Sandy Sidhu goes to Shondaland
We here at YVR Screen Scene love a good industry origin story. They don’t get much better than Sandy Sidhu’s. -Ed.
Sandy Sidhu might have acted opposite Jesse Williams on last week's Grey’s Anatomy, but it wasn’t that long ago that the Vancouver actress was barrelling towards a completely different career: practicing medicine, rather than acting on television’s highest-rated medical drama.
Hindsight is 20/20, but there were signs in Sidhu’s childhood that, in retrospect, clearly pointed to a career in showbiz rather than medicine. Sidhu – who grew up on Vancouver Island – demonstrated artistic inclinations at a young age, first as a visual artist inspired by anime, Disney films, and Michael Turner comic books, and then, throughout high school, on stage in various musical theatre productions.
Even though Sidhu was undeniably artistic and particularly enjoyed being on stage (“I remember that first feeling of getting on stage in front of an audience, crossing from stage right to left and getting to the front of the stage and looking out and I just felt this magnetic energy, and I was hooked”), she says she always stopped short of calling herself an actress, and never once considered it as a viable career option.
“I struggled with this idea of considering myself an actress, because I always read these stories of actors growing up who always entertained their families, and to be honest, I didn’t,” says Sidhu over tea one rainy Sunday in Kitsilano. “That was actually a very big reason I struggled for the first few years of my pursuing acting to tell anyone that I was an actor, because I never considered myself to be an authentic, real actress.”
It’s almost incomprehensible to read those words now, considering the fact that Sidhu’s growing acting filmography includes dynamic performances in Supernatural, You Me Her, Arctic Air, Primeval New World, Supergirl, and Hallmark Channel’s Frozen in Love (with Rachel Leigh Cook and Niall Matter), not to mention her most recent role as Priya, a human rights lawyer dating Williams’ Jackson Avery, on last week’s Grey’s Anatomy (says Sidhu: “I love the show. I love Shonda Rimes. It was top-down, totally professional, and everyone was so kind and happy to be there”).
So there’s no doubt that Sidhu is “an authentic, real actress” today – but in order to own the title, she first had to learn to trust her gut over her brain.
In high school, Sidhu’s brain had her convinced that she wanted to be a doctor. The thought came from her and her alone; her parents didn't pressure her to be a doctor, encouraging her instead to choose a career that would inspire her to work hard and be happy. She genuinely believed that career path was medicine. She was accepted into the competitive cell and genetics degree program at the University of British Columbia, and finally had what she’d always thought she wanted.
But the heavy course load meant Sidhu couldn’t pursue the theatre hobby that had eaten up so much of her free time during high school, “and it was in that first year that I asked, ‘Why am I so sad?’” Sidhu recalls. “I got a scholarship, I was living my dream, I was going to be a doctor, but something was missing. I kept asking myself, ‘Why am I sad? This is so confusing.’”
And it was during this confusing time that Sidhu awoke one morning in a panic. What followed next was all driven by her gut: “I went to my computer, wrote a cover letter about how I wanted to be an actor, found the nicest photo of myself, ran to the local post office at the university village, printed off 10 headshots and cover letters, mailed it off to any agencies that I could find, and sent it off, all in this emotional process where I couldn’t think about it,” Sidhu recalls. “And as soon as those envelopes were mailed off, I sat down and was like, ‘What did I just do?’ I was judging myself and said, ‘No one’s going to call me back; that was ridiculous.’”
Two days later, Sidhu received a phone call from the man who would ultimately be her first agent. He wanted her to come in for an audition. “I remember thinking, ‘I guess I have to go in and do this!’”
Sidhu burned the candle at both ends for a year, studying medicine by day and, at the advice of her agent, attending acting classes by night. But ultimately, she had to listen to her gut.
And her gut was telling her that she was an actress.
“I was too terrified to tell anybody what I was doing, but sometime in my third year, I went home and I finally admitted to my parents that I was taking these acting classes and I wanted to be an actor, and being an Indian daughter, first coming up to your parents and saying, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m going to be a doctor,’ and then, I’ve got to tell them now I don’t want to be a doctor. I knew how excited they were that I chose this [medical] path,” says Sidhu.
But she told her parents, and “I was blown away because they supported me. The only advice that they gave me was just to work really, really hard.”
First things first, though: Sidhu finished that UBC degree. “I’m so happy I got my degree, because acting has had really tough lulls, and in those moments, I think if I didn’t have my degree, I would have questioned the pursuit of acting, and wondered if there was something else I was supposed to be doing,” says Sidhu, whose first on-screen role was in the pilot episode of Stargate Universe, acting alongside Lou Diamond Phillips. “But in getting my degree, there was never a moment afterwards when I started pursuing acting where I thought there was anything else I wanted to do, because I had another option. I have all of the qualifications to go to medical school, and I have never had the desire ever to go that route.”
That was some time ago. Since then, Sidhu has trained up and forged an acting career that sustains and nourishes her (see her credits here). These days, Sidhu divides her time between Vancouver and Los Angeles. The City of Angels is where Sidhu says she’s learned to challenge some misconceptions she’s had about herself, like how she’s not a CW actress, or that she’s not funny enough for comedic roles (on both counts, LA agents, casting directors, and executives have vociferously told her otherwise).
“I learned that I had to let go and allow myself to be a new person in LA and leave those old ideas of who I thought I was as an actress in Vancouver,” Sidhu says. “I came back to Vancouver with new insight about myself. Casting directors here have always supported me, but LA changed the game for me, and now I feel like it’s equal opportunity between here and LA.”
Sidhu values every lesson she’s learned, but says she'd welcome the opportunity to go back in time to her UBC days to give herself some advice. “I would say, ‘Live your life. You’re enough. Enjoy it. Don’t over think it. Have fun,’” says Sidhu after a long pause. “My life isn’t just about acting. Even though I’ve found my passion in life, it is so much more than that. It’s about love, my friends, my family, my niece... That’s what success is. It’s about going out to smell the roses.”