Growing up in Queens, New York, Lucy Liu felt like she was from another planet — until she found the arts. But when the fiercely independent daughter of Chinese immigrants set her sights on acting, she was told repeatedly she wouldn’t make it in Hollywood, where opportunities for Asian American talent were scant.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘There’s nobody that’s out there. There’s not a lot of Asian presence in media, television, film. You’re going to be very limited, and you’re never going to make it,’” the Emmy-nominated actor said on a new episode of the Los Angeles Times’ “Asian Enough” podcast. “I just thought: I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what ‘never’ means. So let’s just try.”
Against the odds, Liu, 52, is now a household name and one of Hollywood’s biggest Asian American stars thanks to memorable turns in television (‘Ally McBeal’,” ‘Elementary’, ‘Why Women Kill’) and film (‘Shanghai Noon’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Kill Bill Vol 1’ and the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ franchise) throughout a three-decade career.
She also made history: In 2000, Liu was the first Asian woman to host ‘Saturday Night Live’, and in 2019 she became only the second Asian American woman to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, after Anna May Wong. And there’s plenty that people are still discovering about the creative polymath.
Liu recently segued into directing with episodes of ‘Elementary’, ‘Why Women Kill’ and Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’. She’s also a multidisciplinary visual artist who has shown her work internationally, creating along themes of connection and belonging. Her first US exhibition, on display virtually at the Napa Valley Museum, is something she plans on sharing with her 5-year-old son, Rockwell, who recently learnt what his mother does for a living.
If there’s a lot left to learn about Liu, that’s by design. “I’m not a very open person regarding my life, because I feel like sometimes when you expose yourself, people then start to mix what they see and what they know about you,” she admitted during the podcast interview. “It’s given me a lot of length in terms of how far I want to go, because nobody really knows me on a personal level.”
That has not stopped Liu from speaking up about Hollywood’s role in perpetuating anti-Asian racism and stereotypes. After her April op-ed for the Washington Post, Liu discussed some of the challenges of navigating a career and “moving the needle” for AAPI representation while mainstream American culture continues to otherize and sexualise Asian women.
She also opened up about a clash with co-star Bill Murray on the set of 2000’s “Charlie’s Angels” that recently resurfaced and went viral and how the impulse to stand up for herself is rooted in the childhood memory of seeing her mother talked down to. “I don’t want to be that person that is not going to speak up for myself and stand by the only thing that I have, which is my dignity and self-respect at the end of the day.”
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: Your name is in a Destiny’s Child’s song about being an independent woman. Your off-screen life embodies that spirit. Where do you think that independence comes from?
A: I think I was born with it. I’ve always felt this wonderful urge to explore and be free, and I really love the idea of having that freedom creatively and as a woman, as a mom. There is something very freeing about that curiosity. And I love having people around me all the time and exploring that.
Q: You were born and raised in Queens, New York. Your parents are immigrants from China. You have two older siblings. Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist — to be an actor?
A: When I was younger, I was intrigued by this neighbour who lived across the street who had done some commercials. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I didn’t know anyone in the business. I think the naivete of not knowing anything actually helped me charge forward because I didn’t know how bad rejection could be and what kind of rejection lay ahead of me. And there was plenty of rejection — but I didn’t mind it because to me, it wasn’t personal. It was this quest to keep moving forward and keep discovering.
A lot of people said to me: “There’s nobody that’s out there. There’s not a lot of Asian presence in media, television, film. You’re going to be very limited and you’re never going to make it.” I just thought: I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what “never” means. So let’s just try. It’s just one foot in front of the other. To me, the glass is always half full. I don’t even see it being empty at all. I guess I’m an optimist.
Q: You’re an accomplished artist, and one of the pieces you have on exhibit is a painting of your family. Paint a picture for us of your childhood home.
A: We grew up in attached housing ... everyone’s houses are connected to each other, and you can hear everything that’s going on in everyone’s homes and how they relate to one another. We didn’t have very much money, so we grew up with whatever we grew up [with]. It’s that idea of, you get what you get and you don’t get upset. And if you do get upset, you get a mouthful of why you shouldn’t be upset.
We were left to our own imagination and curiosity to do whatever we wanted. I’m not saying it was a simpler time, but there was not the complication of technology.
There was no possibility of not attending high school and college. We didn’t discuss art and theatre, and we didn’t do any of that because we had very limited funds. It was all about survival. And I think survival creates a very different environment than, let’s say, my child now has. It becomes a much more insular world in a way, and because of that your imagination can be bigger and it can puff out like a cloud, keep growing and absorbing.
Q: When you talk about survival at that point in your life, it sounds like you’re talking about your parents’ survival. Is that something that you were very conscious of as a child?
A: My parents worked all the time, and that was something that we absolutely knew. I think the survival, for them to be in another country and to be not speaking their main language, was something that I learnt was not necessarily welcome. I remember going to the store with my mother and she was asking someone for something very basic. I remember how condescending that person was towards her, and I was so angry and felt so unable to speak.
I [wasn’t] able to use my voice because I was a child, No. 1, and my mother — I wanted her to stand up to him. I knew that wasn’t her personality and that was not her nature. But I was angry, because it wasn’t like she was asking for anything more than some household item. I think being stifled like that also resonates as you get older and you have to break out of that pattern.
Q: It’s great to hear some of these more personal stories from you because a lot of people out there know you only from your work. Was this a side of yourself that you felt you had to protect from public view intentionally?
A: I’m not a very open person regarding my life, because I feel like sometimes when you expose yourself, people then start to mix what they see and what they know about you. If you want to say, “She is a [expletive] from ‘Ally McBeal,’” OK, that’s fine; I did my job. If you want to think, “She can do martial arts really well from ‘Charlie’s Angels,’” or she can wield a sword or whatever you want to believe, let that be what it is. I don’t need them to know me in order to understand my work. I think discovering a character is much more interesting than getting to know what this person likes to eat or who they like to date. … That’s a very protected side of myself. And it could be cultural, absolutely. But it’s given me a lot of length in terms of how far I want to go, because nobody really knows me on a personal level.
Q: Did you know that recently you became somewhat of a feminist icon when a story about you standing up to Bill Murray on the set of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ went viral? What do you remember about that?
A: I feel like some of those stories are private. ... But I will say, when we started to rehearse this scene, which was all of us in the agency, we had taken the weekend to rework that particular scene and Bill Murray was not able to come because he had to attend some family gathering. So it was everyone else, and we just made the scene more fluid. I wish I had more to do with it but I didn’t, because I was the last one cast and I probably had the least amount of privilege in terms of creatively participating at that time. ...
As we’re doing the scene, Bill starts to sort of hurl insults, and I won’t get into the specifics, but it kept going on and on. I was, like, “Wow, he seems like he’s looking straight at me.” I couldn’t believe that [the comments] could be towards me, because what do I have to do with anything majorly important at that time? I literally do the look around my shoulder thing, like, who is he talking to behind me? I say, “I’m so sorry. Are you talking to me?” And clearly he was, because then it started to become a one-on-one communication.
Some of the language was inexcusable and unacceptable, and I was not going to just sit there and take it. So, yes, I stood up for myself, and I don’t regret it. Because no matter how low on the totem pole you may be or wherever you came from, there’s no need to condescend or to put other people down. And I would not stand down, and nor should I have.
I remember years later, maybe even decades later, some crew members that I didn’t even know at the time came up to me on other sets and told me that they were there at the time and they were really grateful that I did that. I have nothing against Bill Murray at all. I’ve seen him since then at a ‘SNL’ reunion, and he came up to me and was perfectly nice. But I’m not going to sit there and be attacked.
Q: At this stage in your life, after accomplishing so much as an actor, director, an artist, what do you want your legacy to be?
A: I think my legacy is to stand behind my choices, regardless of whether they do well in the box office or not. It’s about always striving to better myself as an artist and to be open to trying new things, whether they succeed or fail, and not to be afraid of that. I think that fear starts to impact your choices and it also starts to make your world smaller and tighter. I think we all feel that — you can’t really breathe when that happens, your lung capacity shrinks and your brain capacity shrinks. If you get too immersed in what people want from you, you start to lose your way and you start doing things for other people instead of yourself. It’s already hard enough to figure out on a personal level what you want for yourself.
I make choices because I’m willing to go there and willing to fall on my face, and I think that’s important. If you don’t risk, you don’t gain. And gaining should be for yourself. It’s like a slow climb. And I do think slow and steady wins the race.