Lucy Liu Interview, CodeName The Cleaner

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

We had a chance to talk to the very lovely Lucy Liu about her upcoming role in CodeName The Cleaners. A native New Yorker, Lucy Liu attended NYU and later received a Bachelor of Science degree in Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of Michigan. During her senior year at Michigan, she auditioned for a student theater production of Andre Gregory's adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland." Hoping to be cast in a supporting role, Liu was instead cast as the lead. Her acting career was born.

Liu's blossoming film career was thrust into over-drive when she starred with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore in Columbia Tri-Star's blockbuster hit, Charlie’s Angels, and its sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Liu’s career was further solidified when she starred opposite Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's critically acclaimed film for Miramax, Kill Bill: Volume I and in the second installment, Kill Bill: Volume II.

In smaller release, Liu will also next seen in 3 Needles, due out in December and in the Sebastian Gutierrez supernatural thriller Rise, co-starring Michael Chiklis. Liu has also lent her voice to the DreamWorks animation film Kung Fu Panda set for a 2008 release. Lucy has also been signed on to star in Beautiful Asian Brides and will also produce the film with Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Liu recently completed production on Watching The Detectives, a romantic comedy co-starring Cillian Murphy.

Liu recently made her debut as producer with Freedom’s Fury, a documentary on the 1956 Olympic semifinal water polo match between Hungary and Russia. Held in Australia, the match occurred as Russian forces were in Budapest, stomping out a popular revolt. She has also signed a deal to executive produce and star in a contemporary big-screen version of Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century Fox. Liu's recent film credits include Lucky Number Slevin opposite Josh Hartnett and Ben Kingsley and Tony Scott’s Domino. Other credits include roles opposite Jackie Chan in Universal's hit comedy Shanghai Noon; opposite Mel Gibson in Payback; opposite Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson in Touchstone Pictures' Play It To The Bone; another role opposite Banderas in the action-thriller Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever; and a cameo role in the Oscar-winning film, Chicago.  

On television, Liu appeared as the unforgettable 'Ling Woo' in the hit Fox series, "Ally McBeal," a role for which she scored an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. She guest-starred on HBO's "Sex & the City" as well as on "Joey” and has lent her voice to such animated series as "The Simpsons," "Futurama" and "King of the Hill." In 2005 Lucy Liu was appointed U.S. Fund for UNICEF Ambassador. Her devoted work with UNICEF has taken her to the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan to visit with survivors of the October 8, 2005 earthquake. To witness the impact of HIV/AIDS on children and communities, Lucy traveled to Lesotho in August 2005. Lucy continues to lend her time and name to the cause. Without further ado here is what she had to say:

Q: Did you enjoy the action element of this movie?

LL: I enjoyed it. I love doing it, but I think they love me doing it more because I was like, ‘I don’t think that we should do that much fighting, you know.’ They were like, ‘You have to do fighting!’ And actually when I did the test for the movie, people were just like, ‘When the fighting started, they were so excited about it.’ I wasn’t there for the test, but my managers went, and they’re like, ‘There’s just an energy that radiates from the audiences when you just start doing action.’ I was like, ‘Uh, how is that possible!’

Q: So you’re from Queens?

LL: Jackson Heights. Mmhmm. I went to I.S. 145. [laughs]

Q: Do you think being from Queens helps you play this tough character?

LL: I grew up in an area where there were all kinds of people. It was very diverse and people in New York are very direct. They don’t beat around the bush. They’re like, ‘What’s going on? What do you want?’ [Laughs] It’s not that they’re impolite. They’re just very direct, and they don’t have time to like, you know, mess around, and I think that this character is very spicy and very sassy, and I think that I enjoyed playing her because she has that little quality of directness, and you know I think that people in Queens also gesticulate. They talk a lot with their heads and their hands, and so she does this little pawing thing with Jake because it’s like a physical thing, and people who are involved in relationships are physical, whether they’re holding each other or pawing at each other. You know what I mean?

Q: So is being sassy and direct different from how you are in real life?

LL: I still think I have retained that. I think I just took to a little more extreme in the movie. I don’t think if I disagree with someone I’ll start doing the windmills on them! At least not the first or second time. Maybe the third time they’re not listening, then the windmills come out.

Q: The director was saying the night of the bubble bath scene with you and Nicolette, it was wet and cold.

LL: First of all we shot it at like 3 in the morning. We were doing nights and you know we’re in lingerie, and the scene was supposed to be in the kiddie pool. It’s like, ‘Okay, kiddie pool, winter, lingerie -- we need to put some bubbles in you know because it’s more fun with bubbles.’ And bubbles kept disappearing. They just kept like literally dissipating, so they had to keep filling the thing with bubbles and shooting and shooting.

Q: How cold were you?

LL: Freezing. They had a robe once we got out of the pool. I literally at one point in the film was like this [does the ‘cut’ gesture across her throat], meaning, ‘That’s the end. You’ve got enough romping in the pool for you guys, for the fantasy moment.’

Q: The director said all the crew showed up that night!

LL: Oh yeah. All of a sudden everyone’s there at 3 o’clock in the morning. Normally, people are like, ‘I’m going to bed!’ Suddenly everybody’s there. Like it was a dance party. I was like, ‘Hello!’ We were the only people that were onstage. [laughs]

Q: What was Nicolette like?

LL: She was great. She was totally open. She’s like doing the splits. I was like, ‘Girl, I’ve got to learn some moves from you!’

Q: What’s the Charlie Chan movie that’s coming up?

LL: Well Charlie Chan movie, it’s been 6 years in the making, and we’re still working on the script, but there’s definitely going to be some action in it. I think that’s going to be important. It’s going to be modern day and it’s going to be Charlie Chan’s granddaughter, so we’re going to try to modernize it.

Q: What about Kung Fu Panda?

LL: Kung Fu Panda!

Q: Sounds like an action-animation movie.

LL: Yeah it is. Jack Black is the lead as this big giant panda and there’s all these other animals who have been training all their lives and suddenly he’s The Chosen One. And everyone’s like, ‘How’s this giant panda The Chosen One?’ He trains with all of these animals, and she is this beautiful snake, and she’s got these lashes and she works with umbrellas and stuff like that, like tools.

Q: What about your other projects, "Watching the Detectives,” "Devil to Pay,” and "Rise”?

LL: I think ‘Devil to Pay’ is not happening right now, and ‘Rise’ is something we shot awhile ago, and ‘Watching the Detectives’ is a romantic comedy that I shot with Cillian Murphy over the summer, so that’s an indie, a very small movie. They’re all really different.

Q: Is that what you look for when you pick projects – like you want it to be different from your last one?

LL: Well no, I don’t try to do things that are that different. ‘Oh, I did a comedy. I can’t do another comedy.’ It’s more if I’m drawn to something I’ll do it, but I don’t always say, ‘Okay I only want to do comedy, I only want to do drama, or I only want to do television.’ I think it’s just nice to mix it up. As long as you connect to it, I think that’s the most important thing.

Q: Did you know Cedric before you started working together?

LL: No. We had lunch together. They wanted me to do the movie. I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ Because the girl was pretty straight at that point, and we had lunch together, and I just fell in love with him ‘cause he’s just amazing and warm and you know he tricked me. [laughs]. He spiked my drink! And I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll sign on the dotted line!’ No, you want to be around him, you want to be in his energy, you want to be in his space, and he also was very open to my creative ideas, and that’s also such a huge plus for me to be able to say, ‘Okay, well I can get in here without someone slapping my hand saying, ‘No, no, no, you shouldn’t get yourself involved in that.’
 
He wanted me to get into the character, and he allowed me to go in, and we rewrote the whole character and added the martial arts, and I think that makes it interesting. Even if it seems like the same movie that maybe has been out before in some other form, for me, it was a different process because I was allowed to come in and be involved beforehand in the pre-production part of it, and then also be in the production part of it, so to me that was something worth doing, that was something worth investigating.

Q: Do you have to train for a movie like this?

LL: No, because I just felt really comfortable doing stunts and things like that. I’ve done it before and to me it was so much easier because the majority of the movie isn’t stunts for me. The majority of it’s more comedy, and I just threw the choreography together and did the action. It wasn’t as difficult, no.

Q: Do you go to the gym?

LL: Oh, I like to do Pilates a lot. Well I haven’t worked out in a year, but I went to the gym like -- I’ve been here just the past couple days. I go to do Pilates, but I’ll probably started doing Pilates again because I haven’t been in LA for awhile. I’ve been living in a suitcase [laughs]. Literally my luggage was so embarrassingly dilapidated that I thought I should get some new luggage, and then I realized this just means I’ve been traveling. I mean what are you going to do? The whole thing’s falling apart.

Q: Why are you living out of a suitcase?

LL: You just go, or you do press, you do the set. It’s hard to settle in one place when you’re traveling around all the time. I have a home here but I’m not really there. It’s like all cobwebby.

Q: With your action background, do you intimidate other actors who don’t do that as often?

LL: Not generally.

Q: Cedric said he was intimidated!

LL: Cedric is just a kitty. He’s just doing that [acting scared] so I can give him a hug. ‘No, I’m not going to hurt you!’ Cedric’s got some moves! Did you see? [Imitates Cedric’s scream] He was doing like the washing windows [action move] thing. You know what I love about him is he doesn’t hold himself back and he doesn’t mind humiliating himself. He loves to play and make fun of himself which makes him so accessible, which I love that too about him.

Q: Is a guy with a sense of humor important to you?

LL: Absolutely. That’s actually the #1 priority on my list. A sense of humor, be able to not take himself too seriously. Food is key. Just be open to trying all kinds of things. Like I don’t like a person who’s a picky eater ‘cause if you’re a picky eater, you can’t travel with that person, You can’t go to a party with that person. It’s like going out with a vegan, I don’t know a fruitarian or something, someone who only eats fruit, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, take you to brunch, that’s it!’

Q: How many languages do you speak?

LL: I speak Chinese, I speak a little bit of Spanish, a tiny bit of Italian, a little bit of Japanese. I learned Japanese for ‘Kill Bill,’ and I started taking Italian on my own. I took Spanish for 6 years in school, and I grew up speaking Chinese.

Q: Weren’t you a language major?

LL: Asian languages and cultures.

Q: Does that background help you get into your roles?

LL: I think it’s helped me be less racist. I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but I think it’s really helped me understand. I think when you grow up Asian-American it’s difficult because you don’t know if you’re Asian or you’re American. You get confused, and I think when you speak the language, you just can associate with that culture so much easier and you don’t become, ‘I’m going to dye my hair yellow, and I’m going to put blue contacts in, and I’m going to be somebody that I’m not.’
 
And not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just think you can assimilate to both and not feel that you’re outcast because if you’re in the business and you don’t speak Chinese, then people say, ‘You’re a banana, you’re yellow on the outside, white on the inside.’ And it’s like I can do both. Maybe I’m not as fluent as I could be, but I can still assimilate if I get to speak the languages often with people because they’re not as many people who speak Mandarin.

Q: What music are you listening to?

LL: Oh, let’s see. I was listening to a mixture of things, but one of my friends put together a Bob Marley compilation, which was amazing because we had been painting together and he put together a whole compilation of Bob Marley and like a remix of ‘Sade,’ which is incredible. It was really beautiful. I was like, ‘Where’d you get that?’

Q: Do you sing?

LL: No. Thus far no one has paid me to sing. It’s a hint, some insight into that area.

Q: You play a waitress, and I know you were a waitress in real life. Were you like, ‘Don’t put me back in that waitressing uniform?’

LL: No, I was like, ‘Bring me into it! ‘Cause I am good!’

Q: Were you a good waitress?

LL: Of course! Yeah. I was a cocktail waitress and at that time I had spilled countless drinks on people. Luckily they were vodka tonics so they weren’t like bloody Marys. People were never happy about that, and I don’t drink coffee so I never knew the difference between, ‘Oh, okay, so there’s no more decaf. I’ll just put a little caffeinated in it.’ ‘Cause there was the orange and then there was the brown top. Who knew? I learned the hard way, but other people learned harder because they had to actually deal with my antics.

Q: Where did you waitress?

LL: It was in Michigan.

Q: But you got your tips, right?

LL: Yeah, but I think when you’re younger, you just try to get by and when you’re older, you want to make sure everything’s done well. When you’re younger, you’re like, ‘Give me the damn tip!’

Q: I bet you’re a good tipper now!

LL: Yeah, absolutely!

Q: Would you go from movies to TV?

LL: Of course, yeah. I went back and did ‘Joey’ for a few episodes. I think television now is so much more advanced, and some of it’s even better than some of the films I’ve seen out there, the way the storyline is and the way the characters are developed, and it’s beautifully shot. I love ‘The Sopranos.’ I think it’s a great show. I think if there’s something interesting and it’s challenging, why not try it? It shouldn’t have anything to do with the medium itself; it should have something to do with your interest in it.

Q: Do you want to direct?

LL: Absolutely. Yeah.

Q: Any projects in the pipeline on that front?

LL: There are, but I don’t like to talk about anything unless I’ve done it. I like to walk the talk and that sort of thing, so when it’s out, it’ll be out. You’ll see it.

Q: What do you think is the funniest movie ever?

LL: Oh that’s hard. One of the movies I really enjoy is ‘Being There.’ It’s one of my favorite movies. I think it’s a really quiet comedy that’s beautiful, and there’s a certain innocence in there which I love. I loved ‘Borat.’ I think that was a really funny movie. I think that ‘Nacho Libre’ is funny. I think there’s so many different comedies that I enjoy, but my favorite thing when I was younger was Abbott & Costello. Just really classic things like that are always funny. And I always love watching stand-up comedy.

Q: Is it easy for you to do comedy?

LL: I think it’s something I love doing. I don’t know that it’s easy. I think it’s something I really, really enjoy. If I had the opportunity to do more of them I would. I just think there’s something really wonderful about making people laugh, and it’s such a great feeling to have the ability to transform somebody because if you just watch people sometimes, and you go to a bar or you go to a home or something, people are glued to the television, and you see them reacting or discussing or laughing.
 
It’s like that’s the power of entertainment to some degree. You can change somebody’s mood or atmosphere or bring unity because laughter in a room brings people together ‘cause then you’re like [pretends to poke someone] ‘Ah, yeah, it’s so funny!’ It suddenly becomes like a discussion. It’s just like a wonderful gift and that’s not easy to do. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish for sure.

Q: What do you like about working with comedians?

LL: I think working with a comedian is wonderful because they just know that you don’t have to stick to the script, but I think there’s other talented actors there that don’t maybe have the opportunity to do that, but probably could be very, very funny, but it just depends. Some people feel more comfortable sticking to the script. I like to sort of go off of it sometimes for comedy because you never know what’s going to come up.

Q: Like when you used the plunger as a weapon!

LL: The director was like, ‘I don’t think we should use the plunger.’ I was like, ‘The plunger is funny. It’s totally gross! It’s really inappropriate. It’s funny!’ And I said, ‘On top of that, I’m going to add the toilet brush now! [laughs]. You know the more you fight, the more nasty stuff I’m going to put in there!’ He’s like, ‘No, you should just take the thing and break it in half.’ I’m like, ‘No, let’s just take the nasty toilet plunger and the nasty toilet brush because it makes it that much funnier!’

Q: You were a producer on this. What’s the difference between acting and producing?

LL: I think that you have a little more say in it when you’re an executive producer. I think when you’re a producer you really have a lot of say, and you’re there from the very beginning. I think as an executive producer, you can go in there and really have an opinion without worrying that someone’s going to be like, ‘Why is she taking over the set?’
 
You can actually go in there and have a creative point of view and you can participate in a way that could be very helpful -- or not -- but you can participate. [laughs] You know it depends on how they acknowledge what you have to say, but I think it gives you a certain amount of freedom and you feel like you’re part of a team, and you’re looking at the movie on an overall level as opposed to, ‘How am I getting through? How’s my plan? How’s my schedule working out?’ You see everyone’s schedule overall, and it becomes more of a universal thing.

Q: Did working with Drew (Barrymore) inspire you to produce? I know she’s really involved with "Charlie’s Angels.”

LL: She’s so involved, yeah. This was a very different process because she really came early on for ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and started from the very, very beginning. This movie had already been greenlit and they had a director onboard, so at that point for me it’s just mainly character input and creative input about fights and things like that, so it wasn’t that involved, but something like ‘Charlie Chan’ which I’ve been working on forever, that’s something that I started from the very, very beginning, so there’s so many different levels to it. It was such a funny thing to come on as an executive producer on something that went so quickly when I had been working on something for 6 years and still it’s in the works!

Q: How close is the Charlie Chan movie to being made?

LL: It’s not. [laughs] I mean who knows. It’s been 6 years, so by the time it comes out and it gets made, but for me it has to start with the script. If you have some substance, then you have somewhere to go, but if you don’t, it’s like, ‘Let’s just not rush the process to get something out there because then it will just be a waste of money and it will be terrible!’

Q: Who’s working on the script?

LL: Chris Levinson right now. She just signed on to do a rewrite.

Q: You take roles not made specifically for an Asian woman. What would you say to a young woman like yourself who wants to get into the business?

LL: About transcending that [racial barrier]? I think the important thing is to acknowledge that if you do play people from another country or from your own cultural background, that’s okay. A lot of people say, ‘Well you can’t do that. You’re perpetuating a stereotype.’ I think the most important thing is just to work on something that you care about, and as work comes along to make sure that you make choices for yourself, not because this is something you feel comfortable in.
 
You should keep doing it. It’s just important to continue to work because work begets work, and if you stop trusting yourself and start listening to other people, you’re going to get lost in the mix because everyone has a different opinion for you, you know what I mean. Even you in the scope of 3 minutes could have 3 different opinions. Like, ‘Oh my god, I’m completely confused.’ And you have all these different ideas. Can you imagine how 6 people come into a room and tell you what you want to do, and they have 3 different opinions each, and it’s like 3 times 6 [is] 18 and it’s so confusing on top of your own thing, and I think you have to listen to your heart and I think sometimes when you live in a city, and you’re surrounded by people all the time who have [a] different career trajectory or how they started out.
 
Everyone’s different and unique. You can’t follow a formula. Like in comedy or in television or films, there is a certain formula -- first act, second act, third act. But in your life is a very different thing, and you can’t follow anything but your own heart but people say, ‘Ah, that’s really schmaltzy,’ but it really is true. I think people are so willing to give up their lives for fame and for career that they end up giving themselves up because after all the time has passed, you don’t know who you marry, you don’t know who you are, and I think you can only be an artist if you are portraying part of yourself or a reality of something, even if you don’t relate to the character at all, and there’s a molecule of that person in you, then you just take it and you just expand it. But if you’re just putting it on like a shirt, it’s never going to be something that the audience is going to embrace because it’s going to be false and people can smell that. People can detect when something is false; they just don’t buy it.

Q: Do you think learning about your culture helped you maintain that sense of self?

LL: Absolutely, absolutely, if you deny who you are and your roots, even if you were born here and raised here, and you don’t speak the language, that’s okay. But don’t ever deny. Like you need to know who you are. You need to recognize where your background is from. I think it’s important. Just for yourself. It makes you more whole. It does.

Q: What superpower would you want?

LL: That would be like for UNICEF to protect all the children of the world.

"Code Name: The Cleaner” opens in theaters on January 5th.

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