Lucy Liu Interview, Kung Fu Panda

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline caught up last weekend with Emmy/SAG nominee Lucy Liu at the Los Angeles press day for her new film, “Kung Fu Panda.”

Enthusiastic, big and a little clumsy, Po (Jack Black) is the biggest fan of kung fu around. When he’s unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Po’s dreams become reality and he joins the world of kung fu to study alongside his idols, the legendary Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – under the leadership of their guru, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But before they know it, the vengeful and treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is headed their way, and it’s up to Po to defend everyone from the oncoming threat.

Liu voices the character of Viper, one of the Furious Five animal incarnations of some actual fighting styles of the martial art. The character of Viper stealthily overtakes and overwhelms. Her style features sly, quiet surprise attacks and fierce and violent lightning-fast strikes. It also doesn’t hurt that Viper is beautiful and charming – another way to sneak up and distract her opponent.

Liu remembers, “When I first came onto the project, they showed me a room completely filled with all these incredible animated images. And they had a computer version of what they had in mind for the different characters, including Viper. It all looked so incredibly rich and beautiful. They talked about the story, and I just loved the idea of the underdog having something he doesn’t know he has – great potential. It was exciting just to be part of a project like this and to play this character. When I saw the drawings of Viper, she had these two beautiful lotus flowers on top of her head. They didn’t really have to sell me hard on it, you know?”

Lucy Liu is a fabulous person and we really appreciated her time. Here’s more of what she had to tell us:

MoviesOnline: How did you get into playing the character? Do you see yourself in the character because they tape you while you are recording?

Lucy: When we first had a meeting together, they had this incredible presentation in a room of all of the different scenes, kind of what they were thinking about, what they were imagining. It’s all fantasy when you go in and they had pictures of Viper already and they also had a really small, short computerized video version of what she would look like when she moved because her movement is very different. It’s something that they hadn’t worked on before; how a snake moves, so I was pretty much in as soon as I saw the ideas behind it all. It was really fantastic and it didn’t take a lot for me to say ‘yes’ and for them to hopefully say that I was onboard as well.

I think we did do a lot of video, a lot of imagery. But she has a very specific face, the way it is already so I don’t know if they put that in. Maybe with the eyes and the expressions of the mouth. That’s what they usually use the video for. Other than that, I was so enjoying the movie when I first saw it that I forgot that my voice… I forgot that I was participating in it. I forgot why I was there. Then I heard my voice and I was like “Oh, my God, that’s right. It’s so great.” Because you get sucked into the movie. It’s been a long process. It’s been like five years too.

MoviesOnline: Did the story evolve as the recording sessions proceeded?

Lucy: It was quite different every time I went in for a session. Originally, Viper was a little more comedic, really broad and everybody was kind of coming down on Panda a little bit, on Po, kind of really being difficult and pushing him around a bit and were kind of bitter that he had been chosen and all that but to be a part of the process and see how it shifts and how it transforms itself into what it became was really heart-warming and I think you really had to go through all those changes to find where you were going. It’s a free-for-all, people! 

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about the process?

Lucy: Sure. The process is different from anything that you normally would do because you are working on your own basically. You don’t have other actors in the room. You are going based on trusting exactly what the directors are telling you. So, they are creating this visual field for you of where you are and how you are supposed to be pushing or pulling back. So, you could be overacting [laughs] beyond your wildest dreams and it actually will work or it needs to be pushed further. That process is really different. There is a freedom in that as well because you can improvise. You can do what’s written on the page how they want it and then they can let you do a few takes on your own however you would want to do it so there could be versatility in sounds, breaths, even words that, as you begin to understand the character more and more during the sessions, you think the character would be.

I think that’s a nice feeling of freedom. Sometimes, there’s a writer and you don’t want to disrespect that by not adhering to what has been written. When you do voice, you realize how much you have to bring back to life something that is animated. You have to think of the bigger picture with music and everything else how it’s going to sound. It’s good to have different takes. They really do know what they want ultimately but you’ll be doing really broad voice acting but they also want you to be yourself. Sometimes you think if you do a voice-over, you think “Great! I can do something higher-pitched or lower.” Something that doesn’t sound like you but actually, as we experimented more and more, they wanted to keep our voices really close to what they normally sound like. Otherwise it would be very cartoony and that’s not what they were going for. But we did experiment with that too to find what we wanted in the end.

MoviesOnline: You’ve done a lot of television animation for “King of the Hill” and “Futurama.” Can you give us a rundown of who you voiced on those shows and compare doing TV show animation with film?

Lucy: I found that TV and the movies are completely different for voice-overs because they already have it set and they have a deadline as well. They have their schedule for the show coming out on a deadline and it’s a really high turn-over so when you go in to do a voice-over, it’s completely scripted. You go in and do the voice. You can play with the voice a lot more. Like for “Futurama”, I was playing myself so they wanted me to sound like myself but for “The Simpsons” and other things, I was playing like a Communist [laughs]. You can have more fun with that and for “King of the Hill” too. It’s nice to sort of be incognito sometimes. You can go on and do something that’s fun and you get to work with such smart and creative people that you normally wouldn’t bump into. Normally, when you’re working on film and television, there’s a crew of a hundred and twenty or thirty people and actors and make-up artists and D.P.’s.

There’s a whole group of people and this is a very solitary environment where you just basically create your own world with just the directors, sound and a bunch of producers in the back sometimes, deciding, along with the directors, what they like and don’t like. But, in this case, it was quite different because it was such a long process that, after a while, people just stopped showing up. They were like ‘forget it.’ But I think it’s significantly different because this process has been going on for such a long time. That’s why I think, when I finally went to the screening, I completely forgot I was in the movie. I just enjoyed myself because we started it so long ago.

MoviesOnline: As a Chinese woman, is it extra-special to play a Chinese super-hero and also do you possess the same bravery as Viper?

Lucy: And more! Well, it’s funny because I don’t see Viper as a Chinese super-hero but she is in this monumental film that the backdrop is the landscape of China and it’s gorgeous and I know that my mom is going to come to the premiere and she’s going to be so impressed and blown away. That is something that is really impressive to be around, to have that history and have that culture. I’m first-generation so I grew up with all of those things. So, to see that and be a part of it, in such a fantastic world, I can check that off my list.

MoviesOnline: Did any of the martial arts you did for “Kill Bill” or “Charlie’s Angels” help you get in the right headspace for Viper when you can only use your voice?

Lucy: Well, I was jumping around and doing some movements [while recording]. On “Kill Bill” I was doing mainly Samurai work but from doing all the other action, like in “Charlie’s Angels,” I just understood the idea of breath and how important it was to add that to the [voice] performance. 

“Kung Fu Panda” opens in theaters on June 6th.

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