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How Lucy Liu Battled Against a Lack of Diversity to Become a Hollywood Star

2019 may just be the year of Lucy Liu.

The actress-turned-director-and-producer will wrap up her seven-season run as Dr. Joan Watson on CBS crime drama “Elementary” and then star in new streaming series, “Why Women Kill,” which she will also direct. She also inked a development deal with ABC Studios Intl. for “Unsung Heroes,” an anthology series that centers on the untold story of a woman who was a pioneer in her time. And, on May 1, all these achievements (and more) will be celebrated with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

“I never take the time because I’m constantly onto the next thing, but I think this is definitely something I’m really going to stop and celebrate because to me it’s a huge dream come true,” Liu says of her Walk of Fame honor.

Liu remembers wanting to pursue acting from a young age — from “probably like 8 or 10,” she says, “living in Queens and playing in the alleyway with the neighborhood kids.” But it wasn’t truly on her radar as a career path because her parents, who had degrees in biochemistry and civil engineering, were more focused on “education and survival.” And “being in the arts is neither of those things. To try to describe the business is very hard for regular people, and for parents who are from another country, they don’t really understand the working hours or the amount of work after hours — the publicity, the commitment to it beyond just showing up to the set.”

Liu ended up attending a math and science magnet high school (Stuyvesant) and went onto higher education (University of Michigan). While she performed in theater productions as a student, she earned a degree in Asian languages and cultures, rather than the arts. Still, she never gave up on her dream, and she soon began “freelancing” with a number of agents in order to go out for roles across theater, film, television and commercials.

“Everyone was willing to have me on their roster, but not commit to me because they didn’t know, realistically, how many auditions I could get,” Liu says. “The challenge from the beginning was just the diversity and ‘We don’t really know what to do with you’ and ‘There’s not going to be a lot of work for you.’”

Although Liu has worked steadily as an actress for almost three decades, and more recently stepped behind the scenes to produce and direct, she admits those early challenges in her career have not fully dissipated. “As much as things are starting to progress and change, it’s still kind of a question mark. ‘This person can’t be the mother of this kid because she’s Caucasian.’ In the theater I think it’s a little more acceptable and they have that ability and nobody really questions it, but I think television is still committed to what’s traditionally seen as families,” she says.

Liu credits Robert Doherty, the creator of “Elementary,” the series in which she not only starred but also had her television directing debut, with helping turn the tide for her. “It was really a great thing to be a part of this because Watson was not just a woman, but she was also Asian and it wasn’t ever really discussed,” she says of “Elementary.” “She was just there and of value.”

Liu was no stranger to TV when she booked the gender-bending role of Dr. Joan Watson on Doherty’s take on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. She had spent a season on such shows as “Cashmere Mafia,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Southland,” in addition to previously starring as Ling Woo on “Ally McBeal,” in a role showrunner David E. Kelley wrote for her. At the time Liu debuted on “Ally McBeal” in 1998, there were no prominent Asian-American characters on TV. It also gave Liu a chance to embody a character for a long period of time. But “Elementary” has been life-changing for slightly different reasons.

“Everyone was willing to have me on their roster, but not commit to me because they didn’t know, realistically, how many auditions I could get.”
Lucy Liu

“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into at the time,” Liu admits.

While she was initially “a little bit skittish” about how procedural she assumed the show would be, she connected with Doherty immediately. The two discussed the history of the characters in literature and how their friendship would develop in the series, and he assured her that despite changing Watson to a woman, he wanted to stay true to the source material in many other ways.

“It became a very personal experience. I’d never worked on a project in my entire career for this long. So it was really something that opened my eyes not just as an actor but as an artist. It was an incredible growing period for me,” Liu says. “The journey took me towards what is now something I consider an alternative career in directing, and really understanding the production value of how things work.”

When she booked the role on “Elementary,” she expressed interest in directing right as well. But, the powers that be saw her as an actress first and perhaps an actress only in the beginning. It was her manager, Liu says, who really fought for her to be given the additional opportunity.

Initially picked up for 13 episodes, the first season of “Elementary” was given the back nine — and then an additional two episodes. Liu’s manager used the extra order to secure a guarantee that her client could direct in the second season, even though the second season had yet to be ordered.

“She has been the greatest support in my career; even when I thought this was too much, she was like, ‘No.’ It’s amazing to have somebody on your side doing things you don’t even know you can do,” Liu says. “And it just shows you persistence pays off. You do have to really push hard in order to get anywhere. And you have to continue to push. You hear ‘no’ a lot more often than you hear ‘yes.’”

Liu’s first episode of “Elementary” as a director was the 22nd episode of the second season, and she went on to helm five more. She also stepped onto other sets to direct episodes of “Graceland,” “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Liu has continued to challenge herself throughout her career by stepping behind the camera, top on “Elementary,” as well as learning new skills for roles, below in “Charlie’s Angels.”
Courtesy of CBS

Over the years, Liu says some of the most important lessons she has learned are about collaboration, as well as the ever-growing business of television. But perhaps most importantly, she has learned of what she is truly capable.

“As an actor, having done a long-term show, it’s something that’s almost like military service: You kind of understand the intensity and the speed and the importance of time because you don’t have any! It’s just like a marathon and you just have to pace yourself,” Liu explains. “It really taught me an enormous amount about discipline and commitment. You’re not just showing up for yourself, you’re showing up for a team of people. So the family value I learned during that time, it grew my heart so much. Now that I’ve gone through that, I feel like I can do anything. Now that I have all of this service under my belt, ‘Tell me what you want me to do, I can do it.’”

Up next for Liu is the aforementioned “Why Women Kill,” Marc Cherry’s dramedy that details the lives of three women living in three different decades, but each dealing with infidelity in their marriages, for CBS All Access, as well as “Unsung Heroes,” which will focus its first season on silent film and theater star Anna May Wong. When choosing new work to sink into, Liu says a big part of what draws her is the time commitment. With a 10-episode, closed storyline series such as “Why Women Kill,” she is excited to commit fully without feeling panicked about taking on another “marathon.”

“I have the ability to structure myself for the first nine just as an actor and then be prepared for the 10th to interact in all of the different variables as a director,” she says.

But also, she looks for new challenges in the work. “I think the further away [from me] the better — the more remote is more interesting,” she says. For example, “sword-fighting is not something I do, but I’d have to make it look like I’ve done it my whole life. Being a doctor on [‘Elementary’] was not easy because even with a technical adviser you want to seem as precise as possible, and that’s not me.”

And she admits that while there has to be something in the material and in the collaboration with the writers and producers that captures her attention, she doesn’t make the work as personal as she once did.

“My work and my personal life used to be the same, but now that I have a child, it’s so different. Even if it was about a woman who had a kid, it’s not personal anymore. It’s an amazing thing because the reality of that is so separate and the personal sometimes can be even harder than the actual job you have,” she says.

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