Sandra Oh – Biography
by Catherine Solmes
Some actresses have mantelpieces loaded down with awards, and some have honourary stars embedded in sidewalks. Some top the best-dressed lists year after year, and some grace the covers of every magazine. But how many can claim the honour bestowed on actress Sandra Oh? There is now a font inspired by her and described as “a quirky take on the classic Clarendon, with a wiggle in her walk and a giggle in her talk.” Which is just how many describe the Nepean-born actress. If Canada had a star system, Sandra Oh would be a superstar.
Born in 1971, to Korean immigrant parents, Oh started out as a dancer, studying ballet for 14 years. Along the way she discovered theatre and remained heavily involved in drama courses and productions all through high school. In 1987, at 16 years old, she began acting professionally in theatre, television and commercials. The next year, she performed with her team at the High School Improv Games, winning second place in the city-wide competition. She also appeared in Marc Voizard’s 1989 short film The Journey Home.
In 1991 she left home to study at the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. Shortly after graduating, her sister convinced her to audition for a CBC-TV production about a troubled young poet. Oh beat out over 1,000 other actresses to play the lead in 1993`s The Diary of Evelyn Lau, the true story of a girl who runs away from home and falls into drug addiction and prostitution and later writes about her experiences in a bestselling novel all by the time she is 18 years old. This performance won her a great deal of acclaim and recognition, including a nomination for Best Actress at the Gemini Awards and the 1994 Cannes FIPA d’Or Award for Best Actress.
The following year, Oh won her first Genie Award for her performance in Mina Shum`s Double Happiness, the bittersweet story of Jade Li, a young Chinese-Canadian woman, caught between the desire to be a dutiful daughter and the desire to follow her heart. The film touched a chord with its audience for its honesty, affection and humour and for Oh`s buoyant, charming and understated performance.
After the success of Double Happiness, she did a few plays, appeared in the Cagney and Lacey made-for-television movie, an episode of Lonesome Dove and in the Canadian short Prey (1995), alongside fellow Canadian Adam Beach.
That same year, she won a recurring role on a U.S. sitcom, and suffered a major disappointment when it was cancelled after only a few episodes. But the next year brought her another major opportunity, when she won a supporting role on the HBO-TV sports comedy Arli$$ (1996–2002). On the show, Oh played Rita Wu, the smart and sassy personal assistant of a scheming sports agent (Robert Wuhl). She won accolades for her work on the series, including the 1997 Cable ACE award for Best Actress in a Comedy. Arli$$ was a success from the start. Like HBO`s other ground-breaking series Sex In the City, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, Arli$$ only aired 13 episodes per season, which gave Oh plenty of time for other projects.
During the next few years, she appeared in a number of films, including the short Cowgirl (1996), Rowan Atkinson`s big screen foray, Bean (1997), Ben Stiller`s fact-based drama Permanent Midnight (1998), and the award-winning Canadian feature The Red Violin (1998).
Also in 1998, she had a lead role in Don McKellar‘s debut feature, Last Night. Her performance as a young newlywed trying to get home to her husband in order to fulfill their suicide pact during the last few hours before the end of the world, won her a second Best Actress Genie.
More film roles followed, in Audrey Wells`Guinevere (1999) as one of a long line of protegées collected by an artist (Stephen Rea), in Waking the Dead (2000) alongside her friend Molly Parker, and in the bleak and raw Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000), about life in a L.A. strip club. The script was entirely improvised, and Oh was given an award at the Milan International Film Festival for her performance.
As well as her work on Arli$$, Oh has been much lauded for her guest appearances on the WB`s Popular, Armistaud Maupin`s Further Tales of the City, as Bambi Kanetaka, HBO`s Six Feet Under, as a porn starlet, and for her recurring role on Judging Amy, Detective Tran.
While on hiatus from Arli$$, Oh found time to indulge in her first love, the theatre. She returned to Ontario to perform in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram. In 1998 she played a 13-year-old girl in Dog Eaters at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse and earned a Theatre World Award for her performance in Stop Kiss in New York City. She also had supporting roles in some high profile films since 2000, appearing in The Princess Diaries (2001), Big Fat Liar (2002) and Full Frontal (2002). In 2002, she again teamed up with Mina Shum for Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity, playing a single mother whose 12-year-old daughter tries to play matchmaker using Taoist magic. More recently, she appeared in Audrey Wells’ Under the Tuscan Sun with Diane Lane; Rick, with Bill Pullman; and Break a Leg with Molly Parker.
Her marriage to award-winning screenwriter/director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) ended shortly after Sideways took the movie world by storm, but Oh continues to live in Los Angeles. Although the first season was shot in 2004, the release of the series Grey’s Anatomy kept her in the spotlight when the series made its debut in early 2005. She played the role of Dr. Cristina Yang and helped the series to achieve hit status, consistently showing up at the top of the ratings. Proof of her contribution came in January of 2006 when she was given a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for her work on Grey’s Anatomy, but finally walked away from the series in the last episode of the 2014 season.
Many actors, once they’re tied to the crushing schedule of series production, stop doing almost all other work. Not Oh. She co-starred in 3 Needles by renowned director Thom Fitzgerald, and showed up in another small Canadian film, Nisha Ganatra’s Cake.In 2006 she appeared in the thriller The Night Listener, co-starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette, then went on to a cameo in the comedy For Your Consideration with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.
In July 2018 Sandra Oh received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a drama for her role in the BBC America thriller, Killing Eve, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to ever score a nod in that category. Fellow Canadian actor Tatiana Maslany was also nominated for her work on the series Orphan Black. Sandra Oh made TV history in 2019 when she was named as co-host (with Andy Samberg) of the Golden Globe Awards, the first woman of Asian descent to be tasked with such a high profile role. She also won a Golden Globe for her work in the mini-series Killing Eve.
Clearly, Sandra Oh was born to work and is more than happy to build her star status the old fashioned way… one performance at a time.
Also see: Sandra Oh’s filmography.
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