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Actress Sandra Oh: 'I still do not see myself represented' in kids' entertainment

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The actress talks about her first major project since "Grey's Anatomy," an animated film about a young mixed-race woman finding her voice and identity

After spending 10 seasons on "Grey’s Anatomy" and winning numerous awards for her role as the determined and intelligent Dr. Cristina Yang, Sandra Oh retired her white coat and left the show earlier this year.

Instead of branching off to a bigger endeavor, Oh went the other way with a crowd-funded indie project called “Window Horses.”

The project is an animated film based on the graphic novel by Canadian artist and filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming. It tells the story of Rosie Ming, a young poet who's both finding herself as an artist and as a woman of mixed race: she grew up in Canada with her Chinese grandparents, but she's also of Persian heritage.

Oh recently dropped by The Frame studios, where she talked about weeping upon finishing the "Window Horses" graphic novel, creating a movie outside of the big studios, and what it means to get this project made in light of the limited diversity in Hollywood.

Interview Highlights:

How did the story of "Window Horses" come your way, and what's the source material?

Ann Marie Fleming is the creator of "Window Horses," and also the creator of the main character, whose name is actually Stick Girl. Her animation's great, because it's very 2D and she's actually a stick girl. And since she's a Vancouver filmmaker, I've known her for a long time and we've been trying to work together. And only a couple months ago she e-mailed me and [said], "Will you do this?" And I'm like, "Okay, okay, I'll do it" ... She had already written "Window Horses" as a graphic novel. I read it in one sitting, it was almost 300 pages, and I just wept. I wept because "Window Horses" has so many things in it that I want to say, and I wanted to be a part of it — not only just adding my vocal talent. I wanted to do anything in my power to help Ann Marie get this made.

What were the specific things in "Window Horses" that prompted such an emotional response?

It's very much about young women finding their voices, which has always been something that I've really tried to do in my own work and definitely that I want to encourage young women to do. And here it happens to be in this wonderful medium of poetry. It's also about tolerance and opening your mind to different cultures; not only finding your own, but being open to ones that are not your own. Lastly, my nieces are of mixed race, and Rosie is Chinese and Persian, and it is really important to me to be able to present those stories and those images and have my nieces feel like they are reflected in this society.

A character who's living with Chinese grandparents and who's of Persian ancestry isn't what we typically see represented in most entertainment.

Oh, absolutely not — and the more specific, the more universal. Again, I think it also has to do with the animation: it's very simple and unique and beautiful. And with that it gives people a wider space to be able to see themselves in a girl who's a circle with two little eyes and two little pigtails. So that's a real opening. She is specifically Canadian, she is specifically Chinese, and she's discovering her Persian heritage.

Did your decision to use Indiegogo occur because you were rejected by the more traditional channels of production? Or did you just want to get this story out there in your own way?

Honestly, Ann Marie and I never once thought about trying to make this film in a traditional way, because the scope is a very small, independent project. And not only that, our outreach was not necessarily to the big studio system. [laughs] I'm not saying that that cannot come along in the "Window Horses" development, but we really wanted to keep this a small, grassroots effort. Now, even though it's a small effort it's also a big effort to try to raise awareness and raise the money through the Indiegogo campaign. Having been in the Hollywood system, I'm definitely interested in what it means to be outside of it and what it means to embrace being outside of it.

How do you view "Window Horses" now that you've left "Grey's Anatomy"?

This is like a full-time job. [laughs] So I would say that I would not have been able to give the time and the effort that I'm giving "Window Horses" now if I were still on "Grey's Anatomy." And of course this is my work after "Grey's," and I've been taking my time trying to find the right projects that I really love. And this is definitely one of them.

Is storytelling in Hollywood more open-minded about different ethnicities when it comes to casting or depicting characters? Or is there still a long way to go? 

Having been on "Grey's Anatomy," which was such a life changing experience for me ... We have to remember: 10 years ago, a cast that was half not-white was not really a part of mainstream. And somehow it was the right time and right combination where people embraced it. That's one of the proudest things I feel about having been on "Grey's Anatomy" — being a part of that cast and ... people seeing faces that they don't necessarily usually see.

Having said that, a part of my desire of doing this animated film, which is not mainstream television, is because I want to go further with ... what I feel the messages are that I'm interested in, which is mixed-raced girls and that they're the heroines. I want my nieces to see themselves and then be heroines. So those girls who are actually Chinese and Persian can see themselves. It will be transformational because I know that, myself — having grown up in Canada and here in the United States — I did not see that enough in my own life. And one thing that I can say about animation: I've been seeing a lot of kids' movies and in that realm I still do not see myself represented in children's entertainment, children's films and in animation. Not at all.

Find out more about "Window Horses" on its Indiegogo page.

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