Lucy Liu Rolls with the Punches
In hits as varied as Ally McBeal, Charlie’s Angels, and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, Lucy Liu has made a career out of playing beautiful women who also happen to be tough as nails. And though she was born and raised in Queens, the Emmy-nominated actress spent her college years at the University of Michigan, where she first explored her passion for performance.
That passion is still paying off, as Liu is currently starring in CBS’s new Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller and with Russell Crowe in this month’s film release of The Man with the Iron Fists. Now, in an exclusive interview for Michigan Avenue, the actress shows her softer side to close friend and 2012 Golden Globe winner Idris Elba (Luther); she opens up about career choices, relationship foibles, and how her years spent in the Midwest helped her become the fierce performer, artist, and woman she is today.
IDRIS ELBA: Lucy, you have such an amazing career. What would you say has made it so long and successful?
LUCY LIU: Number one, you really have to risk everything—you have to take chances and take on projects that are pretty diverse. Just because you do film, don’t limit yourself. You should also do theater because it puts you out there in a terrifying way in front of a live audience and it really tests your skills. The more flexible you are, the more the longevity of your career is going to sustain itself. That’s what actors want. We don’t want to blow up for two years or five years and then be done.
IE: You graduated from the University of Michigan. What did you like about it?
LL: I liked how green it was; I had never been exposed to anything like that before. I thought Flushing Meadows in Queens was green, but this just went on! I learned a lot about nature, and through that I learned a lot about myself. I like the different kinds of people I met in Michigan. When I lived in New York, everyone was wearing black, and [in Michigan] they were wearing different colors, which I had never really quite experienced. It was the first time I was away from home, and I was able to choose for myself what I wanted to study, what different classes I wanted to take, and what I wanted to eat.... It was the beginning of adulthood for me, and that transition was so pivotal and incredibly challenging.
IE: You’ve worked with amazing directors, most notably Quentin Tarantino. What was one nugget of wisdom that Tarantino taught you?
LL: To really be able to listen. When I first met him, we went to Toi, this rock ’n’ roll Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. We sat down at the table, and he started describing the character of O-Ren Ishii [from Kill Bill], acting out all the parts, the fake laughs, the sound effects... and I’m there eating my pad thai, trying to eat casually, but I feel like I’m a stunned audience member. If somebody is that excited to tell you something, it really is incredible how much you can learn from him or her. You can’t replicate that kind of passion.
IE: I love that. So, you are beautiful. Do you have any insecurities about yourself, where you look in the mirror and go, “I wish I had two less freckles?”
LL: I grew up as a tomboy, and if you’ve seen photographs of me as a child, you see my mother cut all of my hair off. I had no hair: Picture Sinéad O’Connor with a two-week grow-out. I was not considered feminine at all, and boys did not look at me. I was a toothpick.
IE: What age are you talking about?
LL: Up until junior high school, when I really started developing.
LL: I’ll show you pictures, and you’ll see I’m not lying. I never looked at myself as a feminine person. My thing was, “I’m going to be casual and be able to talk to people because I’m hanging out with the guys.” In college, I suddenly felt like I understood more about myself and started making choices on my own. I started doing things that I wanted to do and understanding what my place was in the world, and I think part of that was also embracing myself as a woman. I was smart, I could hang with the guys—I could fall into my own niche category.... But I find that if somebody finds me beautiful, it melts my heart because it’s not something I heard most of the time growing up ever.
LL: I can easily be enticed into some terrible relationship because I’m like, “Oh, my God, you think I’m beautiful?” [Idris laughs] You know what I mean? And my friends are like, “Why did you date that ******* for so long?” I’m like, “Oh, God.” [Laughs]
IE: Okay, I won’t give you any more compliments.
LL: No! It’s good when somebody gives you a compliment. Now I can discern, but before I’d get swept up because I thought, Oh, my God, this person sees me for who I am.
IE: So, I don’t know him personally, but I first saw Jonny Lee Miller in Trainspotting, and he was and is a phenomenal actor.
LL: I love working with Jonny. He’s incredibly talented and very professional. He comes in every day—no matter how long the day before has been— and he’s prepared. If we start another episode with all new dialogue, all new characters, a whole new director, a whole new set, he still has it, and he never keeps anyone waiting. I know that sounds basic, but on a 15 to 20 hour day, if you’re working in television and somebody doesn’t know his lines, you could be there until the next day.
IE: Well, you’re never going to like me. I never know my lines.
LL: Improv actor—I’m just going to put you in that category!
IE: I know that you’re an amazing artist. You paint, and you create some really fascinating pieces that are new, not only from a canvas and painting point of view, but from a spiritual point of view as well. I’d like to know, as a friend, why you don’t push the idea that you’re an artist. That annoys me.
LL: I think if I can parallel your relationship with music and how you write and direct and constantly create; it’s almost like it’s part of us. People say, “What do you choose, Idris? Do you choose acting, or do you prefer directing and writing, or deejaying, or music?” It’s like saying, “Do you want to keep your right or your left arm?” It’s about having a circle and continuing that circle of energy. I’ve always been doing art, and I don’t highlight it a lot because I think sometimes people don’t take you seriously if you wear more than one hat.
IE: Your art is so beautiful; if it were shared, it would have such an interesting influence.
LL: It’s more difficult to share because it’s sacred to you—you’re more afraid that someone’s going to judge it. If people really know me, then they know that I’ve had art shows and that I have a book out, but I don’t try to put myself out there completely because I feel a bit exposed. But you’re right: I’m going to start to slowly incorporate it more into my dialogue. Bottom line is probably just fear and vulnerability more than anything. If somebody pans your movie in The New York Times or nobody goes to see it, that hurts, but what are you going to do? I think that if it’s something more personal like this, it’s more like a dagger in your heart.
IE: There are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and you have—as someone who is an extraordinarily different person among the billions of different people—the opportunity to inspire more of yourself, and that is our revolution and something we should encourage.
LL: I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview because you’re so special, and nobody’s ever asked me to choose my interviewer before. I said, “My wish is Idris Elba, but I really don’t know what’s going to happen because he’s shooting a bazillion movies in London and Africa.”
IE: You’re right. Why me, though?
LL: I think that you are a pioneer similar to me in that way, in ethnicity and in scope and in range. You’re also a Renaissance man and understand the different venues we travel just to understand who we are. We do music, we do art, we act, we write, we direct because we are trying to discover who we are. It’s a journey—a lifelong journey.
IE: I was very nervous about doing this, but this actually has been so therapeutic to actually talk to you, have these questions answered, and genuinely know you as a friend.
LL: We’re going to both be applying for jobs as writers for Michigan Avenue if that’s okay. [Laughs] We will not dock anyone’s pay if we come on board!
Photography by Andrew Eccles; Styling by Zanna Roberts Rassi at The Wall Group; Hair by Creighton Bowman/Exclusive Artists Management/René Furterer; Makeup by Joanne Gair for wschupfer.com for MAC Cosmetics; Manicure by Deborah Lippmann for Deborah Lippmann
Michigan Avenue toasted December/January cover star William H. Macy with a 150-guest gathering at Hubbard Inn on December 9, 2014.