‘Grey’s Anatomy’: Sandra Oh Reveals the Cristina Yang Storyline She Wanted to Explore, But the Show ‘Didn’t Want to Touch’

Let’s be honest — Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) was a blessing to Grey’s Anatomy from the moment she stepped into Seattle Grace. The beloved Cardio God challenged every character she encountered and reminded viewers they are the sun of their own story. Now, almost a decade since Oh left Grey’s Anatomy, it’s clear the actor did the same behind the scenes, even going “toe-to-toe” with creator Shonda Rhimes while advocating for Cristina.

Shonda Rhimes opens up about working with Sandra Oh on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

Sandra Oh as Cristina Yang on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" - Season Nine
Sandra Oh as Cristina Yang on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ | Ron Tom Walt Disney Television via Getty Images/ via Getty Images

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In May 2020, Rhimes revealed what it was like to work with Oh on Grey’s Anatomy in an interview with Elle

“Sandra is intense when she is playing a role. And I mean that in the best way,” Rhimes said. She also shared Oh came to her office every week to discuss her character. “It drove me crazy and made me so happy at the same time. Sandra wanted to get it as right as she possibly could.”

The series creator continued, “She could elevate anything you wrote. She dives in and cares deeply. You cannot have a superficial conversation with Sandra.”

Even now, Rhimes admits she misses writing for Oh because of what she did for Cristina on the ABC medical drama. 

“I grieved [no longer] writing for Sandra more than anything because I [wouldn’t] get to see what she would do with it,” she said. “I think she chooses characters and then inserts herself into them. There are plenty of actors who want to be nice or who want to be seen as romantic or who want to be seen as a hero. But Sandra’s not interested in that. She’s interested in playing the stuff of life.”

Sandra Oh says ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ did not want to dive into Cristina Yang’s cultural background

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When speaking with Scandal’s Kerry Washington on Variety’s Actors on Actors series published on June 26, Oh seemingly confirmed Rhimes’ previous remarks.

“I spent a lot of time with writers. I realized television is all about your relationship with the writer,” Oh said. “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.”

She added, “If something 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. But 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.”

Later, Oh opened up about one Grey’s Anatomy storyline she wanted to change involving Cristina and Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington). However, the ABC series did not want to dive in.

“Most of the shows I have done have not been Asian-specific purposefully,” Oh said. “When we did Grey’s, for at least the first 10 seasons, we would not talk about race. We would not go into race. And that was purposeful.”

Oh continued, “In season 3, Burke and Cristina were getting married and there were the two mothers — the Asian mother and the Black mother. And I’m like, ‘Come on! There is a lot of story that we can do here.’ But they didn’t want to touch it, for whatever reason.”

Now, Oh wants to do more to advocate Asian-specific storylines for her character. “My interest is much more in bringing that story in,” she said.

Sandra Oh discusses exploring her character’s culture on ‘Killing Eve’

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Still speaking with Washington on Actors on Actors, Oh shared she is still advocating for her characters on Killing Eve. Oh explained her character, Eve Polastri, wanted to feel “anonymous” at the start of season 3. So she ended up in New Malden “with the biggest Korean population in the UK.” 

Oh also touched on this moment during an interview with the LA Times. The actor noted she has been trying to bring elements of her character’s ethnicity and culture to the forefront because white Hollywood won’t.

“As my authorship of my own work has grown, I’ve been trying to infuse more pieces of my character’s ethnicity and cultural background,” Oh said. “At the very top of Season 3 in Killing Eve, you see Eve in New Malden [outside central London], which is actually the largest gathering of Koreans outside of Korea.”

She continued, “I wanted it to be set in a place where Eve could try to disappear for a while. It was just a small bit of the show. But I wanted to bring the flavor of that because we carry our culture, we carry our history. And typically, white Hollywood does not write it. Does not write our culture, does not write the depth of our culture.”

Oh then recalled an instance where she changed the sound of Eve’s footsteps in her own home, as Asian households typically don’t wear shoes within the home. She said:

I remember talking to the sound people. It’s like, ‘Hey guys, you are layering in the sound of me wearing shoes in the house. I don’t wear shoes. My character doesn’t wear shoes. I know you don’t see the feet. But don’t layer in the sound of shoes in the house, because that doesn’t happen.’ But maybe these people, mostly white English dudes, don’t know that. It’s something that you might not even think is important. But it is because that’s how we start building the nuance of a character.

Oh wasn’t able to explore Cristina’s cultural background on Grey’s Anatomy. But it seems the actor’s voice is being heard on Killing Eve. And who knows? The ABC medical drama doesn’t appear as shy about race as it used to be. So if Oh were to reprise her role as Cristina someday, perhaps Grey’s Anatomy would consider embracing the character’s ethnicity. 

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