Tuesday , July 27 2021

"She had to fight for it": Sandra Oh high school drama teachers remember her early days



Actor Sandra Oh from the Sir Robert Borden Secondary School yearbooks: series 11.

Julie Oliver / Postmedia

After becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win multiple Golden Globes, Ottawa-born actress Sandra Oh thanked her parents in Korean. Seated in the audience, they responded to the award with enthusiastic applause.

It was an uplifting personal moment that unfolded before the eyes of the spectators around the world. As one CNN headline put it, "Sandra Oh and her parents are Golden Globe MVPs."

For one of the teachers I knew Oh well before Gray's fame, when she was the new actress at Sir Robert Borden's high school in Nepean, it reminded me of another moment 30 years ago.

The high school team had just won gold at the Canadian Improvisation Games, thanks in part to Oh's strong performance.

"His parents were present," he recalled. Valerie Twolan-Graham, one of Oh's high school drama teachers. "I remember vividly one moment when her father – I think there was that moment of awareness of just how incredibly talented Sandy was."

It was at this time that Oh applied for the National Theater School, embarking on a career that broke with family and cultural expectations, said Twolan-Graham. And this fight, in part, is what she thinks made Oh so successful.

"I think she has an incredible commitment to what she assumes in terms of roles. She is very intellectual and at the same time very comical. And she had to fight for it, too.

As a high school student and improvisational actor, "Sandy was a star," recalled Chris Winney, another theater professor in Sir Robert Borden. According to Winney, Oh used to make small pieces of character for his classmates and work with their feedback.

"Sandra Oh was a fantastic mentor," said Kenra Mroz, a fellow at Borden. She knew Oh through improvisation, despite being separated for a few years in high school. "She was very supportive, very supportive, very, very positive with us."

Kenra Mroz has been a teacher at Sir Robert Borden High School for more than 20 years, but she also went to school with actress Sandra Oh and when she was in 10th grade, Oh (so in 13th grade) she was in the drama club.

Julie Oliver /

Postmedia

And yes, Oh's parents more than decided to follow the acting. According to Winney, "Once Mrs. Oh understood that (Sandra) had to be an actress, she became her best supporter … along with her father, of course."

Throughout her journey from Ottawa to Hollywood, Oh made a point of keeping family and old friends around. At the Golden Globe on Sunday, where Oh was the host and award-winning actress in a drama series, a childhood friend sat down next to her parents.

And in 2013, when Oh was given the key to the city by Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, "many of his childhood friends, teachers and his whole family attended," Winney said.

Oh also came back to visit Sir Robert Borden, tweeting a photo of the school and thanking Twolan-Graham and Winney. "Improv ruled my life and I am eternally grateful for it," she wrote.

Twolan-Graham got a chance to talk to Oh during his 2013 visit. "She's still very humble and very authentic."

"Exactly the Sandy we would have seen in high school."


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