Sandra Oh takes us behind-the-scenes of James Cameron Mitchell's powerful new drama
Actor-turned-director John Cameron Mitchell returns to direct his frist feature film in more than four years with the critically acclaimed drama Rabbit Hole. A slight departure from his cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and his sex-fueled romantic drama Shortbus, Rabbit Hole is an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's play that focuses on a married couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) overcoming the loss of their four-year-old son. It is at times both emotionally moving and very funny. And it is a project that rests close to Mitchell's heart, as he dealt with a similar loss early in his own life.
Sandra Oh plays Gaby, a character who never actually appears on stage in the original play, but is often talked about throughout the course of the story. Important to the core themes at hand, Gaby is a married woman who attends the same grief support group that Becca Kidman and Howie Eckhart Corbett have recently joined in hopes of overcoming their recent tragedy. When Becca begins spending an unusual amount of time with the teenager whose car killed her son, Howie in turn begins spending a little too much time with Gabby. Sandra is the frist person to every play Gabby in the flesh, bringing her alive with a fresh new perspective.
We recently caught up with Sandra Oh to talk about her experiences acting in the film, her collaboration with John Cameron Mitchell, and her overall reaction to the themes carried throughout this powerful drama.
Here is our conversation:
There are such huge gaps between each project director John Cameron Mitchell chooses to take on. Were you a fan of his before stepping into this project? He seems pretty selective about what does as a director?
Sandra Oh: Oh, Shortbus! For sure. I think you said it right there. He is a very selective artist. You can glean that he is a thoughtful person. Which is true. His choices are deeply personal, which this was for him. He is a real striving artist. In some ways, when you look at the fact that there is a lot of time between his films...People really do need time to incubate between projects. They give their lives to it. You need to let that pass before your fall in love with something else. Knowing his work, meeting him...You know? I am a big fan. Just from artist to artist.
This film is getting mainstream praise, which makes me wonder if he will pull back on the next one...
Sandra Oh: In some ways, you never know what is going to be mainstream or not. I don't think he works that way in choosing things. Whether it is high profile or not. Yes, Nicole Kidman is in it. And it is a Pulitzer Prize winning play. But I think, for him, it is a much more personal choice and place.
In looking at how personal a project this actually is for John, did you see him change anything to reflect that in bringing it from the stage to the screen?
Sandra Oh: I did not see the stag play, so I could not talk to you about that. Talking with David Lindsay-Abaire, what he wanted to do...And in a way, this is great, because a lot of playwrights don't ever get to do this...Is explore. My character is not in the play. But the idea of my character is in the play. Here, he gets to explore what happens with this character off stage, bringing her on screen. He gets to flush out his play even more. He gets to flush out the story. You are not only in this house any more, but you are also in the park. You are also at group therapy. You are in the places that he has mentioned, but were never shown on stage. Now you see those things come to life.
That has to be pretty exciting for you as an actress. The sense of this character has always been there, but now you get to come in and create her for the real first time. And give audiences who've seen the play an idea of who this woman is, or was...
Sandra Oh: Yeah. That is really well said. (Laughs) I am the first person who is playing Gabby. And that is really exciting. When you see it, you'll see that the character I play is further along in her journey than Howie and Becca. It is a very good counterpoint. It being a story about survival, and living after loss, my character is further along in her grief. And Dianne Wiest's character is even further along with her's. We both extend our experiences and compassion to Howie and Becca.
How did you work with John in finding the right nuances for this character?
Sandra Oh: It really happened on set. You have your ideas, or you get rid of them. Then you come on set. And there is a magic that happens. Quite honestly. John Cameron Mitchell is a very sensitive director. How he moves. He goes from one place to another, suddenly. Everything happens in the moment from what he is feeling and seeing.
When you are in some of those really tough, emotional scenes, do you feel yourself getting swept up in the other actor's emotions as well?
Sandra Oh: Ultimately, you want to be in the first state. You want to be truthful in whatever the character is feeling. The story that you need to tell. Whatever you are personally bringing to it, it doesn't matter what it is. You could be thinking about the loss of your dog. Really, the character is talking about the loss of their child. It doesn't matter what the actor is bringing to it. As long as it helps them to tell the story of that character. You do want to be fully engaged with your partner in that state. Having said that, I don't think you can be completely removed from the third eye. Because you are always on a set. You do have to hit your mark. There are a lot of technical things you need to do, so that you are not completely self-involved. It is a balance. You primarily want to stay in the truthful part, and then have five percent of you knowing when the light is hitting you just right.
The humor plays an important part in bringing forth some of the emotions we see played out on screen. How did you feel about the humor that is played throughout the course of this story?
Sandra Oh: I felt that it was very real, and it was there when you really needed it. Its awkward. There is one time when they go bowling, and Dianne Wiest, who plays Becca's mother...You think there is humor with it, but then you get uncomfortable with it. The humor goes in and out. Sometimes the humor is both uncomfortable and a release. When you are dealing with two characters that are really suffering, you, as an audience member, need respite.
What are your thoughts and feelings about the themes that are raised both in the play, and the movie as it stands now?
Sandra Oh: I feel that these are deeply, deeply human subjects. No person goes through life without being touched by loss or grief. You just don't. Everyone goes through it. It is universal. And this is about seeing how two people survive that. Even though it is centered around two people and the loss of their child, it is really about seeing how people survive grief. That is what we are all hopefully doing in life.
Following your career, it doesn't seem like you ever take frivolous roles. You always seem quite committed to the characters that you play. Coming into this, which carries a little heavier weight, and a bit more of an outpouring of emotion, do you find its hard to walk away from this at the end of the day?
Sandra Oh: I understand why people always ask that question. I feel like...How easy is it to walk away from any kind of experience? It has its time. Some things stay with you and some things don't. For me, from the beginning to the end of just shooting it, seemed like quite a long time. The experience will always stay with me.
What do you think the most important aspect of this experience has been?
Sandra Oh: Hmm. Really great question. For me, it was in playing the compassion and the openness of Gabby as she recognizes the fact that she has been where Howie and Becca are. Again, I know this story is about their journey, but playing a character that is slightly further along in her journey, was the most satisfying, and the most interesting thing for me to play.
I know you said you had never seen the play. I know Nicole Kidman had never seen the play. And it sounds like a couple of the other actors hadn't either. Do you think that helps bring a different type of truth, and a certain freshness to the material that maybe hasn't played through it before?
Sandra Oh: Definitely, you have a clean palate. There is nothing on it. Even though my character is not in the play, I would have preferred not to have seen it. I think. Even if you did, it wouldn't matter. You would just fold that into your experience. You will still give it your own experience. You have to start from a clean place. You either start with a clear palate, or you start with a palate that already has a color on it.
You've played a character on Grey's Anatomy for quite a few years now. This here is something you'll only do once. Which experience do you enjoy more? Do you enjoy getting to constantly go back to a character for years on end, and the process that comes along with developing that character? Or do you prefer coming in, doing it once, and its done forever?
Sandra Oh: That is kind of like asking what you prefer, apples or oranges...
Sandra Oh: (Laughs) They are just different. Its challenging playing the same character for seven years. Yet, it is also deeply satisfying. You get to flush out a character as deeply as possible. You are living with them for seven years. You know them like the back of your hand. You don't even need to think of them at a certain point. You get to enjoy things about them. I love it when she is really competitive and very mean. I love it. I love playing it. I love that they have explored her character in every kind of way. Emotionally, spiritually, especially this past season. She has been great to play. Playing a different character is so great as well. Sometimes, you wish you could explore more of them. If this kept on going, you'd see more of Gabby and her life inside her own house. I would get to explore her in that way. But in this film, you only have five scenes to tell her story. On Grey's Anatomy, I have had over one hundred episodes to tell the story of this character. They are both great, and they are both challenging for different reasons.
Were you able to discover something new on the set of Rabbit Hole that you, as an actor, were able to take back to your character on Grey's Anatomy? Or maybe take into any future performances?
Sandra Oh: Ultimately, that is a question of, "Do you take what you learn in life and bring it with you?" And, yes. To be able to point to a certain thing? I wouldn't be able to do that. I can't say that because I learned this certain thing, I brought that up here. You just put it all in your back pocket of life, and you bring it to your next moment.
For the people who haven't seen Rabbit Hole, and they see the trailer or the TV commercials, and they may shy away from it because they are not ready for such a heavy experience, what would you say to pull them in a little closer to the material?
Sandra Oh: The film is not about death. The film is about life. Everyone can understand lose. It's a story about people who have been touched by loss, which we all have, and how those people survive it. We always need to see stories about our deepest selves.