Sandra Oh, who played a freewheeling single mom in “Sideways,” gets tough as a surgical intern in ABC’s medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But Oh, who spent six years on the cable TV series “Arli$$,” first had to dissect “more corporate input” than she expected in her first major project for a broadcast network.
“I find it challenging having to make decisions by committee,” Oh, 34, says during a break on the set. “I was lucky on ‘Arli$$.’ I basically got to do whatever I wanted because HBO is great for that.”
The role of Christina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy” (debuting 10 p.m. EST Sunday, following ABC’s hit series “Desperate Housewives”) proved too good to resist, she says.
“I get to play a woman who is extremely ambitious and unapologetic and driven, and sometimes not very sympathetic,” Oh says. “So you weigh the opportunity to actually do good work, but understanding the medium and who you’re working for.”
Oh returns to television after a series of films that included “The Princess Diaries,” “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Sideways,” for which director/co-writer (and husband) Alexander Payne won the adapted screenplay Oscar. (The couple recently announced they had separated.)
Into theater earlyRaised in Canada by her Korean-immigrant parents, she began studying ballet at 4.
“I had pigeon toes, and my mother heard that that was a good way to straighten them out,” Oh recalls.
She got into theater at age 10 and, despite her parents’ disapproval, began a professional acting career before she was out of her teens.
“It was very bad at that time,” says Oh, who opted out of a university education. “In many Asian households, to not go on to higher education, that’s like a big no-no. I know my parents’ discouragement was for my own protection, and I’m really close to them now, but they didn’t understand that there is value in this. That’s because they didn’t know.”
In 1991, she left home to study at the National Theatre in Montreal. By 1993 she’d landed the title role as a teenage prostitute in the CBC television drama “The Diary of Evelyn Lau.”
Later, director Mina Shum cast her in the 1994 film “Double Happiness” and she starred onstage in David Mamet’s “Oleanna.”
Fighting for workAfter winning numerous awards including two Genies, Canada’s Oscar equivalent, Oh came to Los Angeles in 1995. A year later, she landed on “Arli$$,” winning a best-actress CableAce Award for comedy.
Oh has a number of upcoming independent features, including “Hard Candy,” “3 Needles” and “Cake,” and in May she films Grace Lee’s “Smells Like Butter” in Korea.
Still, big-budget American films offer her little more than supporting parts “where I’d come in for two or three days to play the best friend or their bookkeeper,” she muses. “This is my career.”
Even “Sideways” hasn’t caused a flood of starring offers.
“But what’s been really lovely is that now it’s not just two scenes playing an assistant, which is where I was stuck for a very long time. So the roles are now a little more significant. There’s a little more for me to do now.”
“It’s been difficult for her being a Korean-Canadian to garner work in America,” says “Grey’s Anatomy” co-star Isaiah Washington. “And that she’s only one of a (small) percentage of Korean actors in the forefront, besides Margaret Cho, that’s a huge responsibility.”
That’s not lost on Oh.
“I grew up never seeing myself on-screen, and it’s really important to me to give people who look like me a chance to see themselves. I want to see myself as the hero of any story. I want to see myself save the world from the bomb,” she says.
For now, though, she’s content to save lives in a TV operating room.
“I think the roles in television are better for women right now,” she says. “At this point I don’t want to continue doing the same things I’ve been doing in film because it’s very limited.”