Lucy Liu is a Hollywood actress who is more than happy to switch from the big studio movie to often miniscule Indie films, and she is more than happy to keep it that way. More recently, as a case in point, she starred in the little known but effective 3 Needles, in which she speaks fluent Mandarin as a Chinese villager and black market operative posing as a government-sanctioned blood drawer, who jeopardizes an entire village's safety, in one of three AIDS-themed stories in the film. Liu says that doing the Thom Fitzgerald-directed film "was a great opportunity to do something with a message that was important as well as have a character that was so interesting and be able to sort of sink my teeth into."
The actress adds that "in the past I've done other roles where I had to speak Chinese, but maybe for more episodic work, and this was something that had a beginning, a middle and an end. I think when you speak a different language when you're doing a movie it also brings out a different feeling in your work." Liu plays a mother in the film, and she smilingly concedes that brings out her maternalism. "I love children. I work with UNICEF and one of the reasons I love that is because they deal specifically with children. For me I think it's just really important to always embrace that side of you. I think as a woman, whether you actually have children or not of your own it's just a natural thing. I have a goddaughter that I absolutely adore who is 2 years old and I would never say no to having children," confesses Liu.
While Liu shows off her maternal and Chinese sides in 3 Needles, it is her comedic side that she shows off in her latest film, Codename: The Cleaner, in which she plays the waitress/girlfriend of amnesiac Cedric the Entertainer. Asked if she and Cedric share a comic sensibility, Liu smiles. "Well he's incredibly funny and I mean off the cuff funny. I love comedy having grown up watching television and watching sitcoms and I just think that timing is everything. Cedric has got great timing and any chance I get to do a comedy I'll jump, because I think it's such a wonderful thing to make people laugh."
As in many of Liu's screen work, her Asian ethnicity often is of secondary consideration as she has been able to play women whose cultural backgrounds are irrelevant, such as in the Charlie's Angels films. Liu remains surprised that in a Hollywood still often not so colour blind, this Asian-American actress has risen to the top of the industry's echelon. "I feel very grateful and incredibly lucky, and it's been such a wonderful surprise when a script comes our way where it's a great character and not specifically Asian at all. So it's been very fortuitous and I can't complain." Not that it's been handed to her on a silver plate. "I can't say that it hasn't been a difficult road and I don't think that people are completely open to it all the time, but I think if you make the right choices in your career and you continue to work towards that then you can make waves."
Liu's continued success is evident with her ongoing studio deals, from Fox for her long awaited Charlie Chan movie, to universal for Asian Brides. As tough and independent as she is, Liu also knows how to play the Hollywood game. "I think the most important thing is not try to fight that system, understand there is a system, and decide if you are going to use that to work with you or against you. Are you going to protest against something that's been around since the beginning of time or are you going to try to understand that system and, and see it as a well-oiled machine? I think there are always kinks to anything that people have set out for a long time because it's not current, per se, but if your ideas are current you can still inject it into that machinery and hopefully something wonderful will come out of it. I think that I may not work the same way as other people - I don't have an agent, I have two managers, so I have a different system of working with other things. It doesn't always mean that I have to follow the same line as everyone else but I'm still in the system."
Even if that means not exactly playing by the rules. "You can't play by the rules when there has been no rules made for you. I mean you can't follow the footsteps of Meryl Streep when you're not blonde with blue eyes. What I'm saying is that she can be anyone, and so can I but people don't see that yet and eventually they will. I may not be around when that happens but that doesn't matter, like someone else will and they will frame the framework for it."
Perceptions seemed to have changed once Liu joined the stars of Charlie's Angels, and her career turned around, but that film did far more than merely open up doors. "I think if anything the perception changed for the audience member as children and people could see somebody they could relate to as something that was thought of as culturally Americana, such as Charlie's Angels, that was from the 70s. There were three beautiful American women, and when they saw it, and there was someone that was different in there they could suddenly relate to somebody, whether they're Filipino, Asian or Hispanic but there's something different on the screen that maybe creates a need for change and an ability for people to relate to other people."
While a third Charlie's seems unlikely, Liu says she wouldn't be averse to doing another. "We had such an incredible time on the movie. It was fun, it was silly, it was popcorn, it was video, it was wonderful. So of course I would do it, we had a wonderful time on it, the girls are fabulous and Sony really treated us so well."
Apart from a few acting gigs, Liu is fuelled by her producing chores on Charlie Chan, in particular, which has been in development now for some 6 years. "have a draft now and we are working on that to fine-tune it, and the character has come along so well. I'm very happy about it and we found somebody great to come in and polish Charlie's voice a little bit."
But it's acting has been in Liu's blood since childhood, and continues to be." It is something that I could not 'not' do and I could not imagine my life having been any other way. I thought if I'm not acting then I'm not going to exist at all. I just knew that it was the only thing that I felt strongly about and that being said, there was no reason to go on if there was nothing to feel strongly about. There's no reason to live your life in mediocrity, because there's only one life and you should live it with great passion."