Disappointed Parents and Secret Romance: Inside the Remarkably Private World of Sandra Oh

Before landing the titular role on Killing Eve, Sandra Oh had to overcome tough rejections and her family's belief that her chosen path was just "one step above prostitution."

By Sarah Grossbart Jul 20, 2021 2:52 PMTags
Watch: Sandra Oh Calls Fan Reaction to "Killing Eve" a 'Miracle'

Taking the stage at the 2018 Emmy Awards, Sandra Oh announced her intentions to speak from the heart, then preceded to deliver one of the best bits of the entire three-hour broadcast.

Rather than reveal the recipient of the award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, the Killing Eve actress ripped the envelope in half, explaining her actions in a panic, "I was in the moment, I got overwhelmed." As co-presenter Andy Samberg played straight man, she wondered aloud if they should just make up a winner, handing the trophy first to Oscar runner-up La La Land and then Jeremy Park, "a guy I dated in high school." The way she saw it, she relayed to Samberg, he could very well have won: "We lost touch. I mean, he could be doing anything." 

Well, sure. Though it's safe to say that wherever Park may be, he's well aware of what his old girlfriend is up to. Because while she might not consider herself a celebrity, a decades-long career has a way of making an actor fairly well-known.

Sandra Oh Through the Years

Oh's Emmy back-and-forth earned the star a co-hosting gig alongside Samberg at 2019's Golden Globes. "I said yes because you were going to do it!" she revealed in a joint interview with Samberg and The Hollywood Reporter. "Honestly, I said yes even though it was so terrifying to me, really terrifying. I just could not let this opportunity pass me by, the life experience of being this scared of something."

Of course the actress, marking her 50th birthday July 20, is hardly hurting for TV work. Some seven years after she hung up her Grey's Anatomy scrubs, the native of Nepean, Canada, a suburb of Ottawa, sunk her finely honed acting chops into one of her most rewarding roles yet, playing once-desk-bound MI5 operative Eve Polastri now trapped in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with an assassin in BBC America's hit Killing Eve

Four seasons in, the part has already garnered Oh two Emmy nods (the first Asian woman to be honored in the lead drama actress category, she lost out to costar Jodie Comer), a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe win (during which she adorably shouted out her proud parents, her frequent awards show dates). "I tried to be patient and stay true to what is it that I'm going to fall in love with? What is it that might drive me mad? What is it that's going to put stuff at risk for me?" she explained to Vogue of carefully selecting her first major post-Grey's role. "That is where I want to grow from. I waited until this came along."

One of three siblings born to middle-class Korean immigrants Oh Junsu, a businessman, and Jeon Young-nam, a biochemist, Oh set her sights on acting early when it became clear the ballet classes she'd started at age four to correct a pigeon-toed stance weren't going to lead to a life as a professional dancer. 

It was her older sister Grace who encouraged her, pushing her towards her first role as the Wizard of Woe in her class musical The Canada Goose at age 10. At Sir Robert Borden High School, her drive—she founded an environmental club, leading a campaign against the use of styrofoam cups, and served as student council president—earned her a journalism scholarship to Carleton University. But much to her parents' chagrin, she turned it down for the chance to study at the National Theatre School of Canada. 

"It was very, very tough," Oh admitted on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2007. "Because, like, you know, my parents at that time looked down on the arts....It's like one step above, you know, prostitution." 

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

The deeply religious duo, who immigrated to Canada in their twenties, had always instilled in their children "that whatever you have to do has to be good for society," she noted. "And there just doesn't seem to be—what's the good of being an actor on camera? You know, what are you helping society with?" 

So she vowed that if this whole foray into the arts didn't pan out, she'd return to school. Naturally, that never happened. With her sister becoming a lawyer and her brother Ray holding a Ph.D. in medical genetics she told DeGeneres, "I'm the only person in my family who doesn't have a master's in something." 

Not that her resume is exactly barren, with her first major accolade coming before she'd exited her teens. Flipping through an alt-weekly, her sister had spotted an ad looking for a young Asian actress to play the titular role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a CBC biopic focusing on the poet's teenage runaway years that found her dabbling in prostitution and drugs. Oh traveled seven hours by bus from Montreal to Toronto, sleeping in the station ahead of her audition. 

When she arrived in the room, in oversized overalls and a T-shirt, "She asked for a moment to focus herself," director Sturla Gunnarsson recalled to Marie Claire, "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." 

Looking back, Oh, who beat out 1,000 other women for the role, going on to win a Gemini Award (Canada's answer to the Emmys) for her work, was equally impressed. "I really admire who that person was at that moment who just said, 'I don't know what the rules are. I'm going to lie down,'" she told Vulture. "That person took her time and was unapologetic about it." 

Her initial success was followed up by another win: the lead in feature film Double Happiness, which earned her a Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role—the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar. "That set up the template for me," she said. "Let's have everything!"

Then she arrived in Hollywood where a 1995 meeting with an unimpressed agent cut her to the quick.

Instantly declaring Oh wasn't leading lady material, the agent cruelly advised her to consider getting plastic surgery. "It was the way that she said, 'Listen: I'm not going to lie to you. A lot of people are going to lie to you. But I've got nothing for you here. I have Suzy Kim'—I'm just making up names—'she has an audition in like six months. There's nothing for a year,'" Oh recalled to Vulture. "'My best advice for you is to go back home and get famous.'"

Except, Oh, realized, she'd completed that part, holding a number of stage and screen credits to her name. "I had already done all I could do to get to that A level, which is star in theater, TV, film, and somehow, that wasn't enough for someone to say, 'I believe I can get you an audition,'" she shared. "There's like a dark needle or a nail that lives at the back of all of our heads, and that's your fear. That's like, 'It is true. There's nothing there. And she's saying that she's not going to lie to me. Other people are going to lie to you, but she won't lie to you. She told the truth. Go back.'" 

Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

Finding a payphone, she called her former director Gunnarsson "and was not able to stop crying," she told Vulture. "It just cut me at the knees."

Still, she forged on, painstakingly building a career with a long-running role as the title character's assistant on HBO's Arliss, a scene-stealing turn in 2001's The Princess Diaries and parts as Diane Lane's best friend in 2003's Under the Tuscan Sun and Thomas Haden Church's spurned love interest in 2004's Sideways before becoming famous by embodying cutthroat cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy.

For 10 straight seasons, she delved into plotlines that saw her fall for her boss, get left at the altar, have an abortion and perform numerous surgeries, including one at gunpoint, and, of course, form the series' most endearing partnership with her "person", the titular Meredith Grey. Her affection for her character often saw her going "toe-to-toe with [creator] Shonda [Rhimes] and and a lot of the writers," she told fellow Shondaland alum Kerry Washington in the Variety Studio: Actors on Actors series, arguing about just what Dr. Yang would and would not do: "I think ultimately, for the entire product and our relationship, if you're fighting for the show, if you're fighting for your character, people can tell that."

But as she wrapped the show's ninth season in 2013, she realized it was time to take off the scrub cap. "It just felt like I did all I wanted to do," she told Vulture of deciding to end her run after the following year. "I didn't feel like, Ugh, that's all I can do, I've done everything. It was more than that. It was actually, dare I say it, a sense of satisfaction."


She'd experienced a great bit in her personal life during that time as well—including a marriage and subsequent divorce from filmmaker Alexander Payne, who'd directed her in Sideways

Not that she was interested in talking about any of that. While she has a tendency to offer tiny glimpses into an off-camera life during her sporadic interviews—she's naturally messy, describing her house to Marie Claire as "sort of explosive. Like a crazy person lives there," loves The Simpsons and has grown into a deep spirituality after a childhood spent in churches both Korean and English-speaking—she deliberately shuts out chatter about the most personal parts of her existence. 

When excerpts from her divorce papers turned up on TMZ, she declined to comment, telling Marie Claire, "I don't listen to this stuff. I don't see it. 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." 

As Grey's developed into a ratings juggernaut shortly after its 2005 debut, the cast became the type of overnight stars that get written up on blogs, hounded by cameras and are forever at the risk of ending up on worst dressed lists.

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"We had paparazzi sitting outside the gate at our little tiny studio, and people were getting followed in cars. It was bad," casting director Linda Lowy recalled to Vulture. "I don't really know how [Sandra] handled it. Probably she ran home and hid because that's who she is. I don't think she wants to live in the limelight like that." 

Decidedly not. Never one to chase any modicum of fame, she admitted during a 2012 appearance on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, she was extremely choosy about the interviews she accepted. "I stepped out of doing press because it's too big a price for me, because I just think that if you want to be an actor and if you want to be an artist, it's like, to be known in that entire world, it throws you off your game. It throws you off what I think is really important," she explained to the the Canadian TV host. "I have no idea when I stopped being an actor. I do not consider myself a celebrity. I know many actors who don't consider themselves celebrities and I want to publicly make that statement and that differentiation."

Richard Cartwright/ABC

To this day, Oh declines to get into specifics, but admits that star-making period of her life was...interesting. "There's a certain type of perceived success," she shared with Vulture, "but I can also see how that causes stress, how that can cause conflict, and how that can cause people to lose their way. I experienced it as traumatic." 

So after bidding farewell to Grey's amid a heap of tears and the 250 bottles of champagne embossed with a photo of an anatomical heart ("It was like, 'Here's my heart in a box for a celebration,'" she told The Hollywood Reporter) that she handed out to every crew member, she was OK with taking a break from headline-making gigs. 

"The point when I decided to leave Grey's and the time since then has been extremely creative—not necessarily regarding output, but exploring the empowered place of waiting," she shared with Harper's Bazaar shortly before Killing Eve's debut. "It's like, 'I'm going to wait. I'm going to say no. I'm going to wait,' because I am able and privileged at this point in my life and in my career to make choices."

Chad Buchanan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

It was a decision she had made nearly two decades earlier "that I only want to play roles that are central to the story," she noted. "So, I had to say no to certain things, and I had to say yes to other things." 

And in between she found plenty of ways to keep herself busy. She's reportedly been dating Andrew Featherston, a drummer in the indie band The Hereafter for the better part of a decade, but naturally she's not spilling, preferring to focus on the types of extracurriculars that provide a boon to her professional life.

"I'm a big class taker. I'm a big workshop taker," she said of her dedication to her art. "I do it to cultivate closeness to the craft. It transcends a lot of the bulls--t we have to deal with and it can change your point of view creatively so that you feel freer. If you are not beholden to studio A, or if you're not beholden to a place of bills (and I know that I am speaking from a place of privilege), then you can just be freer." 

She felt she'd know when she found what she was looking for and that moment came as she did a quick once-over of the Killing Eve script during a walk in Brooklyn.

Though she had to make a quick clarification first. 

"I was talking to my agent and as I scrolled on my phone, doing a really quick pass at the script, I'm just going, Who am I? Who am I playing? This was a real moment for my own internalization," she told Variety. "And my agent goes, 'Honey, it's Eve'—and then I was just like, Ohhhh. I appreciated that they thought of that before I thought of it. It really, really stuck with me." 

Actually, her first reaction, as she shared with the outlet was more pointed. "Can I just tell you, it's about f--king time!" she exclaimed of of taking on the role, originally written as a white woman in Luke Jennings' book Codename Villanelle. "The character is not Asian, but there are a billion examples of the reverse where the source material or the character in the book was one ethnicity or another and no one blinks an eye when people change it to being a white actor. I really hope that there is more pressure and sensitivity and understanding around it."

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But while that type progress, the move toward increased diversity on screen, has been, as she put it to Harper's Bazaar "woefully slow, like, painfully slow," she's learned to be enduringly patient. 

"The way that I've had to deal with it is to try to find a completely different way of looking at it, to think about what being an actor is all about," she noted. "Is it trying to fit into this paradigm? Why am I trying to get into a room where they don't want me? I always feel like, why wait for a call from a guy who's not into you?"

Watch: Will Sandra Oh Return to "Grey's Anatomy"?

Rather than feel like an also-ran, she said, "I'm focusing on my work and either people will respond to it or not. What I would say to actresses of color is to really be honest about why you're in the game. Is it to have a zillion followers on Instagram? Is it to be on thousands of screens across the country? What do you really want? I've constantly asked myself that question over and over in my career and it gets more and more refined." 

Some three decades in, she's gone over that desire enough times in her mind to feel confident she's landed on precisely what she's after. "In the midst of waiting, there is everyone else telling you A, B or C, and you just have to find your own voice," she told Harper's Bazaar. "I think it comes with age and experience. I feel good with exactly where I am right now." 

(Originally published Jan. 5, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)

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