LOS ANGELES—Lucy Liu is not intimidated by the prospect of being the first female Watson in “Elementary,” CBS network’s modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” detective series. The actress plays Dr. Joan Watson, with Jonny Lee Miller as the iconic Sherlock Holmes, in the drama that finds the crime-solving duo in Manhattan.
“I wasn’t daunted because, for me, a lot of times are first times,” said Lucy, lovely in a sleeveless short dress that was perfect for the warm weather when she sat down with journalists at the Beverly Hilton’s Stardust Lounge terrace. “Being an Asian-American actress is not a particularly easy task. A lot of times we find roadblocks because people are like, ‘She can’t play so and so’s sister, mother or relative. We can’t have her in the family. It would make no sense. We’d have to explain it.’”
The only way
Born in New York to Chinese immigrants, Lucy cited her previous projects as exceptions: “When it comes to, let’s say ‘Charlie’s Angles,’ or ‘Ally McBeal, it’s easier because you can create something different. A lot of times we look at a role and say, ‘That’s great, but it’s a man’s role.’ We should [change that]… try to think outside the box. That’s the only way to forge ahead.”
We asked Lucy for an update on her experience as an Asian-American actress, especially on television, which does not reflect the true diversity of the American population. For instance, there are still medical dramas that don’t have Asian characters despite the fact that US hospitals are teeming with Asian doctors, nurses and technicians.
“There are struggles [still],” she admitted. “It’s like finding a place for yourself. It’s harder to represent that on television… because it’s a slow process. Since the time I started, it’s opened quite a bit. Even before Obama was elected, it was like, ‘Oh my God, an African-American President—it’s outrageous.’ Once it’s done, it becomes a bit more easy for people to accept. You have to keep breaking down barriers.”
Lucy, who studied Asian Languages and Culture in college but aspired to be an actress, added: “In general, Asians have much quieter cultures. You don’t see us going out there and screaming. We have a different, quieter way of expressing. We don’t voice our opinions as much as Caucasians or African-Americans do… so our voices are not heard as often. Sometimes we’re disadvantaged because of that.”
But she admitted that she has been “incredibly lucky” in the breaks that have come her way. She stars with Russell Crowe in the China-set film, “The Man with the Iron Fists,” due out in November. Her recent credits include the TV series “Southland” and “Kung Fu Panda 2,” where she voiced Viper.
Even so, Lucy revealed there were many times when she felt like quitting. “I have a very strong team of people behind me that have never given up,” she pointed out. “Sometimes I said, ‘I can’t go on; this is too hard.’ They won’t let me quit. I think that’s the main thing. You need to have somebody who really gives you encouragement. Encouraging words really go a long way… My parents don’t do that very often… because they don’t express themselves in that way.”
Lucy—who is also a visual artist and goes by the pseudonym Yu Ling—went to China for the first time in 1994 when she won a grant to study in her parents’ homeland. The grant was based on her mixed media show in SoHo.
“I had an idea what China was like,” she recalled. “But when I got there, it was completely different. I began to really understand my parents and myself once I was in the country. I wish I had gone when I was younger because I was torn between who and what I was supposed to be—should I be an American girl or a Chinese girl? I was being told one thing at home, and then when I was in school, there was different behavior from other people, so it was so confusing.”
She added: “I understood the traditions of China more, and that helped me connect with my parents. It allowed me to understand their way of communication, which was silent communication. I could have used that much earlier, when I was younger, especially when I was a teenager trying to express myself.
“I was trying to get feedback and I was not getting it. Sometimes it was just a question of being there, being supportive. Sometimes what they’re trying to express is that they’re very proud of you, without actually saying it. It took me a long time to get there, but I remember that very vividly.”
We’ll feature Jonny in a separate column, but here’s his answer when asked if he still crossed paths with ex-wife Angelina Jolie, and if they stayed in touch: “It’s difficult not to [cross paths]. Yeah, we are still in touch and we are friendly.”
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)