by Ada Tseng
Google “Lucy Liu,” and Liu herself will tell you that most of the information about her on the Internet is incorrect. She’s not Taiwanese, like many websites claim (her parents are from Beijing and Shanghai; they came to the U.S. separately for school and met in New York); she’s misquoted so often in interviews that she stopped reading her own profiles a long time ago; and maybe she’s not even born in 1968. She certainly doesn’t look it.
What is true about Liu is her extensive film and television résumé — from her breakout role in Ally McBeal, to the blockbuster films Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill, to her current starring role on the CBS Sherlock Holmes reboot Elementary, where she plays Dr. Joan Watson. However, despite her high-profile successes, she takes special pride in her lesser-known creative projects, whether it be theater (her 2010 Broadway debut in God of Carnage, where she held her own alongside stage veterans Jeff Daniels, Janet McTeer and Dylan Baker), directing (her short film Meena tackles child trafficking in India), or visual art (since the mid-’90s, she had exhibited her work in galleries all around the world under an alias, until a few years ago, when her true identity was revealed).
For Liu, not only is working in all these different mediums a natural extension of the same creative impulse, she also believes that as an artist there is no separation between what you make and who you are. “I don’t leave my work at the door when I go home,” she says. “The way you progress in your life is how you progress artistically — especially as an actor, where you bring such complicated and personal experiences into what you do every day.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Liu was a curious kid, and she points to that as one of her best attributes. (“To continue being curious as an adult is not easy,” she says, “but it’s such a great way to live your life.”) She grew up in what she calls a typical Chinese American immigrant household — Mandarin at home, Chinese school on Saturdays and parents who prioritized education above all. But as the youngest child of three, she was able to do more exploring than her older siblings, who were raised in a stricter environment. She quickly found a passion for acting. “I can’t think of anything I wanted to do before I started acting,” remembers Liu. “I dreamt about that more than anything.”
She did class plays in high school for fun, but they were never lead roles, and she was happy to be in the chorus. Her parents worked multiple jobs and not only didn’t understand the value of art but wouldn’t have had the time to attend her performances even if they did. “Most parents, especially Asian parents, aren’t going to completely grasp something that is intangible,” says Liu.
In her last year of college, she went to a general audition for the play Alice in Wonderland. She went up to the announcement board to see whether she got cast and was surprised she was chosen to be Alice. “It was a new concept for me,” she says. “I didn’t see myself in the lead because I was so used to not seeing Asians in the lead role.”
After college, she pursued acting full force and began doing a lot of regional theater, as well as bit parts in film and television. Her big break came in 1998, when she was cast as Ling Woo in the second season of Ally McBeal, an hour dramedy that would win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series soon after she joined the cast. Ling, an unapologetically coldhearted client-turned-lawyer-turned-judge, was a character created specifically for her, and she became known for the most comically inappropriate zingers, like “My therapist told me to pay no mind to those who don’t matter” and “Are you sure he didn’t leave you just for being unattractive?”
An aspect of being one of very few Asian American women in mainstream media at the time was that everyone had an opinion about her character: Was Ling the ultimate dragon lady stereotype, was she hypersexualized, seen as “threatening” or “the other?” But Ally McBeal fans will take the nitpicking with a grain of salt. This was a show that featured characters with neck fetishes, dancing baby hallucinations, verbal ticks and gymnastic dismounts in the stalls of the unisex bathroom. Everyone was weird. Within the Ally McBeal world, Ling was funny, honest, clever, confident, unfazed by what others thought of her and perhaps, most important of all, respected.
Though she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role, Liu’s star only got brighter when she was cast as the third Charlie’s Angel, alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. At the time, she was a rare Asian American actress who was able to participate in cultural touchstones of American pop culture, whether it be hosting Saturday Night Live or voicing a character on The Simpsons, when Homer visits China. She even played herself in a Futurama episode called “I Dated a Robot,” where Fry downloads the personality of Lucy Liu onto a blank robot to make a “Lucy Liubot.”
Though Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, an action film starring Liu and Antonio Banderas, was a critical and box office failure, it was notable because she was cast in a leading role that was originally written as male. She made headlines again when she was selected to play the lead, a media mogul named Mia Mason, in the highly anticipated, albeit short-lived, ABC dramedy Cashmere Mafia, a series produced by Darren Star and hyped to take up the mantle of his mega-hit, Sex and the City. Years later, she’d break the mold once more as Watson in Elementary, the first time the classic Sherlock Holmes sidekick has been played by a woman — an Asian American woman, no less. Currently in its third season, Elementary, which co-stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock, has been well received by critics and viewers who find it to be a novel twist on a familiar story. For her role, Liu won the Teen Choice Award for Choice TV Actress: Action, was honored with a New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award (which gave a nod to her decade of work with UNICEF) and even received the Seoul International Drama Award for Best Actress.
Despite her two-decade career in Hollywood — which also includes the films Chicago, Shanghai Noon, Lucky Number Slevin and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, as well as television shows like Southland, Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money — Liu knows that her roles in film and television could never display a complete and well-rounded representation of her interests and passions. So visual art was always something she did on the side for herself. She has had art shows since the early ’90s, but for a long time, especially once she became famous, she exhibited under her Chinese name, Yu Ling. Part of it was that she wasn’t ready to be public with her art, and part of it was that she didn’t want people to come to her exhibits looking for the ass-kicking girl from those Quentin Tarantino action films.
She says it’s possible she would have continued leading her secret life, but one day, a book publisher visited her studio, thought her work would be great as an art book, and offered to publish it. It was the first time she was confronted with the suggestion to go with her celebrity moniker.
“At first, I thought it was really important and helpful for people to come in [to see my work] with a clean slate,” she says. “But in the end, it didn’t really matter. The editor said, ‘I think you should just own it,’ and I realized he was right.”
Her book, Lucy Liu: Seventy Two, consists of 72 abstract ink and acrylic paintings that are inspired by the Jewish mythical concept of the “72 Names of God.” However, instead of the three-letter Hebrew words, Liu creates images inspired by Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. “I liked how the [72 Names of God] chart looks similar to how Chinese characters are presented in boxes,” she says.
“I also love the idea of ink and its permanence,” she continues, contrasting the medium with paint on a canvas. “You can see the image’s history because when you make a mark, it stays. It’s like people and how the choices you make and the scars you have shape you as a person.”
This was a departure from Liu’s previous artwork, which included photographs, collages and larger-scale paintings. But unfamiliarity with a particular type of art doesn’t deter Liu from experimenting with it; if anything, she’s drawn to trying new things. She’s currently working with silk screens, another medium she’s discovering for the first time.
“Part of what I enjoy is just learning the art and its history,” she says. “I didn’t study it professionally, so I like working with someone I know who can teach me. And then I use my imagination to take it to another place. It keeps it fresh, naïve and different.”
Lately, she’s also been throwing herself into the world of directing. Her first directorial effort, the 2011 PBS short film Meena, was based on a child sex-trafficking story in Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was an extension of the work she had been doing with UNICEF, addressing children’s issues, including education and nutrition. (Coincidentally, the latest film project she’s been attached to is Evan Jackson Leong’s Snakehead, also about human smuggling, but a story that takes place closer to home, in New York’s Chinatown.)
Last year, she upped her game, taking over the director’s chair for the first time on Elementary, for a second season episode called “Paint it Black,” featuring Sherlock and his estranged brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans). At the time of this interview earlier this year, Liu had spent her holidays working, planning and creating a shot list for the second episode she was asked to direct — this time, a season three story that will be more challenging to helm because she also has more scenes in it as an actor. “It’ll be a lot more running around,” she says. “I will get my exercise in for sure.”
Liu believes that in directing, she may have finally found an outlet that combines all her artistic passions. “I’m really going on all pistons when I’m directing,” she says. “There’s something so magical about it. You’re in that time-space warp where you’re not even sure how you got there, and you’re so present at every minute that it feels like a maximum heightened state.” She laughs. “It’s like an exam. You cram in as much as you possibly can, everyone’s asking you a ton of questions, and you have a very short time to complete it.”
Though Liu loves to organize and feels comfortable leading the crew, who are all rooting for her to succeed, she admits she’s not the best planner when it comes to future career goals. “I try to be as in-the-moment as possible, which can be good and bad,” she says. “But I’ve been working with the same team of managers for 20 years. I couldn’t do this by myself. You might have an idea or inspiration, but you allow your team to create this world for you.”
That’s not to say that working in entertainment is always easy — even if you are successful at it. At the end of the day, Hollywood often still doesn’t know what to do with a Chinese American actress, and unfortunately actors can’t always control the types of roles that they’re offered — or if they’re even offered any.
“You live in a limbo-ish world,” says Liu, of the actor’s lifestyle. “It’s an amazing place to grow, and it also can be very frustrating. But isn’t everything?
“It’s not just about being invited to the [Hollywood] community,” she continues. “It’s about living and breathing in it and finding your own space. You have to believe that you have something to offer, before anyone else even sees it. That’s kind of what this business is about. No matter what anyone says to you, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging, you have to listen to your inner voice. Especially if you’re doing art. No one else can do it for you. It’s important to stand behind yourself, because the only thing you can guarantee is yourself.”
To that end, she’s currently working on creating her own official website, which she hopes to launch later this year. She envisions it as a place where she can display all of her art, with proper descriptions she’s writing herself, so she can give her fans insights into her true self — not just the persona we see on film and television. Soon, we won’t have to depend on Google to learn all we want to know about Lucy Liu.