Sandra Oh lives just up the hill from Hollywood Boulevard, the garish strip where tourists thread their way past the drugged and the homeless in search of celebrity handprints. Oh's temporary home is a pleasantly faded apartment hotel. Her two-bedroom suite, which she shares with another young Canadian actress, has the sublimely anarchic look of a student crash-pad. Clothes and magazines are strewn around the floor with cheerful abandon. From a CD player, Courtney Love wails, "I made my bed/I'll lie in it," and the bed is, of course, unmade. Photocopies of Oh's 1995 Best Actress Genie Award certificate (for Double Happiness) lie on a littered coffee table - documentation to support her bid for a Green Card, the coveted U.S. work permit. Apologizing for the mess, she rummages through her things, throwing some clothes together for a photo shoot, then steps out into the California sunshine, which seems to match her gregarious spirit. "I got an HBO pilot!" she announces breathlessly. "And what's great," she says, punching the air with her fists, "is that I didn't have to screen-test!"
On-screen and off, Oh behaves with disarming candor and spontaneity. During the photo shoot, which takes her from lunch at Venice Beach to a sunset drive through the Hollywood Hills, she displays the energy and poise of a dancer, reinventing herself with each glance of the lens. There is something about her - a vulnerability and the strength to reveal it - that charms the camera, and almost anyone who meets her.
Born and raised in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, Oh is the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her mother is a biochemist, her father an entrepreneur. Fresh out of Montreal's National Theatre School, she made a brave and brilliant debut in 1994 as a teenage prostitute in the harrowing CBC movie The Diary of Evelyn Lau. Then, with her winning performance in Double Happiness, as a young woman feuding with her traditional Chinese parents, Oh emerged as the most exciting Canadian actress of her generation.
But now, at 24, without enough roles to keep her busy in Canada, she is taking a run at Hollywood. After arriving last summer without an agent or a job offer, she found it discouraging at first. A meeting with one high-powered agent reduced her to tears. "She basically said, 'It's tough for someone like you here,' " she recalls, "that no matter how good you are, you don't have a place here because you look the way you do - she just thought I was a nobody Asian person." Later, however, after seeing Double Happiness and being knocked out by Oh's performance, the agent suddenly changed her tune. Too late. Oh found someone who respected her, and whose company counts Jim Carrey among its clients. "She's only 26 and she drives a Range Rover," says Oh, rolling her eyes. "Everyone has Range Rovers here. It bugs me."
For her part, Oh drives a beat-up '87 Sirocco that she calls Lily. And she is grateful to have a job to drive it to. Her new HBO pilot is a Larry Sanders-type satire about an agent who represents sports stars - Oh portrays his assistant. But the actress, who revisits Toronto next month to act in a play, doubts she will spend her life in Los Angeles. She has not even taken a walk on Hollywood Boulevard, although it is just down the hill. "It's too tacky," she laughs. A free spirit who follows her own star, Sandra Oh is taking the high road.
Maclean's December 18, 1995