Sandra Oh Talks About Life, Family, and Grey's Anatomy
By Judith Newman
Photo Credit: James White
"Well, at first I wanted to be Cindy? Because I loved her hair?"
Sandra Oh, channeling a Valley girl, is bouncing on her heels, trying to keep warm between takes; for some reason the Grey's Anatomy studio is the temperature of a meat locker. To kill time, she and a few of the crew members are indulging me in a game of "Marcia, Jan, or Cindy?" because, as we all know, the child you identify with from The Brady Bunch reveals everything about your personality. "But then as I got older, I wanted to be Jan," Oh continues. Artistic? Emotional? A little insecure? She nods, adding: "And the classic middle child."
Oh scampers back to the set for another take. Grey's Anatomy is an unusually meticulous show, and Oh had worried I'd be bored with the multiple do-overs. On the contrary as a fan, I'm pathetically thrilled by everything. I'm thrilled that Justin Chambers as Dr. Alex Karev manages to nail the word "platysmaplasty," like, 20 times in a row; that Katherine Heigl, when the camera is off, emits a belch any frat boy would be proud of. But mostly I'm thrilled by Sandra Oh in close-up. She has one of the most expressive faces on television at one moment hard and impassive, the next yearning, wry, tender, all while barely moving a muscle. That face, combined with GA's stellar writing, has made what could have been a stock medical-soap-opera surgeon into a woman we love and root for, even as we roll our eyes at her emotional cluelessness.
"I've always tried to play Cristina with a tremendous amount of focus and ambition which is the reality for a female surgeon," Oh had said to me earlier. "I mean, in real life there aren't many of them. But the ones you encounter are at the very top of their game. You have to have a kind of ascetic personality to survive."
Says Chandra Wilson, a linchpin of the show in her role as "the Nazi," Miranda Bailey, "I've never met an actress as conscious, as analytical, as Sandra. She thinks about every word coming out of her mouth." Except when the cameras are off: "I remember our first day together. There I was, walking around, shouting orders, doing my thing." Apparently, Oh was impressed because, after the take, she turned to the rest of the cast, pointed at Wilson, and blurted, "Oh my God, I want to have sex with her!" "That was my introduction to Sandra," Wilson says.
The day before visiting the set, I meet Oh in a fragrant, dimly lit Indian restaurant. She is 35 but without makeup looks about 25. She is wearing a medley of tanks and T-shirts, plus one of those wrap sweaters with sleeves that extend past the wrist. But what really catches my attention is the owl hanging around her neck. It is part metal, part ceramic, and the size of a dinner plate. And suddenly I understand how Oh can both be considered fashion-forward (see raves for vintage Ungaro at the SAG Awards) and land on Mr. Blackwell's worst-dressed list. ("Layered lunacy," he sniped.)
Despite all the attention over the past three years from the fashion press, celebrity magazines, awards shows (she's won a SAG award and a Golden Globe), Oh once thought she'd be spending the rest of her life playing wacky assistants, à la her seven-season stint on Arli$$. Then she kicked ass or, more precisely, nose in Sideways, landed a starring role in the top-rated drama in the country, and all of a sudden she's an Us magazine regular. You know you've made it when excerpts from your divorce papers turn up on tmz.com. Right?
Oh shudders. "I don't listen to this stuff. I don't see it," she tells me, referring to printed gossip about her divorce from Sideways director Alexander Payne. "I tell my people I don't want to know about it, because while rationally you might know it's ridiculous, it can hurt your feelings. It can knock me off from being my authentic self."
So who is the authentic Oh? Like Cristina Yang, she's had her overachieving moments: She was on the honor roll in high school and a member of the student council. And like her television alter ego, Oh's got a certain, shall we say, disregard for the domestic arts: Her trailer is strewn with clothes, books, videos (Jeeves & Wooster), unhung photographs, nutritional supplements. To sit down in her Prius, I pretty much had to excavate the front seat. "You should see my house," she says cheerfully. "It's sort of explosive. Like a crazy person lives there."
But in every other way, Oh is the anti-Cristina. For one thing, she's a hugger. For another, she is generous and noncompetitive enough to have not only clapped enthusiastically when Wilson won her recent SAG award, but also to have actually leapt out of her seat and woo-hooed. She never watches Grey's Anatomy but is addicted to The Simpsons. She is a believer in therapy, both cognitive and pharmacological, and she likes to talk though unlike most actors she also enjoys listening, and is naturally empathetic and trusting. Perhaps too much so, she worries. "When your life changes and you become a more public person, in some ways you need to be a more closed person, you know?"
Like right now. Neither she nor Payne has talked about their divorce. Oh still finds the topic too painful to discuss. And a new relationship? "I can't, I just can't," she says apologetically. (She is reportedly dating Andrew Featherston, a percussionist in the indie band The Hereafter.)
So, while she doesn't quite open a vein about her marriage, she's an exceedingly good sport about everything else. I think if I asked her to recite her "naughty, naughty nurses" speech, she'd do it.