Graceful Exit: Sandra Oh

It's hard to imagine ''Grey's Anatomy'' -- or TV -- without hard-charging heart surgeon Cristina Yang. As Sandra Oh gets ready to say goodbye, the Canadian actress looks back at her time on the hit ABC soap, and the character that changed her life.

Sandra Oh
Image credit: EMILY SHUR for EW

Sandra Oh

Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is trying to persuade Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) to go to Zurich. not forever — but in the cramped space of an elevator, a place where the best friends have swapped secrets and confessed a multitude of sins over the past 10 years, Meredith tells her heartbroken soul mate to seek a change of scenery. What Meredith doesn't know is how close she is to getting her wish indefinitely.

Back in August, just before the start of Grey's Anatomy's 10th season, Sandra Oh stunned fans by announcing her intention to leave the series that took her from an up-and-coming indie-film star to a five-time Emmy nominee and one of the small screen's most riveting talents. Oh broke the news to Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes last spring during their annual check-in. ''Shonda goes, 'What do you want to do?' I immediately knew — 'I think I'm ready to go,''' says the 42-year-old actress. ''But I think I had been slowly processing that decision over the prior year and a half or two years.'' Rhimes says she had a feeling that Oh was working her way up to goodbye, but admits part of her couldn't imagine crafting an ending for Oh's highly competitive, powerfully independent heart surgeon Cristina Yang that wasn't also a conclusion to Grey's Anatomy itself. ''I thought that we would get to write for Sandra forever,'' she says. ''Until the hospital closed its doors.''

On a recent April day, one of her last on set, Oh's laugh travels through the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial as she warns an assistant director that she'll be taunting him via text even after she leaves the show. On some sets, the crew treads lightly around the stars, but on this one, Oh seems to have strong bonds with the production team — many of whom have worked on the show since its debut in 2005. Between takes, she chats with the makeup artist and then perches herself on the wooden footrest of an empty director's chair to ask a crew member about the book he's reading. It's clear she's at home here. Although she is sure about her decision to leave, the hard part of letting go began a few days ago when she was shown a one-hour sizzle reel of Cristina Yang's best moments as prep for an interview for an upcoming DVD feature. ''Things shifted emotionally after that day,'' she says of watching the highlights, including Cristina's failed wedding day and the death of her most recent mentor, played by William Daniels. ''Honestly, I've watched maybe a handful of episodes. That's because I'm kinda actory — I find [watching myself] really challenging.''

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