Sandra Oh on Her 'Grey's Anatomy' Exit: 'I Came Apart'
The actress talks with THR about leaving the show after 10 seasons, how Cristina's journey ended and what's next: "I want to be as open as possible to anything that comes."
Sandra Oh is sitting in her trusty director's chair — only she's not on the Los Angeles set of ABC's Grey's Anatomy. It's Monday, April 28, the morning after the ABC drama's season 10 wrap party, and Oh is in her backyard, now settling in to the first day of her post-Grey's Anatomy life. She sounds content, laughing and reflective as she talks by phone about her now-complete 10-season journey as Dr. Cristina Yang.
For ABC's Grey's, the departure of one of its few remaining original stars — and an Emmy nominee, Golden Globe and SAG Award winner as well as a fan favorite — leaves the series with a noticeable void heading into its 11th season.
Here, eight months after she revealed she'd be leaving the drama, Oh opens up in an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter about how Cristina's story concluded, the final table read, her emotional farewells and her final scenes with leading man Kevin McKidd (Owen) and "person," Ellen Pompeo (Meredith).
What was your last day on set like?
I will say, my last day, people asked if I was going to be sad. I didn't know. But by the end of the day — which ended up being late since we shot late — Kevin threw me this little party. There was lots of celebration because the party was myself, [co-showrunners] Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, who [both also] left. Gaius Charles [Shane] and Tessa Ferrer [Leah] had left earlier that week. The party was joyous for me — the whole day was. I was so excited to come to work. I came in early, which I never do, and hung out.
Take us back to your final table read. What was that like for you?
I realized during this last month that the table read is definitely a ritual. I sit in the exact same spot every time because I'm a creature of habit. Every single table read for 10 years — that's 200-odd episodes. It was this ritual that we have every week, to come together to read these words. It was really rich. What got me was, we were starting and as we're all sitting down, our casting director Linda Lowy came up to me — she cast the pilot and put me in a lot of stuff before Grey's like Under the Tuscan Sun — she came up to me and hugged me. Then we read the script, and it was great, and I was filled with all these feelings.
Besides work, what did you do on your final day?
We usually have a big lunch, but we didn't have it this year so I gave out 250 gifts. To give these gifts out personally and to look people in the face and say "Thank you" to everyone — my stand-in, the grips, post, production, the writers — that helped me process a lot. That is why I think the day was joyous. With each person I was able to have a personal moment and tell them what I thought about them. I walked up to my DP, Herb Davis, who is not an emotionally expressive person and has been my DP for eight years. He made me look good, he protected me and taught me a lot. I went to give him this gift and I started crying. He scooped me up, put his arm around me, moved me into a private room and so much came out.
What was the gift you gave out?
Because it was a celebration, it was this beautiful champagne in a box, and on it is an anatomical heart and a "10." It's was like, "Here's my heart in a box for a celebration. Please take it. This is my gift of thanks." It was inscribed on the back with a card, too. I walked into the OR with this gift for Linda Klein, our medical adviser, and just started crying. For me — and I think for the other person — it was good to have that moment of being able to say goodbye. I remember going toe-to-toe with her on the pilot. Everyone goes through being Linda Klein-ed — and I did that on the pilot. She's the best person in the world — the same with the DP — and just … everyone. I could tell this story a hundred times over with my makeup man, who has been with me since the pilot; with Susan Bale, who was our head editor who was on the pilot. Susan and I are good friends and we see each other a lot. I went up and said, "I want you to know that I gave everyone in post a gift except you because I can't handle it." I was just like crying and — this is so great — she goes, "Don't worry. Just come over to the house and we'll just hang out," and it was just like, a lot.
What was going through your mind as you're having these moments with everyone?
Only thing: Be as present as possible to whatever feeling is going to come and be as open and giving as possible to my crew. The last day after lunch, Laura Petticord, my AD, told me Tony wanted to talk to me, and I knew something was happening. The entire crew — every single person from construction to rigging — everyone was in the lobby near where we were shooting. There was a bit of cider and my first AD, Chris Hayden, thanked me, Tony, Joan and various crew members. It was so great. They gave Tony and Joan their first script page with their signatures on it. They gave me the very first call sheet from the pilot and Cristina had this other last name. And they gave me the last call sheet. March 17, 2004, and April 24, 2014. My first and last days.
How did you feel after getting that?
I came apart because I saw everyone was in one room. It felt extremely operatic. In that moment, I knew how this goes because I have been on a show before that lasted seven seasons [Arli$$], and I have not seen those crew members — who I think about a lot and was close with — in 10 years. Chances are, for the majority of the people I've worked with, I may never see them again. In that moment, it felt like one of those scenes where you're spinning the camera around the actor because I'm standing in the lobby and I'm turning around and seeing the set filled with people I've worked with for a decade. It was that moment where I realized I could publicly thank every single person for this experience.
Were you able to make it through it?
No. I was completely in tears — but not broken. It was not a place of being sad. It was a place of being tremendously moved. It's not like I broke down and I was crying. I felt so filled with the meaning of this moment that it was very emotional. I do want to try to be specific about the quality of the emotions because many people can be sad — and it is sad — but I was extremely moved.
How much of a say did you have about how Cristina's journey should end? What were your conversations like with Shonda about bringing Isaiah Washington (Burke) back?
I told her I was going to go at the end of season nine and we didn't really talk about [how Cristina would exit] until the back-half of season 10. She had an idea, but I don't think that idea really happened. I don't remember at what point she said, "How would you feel if we brought Burke back?" because she and the writers were trying to come up with an exit, which is tricky. There were a lot of things to consider on Shonda's part, but for me, I thought it was a great idea.
Do you think it was it fitting that Cristina replaced Burke at his own facility?
Yes. I felt like you could show the most amount of growth by seeing her come face-to-face with one of the most influential beings in her life. To see how she has surpassed him and how she flourishes beyond him. I thought that was a great way to go. It's almost like you need a big, strong force like Burke to help her get out. What Burke offers her is so tremendous that she's willing to change her life for it, to leave her family — Meredith and Owen. We set it up well that there were certain things that were lacking for her in Seattle: the Harper Avery award, the questioning of her relationship with Owen. Kevin and I were trying to move their relationship into a place of deeper friendship where even though there was still romance, it's still painful and where you've gone through so many things that there is no more arguing left because you really accept the person for who they are.
You really see that in both of them.
Kevin and I fought really hard for that because we spent two years being really reactive and excited all the time — like what happens with a couple. You go through a year of terribleness and hopefully you come through it. Then it's a year of really accepting the person and you come to a new plateau. We wanted to develop them to where you get beyond a place of sex.
You've had the whole season and more to prepare for your final scene. Was it as hard as you expected?
My very final moment of shooting was with Kevin, and it was the final moment where Cristina says goodbye to Owen. It was a beautiful image of Cristina in the gallery, basically behind glass and tapping on the OR theater below. Symbolically, with that distance, it cinematically tells the story of where they are and also puts a distance that they don't want between them. It felt right because it was tough shooting that. Both Kevin and I, when we were shooting each other's close-ups, the other person was in the complete dark. We were both holding a flashlight up to our face so that we could actually see each other. Usually Kevin and I are about a foot away from each other, so for there to be so much space between the glass was really rich. It's not happiness; it's not sadness. It was very full and rich — even in the way we wanted to be closer to each other, which is exactly like how Cristina and Owen are: They just want to be closer to each other. It's just not the time now.
What was your final scene with Ellen like?
My three most difficult scenes in the past three years have all been the same scene number. There was an episode in season six that I did with Kevin where I talked about Burke — the "Pieces of Me" speech. That was Scene 44; I could barely get through it. Then in this season's Burke episode when Cristina equalized herself with Burke — that was Scene 44; it was really challenging. In the finale, Scene 44 was an extremely important scene between Meredith and Cristina. I remember reading it and I hated the scene. It made no sense to me and I couldn't connect to it. But sometimes the place that is the most resistant is, a lot of the times, the place to mine. It was deeply emotional. It was the last scene that Ellen and I shot. I can't speak for how it was for her to shoot that, but at the very end, I remember feeling for our chests embracing. I'm holding her and I can hear that she's tearing up. I was holding her and it felt like we were one body.
The one line that was the most filled for me was when Cristina says, "You and I, Mer, we're not finished." At the wrap party, they showed the famous scene where Cristina asks Meredith to be her person. From that to the point where Cristina is saying, "You and I are not finished," is like the two sides of one coin. Their love is like that. I felt very fulfilled with Cristina saying goodbye to Meredith. I have to give Cristina her space and her truth to say goodbye to her best friend. These two know what's coming, which is a great change in their lives. That's how I want to frame it, with all the feelings that come along with it. This great change is happening and eventually Cristina has to ask Meredith to help her with the final change. "I need you to help me to change," she says or, "… to make this change."
We see Cristina in Zurich at the very end of the episode. How do you think she felt in that moment?
She's filled with hope and with everything moving forward in the future. The scene, which we filmed with CGI, was such a beautiful image for me to concentrate on; for me to put myself in that place and to see this is what she's seeing as she's in her office — which was Burke's old office. Then there's a knock at the door and Shane goes, "Dr. Yang, they're ready for you." She looks at him and says, "Let's do it." It was so good again within her ritual — which I'm obviously really into. I would walk out the glass door and had to physically walk into a light because we wanted to have this effect of the shadow on the glass door. And as I would close the door, it says, "Dr. Cristina Yang, Director of Cardiothoracic Surgery." I just thought, look at what she has grown into.
Shonda has said before that surgery is the love of Cristina's life. Looking at her complete journey, do you agree?
Oh yeah. You can say love of her life, you can say purpose, meaning. Those all make sense to me. If we are ever lucky in our lives, we actually pay attention to the fact that that is what we're here to find. And if you are able to find it in your life, one: you're very lucky; and two: honor it.
With so many goodbyes that final week, what was the one that struck you the hardest?
When they called me up after lunch and there was a cake and the whole crew was on the stairs. It was proof of all the people I work with; I saw everyone's faces. I was looking into everyone's faces. They exist. This happened. That's undeniable.
How did you feel leaving the lot for the last time, knowing that you're not really sure when — or if — you'll be back?
It was joyous. The whole day was. It was joyous, and it felt complete.
What was the last thing you did before you left the set? Did you take anything?
The last thing that I did was wheel my chair out. In one of the early seasons I bought myself a nice chair. I'm sitting on my chair in the backyard right now. There are certain things that really absorb the time, place and the energy and all of the stuff that has happened, and my chair certainly did.
Was there anything that you kept from the set?
I want that wedding dress. And I want my coat, stethoscope, scrubs and my Stanford jammy pants (laughs).
Did you already speak with Shonda about potentially coming back for the eventual series finale?
We talked about that when I told her I was going to leave but we haven't talked about it again. There are certain things that Shonda and I talk about once and then we leave it because we want things to happen without pressure. I told her, "If you guys want to finish it out however you want to finish it out, I'd be more than happy to come back. And if it doesn't fit in that way, I totally understand. I just want you to know that I'm available." Who knows! I might be doing something fabulous and it might not work out but I did say, "Yes, of course I would."
Have there been moments this season where you second-guessed your decision to leave?
Yes and no. I would definitely get flashes of fear, but I know that that's my fear talking. I've been given such a bountiful gift of the past 10 years and, at this point in my life, I choose not to live my life from fear. The landscape for a working actor now is very worrisome. Having a shorter order of episodes is better for the writers and in the creative sense but being able to make a living and support a family? It's worse. So there have been moments where I have been talking with friends and fear creeps in. But as quickly as it does, I feel like I have built up a reserve to remind myself that I don't want to make decisions from that place because a lot in this town is based on fear, and I don't want to be a part of it anymore.
Looking back over 10 years, do you have any regrets? Is there anything that you would have done differently?
There wasn't so much regret as in "done differently." But I would wish for certain things. I wish I was able to get more sleep (laughs). I remember talking to our script supervisor about the tough years — basically two to six — where a lot of us don't remember what happened, honestly, because we were so exhausted. I cannot express to you the profundity of this exhaustion, but what I feel now, being able to zoom out and have a bit more space, was in the state of exhaustion, I feel like I was more reactive than I wish I would have been. Ask any parent of a newborn. They're punchy.
What will you do next? What kind of offers are you getting?
I'm going do plays [Death and the Maiden] and after that, I don't know. I want to be as open as possible to anything that comes. I just spent a decade of producing intensely. I think I'm going to take some time to retreat and see what happens. But I'm free — you can totally put that out there! "By the way, Sandra Oh is completely free July 20th when the play ends!" (Laughs.)
Looking back over 10 seasons as Cristina, what's your takeaway from her journey?
I think back to Scene 44 — the last scene that I shot with Ellen — and this one line that had tremendous specific meaning to me. It's Ellen's line where she says, "I am not finished." In the context of the scene, it means something else because Cristina is trying to leave and can't because she doesn't feel finished. What was challenging for me was, I was finishing. I spent the past year finishing to get the character to this moment. But for me, it was the specific interpretation I had of Cristina saying, "I am not finished." That speech fills me now. That speech is about how she is not finished. Anyway, I wish I said that more eloquently because I cannot tell you how much that line means to me.