'Grey's Anatomy' star Sandra Oh brings diversity debate to animation world

TORONTO -- Film and TV star Sandra Oh is bringing the diversity debate to the world of animation.

The former "Grey's Anatomy" star says race seems to have been a bigger factor in landing animated parts than her various film, TV or theatre gigs.

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"I have been more and specifically typecast, if one can say that, in animation than in anything else," Oh said in a recent call from Los Angeles.

"All the characters I've played are specifically Asian. And I don't particularly think that I have a specifically Asian voice."

The Ottawa-bred Oh has lent her vocal talents to projects including "American Dad," "Phineas and Ferb," "American Dragon: Jake Long," and "Mulan 2."

She'll next be heard in the Canadian animated film, "Snowtime!," about a group of kids from a small village who embark on a massive snowball fight. It opens across Canada on Friday after pulling in more than $3 million at the Quebec box office.

Oh said she relished the chance to get to play a boy in the film -- a nerdy genius who builds an intricate snow fort at the centre of the battle.

Her character Frankie isn't obviously Asian, but his skin is slightly darker and his eyes appear slightly smaller than other characters.

Producer Marie-Claude Beauchamp acknowledged in an email that Frankie has some Asian traits, but said "being Asian had nothing to do with the decision to cast Sandra Oh in the role."

Without directly referring to her "Snowtime!" experience, Oh said she's always found it "very curious and annoying that I've been more racially typecast in animation."

"I remember one time -- this is years ago -- just going, 'Why am I only going out for the Asian animated character?' And then trying to kind of make headways into like, 'Oh, can I be the Barbie voice? And not Barbie's doctor or something like that?' But no."

Oh said she's heartened by the current diversity discussion surrounding the Academy Awards, which has the ignominious honour of celebrating all-white acting nominees for the second year in a row.

But the problem is really with the film studios, said Oh, an academy member whose big screen roles include "Sideways," "Rabbit Hole," "Tammy" and "Blindness."

"The academy is like the tip of the iceberg. If there's nothing to vote for, then there's no one to reward," she said.

"I'm very glad at how quickly the academy has moved on this and is trying to change, as they should. But a way bigger challenge, or battle, is to help change the entire Hollywood system."

When it comes to chasing roles, Oh said she picks her battles carefully. She's not interested in working with anyone who hasn't displayed a willingness to embrace diversity.

"There are plenty of places that I'm not interested in going into because what's the point, they're never going to hire me. Do you know what I mean?" she said, reviving long-standing complaints surrounding one Hollywood heavyweight.

"Do I ever expect to be in a Woody Allen film? No. Why? Because he doesn't hire people who are not white. So don't go down that alley."

Despite a relative dearth of non-white actors in his vast catalogue, Allen shot down accusations of racial bias in a 2014 interview saying he will "cast only what's right for the part."

Oh saluted her former "Grey's Anatomy" boss Shonda Rhimes for "moving the needle," but said the film and TV business was more welcoming in her homeland.

"If you wanted to tell a different story about different people I think that you have a better chance at telling that story in Canada than you do in the United States."


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