Q+LA Lucy Liu
Don’t be fooled by the tough exterior—at heart, this stunning actress is artistic, altruistic and in hot pursuit of spiritual fulfillment by ERIC ESTRIN
Lucy Liu knows how to make an impression. On Broadway in the Tony-winning God of Carnage, she shocked audiences at each performance when a barrage of verbal attacks pushes her character to vomit onstage. She earned an Emmy nomination for her breakout television role as sexy, despotic attorney Ling Woo, whose imperious demands both titillated and terrorized on Ally McBeal.
She was even more domineering on the big screen as the queen of Tokyo’s underworld in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, at one point beheading a Yakuza crime boss at a conference table for disparaging her Chinese-American heritage.
Chatting in the West Hollywood courtyard of her manager’s office, Liu is much more accommodating than that, but no less persuasive. In town for her special-guest role as a veteran Los Angeles street cop throughout the new season of TNT’s vividly realistic Southland, the Queens, New York, native commands the screen with a take-no-prisoners attitude, raw intelligence and impossible cheekbones, be it in big-budget romps like Charlie’s Angels or the smaller indie projects she seems to favor.
The daughter of highly educated, working-class Chinese immigrants, Liu speaks six languages, including Mandarin, which was used at home. She is also an artist, plays accordion, performs many of her own stunts and travels the world, often as an ambassador for UNICEF.
One thing she doesn’t do is pay attention to what others say about her, which makes things simpler when the blogosphere erupts with speculation about her love life—she was once said to be engaged to writer-director Zach Helm, though she is single—or her rumored on-set tiff with Bill Murray, who played Bosley in Charlie’s Angels but opted out of the sequel. A student of be-here-now Eastern spirituality, Liu says she won’t read this interview when it’s published, either.
That’s okay, Lucy. I’ll still watch your films.
How do you like being in L.A. for Southland?
You get to the see the city in a very different way than you normally would. I’m not being pampered.
What are you seeing?
There’s a feudal system on the street—it’s just a given. If you’re born into that, there’s a serf and there’s a lord, and you move your way up and down. The culture of the street is its own entity, and you cannot control that.
Was it like that where you grew up in New York?
At the time I went to school, I don’t think religion and culture were as highlighted and billboarded as they are now. There was no PC. If you’re a Chink, you’re a Chink, you know? Or you’re black, not African American. Things were not as parenthesized. It was a harder way to grow up, because there was already a decision made about you on sight. Nowadays, you give a person some hope and a little more benefit of the doubt.
Did you experience racism while growing up?
It was difficult, because my skin looks pale, so how can I have racism in my vocabulary? One of my closest friends was playing Frisbee one day, and a car drove by too fast, and my friend said, “You stupid Chink!” Then she saw me sitting on the stoop and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t really mean that. It’s not about you.” That was incredibly painful for me. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I couldn’t say that was racist, because people don’t really understand racism unless it’s clear, like I’m black, you’re white. It’s kind of the same thing as when they were rounding up the Japanese and putting them in camps. If you were Chinese or Korean, nobody’s gonna be able to see the difference. Everyone goes down with the ship.
But there has been an increase in the acceptance of interracial romance in film, wouldn’t you say?
I go by what the struggle is in my career. If they say we’re going to do a movie that’s Americana, and we’re gonna put somebody Asian in it, and we’re gonna have you as an Angel—that to me is a clear change. So, that’s a positive thing. You can see how things move in shifts.
The cops on Southland toss around a lot of casual racism.
The show has never been afraid of being kind of raw, so I went into it having a clear understanding of what I was getting myself involved in. I think the reality of the show is what people embrace.
In your first episode, there was a storyline about how the squad had seen this Internet video of your character getting beaten up by some huge guy. You were getting thrown around like a rag doll.
Everyone says they used a mannequin, but no, they did not. That was a real person, a human being. You know, I have scars. I am not kidding around.
That was you getting flung on the ground like that?
Absolutely, yeah. That was the first shot I did for them. It was their last scene of the day. They work so quickly that after they got the take, literally the lights went out, and everyone dispersed and started driving away. The medic was looking for me, like, “Are you okay?” We were under the bridge in Pasadena—I think it’s called Suicide Bridge. There wasn’t even a chair.
Were you thinking, What am I doing on this show?
I was thinking if I survive through episode three, I’ll be thrilled. [Laughs.] I was just glad I didn’t have a concussion.
Still interested in Kabbalah?
Two of my friends had started studying, and I went to a couple of classes with them, but I also study Buddhism and Taoism. I’m into all things spiritual—anything to do with meditation or charts or any of that stuff. I studied Chinese philosophy in school. There’s something in the metaphysical that I find very fascinating.
You’re an artist as well.
I do art, and a lot of it has to do with found objects. Sometimes I find glass or wood pieces, and I make them into collages and things like that.
What’s the coolest thing you ever found in a trash bin?
I haven’t done a lot of Dumpster diving, really. Mostly I just walk on the sidewalk in New York. Sometimes you find things like little notes—just a grocery list or a little reminder note—and that gives a whole narrative into someone’s life.
There’s an Internet story—
By the way, I want to preface that I have never Googled myself. I have never Wikipedia’d myself. I’m not on Facebook. I’m not on Twitter. I don’t read anything about myself. I will not read this article either, no offense to you. I feel like my experience with you will be what it is, because things get so misconstrued, and it just ruins the experience.
That’s really interesting. I think most actors want to know what people are saying about them.
Maybe I’m not like most? I have no interest in getting involved in that. It complicates things.
Well, there’s a story that you and Bill Murray clashed on the set of Charlie’s Angels. Do you want to talk about that?
There’s nothing to talk about. Bill Murray’s incredibly talented, and I think he has a very creative life. It’s okay for people to have opinions. It’s a discussion. Everyone has an opinion about something. Maybe you don’t agree, but it doesn’t mean it was anything more than that.
What’s the status of the movie you and Russell Crowe were shooting in China?
The Man with the Iron Fists. It was shot as an indie, but I think it could be big because it’s action-oriented. It’s a period piece, and it required costumes and fighting. If I could rate the level of fighting, it was nothing compared to Southland. I was in a much safer environment [doing stunts] in China than on the streets of L.A.—which one would not imagine, because they don’t have the same ideas of safety there as we do in the rest of the world.
I’ve heard that you train regularly in martial arts.
I studied kali-eskrima-silat [Filipino sword and stick fighting] when I was young. I thought it was really beautiful, and I wanted a hobby, so I started doing that. It came in handy for a couple of projects, but people make it out like I’m some expert, and I’m not. I studied for some films, but if somebody came up and tried to judo chop me, they could probably get the best of me.
MAKEUP: Kristofer Buckle / Crosby Carter Management
HAIR: Enzo Angileri / Cloutier Remix