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Lucy Liu: sounds like a fantasy wrapped in an enigma dreamt up by a songwriter or fashion tsar. You know her as the face of a thousand emotions and some very good butt kicking. Andrew L. Urban catches the reflection of a woman sailing into a Hollywood sunrise.

The ever-changing face, the exaggerated slant of her eyes – and the glint of something in them, something going on - the stillness she can convey and her unique physicality combine to form a potent package.

For the role of O-Ren Ishii, the samurai-sword wielding ex-Viper assassin in Kill Bill Volume 1 who becomes the first female boss-of-bosses of the Japanese underworld, Quentin Tarantino chose Lucy Liu because he had seen her in Payback (1999), Charlie's Angels (2000), and Ballistic: Eks vs. Sever (2001). We can track his choice of movies, right? He hadn’t mentioned Vincenzo Natali’s tantalising thriller, Cypher (2003), but more on that later.

Tarantino had initially intended for O-Ren to be somewhat cold and androgynous. As New York born Chinese Lucy Liu learned more about the language and culture of Japan, however, she suggested making her character more apparently feminine: "I liked the idea of her being feminine, if only on the surface. She is superficially very doll-like, not what you would expect of a ruthless killer. This is a form of camouflage for her. It puts her enemies off guard."

One of the things that makes O-Ren Ishii different from other on-screen killers, Liu believes, is the way the character was written, the glimpses Tarantino offers of her horrendous formative years. "You see where she comes from,” Liu says, “and how she develops emotionally and why it was that she became so cold. Usually you just get the darker side of a character like this. Quentin reminds you that she's a human being who has been transformed, hardened, by what has happened to her."

"riveting as the mystery woman"

By contrast, in Cypher, Lucy Liu plays a sultry femme fatale called Rita Foster. Rita is confident, smart, beautiful - and let’s say it in that order. But there is absolutely no reason for the character to be Asian. Indeed, she wasn’t written as an Asian character in the script, which explains the Anglo-Saxon name. It’s a rich role and she’s riveting as the mystery woman somehow connected to the misty world of industrial espionage as seen through the eyes of a seriously off-balance Morgan Sullivan – or is he Jack Thursby – played to the cool nth degree by Jeremy Northam. 

The point is that where even the clever, sexy and admirable star-come-businesswoman Michelle Yeoh, say, plays Asian characters, Lucy Liu has crossed that line; she is seen as a character actor, not as an Asian character. Kill Bill Volume 1 notwithstanding. In Charlie’s Angel, she’s not a replacement for any original Asian Angel (there wasn’t one) and while in Ally McBeal she did play an Asian, Ling (1998-2001), she broke the character from any stereotype. 

As she did in her very first role: as Alice in Wonderland. It was during her senior year at the University of Michigan and she had hoped for a support role in a student theater production of Andre Gregory’s adaptation of the old classic. Good ole’ Andre saw that elusive ‘it’ in Lucy, which has driven her career to its current peak. Liu will be 35 on December 2 this year, a watershed age for actresses, and she is sailing into perhaps the most exciting era of her life. A sort of Hollywood sunrise. She has a signed deal with Fox to be the executive producer and star in a new, big budget Charlie Chan movie. She’s not only on the A list, she is a culturally iconoclastic force within it. Her name implies it, her career confirms it.

Director Vincenzo Natali says of her: “I had an amazing experience working with her on Cypher. You are absolutely correct that the role of Rita Foster was not written specifically for an Asian woman. I cast Lucy simply because she has an aura of intelligence and danger which I felt suited the character's femme fatale persona. In fact, screenwriter Brian King named Lucy's character after Rita Hayworth! In the script she is described as having red hair. While Brian was thrilled that Lucy agreed to play the part, he assumed the red hair was out the window. But I thought it would be ten times more effective to replace Lucy's iconic Asian black hair with a striking red wig. Thankfully, Lucy really loved that idea and I think it is one of her most memorable features in the film.”

"an incredibly sweet and charming person"

As for working with Lucy, Natali is adamant: “She is simply an incredibly sweet and charming person. She was tremendously generous to me and the entire crew. My little brother was working as an assistant on the set and she almost adopted him (lucky bastard). Not once, did I see anything that would support any of the stories from the first Charlies Angels film, which implied that she was difficult. Without a doubt Lucy is one of the most professional and charming people I have ever worked with.”

Of course she is: she is a star to us, but she’s Lucy to herself. To get a glimpse of that real persona (she’ll hate me for highlighting this) just take a look at photo agency UPI’s snap of her at the MTV Movie Awards in 2000 (featured on a website that purports to be a fan of hers called askmen.com – but don’t ask me why), in a sleeveless mini dress of geometric design and a high collar. Naturally, it’s not the uncool pose or the bad photography I’m talking about: it’s her unaffected smile. It’s dazzling and natural and probably tells more about her gentle inner self than her Los Angeles publicist Paul Huvane would want to reveal.

But then the charming and overworked Huvane works for a firm that handles stars who hire publicists not so much to get publicity as to being media security guards: there’s Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Robert Redford, Al Pacino ... and Jennifer Aniston, the Ally McBeal with whom Lucy Liu worked on the series that took Liu into the living rooms of America (and elsewhere). Lucy’s engaging girl next door, a la UPI photo, shines with her real inner self: “It's so much fun playing her,” she has said of the Ling character, “but I have this fear that people are going to run away from me in terror on the streets. They think I'm going to bite their heads off or something." So when it comes to kicking butt, physically or otherwise, Lucy Liu is perhaps concerned that she might be overtaken by her image. 

As Vincenzo Natali says “I agree she is making major inroads for the image of Asian women in American movies. But based on what she told me, it is very, very difficult. I think it would be wonderful to see her get into a romantic comedy or play someone a little closer to her true personality which is very tender and girlish. When that happens, I will believe that the system is starting to change.”

"Lucy’s a diamond"

Yes, it’s the Hollywood suits who need to see the real her; we, the public already do. If the first time you ever saw Lucy Liu was in Kill Bill Volume 1, for example, you would still leave the cinema at once in love with and in awe of the actress, her character blending seamlessly into an image of this beautiful, fiery woman. I don’t mean to put words into your mouth or thoughts into your head, but I am right. Lucy’s a diamond.

Published January 15, 2004
This article was first published as the cover story in the 1st issue of Gaijin magazine, December 4, 2003.

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Lucy Liu

... in KILL BILL


... in CYPHER

... in PAYBACK


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