FILMS

The double life of Sandra Oh

A hot film-maker plus a rising star equals Double Happiness

Brian D. Johnson July 31 1995
FILMS

The double life of Sandra Oh

A hot film-maker plus a rising star equals Double Happiness

Brian D. Johnson July 31 1995

The double life of Sandra Oh

It is a movie in which life and art contain each other like a series of Chinese boxes. Sandra Oh, who took up acting against her parents’ wishes, plays Jade, who takes up acting against her parents’ wishes. Vancouver writerdirector Mina Shum based Double Happiness on her own adolescent struggle for independence, but Jade’s role fit Oh like a second skin. In one scene, Jade says that what she wants most is “to win the Academy Award— I’d get nominated for a really dramatic part, something really hard, something I had to, like, gain weight for.” Last year, Oh won the Best Actress Genie for Double Happiness and reduced audience members to tears with one of the most emotional acceptance speeches in memory—a Genie speech worthy of an Oscar. Backstage, Sturla Gunnarson, who directed Oh in the 1994 CBC movie The Diary of Evelyn Lau, grinned and said, “Well, she is an actress, you know.”

Sitting at a restaurant patio last week, around the corner from her home in midtown Toronto, Oh laughed off any suggestion that her Genie performance was anything less than genuine. But it was really her character who received the award, she said. “People ask what happens to Jade at the end of the movie. It’s great—she wins a Genie!”

Oh, who turned 24 last week, has emerged as one of Canada’s most exciting young actors. Fresh from three years of rigorous training at the National Theatre School in Montreal, she burst on the scene with a visceral performance in Evelyn Lau, a Vancouver writer’s harrowing true story of her teenage years as a prostitute. And onstage, Oh won acclaim last January in a London, Ont., production of Oleanna, David Mamet’s gruelling drama about a female student who charges a professor with sexual harassment. “She throws herself into roles so completely,” says

Shum. “Stage presence—she’s got it coming out of her ears.”

In person, Oh comes across as a vivacious free spirit, a young woman ready to take on the world on her own terms. The actor, who became an irrepressible presence on the party circuit at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, clearly enjoys a good time. “I love drinking. I love eating—I just love it!” she says, after agreeing to split a bottle of wine over lunch.

But Oh is dead serious about her work. Gunnarson, who cast her in Lau, says, “Sandra is a rare combination of a method actor with great craft. She plays everything from the inside out—the sense of suffocation, the desire to do something that isn’t really accepted, the cultural split, being a first generation Asian-Canadian.” The director recalls that when Oh auditioned for Lau, she had the nerve to ask for 10 minutes to get into the mood. “She hijacked the part,” he says. “Sandra is able to reach deep down inside herself and project incredible vulnerability. But the reason she’s able to do that is that she has a character of steel.”

Bom in Nepean, Ont., to Korean immigrant parents, Oh is the second of three children. Her mother, Young-Nam Oh, is a biochemist; her father, John Oh, has his own business. As a child, Sandra was a reluctant piano student (she would play tapes of scales while pretending to practise), but was devoted to her ballet classes. In her teens, she branched out into acting, running a gauntlet of auditions for Asian faces. On one TV show in which she was the only non-white actor, she recalls, “the director called me ‘lotus blossom’ and ‘quota child.’ ”

Oh’s parents tried to dissuade her from acting. She recalls, “My mom would always say I’d end up in the street—-that actors are all drug addicts and prostitutes.” And as Lau, she was acting out her mother’s worst nightmare. Oh tried to shield her parents from the movie’s raw content. When they finally viewed an early video cassette, she says, “they sat and cried together. I think they realized this wasn’t a fanciful hobby—that there was meaning in it.”

Inhabiting Lau’s abused character was traumatic for Oh, whose portrayal cut chillingly

close to the bone. “You put yourself in dangerous situations just for the experience,” she explains. “You get self-destructive.” Says Gunnarson: “She went to hell and back.”

After the ordeal of playing a teenage prostitute, Double Happiness offered some comic relief. Oh recalls that “it was a lot of fun to shoot.” But then, playing the vengeful student in the controversial Oleanna, she faced another trial by fire. “You’d get screamed at, you’d get hissed at. People would yell, ‘Kill the

bitch!’ My sense of purpose became so clear. You think, ‘This is about 800 people hating me, this is about life and death.’ ”

For the moment, there is an intermission in the drama of Oh’s career. She finds herself in that curiously Canadian position of being an outof-work star. She is slated to star in Shum’s next movie, Drive, She Said, if it goes into production. Meanwhile, she auditioned for the lead of The Diary of Anne Frank last

week at Toronto’s Young People’s

Theatre. This week, she planned to be in Los Angeles, shopping for an agent and promoting the U.S. première of Double Happiness. From the boards of a small Toronto theatre to the bright lights of Tinseltown, Sandra Oh still leads a double life. But for someone so good at abolishing the line between life and art, Hollywood could well become a second home.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON