She’s an ambitious woman, to say the least. A straight-talker whose tough spirit has carried her to the top of a field that requires a most delicate touch. A woman who mends hearts for a living and, ironically, has had to work the hardest to fix her own. And, all the while, she’s one half of a friendship so pure and honest that it has brought us to tears (several, several times).
Above all, Cristina Yang, the doctor portrayed fearlessly by Sandra Oh for 10 years on Grey’s Anatomy, is a survivor — and not just because she managed to be one of few people to survive the show’s numerous disasters. So when Cristina’s former mentor and love, Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington), offered her the position of a lifetime two weeks ago, we couldn’t fault her for jumping at the chance to lead a top-of-the-line research facility. As Burke said, she’d earned the opportunity. And as Cristina prepares to hop on a plane and leave Grey Sloan Memorial for good, EW spoke with Oh and show creator Shonda Rhimes about the journey that’s led to the bittersweet departure of a fond friend, doctor and dancing buddy.
SANDRA OH, “Cristina Yang”: I remember exactly what I was wearing — I was wearing a pair of scrub pants and had my hair in pig-tails. I came in and read for Shonda, [executive producer] Betsey [Beers], and Peter [Horton]. And it was great. And then they came back and said, ‘We want you to read for Bailey.’ And I was at that point in my personal space where I want to ask for what I wanted, and I didn’t want to play Bailey. And I said, ‘What else is available?’ And they said, ‘Cristina is available.’ And I said, ‘No. I’m not going to test as Bailey, but I’ll come in for Cristina.’ For me, at that time, I was interested in playing a role that was the antagonist. In the pilot, she was the antagonist and also not in a position of authority. Bailey had authority; she was their teacher.
SHONDA RHIMES, Grey’s Anatomy creator: You know what’s interesting? I always feel like there’s a difference between the character that I create in the pilot and then the character once an actor inhabits them. So, my idea of the character of Cristina and, frankly, of all the characters, was entirely different than who they turned out to be. What I love about the casting process is I’m always very open. Somebody could come in the room to read a part, and I’d never thought of them as the character before — and, suddenly, I’m like, ‘That’s interesting.’ Sandra originally came in, and she read for the role of Bailey. And she was spectacular! Like, had us on the floor laughing — we’d not yet seen Chandra Wilson’s audition or anything. Sandra came in and literally had me crying; I was laughing so hard because she was just amazing in that role. But there was something in her, an energy, that felt to me like A) it was something we hadn’t seen before, and B) I felt like this woman…reminded me of one of my closest friends in a way that was fantastic. I recognized Cristina in an entirely different way than I had before Sandra played her. The same way there was no character who was McDreamy until Patrick [Dempsey] played the role and then we decided he was McDreamy, Sandra really created that character in an entirely different way than I had originally pictured her. And it was fantastic.
OH: I also remember what I liked about the pilot was that they didn’t have last names. I remember Cristina did not have a last name. So, for me, when you are an actor — especially an actor of color — I think that just keeps things open as a possibility for you to play the part….You know, after seven seasons on Arli$$ – I can’t believe that was seven seasons — I wanted to step away from television for a little bit. So for that year, 2003, I did a bunch of movies — one of them being Sideways. I think I did three or four films that year and maybe worked three weeks. If you took all the days I was on set working in front of the camera, it was maybe three or four weeks. That’s not enough for me. [Laughs] At least then. I was just like, ‘That was good. I did a year of film — small, independent film.’ And then I just thought, ‘I need to audition. I want to start auditioning again.’ Because I’d never done it. I’ve done pilot season once. That was the one time that I did [it] — f—ing Grey’s Anatomy! [She shakes her head in disbelief and smiles.] I’ve never ever had a pilot season because when I came here in ’95, I auditioned for Arli$$, we shot it in December of ’95, it was picked up, and we started shooting in ’96. That’s when I moved [to Los Angeles]. I did that for seven seasons, I took a year off, and then I did the next pilot season. And I just wanted to practice. Seriously. I [said], ‘I’m not going to get a job. I don’t want a job.’ In some ways, I feel like all actors — I wish this for all actors — should do a pilot season just to practice. No stress. Because it’s so stressful. But I was like, ‘I just need to audition.’ That was the thing about the year of film, I didn’t audition. There are so few and rare opportunities for actors — and I will say actors of color. It was like, ‘Man, I had five auditions and I booked most of them.’ That’s not enough. So I was like, ‘Okay, pilot season. You get to audition. Practice, practice, practice.’ And it happened.
THE EARLY YEARS
RHIMES: One of my first early memories of season 1 was that Cristina said very little a lot of the times when she was, like, in her relationship with Burke and other things. Sandra is the queen of what’s not said — nonverbal acting. And so it was really great to have somebody who you could write, like, three lines of here’s what we think the scene is and then watch what she did with it….I feel like Cristina has the intensity that I definitely always had growing up. You know, I was the girl with my hand raised at the front of the class most of the time. And I was a person who felt like there was no point in hiding a light under a bushel and there was nothing wrong with being smart. And Cristina was sort of a person who’s not willing to really compromise. But, you know, in the pilot, I remember her saying [to Meredith], ‘I don’t have a famous mother and I don’t have all the things that you have. I worked really hard to be here — I deserve to be here. Do you?’ And that feeling is a feeling that I remember feeling when I went to college — that feeling that I’m the girl from the Midwest who went to the not fancy school but I worked really hard to get here. ‘I’m not squandering this.’ I mean, now, I feel like there’s a sense of power and confidence that Cristina carries in what she does and what she’s able to do that I feel a kinship with. I don’t know that I totally have it, but I would like to.
OH: Honestly, I’ve watched maybe a handful of shows. That’s because I’m kinda actory. I find it really challenging. But I totally look forward to, someday in the future, when I’m going to watch the entire, like, 10 seasons or however long the show continues to go on. I think I’ll love it. Because I was [recently watching a highlight reel and] there were scenes that I’ve never seen. And seeing it in chronological order starting with the pilot — all these things, the entire character, is all there in the pilot. And then the key scenes, where you see her biggest transformations — whether with Meredith or whether with Burke or whether with Owen — you see those scenes and you see the character actually change. You flashback and are like, ‘Oh, that was four years ago when Patrick and I went up to Big Bear fishing!’ And it’s like, ‘Oh my God! He was so good!’ That’s another thing. I’m watching this stuff and I’m like, ‘This is so great! That was so great!’ There’s this one scene with Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Cristina where Owen (Kevin McKidd) joins the hospital permanently, and it’s a hilarious scene of Meredith and Cristina just running down the hall. It’s, like, really funny. And I was like, ‘I would never remember this.’ And it was really just like two best friends who are completely different, and she’s running to hide from this guy who shows up. I forget that these characters live in this other world, which is Grey’s Anatomy. I happen to have a job and my work as an actor, but it was very enjoyable to step out of her and just see what I’ve been doing for the past ten years.
RHIMES: I remember one of the early episodes in season 1. It was the episode where Cristina had suffered the [ectopic] pregnancy, and her mother comes and her mother is sort of torturing her, and Cristina’s obsessed with some patient. They keep telling her to go back to bed and when they finally figure out what’s wrong with the patient, Cristina discovers that she was right all along. Sandra does this scene where she starts crying and can’t stop and that completely came about because Sandra said to me one day, randomly, ‘I think I can do a scene where I can start crying and not be able to stop.’ And we literally wrote to that, and she did this scene where she started crying and couldn’t stop. It was, I mean, we play it for laughs — it’s very funny in the scene. But it was amazing. And the thing about watching that happen — it was one of those moments when I thought to myself, ‘This woman is gold.’
OH: You never know what’s going to end up becoming a really significant moment. But you know, season 1, Cristina is coming in from the clinic, and she puts Meredith down as her “person” [emergency contact]. And they’re at the end of the bar, and Meredith puts her head on Cristina’s shoulder and says, ‘Oh, you’re my person.’ It’s the beginning of this friendship. It was so great to see, because you can see Cristina’s reluctance to depend on Meredith. And then Meredith turns around, and Meredith is filled with this need and warmth that — oh, this person is letting me in. And then the way it just happened that Ellen and Meredith puts her head on Cristina’s shoulder — it’s just, like, oh this is the beginning of the big relationship of the show.
RHIMES: I know a lot of people like to think that Derek is [Meredith's] soul mate, but I think that Cristina is her soul mate and Derek is the man she loves — and that’s lovely. I have these friendships, you know? And I’ve had really close friends, who were [and] still are my closest friends in the world, move away, and it’s devastating. And I was surprised by how devastating it was — being a grown woman and having my own life and my own family and everything. But it’s devastating in a way….You are somebody special when you’re with that best friend, the same way you are somebody special when you’re with the person that you love. But there’s a discovery that you can remain the person that you are — that Meredith can remain the person that she was with Cristina — whether or not [they] are actually physically there. I don’t have any plans for us to play that Meredith and Cristina never speak again; that feels so strange. But I do know that those friendships become a phone call once a month and then they become an e-mail once a month and then they become an email every four months. So it does feel like the relationship is gonna be still there for her, it’s just gonna take a different form.
OH: I’m actually really happy with the past season, where they were in this section of time where they were kind of having growing pains with each other because they are different and they have to accept each other. And I think that’s true. If anyone has had — as I have had — a long-term female friendship, you’re going to hit a growing pain.
OH: Honestly, around season 8, the originals were under negotiations for two more years — till season 10. And in my mind, there was no possible way that our show could possibly go on [that long]. That’s also like a safety, in an actor way. Because it’s so unbelievable to have had a job this long. It’s so unbelievable that you just can’t [be sure]. ‘Will we get the pick-up?’ ‘Maybe we’ll get the pick-up!’ You still have to do it! Can I just tell you, since, I don’t know, season 1, the classic line that Justin Chambers says every year in, maybe, February — every single year — he just starts repeating this, ‘I just need two more years. Two more years. I just want two more years.’ He’s hilarious. But with that, I knew that it was going to take a long time to start letting go. So, honestly, a friend of mine runs a theater in Chicago. And, as some of my friends do, they’re like, ‘When can you really do a play? No, really, when can you do a play.’ And I said, ‘When I can really do a play is May 2014.’ This was two years ago. And he goes, ‘Fine, I’m booking you in a play in May 2014.’ And I’m like, ‘Fine!’ And one of the reasons I think I chose to do the play was, in some ways, to help me focus on something that would be after Grey’s. I personally think I need to set things out there for me to focus on because I think things take much longer to process out than we imagine. So because I agreed to this play, I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have a job after 2014, so I’m going to do this play.’ So when Shonda asked me at the end of season 9, ‘What do you want to do? What are your plans? What do you want to do? I need to know.’ Surprisingly, and I remember we were walking by her office, she goes, ‘What do you want to do?’ I think I immediately knew. ‘I think I’m ready to go.’ But I think I had been slowly processing that decision over the prior year and a half or two years.
[Oh will star in Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater's production of Death and the Maiden this summer.]
RHIMES: I think in my head, I thought that we would get to write for Sandra forever — until the hospital closed its doors. And, frankly, I thought the hospital was gonna close its doors a long time ago. So every time we get renewed, I’m always surprised. I’m grateful. But I felt that we were going to get to explore every possible angle with that character [before she left], and it felt really good knowing that we had this truncated period of time to sort of reach forward in time and show you what would have happened had she made these choices that — I think, I furiously and fiercely guard those choices as being wrong for Cristina. [In the season 10 episode "Do You Know," pictured] it felt like it was a little bit of a conversation with the fans in terms of, ‘Here’s what you maybe were hoping would happen.’ I get a lot of tweets saying, ‘Couldn’t she just have a baby? And then she’d be fine!’ Or, you know, ‘Couldn’t Owen just give up his desire to want kids? And then they’d be fine!’ And it felt like both of those things were a recipe for disaster, and I wanted to really show what would happen to Cristina. And, for me, as a feminist, I wanted to show someone who fiercely decides to make a choice to not have children, what that means for them and why that’s valid. And that’s something I think Sandra felt really strongly about too, because I just think it’s rare to see a woman on television who doesn’t want a child and isn’t portrayed sort of in an awful way….I always feel like Cristina’s children are the hearts she’s gonna save and the innovations she’s gonna make and that future she’s gonna have. And, that way, I don’t think she’s a person who wants to give that up. I also loved portraying the idea that there is something lost for someone, and can be something lost for someone who has that kind of genius, when they decide to put their energies into a child.
OH: I’m wondering, if someone were to go back and take a look at things and trace the path of working women in television, where have women’s choices — how has it changed in seeing it represented on television? And yes, our show is there to entertain and distract and all those things, but I know — and I know because Shonda and I have had many discussions on it — we try to put in our own belief and our own desire to tell the story of the women that we know and that we want to see represented.
RHIMES: I think she was really bold in letting us let her character have an abortion on screen. I feel like she was nervous about that, and I think emotionally that was a very hard thing to leap into. Everybody has the right to be cautious, and she initially really felt like we were talking her character over a cliff that her character wouldn’t return from. And what I felt really strongly about and felt like we really managed to show was that this is someone you know. By this point you’ve been watching the show long enough that this is one of your friends — you love her. So, if you’re watching her do this, then you know that someone you love has done this.
OH: It was important for me [that we] see Cristina struggle over the decision. Well, not over the decision, but to make the decision and show the decision wasn’t an easy one….I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been so lucky to have that creative experience with the show. Everybody has different experiences. But I will say my experience, ten years on network television, was extremely creative. It’s just so rich. It includes everything else, too — stressful, difficult, tiring, blah blah blah blah blah. But that’s one thing I personally never gave up on and that never gave up on me.
CRAFTING AN EXIT
RHIMES: When you have a character as beloved as Cristina, I don’t think it serves anyone well to just have that character suddenly disappear and have it be a shock. I wanted this to be a year in which you got to say goodbye to her. Half the season is really dedicated to getting to say goodbye to Cristina in the way that you deserve so you have some closure. I didn’t want this to feel like a shocking loss in that sense….The first time I killed a character that our audience loved, it was shocking. And there are many, many more shocking deaths after that, and we’ve done them in different ways. You do want to shock the audience the first time, because [then] they know that anything is possible — but, you know, different people deserve different outcomes. I wanted us to have an exit that Cristina Yang deserved. I wanted [it] to feel like the culmination of her journey for us. I want you to know that she’s out there, and that she’s okay. Also, honestly, Meredith lost a lot of people in her life — she’s lost her sister, she’s lost her mother. But I don’t think that loss is a loss that she could withstand.
OH: I do sincerely hope — because it has had tremendous meaning to me — that [the character] has had meaning to those who have watched it. That is a great, very clearly intentioned hope for me. [She pauses, tearing up.] I guess, as much of my life as I feel like I’ve given to this character, she has just saved me and helped me grow into the artist that I am in the deepest ways. [Wipes tears] People can do their jobs however they are as individuals, and I know how I’ve done it, and the meaning it has brought to my life.
RHIMES: I want to see her do something completely different. I feel like that’s what’s going to be really exciting for her. I mean, selfishly, because I want her to be happy, I want her to do something so completely different that it takes her out of her comfort zone. You get really comfortable playing a character for years, and I think Sandra has worked really hard to keep herself uncomfortable, which makes it a challenge and that’s wonderful. But I would love to see her get to do something completely out of the box and sort of get a chance to celebrate her creativity and, frankly, celebrate her accomplishment. So whatever she does next, I’ll be happy to see her do….But I have already told Sandra that when she’s ready to come back to television, if she does not come to me first, I might have to hurt her.
OH: If she didn’t ask me to come back for the series finale, I would hurt her.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
To read a profile on Oh that appeared in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine, click here.