This fall, Grey's Anatomy began its 11th season without the amazing and often ornery Dr. Cristina Yang, an ambitious heart surgeon played by the also ambitious (and not at all ornery) Sandra Oh. Since departing from mainstream TV, the Canadian actor has returned to her roots in the indie film world. Her latest project, Window Horses – an animated movie about a young Chinese-Iranian poet – is currently soliciting support on the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo. Here, Oh shares some of the secrets to her success, including why it was time to leave Seattle Grace for good.
Life is a leisurely jog
The best advice I've ever gotten came from Mike Tollin who was one of the producers on Arliss. I was in his office one day and he said to me, "you know, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon." I know that's a cliché that we've all heard before, but this was a case of the right advice at the right time. I was [in] my early 20s and I think in some ways your 20s are all about sprinting: you're full of energy, you're full of will and you just want to do everything right away. What you learn is that as people say life is short, life is also long. I was on Grey's Anatomy for 10 years. That is not a sprint! You have to know your stride, you have to learn how to breathe and not to just use everything you've got all at once. It's a mentality shift that has been so important for me.
You're never too successful to go back to basics
To go from a mainstream network television show to a very personal, heartfelt, animated feature has been quite a change. My producing partner Ann Marie Fleming and I have really been thrown into the deep end: We're learning as we're moving, we don't necessarily know what's next and I'm loving it. We're part of so many of the nuts and bolts of putting this project together. I feel like I've come back to my roots. Not only being here in Canada, but also going back to the independent world. It's strange – I don't identify myself as a television actress although I've been on TV for 17 years. I still think of myself as the person who has just got out of theatre school, working in independent Canadian film and excited about TIFF. We're raising funds in a completely independent way. It's creative freedom. At this stage of my career I want to tell stories to an audience that may have never seen themselves on film otherwise. I have two young, mixed-race nieces, and I love that the heroine of Window Horses is Chinese-Persian.
When it's time to go – you know
Mostly my decision to leave Grey's Anatomy came from a creative place: I felt that I had done my job and I felt I had taken it as far as I could possibly take it. It was such a gift to fully explore a character and a human being for 10 years, and then I reached a point where I realized I was done, she was done. I was incredibly proud of the character and the decisions she made that aren't necessarily what we're used to seeing in terms of how women are portrayed in entertainment [Cristina Yang had an abortion and chose her career over her relationship]. I think Yang's storylines struck a chord and gave women an example of someone who was making decisions from a completely individual place, and not because of societal pressure. I feel like it was good and important for people to examine that. Do people really believe that the only way to be fulfilled as a woman is to be in a partnership with a man and to have a family?
Just be quiet
I sit, I meditate. It is just so essential. I strive to do it every day – there are two sitting groups that I attend weekly and I also do it on my own, sometimes for just a couple of minutes and sometimes for almost an hour. I really do believe that the North American way of living involves a level of stress that is kind of indefinable. When I discovered meditation I was looking for a way to combat stress and now it has become a huge part of my career process as well. It's not always easy, and I still struggle with really clearing my head and just being. Sitting with other people is a wonderful experience.
Nice guys finish firstThere's this idea that you can't be kind and successful, or that achieving success gives a free pass to being an asshole. I'm not saying you don't see that, especially in Hollywood, but in my experience the most effective leaders are good people too. Being rude or difficult is not necessary. Chandra Wilson [who plays Dr. Bailey on Grey's] is someone I admire tremendously: She's a mom of three, a full-time actress, a successful director. She will probably take over the world one day, and still she is deeply kind and compassionate and from there she elicits respect.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.