We don't want to cross Lucy Liu. No sense getting her dander up. Even if she is on the phone, we've seen what she can do with martial arts in Payback and Charlie's Angels, with a gun in Ballistic and with a sword in Quentin Tarantino's new splatter-fest, Kill Bill.
Heck, we've seen what she can do with just a growl in Ally McBeal. The wrong word, an impolite question, and she just might reach through that phone line and ...
"I don't think of any of my characters as mean," she coos. "They're ... misunderstood. You know what I mean?"
We do, and we're sorry we asked. And we'll never, ever make fun of that post-Valley Girl vocalized pause - "You know what I mean?" - that you use so adorably.
"Honestly, O-Ren isn't a mean person," Liu says of O-Ren Ishi, the Japanese-American yakuza godmother of the Japanese mob in Kill Bill. "We learn her back story, and we can't think of her that way. She's a survivor. If she doesn't take charge, kill the guy who challenges her, she's dead. And if I just played her mean, she'd be another mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash. You know what I mean?"
We do, and thanks for the Dudley Do-Right reference.
Chinese-American Liu, 34, is an actress who has found her niche, and that niche is "minx." She's been called a "dragon lady" so often that it's hard to think of her as "the girl" in a romantic comedy, because nobody ever offers her that. Those jet-black eyes, ready-made for a cold-hearted scowl, the killer bod and killer mien. No wonder so many filmmakers dress her in leather.
It's not just what one critic called her "enigmatic presence," or another labeled her "her lemon-faced scowl" that makes Liu's tough turns work. It's her "sly, dry humor" and the fact that "she's more than game for the action sequences" that gives Liu her appeal, says Jonathan Romney, critic for the London Sunday Independent.
"I've never played a character really close to who I am," Liu says. "I don't need people to know who I am. I want them to fall into the film.
"I don't go around chopping people's heads off. I play all these women with very colorful, very dynamic personalities. I hope that people see how different they are. They're smart, in different ways. They have souls. I like to keep the real me out of the picture, let people see the characters, not the actress behind them."
Here's what we know: Liu was born in Queens, N.Y., to Chinese immigrant parents. She speaks Mandarin Chinese and studied Asian languages at the University of Michigan. You read more about her hobbies (she plays the accordion) than you do her love life. She likes it that way.
And if that tough-broad persona means she isn't offered romantic comedies, that's a price she'll pay.
"I used to worry, when I played Ling on Ally McBeal, that people would run from the sight of me," she says, laughing at the intensely unlikable yet funny role that made her famous. Ling, and her role in Payback, where she played a killer trying to do in Mel Gibson, are roles that have followed her ever since. Even in Charlie's Angels, Liu played the "tough one."
"Eventually, I hope, other opportunities will open up for me, comedies or dramas," Liu says. "But in the meantime, I'm more than happy to do great parts in a genre that women are not normally seen as tough enough to work in. I love being able to step into this arena, and maybe pick up a sword, and not have people say, `What the hell is she doing with a sword?' Or a gun. Or whatever. People are accepting me in these roles, so I must be doing something right. You know what I mean?"
We most certainly do. When Quentin Tarantino wanted to make what he has called "my version of Charlie's Angels," with brawling, sword-fighting women, whom he calls the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), Liu got the early call.
"When opportunity knocks, I'm going to answer," Liu says. "If Quentin Tarantino wants to put a sword in my hand I will take it, every time. It definitely was worth the journey."
Kill Bill, which opened Friday, is a vengeance tale. Uma Thurman plays a DiVA who has been wronged, left for dead. She's determined to cut up those who nearly did her in. They include Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen.
Will she get to kill Bill, a mysterious unseen-but-heard dark "angel" played by David Carradine? Maybe. There's just enough mixing up of the narrative to leave some doubt. And to get to Bill, she has to go through O-Ren. And since the three-hours-plus movie was cut into two parts, Thurman's catfight to end all catfights with Liu is the dramatic climax to Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
"I like this character's nobility, her dignity," Liu says. "There's something very beautiful and elegant about samurai sword fighting. There's not a lot of punching and kicking in between parries. It's very clean, an art form.