Sandra Oh may tell her guest that when it comes to training and experience as an actor, “I’m still really green.” But moments later, the star of Mina Shum’s new film, “Double Happiness,” talks about how much she has already gone through in her 20-or-so years.
Her memories sound awfully close to the struggles of Jade Li, the film’s young Chinese Canadian heroine, who hungers for the double happiness of an acting career and pleasing her conservative Chinese-born parents.
“All that I went through is way back there ,” Oh says, pointing back over her shoulder as she sits in her publicist’s mid-Wilshire office. “So Mina asking me to take this role, and me taking it on, it was like having to go back there again.”
The trip seems to have paid off. Oh won the 1994 best actress Genie (Canada’s Oscar equivalent), one of two for the film. Earlier in ’94, Oh also snared the best actress award at Cannes’ television festival for the acclaimed Canadian drama “The Diary of Evelyn Lau.”
Lau was a teen runaway who fell into a maelstrom of drugs, but published her first book at 18. Like her, Oh is an inveterate journal-keeper but the similarities end there.
With Jade, though, the similarities run rampant. Oh describes her parents, like Jade’s, as “pretty conservative, protective and totally against me going into acting. They’re Korean-born but like the Chinese, they tend to look down on actors, like below just about everybody but hookers.
“I remember when I wanted this part in a Shakespeare play sooooo much and I didn’t get it. I was in my late teens, my mother was there, and I was crying on her shoulder. She said, really softly in my ear--and she meant this out of love, which made it so much more painful--'Don’t do this. Don’t do this to yourself anymore.’ They didn’t want me to go through the hard struggles they went through as immigrants, until they assimilated. It would be harder being an actor, an Asian and a woman. I realize that now but we had terrible, awful fights at the time. We’re screamers.”
When Jade loses out on a part during a sequence in “Double Happiness,” her father (played by Stephen Chang) tartly says, “Good.”
“Oh, God, that scene,” Oh says, “that just cut to my heart. Jade’s father doesn’t realize the casual brutality of his remark. Me, I would have yelled. But Jade keeps it all inside and her anger just builds and builds.”
Jade finally lets it out in a stunning moment when she dumps one of her parents’ several arranged dates and runs pell-mell down a dark Vancouver street like a tiger out of a cage. Filmed on only the third day of production, the scene was the kind of emotional leap that Oh describes simply as “scary.”
Not as scary, perhaps, as being in the film in the first place. Because financing for “Double Happiness” was frequently delayed, Shum cast Oh six days before filming. “It was so fast, I almost freaked. Suddenly, I had to face all that pain of growing up again, and on the flight from Toronto to Vancouver [the film’s setting and location], I felt so much fear that I told Mina, ‘I think you picked the wrong person.’ Mina said, ‘Listen, I’m scared too. You’ve gone through this story. You can bring the courage to tell it.’ ”
Oh likes to refer to the thick skin she’s developed since she left home at 18--a defiant gesture that not even the spunky Jade manages to pull off until she’s 22. “My parents said, ‘Oh, you like to talk, go learn to be an ambassador.’ So the plan was for me to study foreign affairs and journalism,” says Oh, who spurned both and didn’t attend college at all, opting instead for Montreal’s National Theatre School.
As one of the few Asian actors in a sea of whites, Oh observes: “I was called ‘The Quota Child.’ You wondered if you were picked for your ethnicity or your talent. I just didn’t let it get to me but it really could if I had let it. I decided very early that I was going to be an actor. Period. The best actor possible.”
That’s why Oh doesn’t view the scenes with Jade acting out her fantasies as Blanche DuBois or Joan of Arc as a joke on Canadian theater and film’s less-than-welcoming approach to ethnic minorities but more as a statement on acting itself.
“Hey, I’ve been luckier than Jade is in the story,” Oh says. “I’ve been spoiled, really. I got the Evelyn Lau part right out of school and I’ve played Carol in [David] Mamet’s ‘Oleanna.’ You feel like you can do anything after that.”
Besides, Jade only imagines that she wants to win the Academy Award. Oh already has awards. “Yeah, but the Genie doesn’t bring work,” she says, suddenly glumly. “There is no Canadian film industry.”
So, a few months before Oh begins work on Shum’s next feature, “Drive, She Said,” the Toronto-based actor is making her first visit to Hollywood. Word that Asian actors have as hard a time of it here as they do back home doesn’t seem to fluster her.
“I’m checking it all out,” she says, with cool calm. “It’s the same b.s. up there as it is down here. If Asian actors see their situation as a big problem, they probably won’t get anywhere. I see it as an opportunity.”