Sandra Oh is squeezing in a phone interview

Sandra Oh is squeezing in a phone interview during one of her rare breaks on the set of hit medical drama Grey's Anatomy. Well, okay—it's not a break, exactly, as she is being wired and prepped for filming at the same time. One can hear the crew bustling around in the background, but Oh, an apparent queen of multitasking, continues to chat away unfazed. "I gotta tell ya, we just do a million things at a time as actors here," she says.

Oh, who plays snarky surgical intern Cristina Yang, should be used to such situations by now. Since its debut earlier this year, ABC's Grey's Anatomy has regularly cleaned up in the Sunday night ratings, making it one of last season's surprise hits. The runaway success of the show is made all the sweeter because no one—least of all Oh—predicted it. "When we were shooting it, halfway through our shooting schedule, we had stopped for eight days to redo the style of the show or redo, like, scripts, and that's usually the kiss of death," she says. "And then we didn't have an airdate for a very long time, and that's never a good thing, either. 'Oh, you're gonna air now; oh, you're gonna air then.' So at a certain point, we just said, 'Please let this get on the air.'"

The show eventually debuted in ABC's primo post–Desperate Housewives time slot and has gone on to win critical praise and a loyal fan following rivaling that of the Wisteria Lane ladies. Oh, meanwhile, is finally garnering much-deserved mainstream recognition, nabbing a surprise Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actress in a drama earlier this year. "I don't think [awards recognition] is anything you can ever expect, nor do I think it's anything that you should really shoot for," she says. "I don't really think it's something that you can spend a lot of energy aiming toward; I just think that you'll miss out on a lot of stuff. It can be a very distracting thing. But when I heard, I got a call very early in the morning, and I jumped out of bed terrified, thinking it was my mom or my sister—like, something was wrong. Who the hell calls you at 6 a.m.? It was my publicist, who said that I got a nomination. I will say, when it happens, it's really just terrifically exciting. It's really wonderful."

Though many are just getting to know her thanks to Grey's, she has worked steadily for the past decade in theatre, film, and television. Notable turns include whip-smart assistant Rita Wu on HBO's Arli$$ and sexy single mom Stephanie in last year's critically lauded Sideways, in which Oh so memorably clubbed Thomas Haden Church with a motorcycle helmet. Oh has been prolific in the film world recently, with scene-stealing supporting roles in projects such as Under the Tuscan Sun and Wilby Wonderful, but she was eager to tackle television again. "I've been doing films for a long time now, and the kind of films that I do and the parts that I get in films, to this point, are ones that you can't really make a living on," she says. "Even though I did four or five films in a year, in total I probably worked around 30 or 40 days—a month and a half. One, you can't really live like that, and two, I want to work more than that. I want to be challenged more than that. It's not necessarily satisfying hopping from film to film to film when you're playing characters that are not satisfying to you. So here's the opportunity to play and flesh out a character—really flesh out a character. If you do a series, that's actually a real challenge as well: How do you keep a character alive for episode after episode? [Additionally], it was just a better part. I feel like in television there are much better parts for women, and you can do a lot more."

That she inhabits the role of Cristina so thoroughly is all the more impressive, considering that she was initially looking at the part of the interns' no-nonsense supervisor Bailey, a role that eventually went to Chandra Wilson. "[I'm] quite used to playing characters with and of authority," Oh explains. "I've played a lot of teachers, assistants—people who are there to give authority. What I really liked about the character of Cristina is that I didn't feel like I was like her. I found her quite different [from] who I think that I am, so I wanted to kind of explore that."

Prickly yet insecure, Cristina is known for her less-than-winning bedside manner—she's staunchly opposed to hugging patients—and hungry ambition. In lesser hands, such a character could easily come off as one-note, a shot of overconfident comic relief severely lacking in social skills. Oh, however, grounds the role with the most delicate of facial expressions and the subtlest flashes of vulnerability; she is believable in moments comedic and dramatic, whether Cristina is frantically searching for a patient's missing leg or slyly delivering a caustic one-liner. "One reason I really like playing Cristina is that she's an example of opposites," says the actor. "You're constantly playing opposites. Even though she's brusque or whatever you want to say, I am actively, actively playing her version of compassion…. What the other characters can't see, but what the camera can see, which is what the audience can see, is her struggle. Hopefully, what you're connecting with is that the people that you think are one way are really another way…. I think it's very interesting to see someone who is extremely competent and extremely able on one hand, which is her job, and extremely incompetent on another hand, which is relating to people."

Despite her social ineptitude, Cristina has a healthy love life courtesy of an opposites-attract relationship with stoic Dr. Preston Burke, played by Isaiah Washington. The duo shares a scorching chemistry onscreen, but this isn't the first time Oh has taken notice of Washington. "I did this film in '95 called Double Happiness, and I think Clockers [which featured Washington] came out at the same time," she remembers. "And all I remember is that I was in Interview magazine, and there was this really cute guy named Isaiah Washington in Interview magazine, like, a couple pages [later]. I just thought, 'Oh, who's this cute guy, Isaiah Washington?' And I just followed his career. And now we get to work together, that's really, really great."

One of her most indelible moments on the show came in a story line in which Cristina suffers an ectopic pregnancy and the loss of an ovary and her unborn baby. Though the character attempts to shrug it off and return to work, her emotions eventually come pouring out, culminating in a memorable scene wherein she screams for someone to sedate her. The scene is simultaneously wrenching and hilarious, and the mix of emotions Oh conveys—rage, fear, hysteria—is nothing short of astonishing. Oh says she suggested Cristina's breakdown to Grey's creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes, who was open to the idea. "I thought, in this arc, we're establishing that Cristina has a real problem with her emotions—she has a problem accessing her emotions," says Oh. "I knew that the story line was that I was going to have an ectopic pregnancy, [and] there was a lot of stress that was going to happen. And I said, 'You know what would be really hilarious and story-appropriate is if you see someone who is always in control out of control, and the only time that you would ever see her display emotions like that is if she's having a nervous breakdown.' I was so pleased with it because I just wanted to challenge myself like that…. I wanted that scene to be at once hilarious, because it was a great opportunity for comedy, and really off-putting. I wanted it to be both because it [had] to be truthful."

In addition to continuing with Grey's, Oh plans to return to theatre this spring with Satellites, a new play by Diana Son, at the Public Theater in New York. The stage, says Oh, is where she learned to act, and she's eager to stretch those muscles again. "The last play I did was at the Taper—The House of Bernarda Alba," she remembers. "It was great—so much fun. But I did that, like, three years ago. I really want to go back to theatre, and I feel like I really want to establish a good relationship with theatre. Not a lot of people know that I come from theatre; only people from, like, the Public and New York Theatre Workshop know. It's a very interesting thing for me: This year I went to the Tonys, and people go, 'Oh, I hear you do theatre.' And it's such a strange thing for [people to] say, 'Oh, you're Korean.' I've always been Korean; I've always been from the theatre. So I want to go back."

This is an undeniably exciting time in her life, and given the success of Grey's, one might be tempted to use the phrase "big break." Oh, however, doesn't believe in such things. "I don't think it happens that way," she says. "It's never happened for me that way, really. It's been a really, really gradual process of building blocks. It seems [like] people come out of nowhere, but it comes from years of work. It comes from being here for 10 years and working your ass off."