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Emmys 2012: 'Grey's Anatomy's' Sandra Oh on Cristina's Emotional Season

The actress, a five-time Emmy nominee, tells THR about saying goodbye to castmembers, throwing cereal in her co-star's face and the challenges and rewards that come with filming on location.

Sandra Oh Grey's Anatomy Flight - H 2012
ABC
"Grey's Anatomy's" Sandra Oh

Sandra Oh has five Emmy nominations under her belt for her role as Grey's Anatomy's meticulous Dr. Cristina Yang, but it's the ABC medical drama's recently concluded eighth season that the actress feels has provided her best material yet.

This past season on the Shonda Rhimes-created show, Cristina faced the emotional fallout from an abortion when her marriage to Owen (Kevin McKidd) crumbled after the couple swept their baggage under the rug for too long. The story arc, which slowly progressed over the season's 24 episodes, culminated with an emotional scene in which the stoic doc threw a bowl of cereal in her husband's face before they were able to address his infidelity and begin moving on.

As if that weren't already enough, the drama also concluded its year with a plane crash that left claimed the life of one of Seattle Grace's own and left Cristina, Meredith, Derek, Mark and Arizona stranded and facing injuries both big and small. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Oh to discuss Cristina's challenging moments of the season, saying farewell to two castmembers and the benefits of filming on location.

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The Hollywood Reporter: This season has been particularly grueling for Cristina: an abortion, a broken marriage and infidelity, all topped off by a plane crash. Which scene did you grapple with the most?
Sandra Oh:
It has been an extremely challenging year that has had a lot of ups and downs, both challenging and exhilarating. A lot of the scenes that Kevin McKidd and I did of Owen and Cristina arguing in their apartment was like its own story line. We would shoot all our scenes for a day or two straight, and that was extremely challenging because emotionally and physically it becomes really exhausting. Our finale was extremely challenging physically and emotionally. So, I'd say two things -- our finale and those apartment scenes where Cristina and Owen lock themselves in and just go at it.

Cristina tosses a bowl of cereal on him, which isn't a reaction that Cristina is typically prone to.
Wasn't that good? Kevin had to have cereal thrown on him eight, 10 times for that one because we did a bunch of angles. There is that one shot -- and we only did it once -- which was his close-up, which was also my best and most direct hit. He was a great sport about that. Mark Jackson directed that episode, so we had special effects make a soft bowl because I'm not actually throwing an actual ceramic bowl at him. But that was real milk and Grape Nuts. I really liked that scene because that's her first actual moment of connection with him after he tells her the truth. Even though it's physical and it's violent, it's also a connecting moment between them where she looks at him and connects again.

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Cristina rarely expresses so much emotion, which she did a lot of this season. It was a slow burn that started with the season premiere and carried throughout the season, which is different that the Grey's we've seen in the past.
You see her express her emotions with only two people: her best friend Meredith and her husband Owen. To see someone being pulled apart so intensely, which honestly most everyone goes through in their life in some ways, if you're lucky you're completely pulled apart and then you have to pull yourself together, which hopefully will be the exploration within hopefully the next season. It's not like we played this in a couple of episodes; we've played this throughout the entire year, and the reality of the resentments building and things not being dealt with building and betrayals happening is closer to real time in the way that we played it. Being on a show for this long, you don't have to do things boom-boom-boom because you have eight years of history and developing the character. So you can take your time with things and let it soak in, in a different and deeper way. I'm super-proud of this year. Having been on a show eight years, for me to have the richest storyline now, I'm extremely grateful.

Looking back on the season, is there one particular scene that you're most proud of?
It's an earlier episode with Teddy (Kim Raver), and it was a very technically difficult scene: Telling Teddy that Henry (Scott Foley) had died was a difficult scene, but there was one episode after that where Teddy needs to hear what happened in the room over and over again. All Cristina does is tell her what has happened medically, and all my dialogue was completely medical; I would just spout this out over and over again because she would just need to hear it until finally at the end of the episode, something shifts for her and she accepts what happened. I remember getting that episode and reading it in the run-through, and all my dialogue was reams and reams of medical jargon. I knew I had to start memorizing it right away and asked them not to change it since it was very challenging. You saw a crystallized version of Cristina, where she does her job and she hangs on to what she has to do and delivers the information. It's vintage Cristina. Then everything with Owen is Cristina coming apart.

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What was filming the finale like? You're on location in the mountains near Big Bear for more than a week after the plane crash, which adds a physical element to an already emotional episode.
It was so hard. It was physically and emotionally challenging because you're constantly at extremely high stakes. The physicality for Cristina, she had to do a lot of things with one arm, and I had to do a lot of things with one shoe. You're running around the mountain with one shoe and one arm basically and doing things that way. And it's like we've had this cushy time on stages and in the hospital. But being out in the open on the side of a mountain was exhilarating; you cannot beat location work. I've done very little greenscreen work, but it's just a pooper. I don't care how much you blow that fan on my face, there's not a helicopter coming at me. It's really hard to manufacture the clear reality of what that is, but when you are on a mountain and you are freezing, you're freezing.

What does getting out of the hospital set do for the cast? In addition to Big Bear, you were away from the set and on the Disney lot in Burbank for the hotel scenes for the boards. Could we potentially see more new locations next season as the residents begin heading elsewhere?
It totally reinvigorates us. They had to build the hotel, the hotel rooms, and they built a bunch of other sets. It's reinvigorating for everyone, including the crew, who we've spent the last eight years on five stages. It's nice to go out; I'd love to see them in different places. We could possibly see them in other places, but again I have no idea what Shonda is going to do after this finale.

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Filming the finale, in which Grey's said farewell to two castmembers -- Chyler Leigh's Lexie, who died, and Kim Raver's Teddy, who moved on -- what was that process like for you?
The finale was such a great experience, everyone really got out of their comfort zone. Those were some really painful, devastating scenes. We saw one scene cut together, and I had to get my hair and makeup redone; I could not stop weeping -- and I wasn't in that scene. It was extremely difficult because people come in and out over eight years. It's rare to have certain people be around you for eight years or five years or even three years. There's a kind of carnival aspect of to it. A lot of times for plays or films you come in for six weeks, fall in love with people, and you leave. You become family members and have really deep ties with people even if you don't spend time outside of work with them. When you have to let go of some of those things, I found it extremely difficult and extremely sad. We've been down for almost a week now, and I'm just extremely depressed and recuperating, but it's not just the physical recuperation. This has happened to me before with certain projects that I have left that I feel really low, and I know we're coming back, but certain things and dynamics will have shifted, and there's a lot of that makes me very sad.

Changing it up a bit, after so much heavy material this season, was there a scene that stands out when it was the hardest to keep a straight face?
Justin Chambers
is pretty funny and always makes us laugh during scenes in April's office. There's also an episode right before Cristina actually tells Teddy about Henry where Teddy wants to dance and have a good time and she's going like, "Woo-hoo, woo-hoo," and that was pretty funny. What I really like about our show is it's really a drama with a lot of really good comedy in it, and it's mostly comedy based on character. After some heavy stuff, I'm sure that they're going to give us some funny stuff to do. And Cristina's stuff with William Daniels when he's her proctor, I thought that was hilarious. I just thought how amazing is this if we're talking about medical shows past and present. I'd be so willing to do that in 25 years, to come on as a doctor to some other kid in a medical show.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit