Sunday, February 1, 2009

Under The African Sun

It is an oldie, but we have not posted it before. The interview was first published in A&U (America's AIDS Magazine) in September 2004.

Sandra discusses her role as a Nun working in South Africa in 3 Needles, an upcoming AIDS film, her desire to spark greater public AIDS awareness, and her approach to keep today’s youth safe.

America just hasn’t caught up with Canada. Up north, Canadian native Sandra Oh has already won two Genies for her dramatic film work and a Gemini for television, the equivalents of our Oscar and Emmy Awards, respectively. Here in the States, she is usually cast as the second comedic fiddle—but what a wonderful fiddle! For starters, check out last year’s film Under The Tuscan Sun, in which she portrays Patti, a pregnant lesbian and the best friend to a neurotic author, played by Diane Lane. Then there’s the mid-nineties HBO hit television comedy, Arli$$ (she won the Cable Ace Award for Best Actress in a Comedy), playing the sassy Girl Friday, Rita, to an ineffectual boss, Robert Wuhl’s Arliss Michaels. In 2005, she will be featured in the drama, 3 Needles, playing Sister Mary, a nun who is sent to rural South Africa to bathe, feed, and pray for those dying of AIDS.

Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, 3 Needles promises to be the cinematic AIDS event of the year. The film tackles the global epidemic by telling three different stories in three different countries, following the lives of a missionary nun in South Africa, a blood trafficker in China, and a porn star in the United States. The film explores the ways in which the pandemic seems to be driving us further apart when it might be bringing us together. The cast includes Chloë Sevigny and Olympia Dukakis, who play nuns, as well. “If you’re not familiar with Thom’s work, you should totally [she says the word in Valley-girl drawl] see his films,” gushes Sandra from our table at the funky historic Café 101, a noisy, hole-in-the-wall coffee shop located at the base of the Hollywood Hills.

It was Sandra’s idea to meet here because she lives nearby. When she bounded through the diner doors a few moments ago, I swiftly sensed her no-care-in-the-world demeanor and her wispy style. On-time, friendly, and forthcoming, Sandra sports a hip plaid skirt (purchased at a thrift store), a cherry red Margaret Cho Revolution T-shirt (she loves Margaret Cho!), and slightly elevated neon blue flip-flops, which nearly match the highlights in her long wavy black hair. She has that Audrey Hepburn look and presence—the playful girl next door with class and elegance. And she fits right in with the luminaries who frequented this eatery in days past: James Dean, Olivia de Haviland, and Carolyn Jones and her husband at the time, Aaron Spelling.

The waitress takes our order. Sandra orders veggie chilli, Caesar salad, and a Chai latte. She’s anxious to continue talking about her experience filming 3 Needles.

“What I love about Thom and his films is they’re always about something deeply meaningful and personal to me, and obviously to him. His films are not necessarily mainstream.” Like The Event, which deals with AIDS, death, and choices; and The Hanging Garden, where a successful gay man returns home to confront his miserable childhood. Thom also wrote and directed both films.

“Thom contacted me and before he told me anything about the film, I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ When I heard the project was about AIDS, I really got interested.”

AIDS shook Oh’s life in a big way last year, when her movement teacher from the National Theatre School of Canada died. He had been positive for many years, but his students never knew.

“As students, it was none of our business to know. I was shocked when I got the news,” Sandra recalls as the waitress spreads platters of food on the table.

Over the years Oh has contributed to several AIDS organizations, and her image from 3 Needles is presently being shown in a Canadian PSA, under the direction of Fitzgerald. It’s for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which raises funds for AIDS groups in Africa. Later this year, a similar PSA will be released. This one will be for Go Go Grannies, an organization of South African grandmothers who came out of retirement to provide support for other grandmothers who must raise their own grandchildren. This tragic situation is quite common in South Africa because so many in the middle generation have died from AIDS, leaving their children orphaned.

“I love Sandra Oh! She’s delightful, passionate, and an outspoken person” says a calm and collected Thom Fitzgerald from his home in Nova Scotia. He is now prepping for a September shoot in Thailand, which will stand in for China, for the second installment of 3 Needles, starring Lucy Liu. Thom remembers Sandra’s enthusiasm on the set of the first installment and how much he enjoyed listening to her argue politics with the Africans. For her portrayal of Sister Mary, Oh decided that her character was ‘a party nun,’ and knew how to dance. So no matter how depressed the other characters became, her character would remain chipper. At one point, Sister Mary takes a strong position in struggling to save HIV infants so that they can have a chance at life. Since they were filming in remote areas with no electricity, the locals had never been exposed to film or television. When they saw Sandra dressed in her nun’s habit they automatically assumed she was a real nun. “They treated her with such reverence,” laughs Thom. “What is so lovely about Sandra in the film is that she is a little ray of sunshine in the midst of a plague. But you know, she is always so pleasurable to watch on screen.”

Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis in '3 Needles' playing nuns.

Born in Ottawa to Korean parents, Oh began ballet school at the age of four. At ten, she was in her first play, The Canada Goose, playing the title role. Throughout high school, she was active in dramatics, excelling in improvisation and even winning a citywide competition. At sixteen, she started working professionally in TV, theater, and commercials. After three years at the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada, she landed a role in the London stage production of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Following that, she won the coveted role of Evelyn Lau, a tortured teen poet who becomes a drug addict and prostitute on the streets of Vancouver, in the CBC television film, The Diary of Evelyn Lau. Oh’s performance garnered her a Gemini nomination for Best Actress, and the 1994 Cannes FIPA d’Or for Best Actress. The next year, Sandra won her first Genie for Double Happiness, a bittersweet story about a young Chinese-Canadian woman.

In 1996, Sandra moved to Los Angeles, where for seven years, she appeared on Arli$$. Since then she has appeared on other TV hits, from Six Feet Under to Further Tales of The City. At your local cineplex, you may have caught her in Last Night, The Princess Diaries, Full Frontal, The Red Violin, or Bean.

Famed critic Roger Ebert made a special note of her performance in Dancing at the Blue Iguana: “Sandra Oh goes out and does a striptease in front of the boy that she loves but doesn’t think will accept her. There’s a little tear that comes down while she’s upside down on the pole and that’s a very effective piece of acting.”

Sandra playing stripper/poet Jasmine in 'Dancing at the Blue Iguana'.

Acting is Sandra’s life. Indeed, her work in the theatre made her more aware of AIDS.

“When I was in college in the early nineties, I was becoming sexually aware, and we started doing plays about AIDS. We did this one famous play,” she says not being able to think of the name. We toss around a few titles until I mention The Normal Heart. “Yes!” she says relieved. “And at this time condoms were more prevalent, and AIDS was becoming more mainstream. AIDS was on the cover of Time; it was a major news article worldwide.” Sandra takes a bite of salad, modestly covering her mouth while chewing. She continues: “I grew up knowing that one never has sex without a condom. I was lucky because my generation was educated about AIDS. My peers really don’t drink and drive as much as older people do because MADD [Mother’s Against Drunk Driving] was really big when I was a teen, so we were just indoctrinated that way.” Indeed, Oh comes from a milestone era, the first generation of kids where AIDS prevention was taught in the schools. She often got HIV tested, and even before her New Year’s Day wedding in 2003, she and her husband, Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), who recently directed Sandra in his film, Sideways, both found out their status. “I’m totally one of those people who got tested regularly. [When I received the results] I was so glad that I heard ‘Negative.’ Negative is good!” she says laughing, pushing her hair behind her ears.

What does AIDS mean to Sandra now? With elbows on table, she rests two fingers on her temples, and, after a pause, whimsically responds, “It’s still here.” Her cell phone rings, but she quickly turns it off. “I’m nervous about losing someone else to this monstrosity. I see other friends losing people, and this has been instrumental in helping me with my own death issues. What I’ve learned is that I truly believe our relationships continue after death. The grieving is the healing. Though I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist home—Koreans can be so crazy—I do believe there’s an afterlife. Good God, I hope so.”

Now Sandra drives the point home. “Why is AIDS still here today? Because Bush is in office. That’s one basic level but it’s a huge level. It all goes back to who’s leading us and who’s making these policies. It’s so important how you vote this year! There needs to be a resurgence in our domestic policy. How is education in the schools a threat?” she asks rhetorically. “We’re told, ‘It’s up to the parents to educate their children.’ But we all know that doesn’t work sometimes. Parents are fucked up,” she sneers and in a Valley twang again. “It can’t only be up to the parents because some kids come from shitty homes.”

And Ms. Oh has something to say about the high numbers of youth today becoming infected. “First off, one has to figure out where teens are coming from. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, something chemically happens, so you can’t expect kids to have reason. Even though kids can seem really mature and savvy, they’re not. Because the younger generation didn’t experience the devastation of AIDS firsthand, they think HIV/AIDS is gone. So wrong,” she says loudly, as she sweeps crumbs from the table into her cupped hand and brushes them on a dish.

“We used to do crazy things when I was a teen. I had no fear. And now I know some younger people who have this really invincible thing going on—it’s dangerous, guys! It all stems from self-respect. We need better HIV/AIDS education in the schools, and better support for individuals to strengthen their own identity.”

Sandra certainly has a sturdy sense of self, yet, though thirty-three years of age, she’s still kid-like. She’s fun, spirited, possessed with a sense of wonderment, and aspires to grow and better the world. May she never change.

One of the changes she’d make is for the entertainment industry to produce more HIV-themed productions. Several months ago she viewed HBO’s production of Angels in America.

“[The play on which the movie is based] is a decade old, yet it’s still very relevant today. We need more works like this, and more films like Thom’s The Event. When AIDS is visible to people, they’ll talk more about it. AIDS will move to the forefront of people’s consciousness, which is where it should be. Then Americans won’t be as apathetic.”

Being politically minded and keenly aware, Sandra delivers her message through her art. Thus, she chooses roles wisely. At this point in her life, she is ready to take on more responsibility and become more deeply involved in the AIDS war. Presently, she is associated with NARAL, a pro-choice group, and she and her husband are a part of FilmAid, an organization that screens films in refugee camps.

“Many of these people have never seen films like The Wizard of Oz. I strongly believe in the power of film. And I believe in the power of people to come to the rescue of those infected, and to put an end to this disease. But, at the moment,” she laments with a sigh, “AIDS is still here....”

Source: A&U, September 2004.
sandra oh news