You should do this or that,' " says John Oh, recalling the pivotal family meeting. "We tried to persuade her to do the academic first, but we left it to Sandy to make the final decision."
"She had so much passion," says her mother. "She said to us, 'If I don't take this, I'll never forgive myself.' "
"I saw her passion," recalls Purcell. "And she could not turn it off. It was what called to her, and she was going to do it. Even in high school, she had started socking her money away in bonds. Who did that in high school? But she knew she would need it one day."
And she did. Her parents declined to pay her NTS tuition.
Perry Schneiderman, artistic director at NTS during Oh's years there, calls her "a force of nature. She had no tools, but she had the instincts." Some performers, he says, just have "a watchability and you just know: an energy, an inner light, like a magnet. I remember seeing Sandra at a social function once, just sitting off by herself, and all she did was light a cigarette and blow out the smoke and you knew immediately - this is a star."
Waneta Storms recalls Oh as "energetic, electric. Her emotions were always at the ready, [enough]to blow your mind. What's happening now is she knows when it's wankery. She knows it has to be harnessed and how to harness it."
The Evelyn Lau film catapulted Oh out of obscurity. But watching her play a heroin-addicted prostitute cannot have been easy for her parents. "I could not talk to them about it. I made my sister do it. I think there was a small screening in Toronto, and Grace had to sit them down and prepare them for what they were about to see. They had a hard time at church after it aired. But that was the first time my mother said to me, 'That must have been really hard.' And maybe it was the first time they saw that there was a true sense of worth in what I was doing. That was very meaningful to me."
On the set of Evelyn Lau, which she considers one of the two best films she has made (the other is Sideways), Oh met actor, writer and director Mina Shum. "I have a script that I want you to read," Shum told her. Eventually, Shum scraped together enough money to make Double Happiness -- a film, ironically, about a young Asian woman who must overcome the opposition of her parents to start a career in theatre. Four years later came McKellar's Last Night, about several people facing the end of civilization. After that, Oh decided to try her luck in Hollywood.
She starved for a while, but within a year had landed Arli$$, a solid base on which to build. The show was cancelled twice, but then renewed, largely, she thinks, because HBO desperately needed half-hour original programming, to fill a slot between Sex and the City and The Sopranos.
Her career gained further momentum with Sideways, the result, no doubt, of her relationship with Payne, who cast her as the flirty wine maven. It was, she says, "the consummate filmmaking experience, a great cast [Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen] a great crew, a budget of $15-million, and 50 days to shoot it. Producers should know this: Put the money in. You will get it back." Sideways's world-wide box office to date: $109-million and counting.
She credits Under the Tuscan Sun, which was running on flights between New York and to L.A. during pilot season four years ago, with earning her the part on Grey's Anatomy. Network producers saw the film and called her in.
The future remains uncertain. In addition to professional issues - How long should she stay on the show? Will success compromise her ability to get other roles? - there are personal considerations, such as motherhood. "It's a question I'm constantly and actively navigating," she says. "I wish I had more time. I love my nieces, but that's not the same as having your own children. On the other hand, Chandra Wilson [another Grey's cast member]has three children and had one during the show. Seeing that is inspiring. It makes me think I could do it."
Oh has also thought seriously about heading back to Canada to act, to help fill what she sees as a gaping hole in television. "I don't know what it would take. No one has given me a script, but I would not mind going home and acting with some of my friends."
She hasn't fully come to terms with how big a star the show has helped make her. Even to acknowledge it, she fears, is problematic. "This is one of my challenges," she says, draining the last of her cocktail. "You're in the system, and the system will never let your forget that you're in the system. So you just have to try to continue to be who you are, and not be stupid."
Sandra, before Cristina
Long before Sandra Oh attained mainstream fame as Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy, she was already one of those faces instantly recognizable from earlier TV and film endeavours. Here are six of her most memorable character turns:
The Diary of Evelyn Lau (1993)
Based on Lau's book, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, the low-budget Canadian feature garnered rave reviews for Oh's portrayal of the teen who fled her strict parents, and fell into drug addiction and prostitution on the streets of Vancouver.
Double Happiness (1994)
The breezy indie placed Oh into one of her first lead roles, as Jade Li - a spirited young Chinese-Canadian torn between the temptation of modern romance (with a white fellow student) and her parents' traditional values.
Arli$$ (HBO, 1996 - 2002)
Oh appeared in all six seasons of the HBO comedy as Rita Wu, the well-organized, inscrutable personal assistant of scheming sports agent Arliss Michaels (Robert Wuhl).
As one Bernice Schimmel, Oh played a member of an art-museum staff that unwisely entrusts Rowan Atkinson's dotty TV character with the care of Whistler's Mother.
Last Night (1998)
Oh is a standout in the acclaimed Canadian feature. When circumstances prevent her pragmatic character, Sandra, from spending the last night on Earth with her husband, she enters into a suicide pact with a stranger (Don McKellar, who wrote and directed).
Six Feet Under (2001)
Oh makes a brief but indelible appearance in a first-season episode of the HBO drama. Billed simply as "porn starlet," she delivers a startling and heartfelt eulogy at a friend's funeral.