When writer–producer David E. Kelley heard Lucy Liu read for Ally McBeal, he recalled, "I was already casting her before she was out of the room because you could tell she had star power right from the beginning."
Liu went on to land the role of Ling Woo in the legal dramedy — a part that brought her an Emmy nomination in 1999 and led to regular work on TV shows Cashmere Mafia, Dirty Sexy Money, Southland, Difficult People and Why Women Kill. (Not to mention prominent film roles in both Kill Bill movies and Charlie's Angels, among others.)
Now a TV and film veteran with more than 100 credits on her IMDb page, Liu was one of only two Asian–American actresses to grace television screens in a significant primetime role in the '90s — the other being Margaret Cho.
In 2012, Liu broke more boundaries by taking on the role of Watson — a fictional character from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — who had long been played by white men.
In this 2013 emmy cover story, Liu shares the challenges of reinterpreting a familiar role, her rise to fame and the difficulty of getting there: "I don't think it was specific to television," she explained. "I think it was the industry in general. There were not a lot of Asians in Hollywood at that time, or they were not as prominent as they are now. So [the options] were limited."
On a cold gray January day, Lucy Liu paces the hallway of a Harlem brownstone in chunky hipster heels and a black leather mini as she waits to shoot a scene for episode fourteen of Elementary. Weighing on the actress is the fact that this isn't just any hour of TV. CBS has slotted the episode in its plum post–Super Bowl spot — all but guaranteeing a career-high number of viewers for all involved in this contemporary spin on Sherlock Holmes.
When the cameras roll, Liu repeatedly flubs her lines with guest actor David Wilson Barnes — an unusual occurrence for this veteran of more than twenty years in TV and film. As the no-nonsense Joan Watson, she casts a withering look at Barnes, whose character is subletting her apartment. "Imagine my surprise," she says, "when I saw a bunch of actors having sex in my living room, on my couch...." She catches herself. "Wait, I'm supposed to say people, not actors, right?"
And just when the brownstone threatens to implode from super-amped anxiety, Liu begins giggling. "Okay," she says. "Line, please."
Call it Zen and the Art of Lucy, who can quickly regroup in a challenging situation thanks to twice-daily meditation and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Costar Jonny Lee Miller, for one, welcomes the levity Liu brings to the set, particularly when the stakes are high.
"Everyone gets a bit nervous about the Super Bowl one because you know there's going to be so many people watching," says Miller, who plays a manic, on-the-wagon Holmes to Liu's composed sobriety-companion Watson. "But she always brings a great sense of humor. We do try to see a funny side of everything. Otherwise we'll be freakin' miserable."
Perish the thought. Liu doles out hugs on set and insists on snatching brief moments of joy amid the grueling fourteen-hour shifts that cover some nine pages of script a day — much of it rapid-fire dialogue between Holmes and Watson.
"It's a really strong family unit being formed here," Liu notes during a break from shooting. "It's nice to know that you can enjoy the company because I don't think that's always the case."
It's no surprise that episode fourteen — dubbed "The Deductionist" — drew nearly 21 million viewers as Holmes and Watson tracked a crafty serial killer through the bleak, wintry streets of New York. Heading into the Big Game, Elementary was already the most popular rookie show in total viewers, averaging 13.3 million viewers since its September debut. The drama has posted strong VOD and streaming numbers as well, averaging some 1.45 million views per episode.
For Liu, Elementary's success marks a new chapter in a serendipitous career. Born to Chinese-American immigrants, she grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. The youngest of three children, she was pushed to excel academically.
"No one before me has been involved in acting," she says of her family. "Culturally it wasn't something that you did. My parents were very focused on education. I think they thought that when you go into the arts, there's no security."
But Liu's unlikely dream prevailed. as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, the sorority girl with the New York accent found the courage to begin auditioning for plays. After graduating in 1990, she returned to New York and landed a series of roles off-off-broadway, while holding down odd jobs selling T-shirts on the street and hostessing at a barbecue restaurant in Soho.
The aspiring thespian then moved to Los Angeles and quickly nabbed guest stints on Beverly Hills, 90210; L.A. Law; ER and The X-Files. Still, the actress continued to meet resistance during the audition process.
"I don't think it was specific to television," she explains. "I think it was the industry in general. There were not a lot of Asians in Hollywood at that time, or they were not as prominent as they are now. So [the options] were limited."
But as one door closed during a failed audition for the fledgling series Ally McBeal, another opened. Executive producer David E. Kelley was looking to add just one character to the series, the ambitious young lawyer Nelle Porter. Though Portia de Rossi won the role, Liu made an indelible impression.
"Lucy came in to read, and she wasn't right for Nelle," Kelley recalls. "But I was already casting her before she was out of the room because you could tell she had star power right from the beginning. When she left, I remember turning to the other producers and saying, 'There's no way we're letting that girl get away.' And as casting ended, I proceeded to start writing and crafting this new character, which became Ling Woo."
Liu's four-year run on Ally McBeal — from 1998 to 2002 — as the über-bitch of Cage & Fish marked a significant milestone for Asian-American performers, who have encountered many roadblocks in Hollywood. The only other Asian-American actress to be cast in a significant primetime role in the '90s was Margaret Cho, whose comedy All American Girl lasted for six months.
"[Lucy] played an unsympathetic, unlikable woman and managed to be hugely popular — if not lovable — in so doing, and that's a testament to her talent and charisma," says Kelley, noting an episode in which Liu's character represented a child (played by Haley Joel Osment) suing God after developing leukemia. "I remember Lucy breaking our hearts in that episode. This is not a character who would let her emotions be seen by others, yet she was able to convey Ling's empathy without overtly manifesting emotions."
Her work on Ally McBeal brought her a Primetime Emmy nomination as outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series; it also paved the way for the actress, who leveraged the buzz and momentum into a red-hot film career. Liu asked Kelley to be released from her contract so that she could make the first Charlie's Angels film. And though it was a temporary blow to the show's own momentum, Kelley acquiesced.
"Of course, we're not in the habit of letting regular characters out to go do movies in the middle of our season," he says. "But she made a very strong case for the fact that this is an iconic franchise and it was a big deal for one of those angels to be played by an actress of Asian ethnicity. That resonated with me. and I said, 'You're right. Go do it.'"
After shooting Charlie's Angels opposite Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, Liu returned to Ally and has since toggled back and forth between TV and film. Her credits in the ensuing years include a Charlie's Angels sequel and Quentin Tarantino's two Kill Bill films as well as two brief ABC series, Cashmere Mafia and Dirty Sexy Money.
And though Liu's high-profile career keeps her squarely in the spotlight, she has managed to keep her off-screen life very low profile. She offers just a glimpse of her personal life. When asked where she lives, Liu simply gestures with a sweeping arm: "Here," she says, reluctant to even pinpoint a borough. The actress says she enjoys cooking, throwing small dinner parties and hitting New York's museums and galleries. She also tries to catch Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad and Louie in her paltry spare time.
By contrast, she is willing to talk about her nearly two decades of work with UNICEF, a role that has taken her to far-flung areas of conflict, from Pakistan to Egypt to Peru.
"I've been going on different missions and exploring different needs, whether it's water, sanitation, nutrition, education, especially as it affects children," she says. "Children really need our help."
Liu is also keen to converse about art. An accomplished painter, she created a series of seventy-two works in ink and acrylic for her coffee-table book, Seventy Two, inspired by the seventy-two Hebrew names of God that some believe aid in the journey to enlightenment (Deepak Chopra wrote the introduction).
"Creativity doesn't just sort of split off and separate into music and acting and art," says Liu, who enjoyed exploring the intersection of abstraction and meditation for the book. "They're not separate components. They are one thing, and they feed off each other. I think sometimes people forget that." But unlike so many of her contemporaries, Liu's love life isn't fodder for reporters or the pages of the gossip glossies.
"I'm not really into that [tabloid] stuff," she says. "I think you just stay out of the limelight unless you need to for work. If people really get to know who you are, then they won't have a vested interest in seeing you play a character — they'll be thinking about who you're dating or what you're doing, what you're eating. I find that to be invasive. If you don't carve out a private life outside of [Hollywood], it can render you very limited."
The last thing Liu wants to do is limit herself. Fortunately for her, Elementary creator Robert Doherty took an open-minded approach to filling the role of Watson — a character long played by white men, from Nigel Bruce to Jude Law to Martin Freeman.
But it was her season-long stint on TNT's Southland that convinced Doherty (who now executive-produces Elementary with Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman and Craig Sweeny) that Liu could breathe new life into the long-suffering sidekick, creating a Watson who would be an equal to Holmes.
"I had long been a fan of Lucy's, but I was especially impressed with her doing what I felt was a completely different kind of role for her," Doherty says of Liu's take on LAPD officer Jessica Tang, a part that required physicality and vulnerability. "It was fantastic to see her get some grit on her. I knew there would be lighter moments in Elementary that Lucy could absolutely do in her sleep because she's such a gifted comedic actress."
In fact, just before wrapping Southland in February 2012, Liu met with Doherty in the bar of L'Ermitage Beverly Hills to discuss the part. But even after CBS made the offer of the gender-bending Watson, she would not commit until Brit actor Miller signed on to play Holmes.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I was really looking to do a comedy," she says. "But one of the main attractions was Jonny. Also, shooting in New York City. I had gotten a bunch of other offers to do some comedies. In the end, this was the best project for me because it was really well put together."
The actress prepared for the role by diving into the ample source material and downloaded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and short stories to her Kindle. She decided to skip the previous film and TV incarnations of Watson, seeing little value in familiarizing herself with alternate interpretations.
Furthermore, everyone involved in Elementary wanted to differentiate the series from the BBC–WGBH miniseries seen on PBS's Masterpiece. That modern-day Sherlock earned thirteen Primetime Emmy nominations last year, including one for Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson.
"When our show was being developed, there was some grumbling from over on the other side of the pond," Doherty quips.
What became clear in the pilot was that Miller and Liu enjoy palpable chemistry — a clear departure from Elementary's predecessors. But any hopes that the pair might get horizontal (à la Moonlighting's Maddie Hayes and David Addison) have been quashed for now by the creative team.
Instead, Doherty and the show's eight other writers are game to explore the ripe back story of this disgraced Dr. Watson, which he says dovetails nicely with the many strengths Liu brings to the role.
"The role of a sober companion is really a great one for Lucy in that she has all of the qualities one would need to do it," Doherty explains. "She can be incredibly compassionate. She can be incredibly strong. she can lay down the law. She can help you through difficult times."
And as for difficult times, Liu recommends one line of defense: lots of laughter. With Miller, she has found a like-minded jokester.
"He knows a million jokes and he remembers all of them — and he can pull them out of his hat at any minute, which I love," she gushes. "I can't remember any. And I always think, 'Oh, my God, I have to remember that,' and I never do. I never remember the punch lines."
Lucky for Liu, Miller continues to pepper the actress with his witticisms.
"If you're going to spend a lot of time with someone, you really need to be able to get on with them," Miller says. "It's nice because we have a very similar sense of humor. Still, you usually have to explain jokes to her about three or four times."
Now that's an Elementary education.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 2013, under the title, "In Her Element."