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Graceful Exit: Sandra Oh

It’s hard to imagine ”Grey’s Anatomy” — or TV — without hard-charging heart surgeon Cristina Yang. As Sandra Oh gets ready to say goodbye, the Canadian actress looks back at her time on the hit ABC soap, and the character that changed her life.

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Sandra Oh
EMILY SHUR for EW

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Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is trying to persuade Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) to go to Zurich. Not forever — but in the cramped space of an elevator, a place where the best friends have swapped secrets and confessed a multitude of sins over the past 10 years, Meredith tells her heartbroken soul mate to seek a change of scenery. What Meredith doesn’t know is how close she is to getting her wish indefinitely.

Back in August, just before the start of Grey’s Anatomy‘s 10th season, Sandra Oh stunned fans by announcing her intention to leave the series that took her from an up-and-coming indie-film star to a five-time Emmy nominee and one of the small screen’s most riveting talents. Oh broke the news to Grey‘s creator Shonda Rhimes last spring during their annual check-in. ”Shonda goes, ‘What do you want to do?’ I immediately knew — ‘I think I’m ready to go,”’ says the 42-year-old actress. ”But I think I had been slowly processing that decision over the prior year and a half or two years.”

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Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is trying to persuade Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) to go to Zurich. not forever — but in the cramped space of an elevator, a place where the best friends have swapped secrets and confessed a multitude of sins over the past 10 years, Meredith tells her heartbroken soul mate to seek a change of scenery. What Meredith doesn’t know is how close she is to getting her wish indefinitely.

Back in August, just before the start of Grey’s Anatomy‘s 10th season, Sandra Oh stunned fans by announcing her intention to leave the series that took her from an up-and-coming indie-film star to a five-time Emmy nominee and one of the small screen’s most riveting talents. Oh broke the news to Grey‘s creator Shonda Rhimes last spring during their annual check-in. ”Shonda goes, ‘What do you want to do?’ I immediately knew — ‘I think I’m ready to go,”’ says the 42-year-old actress. ”But I think I had been slowly processing that decision over the prior year and a half or two years.” Rhimes says she had a feeling that Oh was working her way up to goodbye, but admits part of her couldn’t imagine crafting an ending for Oh’s highly competitive, powerfully independent heart surgeon Cristina Yang that wasn’t also a conclusion to Grey’s Anatomy itself. ”I thought that we would get to write for Sandra forever,” she says. ”Until the hospital closed its doors.”

On a recent April day, one of her last on set, Oh’s laugh travels through the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial as she warns an assistant director that she’ll be taunting him via text even after she leaves the show. On some sets, the crew treads lightly around the stars, but on this one, Oh seems to have strong bonds with the production team — many of whom have worked on the show since its debut in 2005. Between takes, she chats with the makeup artist and then perches herself on the wooden footrest of an empty director’s chair to ask a crew member about the book he’s reading. It’s clear she’s at home here. Although she is sure about her decision to leave, the hard part of letting go began a few days ago when she was shown a one-hour sizzle reel of Cristina Yang’s best moments as prep for an interview for an upcoming DVD feature. ”Things shifted emotionally after that day,” she says of watching the highlights, including Cristina’s failed wedding day and the death of her most recent mentor, played by William Daniels. ”Honestly, I’ve watched maybe a handful of episodes. That’s because I’m kinda actory — I find [watching myself] really challenging.”

The last time Oh bid adieu to such a long-running character was in 2002, after seven years of playing the upbeat personal assistant Rita Wu on HBO’s Arli$$. She chose to take a break from television, and in the year that followed she landed parts in multiple films, including Under the Tuscan Sun and Sideways. Even so, Oh realized she’d only worked, at most, one month out of the year. ”That’s not enough for me,” she says with a laugh. She decided to take part in TV’s pilot season for the first time — primarily to hone her audition skills. ”I thought, ‘I’m not going to get a job. I don’t want a job,”’ she remembers. ”I feel like all actors should do a pilot season just to practice. No stress.”

The TV gods must have had a plan, though, because one of those pilots on Oh’s practice run happened to be a medical drama from a first-time showrunner named Shonda Rhimes. In her first audition for Rhimes — who at that point had a handful of films, including the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads, under her belt — Oh was in the running to play resident in command Miranda Bailey. (The role eventually went to Chandra Wilson.) And though she had what Rhimes recalls as a ”spectacular” audition for Dr. Bailey, it was driven, prickly Cristina who Oh connected with instantly. ”At that time I was interested in playing the antagonist,” Oh says. ”In the pilot, she was the antagonist and also not in a position of authority.” Rhimes, who initially based Cristina on a version of her younger self, says Dr. Yang grew into a new character once Oh inhabited her scrubs. ”I recognized Cristina in an entirely different way than I had before Sandra played her,” says the showrunner. ”Now there’s a sense of power and confidence that Cristina carries in what she does that I feel a kinship with.”

In the character’s strength, Oh has found some of her own. ”As much of my life as I feel like I’ve given to this character, she has saved me and helped me grow into the artist that I am,” she says, her voice breaking and tears welling up in her eyes. (Though she declines to talk about specifics — other than to say she was going through ”personal things” around the time of her Grey‘s audition — Oh separated from filmmaker Alexander Payne in 2005.)

She’ll take that creative growth with her into her next act: a return to the stage. A graduate of Canada’s National Theatre School, Oh is set to star in Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater production of Death and the Maiden in June. Beyond that, she doesn’t have anything firm planned. ”I feel instinctively to hibernate for a bit and kinda be still,” she explains. ”I love going to work. To be silent for a while is the biggest challenge. I’m going to try to do that.”

The May 1 episode of Grey‘s revealed to viewers exactly how and why Cristina will be leaving Grey Sloan Memorial: Still reeling from her loss of the prestigious Harper Avery award, Cristina ran into her former flame/runaway fiancé Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington), who made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. While the May 15 season finale will contain surprises — not to mention the departure of doctors Shane Ross (Gaius Charles) and Leah Murphy (Tessa Ferrer) — Rhimes says she was never tempted to use Cristina’s exit in the finale as an opportunity to pull off one of the show’s signature major deaths. ”When you have a character as beloved as Cristina, I don’t think it serves anyone well to have that character suddenly disappear and have it be a shock,” she says. ”I want it to feel like the culmination of her journey for us. I want you to know she’s out there and she’s okay, and also, honestly, I didn’t think that kind of loss is a loss that Meredith could withstand.” As it is, Oh’s on-set confidante Wilson says she’s dreading the day she won’t see Oh’s actor number — 3 — on the call sheets. ”We never give those numbers out again when one of our cast members leaves,” she says. ”It’s like hanging up the basketball jersey.”

For now, at least. Rhimes has no intention of saying goodbye to her star for good: ”When she’s ready to come back to television, if she does not come to me first, I might have to hurt her.” Hearing this, Oh lets out the kind of belly laugh that we rarely hear from the usually composed Cristina Yang. Then she makes a threat of her own: ”If she didn’t ask me to come back for the series finale, I would hurt her.”

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