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March 7, 2007

Sandra Oh Talks About Life, Family, and Grey's Anatomy

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At 19, Oh beat out 1000 other women for the lead role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a grim biopic about a young Chinese poet who ran away from her overly strict parents and spiraled into drug addiction and prostitution. Director Sturla Gunnarsson still remembers how Oh won the role. "When she came in to the audition, she asked for a moment to focus herself. Then she lay on the floor for five minutes. Most people would have kicked her out of the room. I thought it was remarkable that at 19 she had the confidence — and audacity — to do that." Oh won a Gemini (the Canadian Emmy) for her performance.

And yet, when she moved to L.A. in 1996, finding work wasn't easy. "I remember one agent who was so, so mean," Oh recalls. "She said, 'People are going to lie to you, but I'm not going to lie. Someone like you' — and you know what the fuck that means, right? — 'you're just not gonna work.'"

It's not only that Oh is Asian; it was also that she wasn't our kind of Asian, with that delicate/ethereal/submissive/zen vibe. So what followed were years of walk-ons and one-liners and best-friend and cop roles. Oh's marriage may have gone south, but she certainly has one thing to thank her former husband for: When he cast her as the feisty, sexy wine seller in his movie Sideways and told her to "tap into her Korean female rage" during the infamous whupping of Thomas Haden Church, he put her on the star track.

Grey's Anatomy has been wildly popular almost from the beginning, and with that popularity has come scrutiny. Backstage at the Golden Globes, two days before I visited the set, Isaiah Washington denied calling T.R. Knight a "faggot," thus reigniting the tensions that ABC and the producers thought they'd put to bed in the fall. In the interest of keeping his job, Washington issued a carefully worded apology and went into rehab, thus alerting America that there are 12-step programs available to address the disease of being a dick.

I ask Oh about the brouhaha; after all, if Washington is canned it will affect her most directly, since many of her story-lines are intertwined with his. But even if this weren't the case, Washington's slur was an issue of considerable importance to Oh, who has been declared a "gay icon" by no less an arbiter than Out magazine ("Because I've played gay characters? Because somehow I represent 'the Other' in this weird way? Maybe because I love fashion? I don't know why, but it makes me happy."). She speaks cautiously. "You can't predict what will happen to you with this sort of fame. It affects everyone so intensely. Some people grow up. Some become really spiritual. And some of them...drink the Kool-Aid."

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