Sandra Oh has offered to cook me breakfast, which surprised her publicist. The Canadian actress - best known as the single mother who falls for a womanizer in Sideways, and as the grasping intern in the ABC hospital show Grey's Anatomy - has kept her home off limits to journalists. It's still tender territory. The rambling north Hollywood house is what's left of her two-year marriage to Sideways director Alexander Payne, who moved out last spring. The breakup left her shattered. But with an Emmy nomination to her credit and her career on fire, things are looking up. As actor Adam Reid, a lifelong friend, says, "It's like the year of the phoenix for her - she's rising out of the ashes."
Late on a Saturday morning, Oh answers the door looking sleepy, and says she just woke up 20 minutes earlier. The previous night she had some serious fun at a barbecue with the cast of Grey's Anatomy. Oh wears an aqua-blue singlet with "California" written across it and a matching cotton skirt that falls to bare feet. Her dark hair, cinched in a ponytail, is streaked blond - until later in the day when a hairdresser will come to remove the streaks for Anatomy's fall season.
Dropped into ABC's prime-time schedule last March as a mid-season replacement, this breezy soap opera has become a sleeper hit. It follows five interns in the boot-camp residency program of a Seattle hospital. With pyjama-party bounce and a confectionary soundtrack of girl-band pop songs, it's Friends meets E.R., with a dash of Sex and the City. Oh plays Cristina Yang, an ambitious intern who's the first to admit she's "not a people person" - in the words of a patient treated to her blunt bedside manner, she's an "aggressive little witch." It's not surprising Oh has been singled out with an Emmy nomination. Hers is the most compelling character in the show's multiracial ensemble. And her character stands at the plot's most dangerous intersection - at the end of last season, she was secretly pregnant with the child of an African-American surgeon (Isaiah Washington), and contemplating abortion.
After seeing Oh beat a guy to a pulp with a motorcycle helmet in Sideways, and treat surgery as competitive sport in Grey's Anatomy, you might expect her to be scary. But in person she has a playful, almost giddy exuberance - although the whimsy is cut with a punk edge of profanity. "The f---ing thing I hate about this city," she says, as she puts the kettle on, "is that I had to go to Calgary to get a f---ing tea cosy." Somehow she makes this sound like a passionate expression of Canadian identity.
Slicing mushrooms on a massive antique island that runs the length of the kitchen, Oh prepares a complicated omelette, with spinach, goat cheese and bacon on the side ("Ahh bacon!" she sighs, "the candy of meats.") The arts-and-crafts-style house is full of dark beams and wooden wainscotting. Clad in clapboard and wooden shingles, it dates back to 1911. She says she chose it because it reminded her of the houses on Palmerston Boulevard in Toronto, the city she left a decade ago for L.A. And it's true. If you took away the towering palm tree out front, the house wouldn't look out of place on that elegant Toronto avenue.
Against a wall in the kitchen is an empty aquarium, with the box it came in still sitting on top of it. "Are you going to get some fish?" I ask. Not yet, she says. I wonder if the fish are an abandoned project from the marriage, but don't dare ask. The marriage is the elephant in the room. We talk for an hour before she mentions her husband's name, and then it's in professional terms - a great director she once worked with.
We take breakfast out to the deck, overlooking a lush, jungly garden full of birdsong. Oh lights a Natural American Spirit cigarette. She talks about the dilemma of committing to a network series, and signing a lengthy contract that restricts her options to pursue film and stage roles. "But I'm happy I'm working," she says. "I've been playing a lot of supportive characters who are dry and have authority - the assistant, the teacher, the this the that. I wanted to play someone who didn't have authority. Cristina wants things so badly she has to rein in her ambition and desire. One thing I like about her is she has absolutely no sense of humour. She's super literal. But that makes her f---ing funny."
Working with a U.S. network, however, does involve certain "constraints." Although her character is considering abortion, "you can't really say the word. You can't say 'vagina' or 'penis' with an adjective in front of it. Like 'large penis,' or whatever. And just niggly things like how you dress and how you look. I can't stand having someone else telling me what to do. Or when you have great ideas, they'll say, 'They'll never let you do that.' " For example, she thought her character should smoke. "It would be hilarious, the hypocritical smoking doctor. So many doctors drink and smoke and take drugs."
Despite the frustrations, after 10 years in L.A. Oh feels she's "finally starting to hit a place where I've wanted to be." She's got a hit series. She's appearing in four upcoming movies - with Robin Williams in The Night Listener, Heather Graham in Cake, Robin Wright Penn in Sorry, Haters, and Chloë Sevigny in 3 Needles. And on this summer morning, she's just days away from turning 34. "I'm so excited! I've never been so excited for a f---ing birthday!"
"What's so great about 34?" I ask.
She lowers her voice to a stage whisper. "Because 33 was sooooo bad. It's been a very, very, very difficult year." Her expression turns suddenly fragile, and for a moment it looks like she might cry. Then, getting up to find a cigarette, she gives out a whoop. "I'm turning 34!" When I ask if she'll explain what happened, she firmly declines. "I've come a long way to be able to invite you to my home and talk to you. So let's leave it at that."
The daughter of a biochemist mother and entrepreneur father, Oh was born in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean. Margo Purcell, a childhood friend now living in Calgary, remembers Oh acting in a school musical. "She played the villain. And you couldn't take your eyes off her. When she walked on a stage, there was a light around her almost." Sandra shocked her traditional Korean parents by choosing the National Theatre School over university. Right after graduating, in 1993, she starred in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a CBC TV movie based on the raw memoir of a junkie prostitute in Vancouver - confirming the worst fears of her parents who saw acting as a gateway to drugs and prostitution. The same year she played future Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in a CBC biopic and landed the lead in Double Happiness, as a daughter estranged from Chinese parents - her performance won a Genie.
Moving to L.A., and accepting a steady role as an assistant in HBO's Arli$$, Oh continued to star in Canadian movies, such as Don McKellar's Last Night (1998) - accumulating a level of experience unavailable to her American peers. She still looks back on Evelyn Lau as the creative highlight of her career, although making Sideways was the "ultimate filmmaking experience." Because it's so hard to make films in Canada, she says, "you feel that only hard work is good work. But Sideways was so relaxed. I didn't really feel I was acting." And even now, she has only good things to say about her husband. "He's a phenomenal director. He's a great writer. And he inspires everyone on set."
Sideways marked a turning point in Oh's life and career. As she was walking the red carpet at the Oscars, her marriage to Payne was in ruins. The FILM, meanwhile, put her on the map. "It's better to be known as the girl from Sideways," she says, "as opposed to the girl who's that assistant."
But Oh has fought a constant battle with typecasting. It's not just that she's Asian, it's that she doesn't fit a certain Asian stereotype. Or as she puts it, "I don't look like Gong Li." There was a time when she wished she looked different. "You come to town and wish you had everything that everyone else seems to want. But in the past few years I've been happy I don't look like anyone else. If my face is onscreen - just at a standstill, doing nothing - it's subversive. It taps into something that's not the norm."
Canadian native actress Waneta Storms, a friend since theatre school, says, "What makes Sandy distinctive is that she's successful as she is without pandering to the white image of what an Asian should look like. Most Asian women we see onscreen have had their eyelids done. She hasn't decided to have the surgery to look like a Caucasian Asian." Storms points out that Oh is "politicized, intelligent and well-read," but her emotions run close the surface - "she's a tender nerve of a woman."
On camera, Oh defies clichés of beauty, Asian or otherwise. Her face is a quicksilver mask. You can see the moods pass over it like fast-moving weather. And if her look is unconventional, so's her approach to glamour. When I ask her about being star-struck, she doesn't mention Robin Williams, or Jack Nicholson, who starred in Payne's About Schmidt. She mentions Eugene Levy. Then Julie Andrews, who worked with her on The Princess Diaries. She says she was once in a room with Carol Burnett - "my all-time, ultimate hero." And her favourite actor is Paul Giamatti, who redeemed nerds everywhere in Sideways.
That evening in Los Angeles, Oh joins me and a friend for dinner at a restaurant. She chooses a wine bar that hosted a couple of events for Sideways. Like most of the cast, she developed a passion for wine while shooting the film. With the discerning eye of a sommelier she selects a superb bottle of French burgundy. The restaurant is the kind of place where you expect to see celebrities. No one bothers her, but people notice. You can see them stealing glances. Over there, Sandra Oh. You couldn't mistake her for anyone else.
Maclean's August 29, 2005