[TV] Article on Sandra Oh
- All That Korean Rage, Unbottled
By HILARY DE VRIES
NURSING a case of the flu, caught while filming her latest movie,
the drama "Sorry Haters," co-starring Robin Wright Penn, the 33-year-
old Ontario-born actress Sandra Oh is working through what should be
a sick day. She has half a dozen films awaiting release,
including "3 Needles," a Canadian drama in which she plays a nun
nursing African AIDS victims. Beginning in January, she will also be
seen in a new television series, the ABC medical drama "Grey's
Anatomy," in which she plays an ambitious surgical intern. It will
be her first TV role since Ms. Oh landed in Hollywood eight years
ago playing Robert Wuhl's spunky assistant on the HBO
After a morning on the set, Ms. Oh is bundled in a shawl here in the
Hollywood Hills house she shares with her husband, the Oscar-
nominated screenwriter and director Alexander Payne
("Election," "About Schmidt"). She is doing her best to
explain "Sideways," Mr. Payne's oenophilic buddy comedy, which opens
on Friday and co-stars Ms. Oh, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church
and Virginia Madsen. It is the couple's first film together, shot
only six months after they married in January 2003. In a
conversation punctuated by coughing fits and bursts of profanity,
Ms. Oh talked about her new series, working with her husband and
what it's like being one of the only actors of Korean descent
working in Hollywood.
HILARY DE VRIES: In "Sideways" you play a sexy, smart, wine-loving
biker who is also a bit of a terror. It's a big change from most of
your roles in Hollywood, where you were in danger of being
permanently labeled "sassy."
SANDRA OH: Per-ma-nent-ly! Yeah, that happens when you play
characters who are in positions of authority and you're not the
lead. You're relegated to sassy.
Q. Well, your husband is one writer who obviously sees you as
something more than sassy. Were the two of you looking for a project
to do together?
A. No, Alexander doesn't work that way. He just thought the part of
Stephanie was right for me - and it's not necessarily the kind of
part people would think of me for. Even when we were shooting,
people would say, "Oh, I thought you'd be playing the other woman,"
Maya who is more sincere and earthy.
Q. Given all the wine in the movie, it looked like it was fun to
A. The movie is an ode to wine on one hand, but it's also a
beautiful examination of the nearing- middle-age white American
Q. And that's interesting to you as a woman?
A. When was the last time you saw a real [expletive] friendship
between two men in a movie? I mean a real one? Not the "I'm the wild
cop and you're the by-the-book cop," which is the only way we see
men relating to each other in movies. It's the story of two men, one
who won't grow up and the other one is filled with self-loathing.
Q. Not surprisingly, the women in the movie are--
A. Much more together. Even though they are not on screen that much,
the women have a tremendous impact because of the way they're
written. I wish more women would be represented in film like that
because I think how Stephanie and Maya deal with men is how women
really want to deal with men.
Q. Which is how exactly?
A. One, beat the [expletive] out of them. And two, that scene where
Maya tells Paul's character I have spent the last three years of my
life getting out of a relationship and I'm just fine. How many times
I wish I had the sense of myself and the strength to present myself
that way and also how many times I wish I had bashed someone's face
Q. In the film, you get that chance to do just that. Was that hard
A. No! Alexander said to me, "Just call on those centuries of female
Korean rage." But also, Stephanie doesn't have that much screen
time, so I had to explain with as little dialogue as possible why
she is the way she is. Why she would fall for this guy and why she
would let him put her daughter to bed - I mean, she's not the best
mom - and why she would take up a helmet and assault him. O.K., so
she's not that grounded. Well, what could help show that? Alexander
and I talked about that - I'm lucky because I can talk to the
director this way - and I said, "Well, what if her mother is
Q. Implying your character had been adopted?
A. Which is the reality for a lot of Koreans. It's also kind of
funny. But it tells her story in a very subtle way.
Q. It seems like people are only finding out you guys got married
because of the film.
A. That's fine with us. I mean, you don't have to make a big deal
out of it.
Q. So he says he asked you out, but you turned him down, for eight
A. Well, I was busy.
Q. What do mean busy? With work, your personal life?
A. B-U-S-Y, in all capitals! [Laughing] I want it in the [expletive]
record that Alexander Payne chased Sandra Oh for eight months and
she would not go out with him because she was "busy." And by the
way, the first thing you notice about Alexander Payne is that he is
Q. Do you want to have children? You played a mother in "Under the
Tuscan Sun" and now in "Sideways."
A. I don't know, but as soon as you pass 30 in Hollywood, you can
play mothers of 15-year-olds, which is [expletive] ridiculous.
Q. But at least they're not sassy. Neither is the woman you play on
your new TV series. Was that part of your reason for doing TV again?
A. I made the decision to go back and do TV because I've made four
movies last year and worked three months and I can't do that.
Q. Too much? Too little?
A. Too little! Look, I understand myself more as an actor in
Hollywood now and I know that I don't get jobs in films by
auditioning. I'm not blonde. You can't place me in movies the way
you can with certain actors. It's very difficult for my agents. They
say to me, "I have a hard time getting you in" and all I want is a
shot. Some directors like Altman or Alexander cast who they want,
but otherwise you have to drop about $15 million from your budget if
you want to do that. I mean, unless you're Gwyneth Paltrow, most
women can't greenlight a $5 million movie.
Q. But you were just in "Under the Tuscan Sun," which was a big-
budget, mainstream picture. How did that happen?
A. Because [the director] Audrey Wells believed in me, wrote that
part for me and pushed for me. I know for me to be in any film over
$3 million, there is someone pushing for me because I am not an easy
sell. All the jobs I've gotten in the last two years are because
directors have seen the work I've done - indie films, plays, short
student films, TV - since I moved to the states in 1996. I mean, I
have an entire career in Canada that nobody has seen.
Q. So wait, "Under the Tuscan Sun" didn't lead to other offers?
A. After it came out, I couldn't get an [expletive] audition. The
only other role I got was another best friend and they said to
me, "Well, you've already played a best friend so we're not going to
cast you." That was a turning point for me to go back to TV - I'd
hit the glass ceiling of playing the best friend. And we all know
the classic best-friend role is [expletive]. You're on the
periphery. You're all sardonic, all sass-say. You're not even sassy,
you're sass-say. But even so, you're not going to let me play
another one? It was enraging. It's not like they're ever going to
say to Danny Glover, "Oh, you can't play another buddy because
you've already played one." Or say to Jeremy Piven, "You can't play
John Cusack's best friend again." So because I don't want to depress
myself by going out for [expletive], I would rather work in
television where the roles are [expletive] better. I can get a
better role in TV and work more constantly than I can waiting around
for my friends in Canada to call me every four years - which they
do - and I go up there and play a leading role.
Q. Was your new character on "Grey's Anatomy," the intern Christina
Yang, written as Asian?
A. No, she was a pert little blonde and the thing is the woman who
runs the show, Shonda Rhimes, is a black woman, which makes a big
[expletive] difference. What I like about my character is she's
ambitious, she's not apologetic. She's a complete female character
who doesn't have to be bitchy or conniving.
Q. Why are so few Asian actors working in Hollywood? The Screen
Actors Guild just released new job figures that show a decline in
the number of Asian actors. I mean there's you, Lucy Liu and
Margaret Cho, and then I have to stop and think.
A. And can we even name a male Asian actor? It's because Hollywood
imports Asian stars who already have worldwide appeal. They're
wonderful actors, all of them, but Hollywood wants them because Hong
Kong and Chinese action movies are so popular now.
Q. So it makes more sense to cast a Maggie Cheung or Gong Li from
China than Sandra Oh from Canada?
A. Absolutely. And the same thing is true of Latino actors, except
for J. Lo, who is a global entity. And Queen [Latifah.] She's got
such credibility. A lot of women wind up producing themselves, but I
don't. I just want to act. Just give me good writing because what I
do well is [expletive] interpret words. But sometimes I don't think
they know who I am.
Q. Who do "they" think you are?
A. People ask me what I'm writing. They think I'm Sandra Tsing Loh.
Or they ask about stand-up. "No, that's Margaret Cho." I really
think there is this kind of glomming, that they think we are somehow
all the same person.
Q. Or that you're all best friends.
A. Yeah, but I'm not and I would love to be friends with Margaret.
She is such a singular artist and she was not supported by her own
community. Koreans didn't support her because of their own
[expletive] bias, what's the word, something -ist, not racist but
just that [expletive] where they only want Asian stars who look like
[expletive] Asian kewpie dolls.
Hilary de Vries is the author of the Hollywood satire "So Five
Minutes Ago," published earlier this year by Villard.