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Leaves of her portfolio

In life and in performance, Sandra Oh, a Canadian of Korean ancestry, is a woman without borders.

October 09, 2003|Peter McQuaid | Special to The Times

Sandra OH wants to be Kathy Bates.

Sweet. A pretty, bouncy, 32-year-old Canadian actress of Korean extraction has her sights set on being one of the grande dames of American theater and film.

"She is a terrific person," says Oh. "I respect her as an actor. She's moved into other things. She's directing now. She continues to act. She had a gi-normous theater career." (Oh likes the expressive amalgam of "gigantic" and "enormous.")

"I think most people think she was born when she did 'Misery.' She's been in the original cast of so many shows that went on to be movies. She comes in with giant chops, which you only get after having a real career."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Sandra Oh movie -- "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" was released theatrically in 2001 through Lions Gate Films. Thursday's Calendar Weekend article about actress Sandra Oh incorrectly described it as an HBO movie from last year.

Nice idea for this adorable, funny Asian actress, who just got rave reviews for her role as Diane Lane's pregnant lesbian best friend in "Under the Tuscan Sun," to think she can match Bates.

Like, whatever, Heather ...

Except, back up a sec. She's also played a detective on the TV series "Judging Amy," an obnoxious newscaster in "More Tales of the City" and an oft-referred-to "sassy assistant" role in the HBO series "Arli$$."

Last year, Oh delivered a wrenching, critically acclaimed turn as a stripper with literary aspirations in the HBO movie "Dancing at the Blue Iguana." She appeared in the world premieres of "Dogeaters" at La Jolla Playhouse and "Stop Kiss" at New York's Public Theater, and she performed in "The House of Bernarda Alba" at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.

Sources close to Bates, who directed an episode of the HBO series "Six Feet Under" in which Oh does a hilarious turn as a blond porn actress, say she is equally enamored with Oh.

A native of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, Oh is a stalwart of Canadian film and theater, and won two Genies (Canada's version of the Oscars) before reaching 30.

But who really cares about Canada? Actually, we do, since our star-maker machinery processes a markedly high proportion of Canadian flesh.

Oh is in Hollywood because in her home country options for actresses are limited. "You know, there you can make a great movie and then there's no money left over even for posters to advertise it," she says. "And every filmmaker -- really prominent ones, too -- is fighting for the same $500,000."

The upside, however, is that with less money riding on the movies and their stars, it takes a lot less for a Canadian production to make its money back.

Which means that Canadian talent has more freedom to do and explore the things that can result in a more realized sense of craft.

"And on a Canadian set, everybody is equal," Oh says. "You get paid the same. You live together in barracks. You have a communal kitchen. You buy and cook your own food."

Then they can come here and with our help become big stars with all the attendant personality quirks.

Oh doesn't see that happening to her. "If I was supposed to be a star, I would already be a star. I'm in my 30s now. As far as a career? I'm still beginning."

That career began at age 10, in a play called "The Canada Goose." At 20, upon graduating from Montreal's prestigious National Theatre School, three Asian-specific roles landed in her lap: a short; a feature titled "Double Happiness"; and the CBC production of "The Diary of Evelyn Lau," a film about another Canadian woman of Asian descent, who was a runaway, drug addict, prostitute and respected poet.

It was a role that blasted Oh into the Canadian consciousness.

"I got those three roles right out of the box," she says, "And nothing I've gotten since then has been based on me being Asian." Oh's roles reflect the increasing Asian presence and assimilation in North America.

Oh, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Seoul in the '60s, does not speak Korean and seems to see her Canadian identity as far more central to who she is than her Korean background.

"I look the way I look. I shop at markets in Koreatown sometimes because I like that food."

Screenwriter/director Audrey Wells says, "I didn't even consider another actress" for the "Tuscan Sun" role. "I knew her from 'Guinevere,' my first movie. She has a very authentic sense of humor and a way of handling comedy that's all hers. She has gravity and levity in equal proportions, and she can turn on a dime, going from laughter to tears in a moment."

These days, Oh is learning to ride a motorcycle for her role in "Sideways," to be directed by her husband, Alexander Payne, of "About Schmidt," "Election" and "Citizen Ruth" fame. She and Payne were married in January, and Oh says the pair participate in each other's artistic as well as personal lives.

Is it a Gena Rowlands/John Cassavetes thing? A Federico Fellini/Guilietta Masina thing? Oh seems intrigued. She decides she'd like that. Or something like it. Then, she jumps off into an enthusiastic dissection of Masina's tender, heartbreaking portrayal of a streetwalker in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria."

It's women like Masina who make Oh comfortable with a future that, at worst, will mean an endless string of character roles in big projects or starring roles in small projects.

"Let's be realistic here," she says. "I can't open a movie."

Hollywood and moviegoers still have time to prove her wrong. But whether they do or don't, Oh sees herself fitting in differently in the grand scheme of things.

"I love movie stars and I love what they do. In a movie, if a movie star gets cancer and dies, it's a safe elation and a safe depression, because part of us knows they will be fine. We will always be able to love them, and they will always love us in a certain way. We don't go to them to move us. It's not their job to do that."

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