With her movie career, Liu is feeling `Lucky'

Movies Today


If there's any question whether Lucy Liu is excited about her life and career, here's how the actress puts it:

"I feel like I bought the E ticket!" Liu says with a giggle. "You know, like at Disney World or something, when you go on all the rides and then keep going to the next one, and you're like, `Wow!'"

That "Wow!" feeling is how audiences have felt since Liu, 37, first hit their radar in 1998 with a career-making turn on Ally McBeal. As Ally's office nemesis, the mega-tough, mega-sexual Ling Woo, Liu was a shark in a business skirt who played with her prey before eating them. Then, in Charlie's Angels (2000) and its sequel, Liu was Alex, the slinky Angel. In Chicago (2002), she had a brief but sparky turn as murderess Kitty Baxter. And in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. I (2003), she was the Japanese crime minx O-Ren Ishii.

In roles like those, as well as Play It to the Bone (1999) and Shanghai Noon (2000), Liu was smart and savvy but with a New York-bred toughness. And while the sex vixens and action kittens got attention, she says she really connected to her role in Lucky Number Slevin (which opened April 7), a sweet girl next door who gets drawn into the thuggish world of her neighbor Slevin (Josh Hartnett). Liu is, after all, the formerly shy daughter of Chinese immigrants who grew up in Queens, who takes photographs when she's not on film sets and is taking classes to learn how to paint.

"When I tell people I was a shy kid, they're like `Oh, bull! She's not shy!'" says Liu, who speaks in a rapid-fire, rat-a-tat-tat style (when she's not letting out peals of laughter).

"Growing up, we didn't really speak English in the house. My parents were first generation, so the language barrier had a bit to do with it. It creates a bit of distance. So I became more prone to listening and being quiet.

"My parents would speak to us in the language they knew best, which is Chinese. And as I became more comfortable with English, I was able to speak out more."

While she was going to the University of Michigan to major in Chinese language and culture, Liu did some theater, and told her working-class father and mother that she wanted to pursue acting. They were accepting, but wary.

"I don't think early on they got it," she says. "I was the only one [of their three kids] who was into this, and it was a challenge for them to understand where it came from. But luckily I'm the last-born so I was able to say, `Look, I have to do this.'"

When she began acting (she had bit parts on shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Coach), she says the sense of being an "Asian actress" was prevalent.

"It was a bit daunting," she says. "But I realized that I don't have a problem doing these roles that have accents or are Asian, because I'm proud of my heritage. But I knew I also wanted to do different things, because that's more challenging."

She auditioned for the Ally McBeal role that Portia de Rossi eventually played, but David E. Kelley, the man behind the show, created a role for her - and Liu got tongues wagging with what was billed as Ling's "lesbian kiss" with Calista Flockhart's Ally.

"I know it was a big deal at the time, and it was on network TV, but Calista and I didn't think much about it," she says. "We didn't rehearse anything, so the kiss happened for the first time on camera, and then it was done."

Kelley once said that Liu had an undefinable "zing." Hearing this, Liu lets out an amused chuckle.

"I don't see myself that way at all! Maybe it's [being] comfortable with yourself. I was totally a tomboy as a girl. Growing up with my brother's friends, I thought I was one of the guys. And my mother used to cut my hair really short, so I think I never focused on looks. When I'm hanging out with someone, I just think, `Oh, we're getting along well' - I don't think it's sexual tension."

Similarly, Liu viewed her Ally McBeal and Charlie's Angels roles in realistic terms, but was also aware of their groundbreaking possibilities.

"Ally was a big milestone for me," she continues. "It was important in that it wasn't particularly meant for an Asian actress. And then Charlie's Angels was absolutely a piece of Americana. It's slow progress to hopefully having more diversity in entertainment."

Her role in Slevin, she says, was written as a standard blond ingenue. But Liu was one of the first cast members signed, and put her own stamp on it.

"I asked the writer, Jason Smilovic, if he had seen the character as so specific. He said no - he in fact had a wider, more color-blind vision for what the film could be."

In her next film, the indie AIDS drama 3 Needles, she'll speak solely Chinese. And she'll soon be executive-producing an update of the Chinese sleuth Charlie Chan. Only this time, the great detective will be a woman, likely played by Liu - a sexy, tough woman who's enjoying the ride.

"I've never had a doubt about acting, about what I wanted to do, and I don't ever forget where I've come from," Liu says. "I'll never be one of those people who says, `Oh, this is all so boring!' This is an incredible world to be a part of. It's not always easy, but it's worth it."

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