|The National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) is proud to announce this year’s Gascon-Thomas Award winners. She is a film, television and stage actress, and a 1993 graduate of the NTS Acting Program. Sandra Oh and Paul Buissonneau will receive their awards at a special ceremony in the Monument-National’s Ludger-Duvernay Theatre on Friday, 23 October 2009 at 1:00 p.m.|
The Gascon-Thomas Award recognizes exceptional achievement. Each year, two artists (one Anglophone and one Francophone) are singled out and honoured, not only for the way they’ve shaped the world of theatre and the live and visual arts, but also for their status as role models to NTS students. Presided over by NTS governor Tom Peacocke, the jury comprises several members of the School’s Board of Governors, artistic directors Sherry Bie and Denise Guilbault, CEO Simon Brault, and two student representatives.
Sandra Oh is a multiple-award-winning and highly regarded actress probably best known for her role as Dr. Cristina Yang, a young medical surgical intern learning the ropes on ABC’s medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. For that performance she has been nominated for an Emmy (for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series) every year since the show began in 2005.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Sandra Oh starred in her first play, The Canada Goose, at the age of ten. She remained heavily involved in theatre all through high school. By the time she was fifteen, Sandra was working professionally in television, theatre, and commercials. In 1990, she applied and was accepted to the National Theatre School of Canada, where she graduated in 1993. To this day, she remains in close contact with most of her classmates.
Upon graduation, she landed the coveted title role in the CBC production of The Diary of Evelyn Lau. Sandra’s portrayal of the tortured poet who ran away from home at 14 and ended up a drug addict and prostitute on the streets of Vancouver earned her a Gemini nomination and the Cannes FIPA d'Or for Best Actress. In 1995, Sandra won her first Genie award for her leading role in Double Happiness and in 1999, won her second Genie for Best Actress for her role in Last Night. In 2001, she won a Best Performance award at the Milan Film Festival for her role in Michael Radford’s Dancing at the Blue Iguana.
In 2004 she played Stephanie in the critically acclaimed film Sideways, which was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. She went on to do many more films after that, appearing alongside the likes of Heather Graham (Cake), Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun), Robin Wright Penn and Robin Williams (The Nightlistener), and Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo (Blindness).
Sandra never strays far from her theatre roots. She starred in the world premieres of Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Diana Son's Stop Kiss, at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in New York. (The latter performance garnered her a Theatre World award.) She was also in the New York production of The Vagina Monologues and Satellites, playing one-half of an interracial couple.
Sandra lives in Los Angeles.
| MONTREAL - When I spoke with Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh from her home in Los Angeles this week, she wasn’t just thrilled about being chosen as this year’s anglophone recipient of the National Theatre School’s Gascon-Thomas outstanding achievement award. She was also eagerly looking forward to finally treading the boards of the Monument National’s Ludger-Duvernay theatre to accept it.|
“I want to be on that friggin’ stage,” she exclaimed, prior to yesterday’s ceremony.
Her graduating class of 1993 had been robbed of a chance to perform in the magnificent Ludger-Duvernay because it was undergoing $18 million worth of renovations that year.
At yesterday’s ceremony, Oh said: “This award is very special to me because it is where I came from. It is who I am.”
Earlier this week, Oh said she was looking forward to having her Ottawa-based, Korea-born parents in the audience, and eager to renew bonds with former classmates such as actor/playwright Kristen Thomson, who flew in from Toronto to spend yesterday afternoon with her.
“It was just so great to spend this week thinking about people – hearing from Shawn Mathieson and meeting with Patrick
Gallagher (who, like Oh, now lives in L.A.) and talking to Waneta (Storms). We had an amazing class.”
She described Gallagher, who appeared with her in the film Sideways, as a “giant superstar” now. “There was this one week I was driving in L.A. and Patty was on a giant billboard for Night at the Museum. He was on posters all over the place for Glee, his face right up there. And he’s also a vampire in HBO’s True Blood. There were posters up for that. I’m very, very proud of my class.”
Oh played a vampire in Caryl Churchill’s The Mad Forest at Centaur Theatre in the fall of ’92. She followed it up in the spring with an impressive turn in the Restoration comedy The Country Wife, as the wife of Sir Jasper Fidget. This reviewer described her as “formidable” then. (In retrospect, an understatement. She has since collected a Golden Globe award, two Genies, a Screen Actors Guild award, and a FIPA d’Or at Cannes.)
To Oh, NTS was a transformative experience. She left the school before completing her final semester in order to shoot The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a film she was first offered when she was in her second year. “I totally remember going in to Perry Schneiderman (then director of the English section of NTS) and saying, ‘I want to go do this,’ ” she said. “And he goes, ‘Well, you’ll have to leave the school.’ And I cried and cried and cried. And I knew I couldn’t leave the school. As it turned out, we didn’t shoot The Diary of Evelyn Lau for another year and a half. And when it came time, it coincided perfectly with the last project, so I was allowed to go.” And allowed to graduate, too.
Being chosen for the Gascon-Thomas award (along with Paul Buissonneau, the francophone winner) has sent Oh, now 38, into retrospective mode. “Thinking of this award, you have to go backwards and think about your life – which I don’t like doing very much,” she said. “I can see now that I was born under a bunch of lucky stars. Because when I graduated, what happened to me – the year after I graduated, I did the Diary of Evelyn Lau, I did Double Happiness, and I did this wonderful short film with Adrienne Clarkson.”
She played the leads in all three. “That was all luck. I can see now. Then I came to L.A. and I pounded the pavement for 12 years.”
Still, she did better than most. “I worked much more in L.A. than I did at home.”
When she arrived in L.A., at the age of 23, she knew exactly one person – an L.A. Times film critic named Sheila Benson whom she had met in Vancouver while working on Double Happiness. “I ended up staying for a month in her house,” Oh said. Through Benson, she met her first agent. “It was very, very organic. That was great luck.”
Still, things did not happen overnight. She got a role on a sit-com that was never seen – but it earned her a coveted six-month visa. “I lived on couches,” she said. Then she did a short film, a pilot for HBO and “lots of theatre.” She forged a friendship with Diana Son, later starring in the playwright’s first hit, Stop Kiss, in 1998, then Satellites, in 2006, at the Public Theatre in New York.
But she threw in the towel and moved back to Toronto in early 1996. Luck struck again while she was performing in a play at the Factory Theatre. The HBO pilot had been picked up. Oh flew back to L.A. to shoot Arli$$, a series in which she played the secretary of a sports agent. She stayed on permanently in L.A. – in relative anonymity as far as her home country was concerned. “I always kind of felt like Canada never knew what I was doing for seven years because it was on HBO,” she said.
The subsequent highlights of her career, appearing in the Academy Award-winning Sideways (2003) and landing the role of Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy the following year, are well known. But there was time in between when she worked quietly in indie films and theatre. Getting cast in Grey’s Anatomy was beyond luck. “That’s lightning in a bottle,” Oh said. Sideways, too, was “that kind of wonderful experience, all the way around.” And she tosses her time at NTS into the same category. “My class is still so much a part of me in everything I do.”
But Grey’s Anatomy threw her into high-pitch notoriety, Hollywood style. Life in L.A. can be “challenging,” she said.
How does she cope? “Lots of therapy,” she replied. “I have a lot of really good friends and I just have learned how to take care of myself. How to take care of my mind, my body and my spirit.”
Her personal life, including her 2006 divorce from Sideways director Alexander Payne, is off limits.
Avoiding unwanted scrutiny has become her greatest problem, she said. “I’ve worked really hard to stay under the radar and to keep my life as private as possible.” Looking glam at award shows is part of the job. But functioning in a world where you can’t go anywhere without someone “tweeting” about you, “that’s one thing the school (NTS) couldn’t prepare me for,” she said.
Financial security, however, helps. Oh’s concept of wealth is that she can now buy anything she wants at the organic-produce Whole Foods store. “We call it ‘Whole paycheque,’ ” she quipped.
She’s still just glad to be among the actors with a steady job. “TV is changing,” she said. “I feel like our show is at the end of a certain type of network television. I totally see it coming.”
Another positive about a series entering its sixth season: long-term friendships develop.
“Right now it’s so interesting,” Oh said. “Recently Ellen (Pompeo) and Katie (Katherine Heigl) took a break from the show for a bit, to have their kids. We started out talking about shoes and purses and now it’s all about diapers. It’s nice to have grown with that.”