Why ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Creator Shonda Rhimes Almost Didn’t Give the Part of Cristina Yang To Sandra Oh
When assembling the cast for the now iconic medical drama, Rhimes stuck to her gut instinct when it came to selecting who would play Dr. Cristina Yang.
Casting Cristina Yang
Rhimes was auditioning actors and getting recommendations from the network when Grey’s Anatomy started to take shape. One suggestion was being lobbied more than others.
“There was a moment in the Grey’s casting process before we’d even laid eyes on Sandra Oh, when everyone was pushing me to cast some actor as Cristina,” Rhimes recalled in her book Year of Yes. “I honestly can’t remember who the actor was, but [producer] Betsy [Beers] thought she was great, the studio thought she was great, everyone thought she was great. And she was great. I, too, thought she was great. But I did not want to cast her.”
While Rhimes couldn’t pinpoint why she didn’t want to hire this particular actor for the role, she didn’t want to give in to pressure. Yet her introverted tendencies kept her from giving a definitive answer.
“This actor was just . . . not the key that fit the lock that turned the story in my brain,” the Bridgerton creator wrote. “But at the time, I didn’t know that was the problem. At the time, I just didn’t want to cast her. Everyone was pushing. Betsy was pushing. The studio was pushing. I was dodging phone calls, I was saying vague things. I was telling people that I needed to think.”
The pressure kept mounting for Shonda Rhimes’ decision
Rhimes was reluctant to make a choice that could potentially make waves with the network and production team. She began letting her insecurities get the best of her.
“In those early days, I was scared to have an opinion because I was afraid of having a different opinion than everyone else,” the Grey’s Anatomy producer admitted. “Betsy kept staring at me, bewildered. … Because the Shonda she had known during the writing process had been enthusiastic and opinionated. Now I seemed to be fading. I kept my head down and avoided looking at her.”
Casting director Linda Lowy called Rhimes and gave her the pep talk she needed to speak her mind.
“Shonda, you are wasting time,” Rhimes recalled Lowy telling her. “You are wasting resources. Actors are being snapped up by other shows every other minute. We are at a standstill because you will not say what you want. You and I both know you do not want to cast this actor. So you need to say so. … This is your show and if you cast someone you do not want, it will not be your show. You need to tell everyone no.”
Shonda Rhimes called it her ‘favorite NO’
When Lowy gathered all necessary parties on a call to discuss the actor under consideration, Rhimes was able to find her voice and take control.
“If I say no, they could decide I don’t know what I’m doing and take this whole thing away from me,” Rhimes remarked. “If I say no, they could just do what they want anyway. Finally, I blurted out, ‘No.’ My first NO. And my favorite NO. Because of that NO? I decided that I was steering the ship. And I started behaving that way.”
Rhimes’ instinct was spot on, and she didn’t have to wait long to cast the role of Grey’s Anatomy’s most memorable cardiac surgeon.
“Sandra Oh walked in the door the very next day,” Rhimes revealed. “The lock in my brain found its key. Cristina Yang was born.”