Sandra Oh is sitting in the back of a truck, nestled behind stacks of dusty black packing crates. While enjoying a rare break on the Los Angeles set of ABC’s new medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, the Sideways star is explaining her decision to move from indie movies to the 3,000th TV series set in a hospital. ”I was choosing only films I thought were important,” she says. ”I was working maybe two months out of the year, and that was just not enough.” A crew member interrupts to deliver script pages to Oh and laughs at finding her chilling in a truck bed. ”This is so Sandra,” he says. ”Meet at the Four Seasons for the interview? No, we’ve got the prop truck.”
Clearly, Oh is no pampered Hollywood diva. While filming Anatomy over the last six months (the series debuts March 27 at 10 p.m., after Desperate Housewives), the 33-year-old Canadian actress has gotten used to mixing grit with glamour. Take the day of the Critics’ Choice Awards in January: After finishing a scene at the Northridge, Calif., VA hospital that doubles as the show’s Seattle facility, she doffed her scrubs, slipped into a Galliano gown, and primped in the limo on the way to L.A. After the ceremony, during which she gave an acceptance speech for one of Sideways‘ five wins, she changed back into her work gear in the limo and arrived on set in time to start another scene.
Though the two projects will be inextricably linked on her résumé, Oh signed on to play Anatomy‘s cynical, snarky Cristina — one of five surgical interns whose work and personal lives intertwine — well before Sideways was released last fall. Oh shot the pilot a year ago, when she was still best known as Robert Wuhl’s assistant on the HBO comedy Arli$$. After that show was canceled in 2002, she toiled in independent films and a few showy bit parts in mainstream fluff like Under the Tuscan Sun. Then in 2003, she married writer-director Alexander Payne, who eventually cast her — no audition required — in her career-making role as a sexy single mom in Sideways. (The couple announced their separation on March 12.) ”I’m finished with the time in my life where I play someone’s snappy assistant,” Oh says. ”In Sideways, I have maybe 15, 20 lines. But because of the way the film is written, you never see anyone as a sidekick or a girlfriend.”
Although the actress has yet to experience a post-Sideways rush of bigger movie roles, she’s thankful to be part of Anatomy‘s ensemble, which includes ’80s heartthrob Patrick Dempsey. Although she was originally cast as the residents’ tough supervisor, Miranda Bailey, she asked for — and got — the more colorful role of Cristina, who strikes up a complicated interracial romance with a cocky surgeon, Preston (Hollywood Homicide‘s Isaiah Washington). ”She’s got a really original, fresh take on everything,” says coexec producer Peter Horton (yes, of thirtysomething fame), who directed the pilot. ”There’s something about her that’s innately complex.” Washington is equally enamored. ”We try to give our characters levels and not just be the taboo people of color screwing,” he says, ”and she can really do that.”
Oh has been honing those acting chops for much longer than her newfound fans may realize: Shortly after graduating from Montreal’s National Theatre School in 1993, she became one of Canada’s hottest new stars (”uh, as much as you can be in Canada, anyway,” she says), scoring a double play with the TV movie The Diary of Evelyn Lau and the feature film Double Happiness. ”In one year, there were two lead characters who were 20-year-old Asian women, and I got them both,” she recalls. ”I’m just out of theater school, and I’m like, Oh, this is how it’s gonna be! It never would’ve happened if I were here in the States.”
Occasional affirmations of Canadian pride haven’t kept Oh from pursuing U.S. fame. Aside from Anatomy, she has three independent movies in the can: the Sundance thriller Hard Candy; Sorry Haters, with Robin Wright Penn; and Cake, with Heather Graham (she’ll also shoot two more this summer). And if Anatomy is DOA, what then? Well, Oh is still gunning for a role in a Broadway show (a lifelong dream) or an even bigger part in another Oscar-caliber movie. ”I know that I can accomplish good work on a very high level,” she says. ”I’m still waiting for my big break.”