Lucy Liu - an agent of change - Features - Films - The Independent

Lucy Liu - an agent of change

She has been a Charlie's Angel, an assassin and a snake – and in real life Lucy Liu is into politics. Lesley O'Toole meets her

Lucy Liu has been breaking barriers since the time she won her first acting job – as the lead in a university production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Immersed in studying for her degree in Asian languages and culture, this brainy New Yorker (she speaks six languages) harboured no professional aspirations in the acting arena (though she'd long been painting and making collages for fun). Alice provided her with an epiphany of sorts, one she says her parents still aren't convinced about. It has made this 39-year-old the most successful Asian-American actress in the US.

"The way I see it, you have one shot in your life to make a decision about what you want to do. My parents had been very focused on education, which I can absolutely appreciate, but if I wasn't going to pursue that, then I wasn't going to do it at all. As far as acting goes, I just went for it."





Watch the Kung Fu Panda trailer






Liu's new film, DreamWorks' animated Kung Fu Panda, already a massive hit in America, is her most high-profile since the pair of Charlie's Angels films in which she starred alongside Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore in 2000 and 2003. Fittingly for the daughter of Chinese immigrants (her father was a civil engineer, her mother a biochemist before the family moved to the US), the film is set in China. But Liu says that played no part in her wanting to be involved.

"Not really. Of course it was nice to be a part of a film of which the backdrop is China. That was exciting and I know my family's going to really enjoy that. I am a first-generation American so I grew up with all that history and culture. I guess this is one of those fantastic things I can cross off my list, but then I've done a lot of different projects that I've been fortunate to have been a part of that had originally not had the idea of someone being Asian in it. In this case I really don't think I was cast because I'm Asian because we also have Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie and Jack Black, and the last I saw they weren't Asian."

Black is the title character, Po, whose father wants him to take over the running of the family's restaurant. Po wants to be a kung-fu master. The film's theme is accidentally encapsulated in a comment Liu (who plays a kung-fu expert snake, Viper) makes about her heritage: "I am who I am and I bring that everywhere."

Liu lives in New York but meets me at Beverly Hills' Pretty Woman hotel. She's wearing big black beads round her neck, which almost perfectly match her long, near-black hair, and her skin is luminous. Though she always appears on the right end of best dressed lists, Liu insists she's no glamour puss. "It would be jeans and T-shirts all the way if it wasn't for my stylist giving me stuff to wear."

Voicing an animated creature proved much more compelling for Liu than its solitary nature did to Hoffman. "I know he didn't like it. I loved it. I love that you're not being put through hair and make-up and wardrobe. This way you just have to focus on your intention for where you want to take this character."

Though Liu says she was swept up in the film when she saw it for the first time ("I was so enjoying it I completely forgot why I was there"), there's no mistaking the luscious lilt of her voice.

"They did want us to keep our voices fairly close to what they normally sound like otherwise it would be very cartoony. I find that TV and movies are completely different for voiceovers. In TV, it's usually completely scripted, but you can play with the voice a lot more. For Futurama I was playing myself so they wanted me to sound like myself. But in The Simpsons, I was playing a communist so I could have more fun with that, King of the Hill the same kind of thing. "

Despite Liu's eclectic career, she realises she is in a small minority of Asian-American actors who have initiated what she terms "colour-blind casting. It's really taking a while but I do think it's becoming more acceptable to cast Asians in roles that weren't originally slated for someone who is Asian, which is so great."

While the lack of ethnic roles in Hollywood remains no joke for the likes of Liu, she is pragmatic about the ones available to her and seemingly content to make the best of what's on offer. The role that made her famous was the bitchy lawyer Ling Foo in Ally McBeal. But her race has also proved advantageous. In Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill she played a Japanese assassin and she was a Chinese princess in Shanghai Noon opposite Jackie Chan.

When not working as an actor for hire, Liu has plenty to keep her occupied. She is a longtime ambassador for Unicef and she donates proceeds from her art sales to the charity. Liu also likes to have her own semi-political voice inveigle its way into her films when she can. She starred in the 2005 film 3 Needles to help publicise Chinese and Thai hill tribes' curious beliefs about eliminating HIV and Aids, and she executive-produced the 2006 documentary Freedom's Fury about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

We chat about the Beijing Olympics and she confesses she's not likely to watch much as she doesn't have a TV. "I'm staying in a kind of propped-up trailer right now." This almost certainly means she's crashing at a friend's place when she could be staying at whichever LA hotel du jour she fancied. A friend who once accompanied Liu on a promotional trip told me his charge was "lovely and totally low maintenance". It appears to show.

Liu mentions a telling, regular happening in her life. Whenever she is recognised, no one calls her Lucy. "It's always Lucy Liu." She'll take it. She'd just prefer Lucy.

'Kung Fu Panda' opens on 4 July

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week