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“Badass with brains”: Tracking Lucy Liu’s undeniable impact on cinema

“I think you just have to appreciate who you are and hopefully they can see what a superhero is about.” – Lucy Liu

The beautiful and charming Lucy Liu is an American actress and director famed for her roles in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Charlie’s Angels as well as ABC’s show Elementary. As an Asian-American, her journey to stardom has been ridden with innumerable obstacles which she has been forced to battle against, relentlessly, paving the path for diversity in Hollywood. As this wonderful artist turns 52 today, let us take a closer look at how Lucy Liu influenced and impacted the world of cinema. 

Born to immigrant parents in New York on December 2, 1968, Liu was the youngest child. Her father, though a trained civil engineer in China, sold digital clock pens in the Big Apple while her mother was a biochemist and, like many people, they worked several jobs to support their family. Lucy herself did not speak English until the age of five, having spoken only Mandarin at home (now she can speak six languages!). From the very start, Lucy Liu has been studying the martial art kali-eskrima-silat, a dangerous fighting technique involving knives, sticks and other sharp blades. Was she preparing herself for the role of O-Ren Ishii from such a nascent age? Liu earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian languages and culture at the University of Michigan and worked at a Comedy club to support herself. 

Turning her attention to the world of action, Liu first auditioned for a university production of Alice in Wonderland for the supporting roles but bagged the lead role instead. The actress later revealed that her on-stage experiences motivated her to pursue a career in acting. Being a misfit, she always wanted to find “a community of misfits out there that you can fall into”; the profession of an actress seemed “otherworldly” to her and stirred in her the desire to pursue this career. She also credits her role as Alice to have demolished the prejudices she harboured in her mind. “I thought I had to be caucasian to ever see the light of day,” she once commented. “Earning that role made me realise that in a weird way I was racist toward myself. I had been thinking small.”

At 19, however, she was discovered by an agent on the subway who landed her a major commercial. While she prepared to audition for a role in Miss Saigon in 1990, she realised that it was difficult for Asians to find a footing in an industry that did not have many options for them. “There aren’t many Asian roles, and it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door.” It took Liu two years to finally debut on-stage in Tina Chen’s Fairy Bones. 

Liu has been very vocal about her struggles in the industry, once revealing that she was called a ‘black sheep’ by her friends during her initial years of struggle at Hollywood. She was often trapped in rooms with women who had no physical resemblance to her, often making her feel out of place. Young and naive, she was unaware of the vicious and typecast nature of Hollywood. “I think when you are somewhat the black sheep, you don’t really have anything to lose, because they are not necessarily looking for you. So you may as well go for it!”

Liu has been quoted saying, “Everyone was willing to have me on their roster, but not commit to me because they didn’t know how many auditions I could get. The challenge from the beginning was diversity and ‘We don’t really know what to do with you’ and ‘There’s not going to be a lot of work for you’”. 

Being cast in Ally McBeal, Lucy Liu got her breakthrough. Although she had originally auditioned for the role of the supporting character Nelle Porter (played by Portia DeRossi), she went on to play Ling Woo, a smart and seductive lawyer, who was a perfect fol to the titular protagonist Ally McBeal’s spirited character. The role of Woo was made especially for her and, though it was supposed to be temporary, audience reaction helped retain her role in the show. Her performance won her major award nominations, cementing her impact as an Asian-American on primetime television. 

Before she bagged a major role as the sophisticated and beautiful investigator Alexandra “Alex” Munday in McG’s Charlie’s Angels, she played the role of Pearl in Payback, where she portrayed an elite dominatrix named Pearl with connections to the Triad (Chinese Mafia). Charlie’s Angels was a box-office success and it not only put her on the map but also turned out to be one of the best performances of her career, clad in a leather suit, with sharp, intelligent eyes.

However, Liu had to go through personal drama during filming. Bill Murray, who seems to be one of the most adorable actors in Hollywood, did not get along with Liu. In fact, he would vehemently criticise her while praising her co-stars Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. Murray overstepped his boundaries as soon as he said, “I get why you’re here, and you’ve got talent… but what in the hell are you doing here. You can’t act!” Lucy Liu stood up for herself, shooting a volley of punches at Murray wildly. Murray was later dropped by Columbia Pictures and replaced by Bernie Mac. 

In 2000, breaking yet more boundaries, Liu became the first-ever Asian woman to host Saturday Night Live. A beacon of light, she has always paved the way for Asians; it would not be another 18 years until Awkwafina would take over the SNL show as the second Asian female host. 

(Credit: © 2000 – Columbia Pictures, Inc.)

It was in that same year that Lucy Liu starred alongside Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson in a martial arts Western Shanghai Noon, a picture in which she played the icy Princess Pei-Pei. She caught the legendary auteur Quentin Tarantino’s attention, who subsequently cast her in his gruesome films Kill Bill: Vol 1 and 2, where she portrayed the antagonistic role of a kimono-clad ruthless femme fatale, O-Ren Ishii. This secured her position as one of the leading action heroines in Hollywood. Although Tarantino had initially hoped for a Japanese actress to play the part, he was in awe of Liu and changed the role just for her. Liu had to spend months getting trained in the art of sword-fighting and learning Japanese. 

Sharp and witty, Lucy Liu is a no-nonsense person. Having faced criticism and rejection at the early stages of her career, she toughened up. After years of self-doubt and believing that she “wasn’t ever going to be important enough or good enough or right enough, colourwise”, she takes criticism into her stride, responding with dignity and poise. She has often been criticised of adhering to the ‘dragon lady stereotype’ that Asian women are typecast into. Anne Kim was particularly condescending and, while she praised Liu for countering the image of Asian American women as “shrinking, geisha girl flowers”, she criticised Liu’s decision of indulging in “all the martial arts stuff” and “playing a bad guy…dressed up like a geisha”. Liu retorted with a simple yet befitting reply, “If Renee Zellweger was playing this role, I’m sure she wouldn’t be referred to as ‘dragon lady’”. 

She elaborated: “I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

Liu, the biggest and wealthiest Asian-American in the film industry, has also received severe backlash for starring in roles opposite Caucasian men, as well as for taking up the role of O-Ren Ishii which should have supposedly gone to a Japanese actress. Obscene online trolls have spent hours dissecting this wonderful woman’s life, to which Liu has replied graciously by saying that she “should be able to play a Japanese person or a Korean, Vietnamese or Italian person”. Further, she expressed her disappointment at facing criticism from the Asian community which makes it “even more limiting”.

Lucy Liu has always expressed her thrill and joy to see the increased representation with every passing day. “The entertainment business itself is playing catchup now and I think in a very positive way, especially given the amount of content that’s out there.” However, she still believes there is room for improvement as some projects are still “colour blind” despite the “opportunity for diversity”. 

Voicing her concerns regarding lack of representation on streaming platforms, she has reiterated that these channels have “nothing to lose by putting that on the air,” before adding: “It only helps them and it makes them create a much more diverse panel for themselves. That now is being seen as a much more important part of the entertainment business, whether it’s directing or people behind the scenes or people in the crew. It’s not just about having one solid thing, so a lot of people who were not given the opportunities before are now being given those opportunities or asked to come on board because they want that or they need that.”

Liu has always portrayed strong female characters who often emasculate the men with their wit and ingenuity. Although she admits to have not chosen the roes “on purpose”, her characters have been strong-willed, opinionated and decisive. “Whether they were assassins or whether they were lawyers or detectives, I think I’ve had the ability to really fall into that category more so.” 

In 2012, Liu was cast in Elementary as Dr Joan Watson, modelled on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr John Watson. It was not only a gender-bending role but also an Asian representation which thrilled Liu; Dr Joan Watson was not just a sidekick, “she was there and of value”. While she was initially “skittish” about the portrayal, she formed an instant connection with Rober Doherty, the creator of the series. She credits Doherty for giving her this life-changing opportunity. “It became a very personal experience. I’d never worked on a project in my entire career for this long. So it was really something that opened my eyes not just as an actor but as an artist. It was an incredible growing period for me. The journey took me towards what is now something I consider an alternative career in directing, and really understanding the production value of how things work”. 

It was in this very show that she honed her directorial skills and lived her dream by directing episodes. Her manager, who is “the greatest support in my [Liu’s] career”, pushed for Liu to explore a new part of herself. 

Besides lending her voice to various shows and films, Liu starred in Marc Cherry’s dramedy Why Women Kill, where she plays the affluent art gallery owner, Simone, whose husband Karl cheats on her with a man, evoking sympathy from his wife. Liu admitted to having fun while playing Simone as the character was self-absorbed, trapped “in her own microcosm”. 

2019 had been an extraordinary year for the actress as she received the Hollywood Walk of Fame, cementing her legacy into the annals of cinema history. Joined by friends and co-stars Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Demi Moore and more, Liu delivered an emotional speech, paying tribute to Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee in the process. She lauded Wong’s perseverance and courage to endure “racism, marginalization, and exclusion” and thanked the trailblazers for creating a space for Asian representation. Liu ended her speech on an emotional note, recounting her days of struggle and strife while thanking the creator of Ally McBeal for being some of the very first people to believe in her and trust her to be a part of such an important process: “I’ve learned the specific things that made me feel like an outsider were actually the biggest contributors to my success,” she said. “This industry has afforded me the opportunity to grow as a human being and discover more and more of what I am capable of. This dream-fulfilling honour I am receiving today affirms anyone who feels like an outsider can take her place among the stars.”

Praised for her strong and bold image on-screen, Liu is also a benevolent advocate for diversity and representation as well as same-sex marriages and multidimensional familial structures. Lucy Liu is devoted to her five-year-old son Rockwell, who was born via gestational surrogation. Happy to be a single mother, she gushes over how adorable her son is while declaring the absence of the desire to settle down. 

She has often said how there was no distinct divide between her work life and personal life; however, with the arrival of her son, things have changed. “Even if it was about a woman who had a kid, it’s not personal anymore. It’s an amazing thing because the reality of that is so separate and the personal sometimes can be even harder than the actual job you have.” Liu has taken a break to be with her son who is about to start school. The actress is not looking for meaty roles any longer; however, “if a movie like Gladiator” comes her way, she has cheekily said that it is something she cannot give up or “turn away”. 

Determined, committed, zealous and resplendent, Lucy Liu’s contribution to the Asian American community in Hollywood has been groundbreaking. Like her predecessors, she has managed to rise above stereotypes and systemic racism, dealt with negativity and hate with calm and poise, and by dint of talent and hard work, has proved her self-worth. One of the most talented and sought after actresses in the industry, her cinematic legacy is sure to inspire the future generations of actors, especially women. A true “badass with brains”. 

“I try to believe like I believed when I was five…when your heart tells you everything you need to know.”

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