Actress Lucy Liu, 45, made her name playing a vicious lawyer in Ally McBeal. Now she’s Dr Watson to Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes in Elementary
You grew up in New York, where Elementary is filmed. How do you enjoy shooting on home turf? Even as a New Yorker and someone who grew up in Queens, there are so many neighbourhoods I had never spent any time in before. I don’t feel that I even really know the neighbourhood I grew up in all that well. People say to me all the time: ‘Oh my God, there are so many amazing restaurants in Jackson Heights. Which one would you recommend?’ And I’m like: ‘I have no idea. I went to the diner, once in a while, for a treat. We’d get a cheeseburger deluxe if we had extra money, and that was it.’ It’s great as an adult to actually spend time in different areas and really get familiar with New York.
You also shot some of this season in London. How was that? The makers of the show really wanted to highlight all the big sites, such as Big Ben, the London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace – they were really billboarding London. But as Jonny was saying to me, in a scene where we were supposedly driving in from the airport, if we were really doing that, you would not have the backdrop of the Changing of the Guard and the Houses of Parliament. And we were shooting on rooftops all over the city with backdrops that made no sense geographically. I think the attitude for the show was: forget what’s real, we spent all this money so you are really going to see London. I just sat there, pretty complacent, just very pleased to be there. It was very funny watching the assistant director trying to herd the public around during shooting, shouting: ‘Quiet on set!’ Nobody cared.
Did you have any idea when you took on the role of Ling Woo how huge Ally McBeal would be? Not at all. I had auditioned for a more regular role on Ally McBeal and I didn’t get it but then they came back a few weeks later with this guest-star role and at the same time I was being offered a play. The TV role was only eight days’ work; the play was running for three months and I wanted to do the play because it was more artistic. But my manager insisted I take Ally McBeal – she told me I was going to pass on the play that time and I was going to do this show, and that was that. Then, of course, it became such a part of the zeitgeist and changed my career.
Were you a fan of action movies before you started making them yourself? I did not sign on to do action and I didn’t start out doing it – it just blossomed into an entire career for me. And I have enough scars and grazes now to show my career trajectory. It’s like the way kids have little lines on the wall to show how tall they are; I’ve got scars after surgeries from films.
Were you familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories before you took on the role of Watson?Growing up in my family, reading Sherlock Holmes and Watson wasn’t something that was part of our lives, being from Asia. It’s not that we were learning about the Ming dynasty either but classic English literature was just not something we focused on. I read the books when I got the role, though.
Your parents moved to the US from China and met in New York. How strongly influenced by their Chinese heritage was your childhood? I was born in the US but I didn’t speak English until I went to school – I spoke Chinese with my parents. That sort of thing just changes the way you receive things and interpret and digest them. We did not grow up with a lot of money at all, and my parents definitely encouraged us to focus on our education and to work – we always had jobs. We didn’t grow up with silver spoons in our mouths – everything we had, we had to earn.
Were you a big fan of films and television growing up? We rarely went to the movies. We did watch television but becoming an actor wasn’t something that was even in the stratosphere as a career idea. What came after high school was college; what came after college was a job. Acting was never a job that was ever considered. It was completely out of the ballpark, completely alien to my family. And, I think, to a certain extent it still is.
You’re playing Watson as a woman – the first time anyone has done that. Would you like to try playing other men as women in the future? Oh, there are tons I’d like to do that with. When you go into acting you do these open calls and you have to go in with a monologue. I never went in with a female monologue, I always went in with a male one. I just thought they were more interesting, that they were closer to what I was trying to speak from my heart. There was a sense of spice and fire in them that I really enjoyed.
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