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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence