If you believe the countless stories, Grey’s Anatomy has always been every bit as dramatic behind the scenes as it is on-screen. Rumors have long buzzed about tensions between various cast members and writers, including creator Shonda Rhimes. On Friday, Sandra Oh reflected on her own battles with the show’s writers—and how going “toe-to-toe” with Shonda Rhimes made her a better advocate for herself.
Speaking with Kerry Washington for Variety’s Actors on Actors issue, Oh said, “I spent a lot of time with writers, and television is all about your relationship with the writer. What I was able to get from Grey’s is to have the responsibility and the relationship with the writer to be able to direct where she’s going.”
“If something kind of came up which was like, ‘That is completely wrong,’ I would go toe-to-toe with Shonda and a lot of the writers, which has been challenging,” Oh continued. “But I think ultimately, for the entire product and our relationship, if you’re fighting for the show, if you’re fighting for your character, people can tell that.”
Oh said that her career has been a “slow process” of figuring out how to bring her Asian-American identity to the roles that she plays. In its earlier seasons, she pointed out, Grey’s “would not go into race, and that was purposeful.” In Season 3, for instance, Oh thought that her character Cristina’s marriage with a Black surgeon, Preston Burke, could have produced some interesting storylines, had the show been willing to examine the racial dynamics at play. “But they didn’t want to touch it, for whatever reason,” Oh said. “Now my interest is much more in bringing that story in.”
Looking back on her experience on the series, which she left six years ago, Oh said that she feels one of her biggest successes was never giving up. “[Y]ou have to kind of pick your moments of where you can lay off the gas pedal, because it is such a slog,” Oh said, noting that the show’s early years ran 24-episode seasons. “There would be scenes that I would just go, I don’t know, 10 rounds on, and I know I was difficult. And I really respect all the writers there who rode it out with me.”
When her arguments would finally get to Rhimes, Oh said they would at times reach an impasse. “But just the friction itself, a lot of times a third thing would come out, and it would not be in my sight of consciousness at all; it would take that pushing against someone equally as strong,” Oh said. “I started to learn how to trust that. And also, that the gold is in the resistance.”
Now, she said, “I can get out of my way a little bit better. I think my ego has grown in a positive way to say, ‘I can see that is not about an attack. I can see that I don’t need to fight for that.’”