LIU'S THAT GIRL by Dennis Hensley
Consider, for a moment, institutions of higher education that are really tough to get into. Harvard or Yale may come to mind but they can't hold an ivy-scented candle to the four-month crash course that actress Lucy Liu has found herself in the throes of. It's a school so exclusive that there are only two other students and they're both more rich and famous than she is. Though this house of learning doesn't have an official moniker, the name given it by Liu's assistant, who types up her insane schedule, seems to say it all: Angel Training.
Despite what you may think of Shelly Hack and Tanya Roberts, it's not easy becoming one of Charlies' Angels. It takes serious training and now that Liu has nabbed the third spot, opposite A-listers Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, in the upcoming big screen version of the 70s TV jiggle-fest, she intends to wear that halo with pride. "Charlie's Angels is going to be a fun, modern action film," gushes a jeans and sweatshirt-clad Liu, over a plate of homemade lasagna in the guest house behind her Hollywood Hills home. "It's not Shakespeare, but it is what it is." And thank God for that. I, for one, would much rather see a curvy babe in dolphin shorts hop off a skate board, brandish a .38 and holler, "Freeze turkey!" than queue up for another big-screen take on the Bard.
"Oh, these angels don't use guns," says Liu, when I voice this preference out loud. "They have to kick ass, literally. That's why we've been training with these martial arts experts from Hong Kong. This morning, I was in so much pain that I just had to laugh." Apparently, Angel Training is not at all as I imagined it: with Hair Flipping class at 10:00 a.m., followed by File Snooping at 11:00, then a master class in Bomb Defusing after lunch. Tell me, at least, Lucy, that there's some skateboarding. "One person rides one," she promises, "but not me."
Liu, who is best known as the jaw-droppingly tactless Ling on TV's Ally McBeal, laughingly calls her casting in the high-profile would-be-blockbuster a "miracle of God," explaining that Thandie Newton (Beloved) was originally offered the role, but chose to appear in her husband's film instead. "I don't think they wanted Caucasian for the third angel," adds Liu, whose other films include Play It to the Bone, Payback and the upcoming Jackie Chan action flick Shanghai Moon. "I think they wanted to go millennium."
The film's first-time director, McG, who cut his teeth on music videos for Smashmouth and Sugar Ray, disagrees, saying it was more of an issue of star quality than color. "I was looking for someone who was right for the part," he says emphatically, "someone that could hold her own next to stars of the magnitude of Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. And from the moment I met Lucy, I knew it was her." And just what is it about Liu that's so Angel-icious? "She has an ability to effervescently go from one situation to the next," he says. "She's simultaneously youthful, mature, beautiful, intelligent and she never, ever complains. The joy of this film is in playing dress-up and Lucy's in and out of a million looks, from a sophisticated Ralph Lauren equestrian setting to a snowboarding outfit. She's really all over the place."
All over the place may be an understatement, for Liu is shooting Angels concurrently with Ally McBeal. "It's great that [Ally creator] David Kelley's letting me do it because he could've said no," says Liu, who raised eyebrows last fall in an episode in which Ling and Ally have a same-sex flirtation and share a kiss. "I said, 'Listen, it's not so much the script. It's just a great opportunity for me, as an Asian-American to play a role that's complete Americana culture,' and he heard that." But that doesn't mean that getting her back and forth isn't a scheduling nightmare. "We didn't want to impede her career," says Ally co-executive producer Jonathan Pontell. "At the same time, we didn't want to lose her, so we continue to work it out."
It's not surprising that the folks at Ally are being so flexible, given that Ling was a role created for her in the first place. "We had her in to read for the part of Nell which Portia Di Rossi plays," recalls Pontell, "and we were so taken with her that we created the role of Ling. There's a dryness to Lucy's delivery that really appealed to us. She can come out with some incredible bombshell just as casually as if she's asking you for a cup of coffee." Pontell says the reactions to Ling's outrageousness have been overwhelmingly positive. "We've had some Asian-American women who find certain aspects of her character offensive or stereotypical," he reports, "but most people really like Lucy."
And more people are sure to join the fan club if Charlie's Angels becomes the popcorn movie smash its makers are hoping it will be. It's all quite an achievement for a girl from Queens, New York, who didn't even entertain the idea of acting until she was a senior at the University of Michigan studying Asian Languages and Cultures. Liu stretches out her sore legs and sighs. "I feel like I have a lot ahead of me and I have to keep up with it," she says. "Drew and Cameron have been training more diligently than I have because I've been on Ally so I have to catch up." When it's suggested that the filmmakers should film Angels Training as part of the Police Academy montage that's sure to open the film, Liu laughs and says. "No, you don't want to see it! It's not that glamorous, believe me." Ah, we doubt that.
DENNIS HENSLEY: Drew and Cameron have already gone through what you will go through if this film is a huge hit. What have you learned from them about fame?
LUCY LIU: If anything, they've taught me that just because you're well known and people want a piece of you, doesn't mean you have to have an attitude. You don't have to become a diva. Sometimes you need to be aggressive about your decisions but you don't have to be anybody other than who you are. They're both so completely human and more normal than you would ever know. I mean, I know it's not going to be a high ride for the rest of my life, but along the way I can try and enjoy where you are in the moment and not complain.
Did you have to audition for Charlie's Angels or did they just offer it to you?
I went in and read and I just got along so well with Drew and Cameron. All we did was laugh. I left there sweating and beet red.
That'll look really good on camera.
That's why they hired me because I was so fantastic while I was sweating. Not!
Are you guys playing Jill, Kelly and Sabrina or are you new people?
We're the next generation. It's as if there's been Angels between us and them.
Are any of the original Angels going to turn up, like Jaclyn Smith behind the register at a K-Mart?
I think they're going to have a cameo, if they agree to it.
Comedian Margaret Cho tells this joke comparing groups of friends to Charlie's Angels; there's the nice one, the smart one and then there's the ho. My guess is you're the smart one.
(Laughs) Yeah, I'm not having any ho moments. Not to my knowledge. My character's smart and has her stuff together, more Kate Jackson, basically, which is funny because I loved Kate Jackson when I used to watch it.
I read that you got a million bucks for the film!
Is that right? [laughs] I never read any press about myself. It's like, "Did the photo come out good? Ok, fine."
Have you appeared in any of the tabloids?
Yeah, something like, "Didn't she look nice in that dress?" I haven't had a half-alien baby with three heads yet. That's when you know you made it.
On to Ally McBeal. When you see scripts, are you like, "Oh my god, I get to be really obnoxious this week?"
I'm astounded by what she has to say all the time, but you can't be inhibited when you're playing that. You have to really allow her honesty to come through, and that's all she's being and I think that's why people appreciate her. I've had a lot of people say to me, "I know someone exactly like Ling."
Everyone sings on that show. Why haven't we had a big number from Ling?
I'd love to but I can't sing. David Kelley called me specifically and said, "Do you sing at all?" And I was like, "No. And when I say no, it pretty much means, no!"
What would happen on your fantasy episode of Ally McBeal?
Ling would join the circus. I'd love to do the highwire or learn how to stand on a horse and do flips.
If they still had Circus of the Stars, would you be on it?
Oh my God! (Laughs) I don't know if I would whore myself that way. I might just pay someone to teach me.
What's your favorite thing on the Ally set to fiddle with?
Um...Greg German. I don't have enough time to say all the great things I have to say about him. He's imaginative, smart and sexy.
Do you like Gil Bellows with blonde hair? I'm on the fence about it.
Yes! Very sexy though I'm not sure about the earring.
You were nominated for an Emmy this year. What do you remember about the ceremony?
I was one of the last people in and they pushed me into my seat. Then they announced the winner, Kristen Johnston and my stomach dropped and all I could think about was food. I was starving but we had to pay, for like, water. It was like being in prison. (Laughs)
The episode where you and Calista had a flirtation and then kissed, did you know before you got the script that it was going to happen?
I learned when I read the script and I was like, "Oh my God! Wooo!" At first, I thought it was going to get rewritten or Fox wasn't going to approve it. Then we shot it but I still didn't think it was going to make it to the air. I thought they'd start with the kiss and pan over to the book shelf.
Cut to the frog!
(Laughs) Cut to the jellybeans, who knows? Because the kiss that Roseanne had with Mariel Hemingway was nothing, and it was a big deal. Our kiss was a truly intimate moment, and I'm glad Fox was able to air it. Of course, for them it was for ratings. But they did it, and it was a really ballsy moment for them.
Did it make you proud to be part of something that explored sexuality in a different way?
I felt so proud. I don't think Calista or I talked about it in the press at all because we didn't want to devalue it in any way.
How did doing such a provocative scene together affect your relationship with Calista?
I don't know if it made us any closer in terms of friends, like we don't hang out anymore, but I think there was a unspoken bond that was formed, like an appreciation for each other as professionals. Once you've kissed somebody, I think there's always that connection that occurs. I think she's the shit. She really puts herself out on the line.
Have you become like a lesbian icon now?
I don't know. If it makes a difference for anybody, I'm glad to do it. I got tons of mail and I'm assuming people are really thrilled about it.
What kind of fan mail do you get?
I get a lot from Asian girls who want to be actresses. Most of them say, "I'm going to business school to please my parents and as soon as I graduate, I'm going to do what I want to do." I say, "Okay, if that's what you want to do." I think it's important to go to school. I got a degree in Asian languages and cultures and it's really helped me.
You're obviously a role model, whether you want to be or not. How does that make you feel?
It's definitely a little scary. It's not like they send you a fax and say, "Will you sign this as an acceptance that you're a role model?" But I'm happy to look back on my life and see what I've learned, and I think if I saw Asian-Americans on television when I was growing up, I think it wouldn't have been so hard for me. Back then, the struggle was so intense and I thought that I didn't have many options.It seemed like you were in a tunnel, like, "Where is the goddamned light?" So if being a role model means being who you are, that's fine. People have wanted to present me with awards, like, "You've broken stereotypes and we want to honor you," and I've declined them because I haven't done enough yet. It's not that I don't appreciate it. It's more like, let me earn it. Don't just give it to me because I'm the most out-there Asian person.
Do you ever feel extra pressure, like "If I suck in this part, then I make it harder for all Asian people?"
I put a lot of pressure on myself, in general. When you work on a project, you want to do your best that you can do. Here's an example on a smaller scale: You know how People magazine has the best and worst dressed? You think people get ready for four hours just so they can be the worst-dressed? People try. They think that dress looks great on them or they think that that role was made for them and I'm sure everyone around them is saying, "You're great! The dailies are awesome!" That's why I always give120 percent, because if you don't, and you do it 99.9 percent, you don't know if that point-one percent could've put you over the edge. Maybe you'll fall on your face but at least you can walk away.
There's an "I'm a sexually confident woman" vibe to Ling and some of your other characters as well as most of the magazine articles about you. Where does that come from for you?
It's weird, though I guess it's a complement. For some reason, other people see that sexuality or dark intensity and cast me into it or write it for me. I don't see myself as that way at all. It's not like I'm vamping myself up in any way.
Was there a time, like when you were growing up, when the idea of you becoming a sex symbol would be laughable to you?
Please. It's beyond absurd because in my family, we didn't talk about sex or see each other naked. Part of me is like, "Come on." But I also think, if that's what people want to get, that's fine, because sex sells. I actually think that somebody being sexy is a state of mind. I mean, everyone here in L.A. is fucking gorgeous... men, women, children, cars... everything. But sometimes you go out to dinner with that, and there's nothing going on. But when you get to know somebody, that's when they become more interesting.
You played a dominatrix in Payback. How did your family react to you taking that role?
I never talk to my parents about what I'm doing. My mother, when she took her seven friends from China to see Payback, didn't know anything about what was going on.
But then you show up in like a leather outfit with a whip?
I didn't tell her that. (Laughs)
What'd she say afterwards?
She said it was really good which surprised me. I think she was impressed, but she did not expect it. That's for sure.
Did you get to keep the dominatrix outfit?
No, it's probably still at the studio standing on it's own. It was standing on it's own before I even got into it.
Did Mel Gibson pull any pranks on you while you were making the movie?
No, but he did teach me to play poker, and I lost like $30 to him. He had to write everything down for me, because I kept forgetting what beats what. I put the little list in my journal.
Speaking of leading men, you had a rather memorable sex scene in a junkyard with Woody Harrelson in Play it To the Bone. What was that like to shoot?
It was hilarious. We kept knocking over things. I loved how he doesn't want to continue getting off and I drag him back and I'm like, "Come on, you gotta finish me off!" Of course, that was the first scene we did on the first day of shooting. (Laughs)
This summer, you play a rebellious Chinese princess opposite Jackie Chan in the upcoming Shanghai Noon. What's your favorite memory of working with him? What's your favorite memory of working with him? What's your favorite memory of working with him?
Teaching him how to do the hustle.
Did he pick it up really quickly?
He was a little bit stubborn. Like, if he doesn't catch on to it really quickly, he gets kind of frustrated with himself.
I can imagine him doing the kicks to high.
Right. (Laughs) He was doing "Kung Fu Fighting."
You haven't done a lot of window-dressing, girlfriend parts. Do you try to steer clear of them?
I don't know if people see me that way. I don't know if I see myself that way. I think I'm more intrigued by playing darker roles anyway. Of course, next year you'll see me in some ridiculous romantic comedy. (Laughs)
You're also a visual artist and an accordion player. Do you feel that having other creative outlets helped you feel less desperate when you were trying to make an acting career happen?
I don't think I thought about it like, "This will make me calmer when I walk in to audition." It was more like, "If I don't channel this energy into something right now, I'm going to lose my mind." It's that intense. It's like a drug and if you don't expel it, something is going to happen and it's not going to be pretty.
What's a day from your childhood that you'd like to relive?
The day that my father bought me this silver, glittery suit. I usually had hand-me-downs and it was the first day that I ever really had anything new. That same day I got chased by a pack of wild dogs and fell into a puddle of mud.
In your new outfit?
Yeah. Cut to this outfit hanging on this piece of string drying in the wind. I'd like to relive the first part.
You'd put on the outfit...
...and never leave the house again.
The first time you entertained the idea of acting was when you played Alice in Alice in Wonderland your senior year in college. But going in, I understand you didn't consider yourself Alice material.
Totally. My instinct was to put myself aside, "Oh, I would never be Alice. I would never be an Angel." You don't give yourself that possibility, because you've never seen it before. But I've opened my mind a lot since then because I feel that other people have. But you have to be the first one to do it. Still, I'm not the type to brown-nose. I don't want to push myself on anybody, including in a relationship. I want to be somebody's inspiration, somebody's muse. I want to work with people who are passionate about me and vise versa.
How's your love life these days?
I'm so busy with work it's hard to go there. I'm just trying to open up my mind to it. I'm so totally spastic in relationships. My intention is to balance work with life and eventually meet somebody that I really like, though I've never had the wedding fantasy. Maybe I'm missing a chromosome. (Laughs)
Who's been your most surprising fan?
I had a meeting with Mike Nichols and he watches the show religiously with his wife Diane Sawyer. That surprised me.
Are there people in Hollywood who weren't so cool to you coming up, but are kissing your ass now?
There are some people who, even though they were supportive, were kind of like, "I don't know how you do it. If I were you I'd quit and move on." Now they're like, "Remember when I said you were going to make it no matter what?" And I'm thinking, "No. You kind of told me to quit, actually." But I don't really have anything bad to say about anyone in that sense. I think people are more proud and surprised than anything, like, "Wow. You fucking made it. You're doing what you dreamed of." I think about it sometimes, and it's like, "Wow."