DATE November 23, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Sandra Oh discusses her acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sandra Oh is one of the stars of the new movie "Sideways." She also
co-starred in "Under the Tuscan Sun." In the HBO series "Arli$$," she played
the sports agent's assistant. In the film "Double Happiness," she starred as
a young Chinese Canadian woman who wants to act but faces two big obstacles:
parents who don't want her to act and an industry that stereotypes Asian
women. Sandra Oh grew up in Ottawa. Her parents are from Korea.
Let's start with a scene from "Sideways." The story is about two men nearing
middle age. Thomas Haden Church plays an actor who used to be in a soap
opera. He's about to get married, but before he does, he's going to take a
road trip through wine country with his old college roommate, played by Paul
Giamatti. He's a teacher who's written a novel he's hoping to get published.
The actor is all ego and id; the teacher is insecure and self-conscious.
Sandra Oh plays a pourer at a vineyard who begins a passionate affair with the
actor. He has conveniently neglected to mention he's about to get married.
This is the scene where the guys first meet Sandra Oh at the vineyard.
(Soundbite of "Sideways")
Ms. SANDRA OH: (As Stephanie) So what do you think?
Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) Quaffable, but far from transcendent.
Mr. THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (As Jack) I like it; it's great.
Ms. OH: (As Stephanie) Cabernet Franc. This is only the fifth year we've
made this varietal. Very few wineries around here do a straight Cab Franc.
It's from our vineyards up in Santa Maria, and it was a silver medal winner at
Paso Robles last year.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Well, I will tell you something. I've come never to
expect greatness from a Cab Franc, and this one isn't that different. It's
kind of a hollow, flabby, overripe...
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) I don't know. Tastes pretty good to me. So do you
live around here, Stephanie?
Ms. OH: (As Stephanie) Yeah, up around Los Alamos. And I agree with you
about Cab Franc.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) We're just over in Buellton. Windmill Inn.
Ms. OH: (As Stephanie) Oh, yeah?
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Do you happen to know a gal named Maya that works at
Ms. OH: (As Stephanie) Yeah, sure. Yeah, I know Maya.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Yeah? Well, we had a drink with her last night. Miles
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Yes. Can we move on to the Sirah, please?
Ms. OH: Oh, champing at the bit, huh?
GROSS: Sandra Oh, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now you are directed by your
husband, Alexander Payne, in this movie, who also made "About Schmidt" and
"Election." Sometimes working with a spouse can be very awkward. For
example, sometimes couples have a way of communicating that's--with each
other, especially when they're at home alone, that's different from the way
they communicate in public. And sometimes people are different as a couple
than they are as individuals on their own. And so if you're working together
with your other half in that couple in a kind of public situation, because you
have other actors on the set and camera crew and all that stuff...
Ms. OH: Right.
GROSS: ...in your instance, did it ever get awkward because there's, like,
the private version of the couple and the public version of the couple and
sometimes, you know, the two cross in an uncomfortable way?
Ms. OH: Oh, Alexander has worked with a lot of the same crew for almost all
four films, and I know a lot of the crew very, very well. And I can't express
to you enough what a family kind of atmosphere the set was; it was really an
extraordinary experience. And I've hung out with so many of those people for
a long time that our persona as a couple is very, very comfortable. But when
it actually came to the direction and the real work of it, as opposed to
hanging out--just the atmosphere of it--the first couple of days I was
extremely nervous, and the difficulty is that, you know, you're nervous or
you're feeling insecure as all actors do, the person who knows you the best
and who can read you the best happens to be the person who is giving you
direction. So you know, when my deep insecurity would come up, you know, no
one would be able to sense it except for my husband. And so, you know, he'd
be going, `Oh, honey, are you OK? What's going on?' And I would go, `No, no,
nothing. It's fine,' because it's really about you. You know?
So we actually came up with a--after the first day we were driving back home
and--'cause we talk about work a lot. We're not one of those couples who kind
of, you know, don't bring work into our lives. You know, when I'm doing a
project I talk about it; when he's doing a project, he talks about it. When
we were driving home, suddenly he kind of started talking in a way that we
always talk, and it just happened to be putting himself in the third person.
And it was great 'cause he said, `You know, honey, did the director maybe say
something wrong? Was there something the director'--you know--`did?' `Oh,
no, no, no, it wasn't really about the director,' 'cause that's how I usually
talk. You know, it's like, `Oh, I had this experience with this director.'
And after we kind of found that way, which was to talk about ourselves in the
third person, it didn't become kind of a personal thing. It became a very,
very normal--this is how we talk every day.
GROSS: "Sideways" is based on a novel, so, you know, the story was already
written before it was cast. When you were cast as the woman who becomes the
girlfriend of the actor who's about to get married, did the role change at all
because you're Asian?
Ms. OH: People...
GROSS: Well, let me give you an example. The character's mother is white.
Ms. OH: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yes.
GROSS: So, I mean, that implies something.
Ms. OH: It's really great to be able to speak to the writer/director every
day. Yeah, it really does give you an in. So when, you know, he was thinking
about the mother and--I remember we were in like at a hotel somewhere and he
goes, `Oh, honey, who do you think should play your mom?' I thought I want to
pack as much story about Stephanie the character in this film as possible. My
character's actually not on screen very much and doesn't have a lot of
dialogue, so she's there visually a lot. So I was very, very conscious to try
and pack as much character into every moment as possible--you know, visually,
hair and costume and the way I walked, the way I ate french fries. As well,
with this opportunity with an in to make suggestions of what my daughter would
look like and what my mother would look like, I tried to make big choices. So
I am Asian. The wonderful little girl who played my daughter is half Korean
and half black. And the woman who played my mother is white. And it's never
talked about in the film; it's never dealt with. It's a ver--just a short
scene where it's a visual thing. But I think it's strong because whatever you
get from it, it tells a deeper story about Stephanie. So I guess that kind of
answers your question is I wanted to make the suggestion of the casting to be
as richly reflective of Stephanie's character as possible.
GROSS: Now you grew up in Ottawa, in Canada. Your parents, I think, came to
Canada from Korea? Is that right?
Ms. OH: Yes. They came--actually to the States in the early '60s and then
they moved to Canada.
GROSS: Now you started working professionally at the age of 16, and I think
you did TV, theater and commercials.
Ms. OH: Yeah.
GROSS: Did your parents push you this direction at all?--'cause often when
people get started young it's with--this is a no. This is a no.
Ms. OH: Oh, God, no.
Ms. OH: Oh, my goodness, no. No, no, no, no, no. No. Absolutely not.
We've come a long way--my parents--and we've come a long, long way. It
was--they definitely did not expect me to be an actor and early on did not
want me to be an actor for a lot of very, very good reasons. But you know,
sometimes you're born without a choice. You know, you have to become who you
have to become, you know, who you know you have to become. And that was the
case for me. You know, it was great. In Ottawa, you know, because it's a
bilingual town, it's a bilingual country and I speak French, you know, there
are a lot of little industrial films and little television shows and stuff
like that, so I was able to get in there by, you know, doing the English
version and the French version. So as I started with that, and you know, made
a little pocket change here and there, my parents just thought it was a hobby.
And as long as I kept my academics up, which I did, it was no real problem to
them because, you know, they were patient with this growing phase that I was
going through. But as, you know, high school was ending and it became much
more of a serious thing for me, there was--you know, it was like war at home.
GROSS: Over your future?
Ms. OH: Yeah, over my future. And ultimately, you know, I'm the only person
in my family who doesn't have a master's degree. You know, I never went to
Ms. OH: I'm like the dumb one, you know? But I will say that every single
roadblock that my parents put in front of me has only made me better, has only
made me like I get to talk to you now. Do you know what I mean? I'm talking
to Terry Gross, and somewhere along the line it's because my parents said no
GROSS: Well, what were some of the barriers they put up and some of the
things they said no about?
Ms. OH: They're just--like really--and also I have to make clear that they
are so amazingly supportive now, because they now see the worth and meaning to
what I do. My parents really instilled in us that whatever you do in life it
should be for society and it should have meaning. And for them, you know,
film and television, acting, seemed to be a meaningless job. That and the
inevitability--because they faced it their entire life--which is you don't
look like everyone else. I don't--ultimately their feeling was `I don't want
to put my child in a place where she's going to be rejected and hurt.' You
know, I was a really very sensitive kid, right? And so they did not want me
to do that.
Because they said that I couldn't do it and I did it anyway, really no one
else can hurt me. Do you know what I mean? Like my parents--I mean, I was,
you know, really, really lucky. I've come from a really fantastic family, and
we're really close. So the people who are the most important to you putting
up the largest roadblocks, and for me to be able to overcome it and then win
them over--you know, I did this piece when I was--my very, very first thing I
did out of the National Theatre School was this piece for the CBC called "The
Diary of Evelyn Lau," and to this date it's the piece of work that I'm most
proud of. It was a story based on this wonderful, famous Canadian poet,
Evelyn Lau, and it traced her life between 14 and 17 when she ran away from
home and ended up on the streets and became a prostitute and a drug addict,
but she continued--her fire of being a poet continued her journey, and she
basically got out of it. When my parents saw that film, 'cause it was pretty
harrowing, it kind of dawned on them--at least to my mother, which was really
important for me--that what I was doing was meaningful, and that's when it
started changing for them.
GROSS: My guest is Sandra Oh. She co-stars in the new movie "Sideways."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Sandra Oh is my guest, and she is now co-starring in the new movie
"Sideways." And she co-stars in a new TV series called "Grey's Anatomy" that
will premiere on ABC in January.
Sandra, have the roles that you have been offered over the years been limited
at all, do you think, by the fact that you are of Korean descent?
Ms. OH: (Sighs) That's such a big question.
GROSS: It's sort of a hard one to figure out, 'cause you never really know
Ms. OH: Yeah, 'cause you never really know--like, many people ask me, `Well,
what's it like being an Asian actor?' I'm, `Well, jeez, I don't know what
it's like being white, so I only know what I know.' And I have
constantly--I'm knocking on wood. I've constantly be--have had the great
fortune to continue work, and people who have responded to my work who let me
work for them. If anything, as many people will know what I'm talking about
when I say this, it's--the glass ceiling is just lower, and it's a different
kind of frustration than that all actors have, 'cause, you know, if you're an
actor, you have the general frustration which is, you know, you don't look
right, you're not pretty enough, you're too tall, things that you cannot
But on top of that is another layer that we all know is out there, which is in
stories that people want to tell, being shut out of being the central
storytellers is frustrating in a deeper way. And going back to your question,
the ways that I've felt it being difficult not being white is because you
cannot get into the room of those primary storytellers, and that the films and
the stories and the TV shows and all that stuff that are mostly being produced
or produced and supported and usually seen by people, somehow they're not
about you, or they're not letting you, because of what you look like, be who,
you know, they want to represent their story. But, you know, in some ways
it's like it can create a great spirit in you if you don't let it crush you.
GROSS: What do you mean?
Ms. OH: I think it makes you stronger. Do you know what I mean? It makes
you stronger and it makes you more subversive. And ultimately, I think
like-minded people will hopefully respond to your work--Do you know what I
mean?--and want specifically what you have to offer.
GROSS: In what way do you think it's made you more subversive?
Ms. OH: I've been really, really fortunate. The majority of my work, I have
played non-Asian-specific parts, like this TV show, "Grey's Anatomy." Like,
the character was, like, a small, pert blond girl that was written in, and the
creators responded to who I am. I mean, I feel like I'm subversive just by
being on screen. Do you know what I mean? I'm not a typical--or I'm not--I
should say I probably am very, very typical. I'm not the image of a lot of
Asian women that people are used to seeing. I don't look like a Kewpie doll,
you know, and unfortunately, I mean, I don't look like ...(unintelligible)
or--you know what--I don't. And my voice is the way that it is. It's much
lower. And so me just being cast and being on screen and saying the lines the
way that I want to say it and projecting a different image of Asian women, I
think, is subversive. It gives...
GROSS: Well, would "Arli$$" be a good example of that, of a different image
of an Asian woman?
Ms. OH: Yeah, I think so, 'cause, 'like, she was really, really funny and
really, really crass, you know, in some ways. And although she was...
GROSS: And pushy sometimes, too.
Ms. OH: Oh, yeah, and pushy and, like, mean and selfish. And even though she
was smart and wore glasses, she was incompetent in a lot of ways. And I've
just, you know, over the years when people come up to me and say how they
respond to my work, it has to do with a different kind of image or a
specificity that I am able to bring out--Do you know what I mean?--that is not
the same as everyone else.
GROSS: Well, Sandra Oh, it's really been a pleasure talking with you. Thank
you so much for talking with us.
Ms. OH: Oh, same here, same here. Thank you, Terry, so much.
GROSS: Sandra Oh co-stars in the new film "Sideways," and she is one of the
stars of the new ABC series "Grey's Anatomy," which premieres in January.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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