Interview: Sandra Oh Talks ‘Rabbit Hole’

By  · Published on December 25th, 2010

Sandra Oh, persona wise, couldn’t be more different from her character in Rabbit Hole. In Rabbit Hole, Oh plays a nearly all internal and damaged character. She’s a minor character, but an important one. Similar to the main couple, her character has lost a child. Rabbit Hole may have a bleak story on a paper, but tonally, it’s quite funny at times and also hopeful. It is a a serious drama, the type that Oscar fat cats love to eat up, but the film is also hilarious at times, even with its mourning characters. This is a total 180-turn from John Cameron Mitchell’s previous films, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus.

Oh herself is incredibly jolly. Right when she got on the phone it was obvious she wasn’t a self-serious or moody type, but instead someone okay with lightening the mood. First, she joked about the site’s name. Second, she told me I was living in fear. It shouldn’t have been a total surprise, considering she did some very solid work on the excellent Arli$$. Although there was a lot of joking around, mostly on Oh’s part, she still managed to provide thoughtful insight into the film and John Cameron Mitchell’s direction.

One of the main things about Gaby is that she’s a very internal character. When reading the script, how does she read on page?

What’s interesting is that, I thought she was totally there on page. Yes, you’re right, she doesn’t have a lot to say and isn’t in a lot of scenes. For me, I felt I knew her so well. I felt so intensely drawn to. Really, it’s just such a brilliant screenplay. I felt her even in her punctuation, and that shows how specific and great the script is. You can tell who characters are through punctuation. If you went to Film School, you would now that. Just joking! There was just a rich and clear sign post there in the script to fill in everything else.

Is it also refreshing playing a character whose emotions aren’t spelled completely out?

Oh yeah, for sure. Although my character doesn’t really do this on Grey’s Anatomy, I’m not saying anything new that on television and on the show people do display their emotions. My character, Cristina, does and doesn’t do that. With this character, it’s very refreshing and wonderful to play different types, you know I mean? A lot of Gaby’s life happens off-screen and a lot of her storytelling happens as she’s looking at people.

Were you surprised Gaby wasn’t played in a seductive manner towards Howie?

[Pause] Are you saying you don’t find me seductive?

Uh, what I mean is [Laughs]…

I’m joking! Jesus, I’m joking. Let me tell you, that’s how I was playing her. I was playing her as a femme fatale… I’m joking! I mean, that would really be such a cliche. That’s just not what the film is. If you were doing a film about a comic-book, you’re dealing with archetypes there. With something like this, that’s just not the film. And also, that’s not what happens. The reason why Howie and Gaby lean in towards each other is because of a common experience. It’s not like, “Wow, that person is hot,” and the connection is much deeper than that. What I think what happens is when audiences are able to see themselves in a slightly clearer or less cliche representative way, it goes deeper.

The tone of the film is very subdued, it avoids melodrama. How detailed was John Cameron Mitchell when it came to finding that tone, or was that all in the script?

That’s a good question. I think, I don’t really know how to answer that question. I can say he let us play it as we wanted to and would just subtly adjust. For me, I’m sure differently for Aaron [Eckhart] and Nicole [Kidman], there was no real discussion for where it was going to happen tonally. Actually, that’s not true. We would talk about it in certain scenes, but I’m just trying to think of a specific scene. I think I may have to come back to that question.

Visually, he kind of reminded me of Alexander Payne. There’s just a subtle beauty and non-flashy feel to the film —

I did not come up with that connection, mostly because of the subject matter. I think, in that way, it’s totally about approach and what is at the forefront of the film. Is it the story? Is it the emotion? I think what you’re saying is that, the camerawork really supports what is going on in the film?

Exactly. How specific was he on set?

Being an actor himself, he was very free with us. It’s strange, he gives you a lot of space, but he’s also specific. Not specific to the point where he becomes controlling, though.

With the subject matter, it’s very surprising by how funny the film is at times. Was that all in the script?

I think David [Lindsay-Abaire] did an amazing job at keeping everything… I’m trying to find the right word, because it’s not really hopeful. I guess, keeping things alive. The humor was a surprise knowing what the play was about, but it was just deeply engaging. It’s ultimately about the characters and engaging with them.

[Spoilers Here On Out]

I would say whether or not there’s hope for Gaby is very much ambiguous. Can you talk about what was the approach to that final scene of finding that sense of openness?

What’s interesting is that, this didn’t end up in the final film, but as Howie leaves you see Gaby go back and walk down her porch steps. For me, it was a very rich moment. She understands what Howie does, and it’s not like she’s not hurt by it, but she understands where he is and that some people get together, and some people don’t. At the end, she’s alone. That just didn’t end up being in the film, but John and I talked about that a lot.

Why was that cut?

Probably because you wanna stay with your two main characters. Gaby’s film will come about another time [Laughs].

There’s also a pretty big parallel between Gaby’s marriage and Howie and Becca’s. They both could end up like Gaby and her husband, do you see it that way?

Oh yeah. I mean, you don’t know. That’s what I really like about the ending, it’s monumental to grab your partner’s hand. It means so much, but you know that it’s not the end. You just know it’s this moment. What I love about Gaby’s character as a counterpoint, you don’t know 8-years from now where you’re going to be. Maybe she went through the same thing, who knows? Again, it’s great to have a character that’s gone through that. Also, look at Diane Wiest’s character. I love the fact she drinks a lot. Who knows what that’s about.

It doesn’t end tying everything up too.

There’s no ending to loss. Just like there’s no ending to life. Nothing stays still. Nothing finishes. I think that was a sense that they were trying to give. And, I mean, what’s happy about that? They still don’t have their child, you know what I mean?

Rabbit Hole is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.