Q & A with Lucy Liu

The accomplished actress and artist tells us about her new TV series, "Elementary," her new movie, "The Man with the Iron Fists," plus how she stays healthy.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 14, 2012
6 min read

While most people know Lucy Liu for her role as surly lawyer Ling Woo in "Ally McBeal," this gorgeous actress has also starred in a number of movies, including Kill Bill, Kung Fu Panda, and Charlie's Angels. But what a lot of her fans don't know is that she has a whole other side – she speaks six languages, for instance, and is an accomplished artist and photographer. She talked to WebMD the Magazine about how she stays healthy and youthful, her work with UNICEF, her new CBS series, Elementary (it premiered last month), and her upcoming movie, The Man with the Iron Fists, due out next month. Plus what it's like to play a role where she's not "bad" and why she's working to eradicate sex trafficking.

You play Madam Blossom in your new film The Man With the Iron Fists, an ode to kung fu classics. In real life you've practiced kali-eskrima-silat, or knife-and-stick fighting. Did you train to perform the martial arts challenges of the role?

I actually didn't --I wish I had! Martial arts isn't something I always keep up with; I do it for particular projects. So when I got there [on set] and they said, "OK! Let's see what you can do," I was, like, "Um, I don't have a lot going on right now! You gotta' give me some help here!" So we did it on the fly. They told me what they wanted and I went ahead and did it. They just rolled camera.  It was pretty hardcore.

The film is set in a feudal Chinese village. You're the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants. Did you film in China, as you did for your earlier work in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. I.? And did youget to tour the country at all?

We shot in China, about an hour outside of Shanghai. It was winter and brutally cold. It was also beautiful, and the people were wonderful to work with. But no, we were on a pretty tight schedule and I didn't travel around. We were there during Chinese New Year, though, and that was pretty cool.

Madame Blossom is one tough cookie -- and you've played more than a few of them during your career. Yet your off-screen persona is artistic and altruistic. Is it just more fun to play the "baddies"?

People seem to like me in those baddie roles, which is so strange because I never saw myself that way before. I think originally people thought, "Oh, she's somebody exotic, she can be the baddie." Then it turned into something people loved. I don't have an explanation for it. But in Elementary [Liu's new CBS show airing this fall] I won't be playing that [type of] role, and I think it'll be interesting.

OK, let's talk Elementary, which is a modern take on the famous duo of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, with you playing the famous sidekick. How is this character different from fiction's original?

The original was a man, obviously. In fiction Watson narrates the entire story; you see everything through his eyes. In this one you see the two of them interacting. Sherlock leads because he's the detective. And you get to see how their relationship develops, through both sides. Both characters have quite a bit of edge.

Your Watson is a former (and now disgraced) surgeon. Did you do any research to portray a doctor?

I have a lot of friends who are doctors -- but I'm not going to go out and perform surgery any time soon! But I do have lots of friends that I call with questions.

What's it like working with the dazzling Johnny Lee Miller? He performs verbal gymnastics in the pilot.

He does! And he'll continue to. He's wonderful; I love working with him. He's very focused, he's fun to be around, and he always comes prepared -- a dream to work with.

As detectives, you and Sherlock rely on the five senses -- sight, sound, touch, scent and taste -- to decipher clues. Of these five, which do you value most in real life, and would never want to lose? Why?

That's a tough one. I need my sight. It connects me to everything. Visually, as an artist, if I had to choose one out of all of them I'd have to say sight. 

You received critical nods for your guest arc on TNT's cop drama Southland last season. With so many projects in the hopper now, do you have any plans to reprise the role?

I was on Southland for one season, but I don't know if I'll be going back. [My character] Jessica Tang may have done the last of her running around with her partner! It's a very different show than the one I'm working on now. If I could do both, I would.

You joined UNICEF in 2004 as a celebrity ambassador. Tell us about your work with this organization.

I started in a general way; I focused on malnutrition and education. Then I worked on two documentaries [Liu narrated both Redlight and Traffic] about sex trafficking, which is an incredibly important topic. It's been around for so, so long but people are finally becoming more aware of it. It even happens here in the United States, at places like truck stops. People don't know the vulnerability of girls and children. In developing countries it's even more [prevalent] because families think their children will have a better life, that they'll get an education. But what happens is these children wind up being sold and becoming child sex slaves, as young as age 4 or 5; it's appalling. UNICEF does an incredible job. They have programs on the ground all over, all the time.

Have you seen any victories against this scourge since joining UNICEF?

Yes, victories in the sense of saving one child at a time. Small as that is, it can make a huge difference. One of the most important things is education. People don't think it happens in the United States. It does. It's a terrible and tragic issue.

At 43 you're in amazing shape. What's your secret?

I enjoy my life. I think that stretching is the best way to keep in shape. It sounds docile in terms of other sports you can do. But I think the more flexible you are the longer you'll live. And I think it's the key to being youthful. My Pilates instructor's mother is in her 90s! I do Pilates, too. I love doing it. It's strengthening and helps you maintain your flexibility. I also love running. You can run a mile or two; you don't have to do it every day. It keeps your head in the game.

Do you have a health philosophy?

If you can't touch your toes now, it doesn't mean you'll never touch your toes. It just means it's time to get involved and get into it.

You're an accomplished painter, photographer and sculptor, with shows of your work displayed in New York and Berlin. For you, is artistic expression key to good health?

Any kind of expression is healthy. Whatever you need to get out of your system, you should get out. You shouldn't bottle anything up! For me, it helps me to feel like everything is moving in the right direction. It's like the idea of the Dead Sea; there's no channel for it to go through, so it just stops. Without that flow there's no movement. I think the same is true [with expression]. If it's moving, it's probably safer.

How do you feel about aging in Hollywood? Terrifying or totally overblown?

I love knowing myself more and more. I was kind of crazy in my 20s. I feel much better about myself now than I ever have.

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