Growing up, Sandra Oh didn’t see a part for herself in ‘Anne of Green Gables’

(Credit: Emily Shur)

Sandra Oh has long been a powerhouse talent on screen. The Canadian actress has infused life into the many characters she’s stepped into, from her iconic role as Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy that earned her a Screen Actors Guild Award, to her most recent turn in Killing Eve, which has earned her multiple Emmy nominations. 

The Ottawa-born actress’ latest venture is narrating the Canadian Audible Original series Anne of Green Gables, which is now available on Directed by Megan Follows, the 20th-century classic is brought to life in an immersive audio drama, starring Catherine O’Hara, Victor Garber and Michela Luci.

Victor Garber and Catherine O'Hara stand side-by-side in 1880s attire, with Michela Luci, with long red hair, wearing a brimmed hat and a red dress and twirling in front of them. The background is a bright blue cloudy sky with a farmhouse in the distance. The foreground has colourful spring flowers. Text: "Audible Original. Anne of Green Gables. Sandra Oh, Catherine O'Hara, Victor Garber, Michela Luci. Only from Audible."

Audible has been growing their exclusive catalogue of Canadian originals, with podcasts and audiobooks from celebrated Canadian storytellers. Their most recent releases include The Downloaded, starring Brendan Fraser and Oracle starring Joshua Jackson. 

We caught up with the 52-year-old actress to talk about being a part of the Anne of Green Gables cast, her love for the Canadian classic and the next chapter of her career — in which she hopes to keep taking on three dimensional roles that she chooses with purpose. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

So this is your first Canadian Audible original. Why was this a medium of storytelling you really wanted to explore?

I love doing voice work in any kind of way and I was thrilled when this project came to me, because it’s a great Canadian story. I was also thrilled because Megan was directing it. When I was growing up, Megan’s Anne of Green Gables was so fundamentally burned into my mind and we’re friendly as well. So when she asked me to do it, I thought no one knows the story better than she and also to be directed by her — I really wanted to explore that and I was honoured to be asked to voice Lucy Montgomery’s story. 

Were there any parts of the story that stood out to you in terms of the strength of the character?

Firstly, Anne is a great character, but so is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s writing of her. Here you have a girl’s inner life, a girl’s imagination, and you see her grow up into a young woman and you see her desire to be accepted. You see her tremendous intellect, ambition, and you see how she gets things completely wrong and you see her power of just being herself — giving to Matthew and Marilla and really melting their hearts. You see how she, in pursuit of her own self and intellect, changes her community. That says so much about Lucy Maud … and so, of course, she resonates today. But also the writing of it. Lucy Maud’s writing, in its nuanced way, is actually quite challenging to voice in a great way.

You talked about the acting side of it too, but when all you’ve got is the voice or your tone to carry it through, do you have the same process as with acting?

In some ways, of course, yes, because ultimately, you have to understand the character, you have to relate to the character. But technically, no, it’s completely different. It’s why I love it. It’s really exciting to do and you have to understand your relationship with a microphone. 

You bring so much of yourself to these characters. Before you attach your name to something, is there a check box for a project before you say yes to it and bring parts of yourself to it?

Most of the things that I work on have not been really classical in the way that this is. Usually, the main box has to be that there’s something going on in the character that I relate to deeply, not necessarily the same way as obviously, I’m no longer a young woman who needs to grow up [laughs]. So I’d say that there has to be something within the material that either I profoundly relate to, or it profoundly frightens me in a good way — in an exciting way. Or that I can see a greater meaning and purpose — that there’s something bigger even than that, that I would like to be a part of.

What did being a performer mean to you in your early career and does it mean something different to you now?

Oh, that’s a good question. I think that’s a very important question for any adult person to ask and I can see that there were certain forces and questions and probably unconscious desires that were driving me. I think now as an adult, I have figured that shit out [laughs]. And so, it’s not so out of my control, or it’s not so painful to try and get things done… I am much more conscious of why I do what I do and it’s taken me 30 years to figure it out. 

I love that. How would you like the next phase of your career to go in terms of the kinds of roles and projects that you choose to do?

In the past couple of years, I’ve been able to explore characters in some ways that I’ve always wanted to do… specifically from the point of view of a woman and an East Asian woman, that it can also be a necessary part of the character, to play a full character. What I hope in the back half of my career is I get to play the characters that I’ve always wanted to play. It’s not so much what the character does… but like full characters, the story of what it is to be a woman, a middle aged woman, a middle aged woman who is East Asian…

With this Canadian audible original, is there something that you’re particularly proud of that felt like a professional or creative stepping stone for you?

I think it’s really just an honour to be a part of this cast. The 1985 version is so burned in my brain. I was in my teens then. I never thought that I would ever really be able to be a part of that storytelling. Because at that time, the storytelling was only white, so even though I related so deeply to Anne’s character, I always knew at that time in the ’80s, that I wasn’t really a part of the story. And so flash forward, more than 30 years, to be able to be a part of it, to be fully integrated in a classic Canadian storytelling, yes, that’s a great honor for me and I’m really, really happy to be a part of it. 

It’s true because it was a very white lens back in the day, with the stories that were being told, and we kind of only now see a slow shift. Do you see that change happening in terms of the kinds of films being made and is there a lot more that needs to change?

Both. I would always start by saying there’s a long way to go. But it is happening. I exist. So it is happening. I’ve always been so proud to be Canadian because it’s always been a part of how we are trying to see ourselves and not that it is perfect at all — because it is not. The integration of what full Canadian stories look like, not just from Lucy Maud Montgomery, which is necessary as it is a part, but not just the full white historical perspective. That’s what needs to be grown. I have felt a part of that interest, desire and perspective.  

So the filmmakers that I just went to dim sum with are Mina Shum and Ann Marie Fleming — Ann Marie and I just collaborated on another film that will be coming out next year; and Mina Shum is a longtime collaborator of mine — and Don McKellar, who I just collaborated with on an HBO limited series. These are my collaborators for the past 30 years; we are a part of this Canadian film landscape and we have just been doing it and we haven’t stopped doing it. We’ve been able to help grow, hopefully, this Canadian lens of what it is to be Canadian. We’re not the full picture of it, but we are a part of it. 

I love that you talked about it because it is true. I do see that shift happening slowly but surely.

Yes, it’s like the shift happens. The three filmmakers I just spoke about, everyone’s been doing it for over 30 years. It takes time; dedicating your life to one thing, basically storytelling for 30 years, and then this happens, then you have this much growth. It takes that much effort. 

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