‘How did I even get here?’: Lucy Liu reflects on 30 years in Hollywood

Think back to Hollywood at the turn of the millennium: Lucy Liu was an action superstar. Between Charlie’s Angels in 2000, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle in 2003 and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films in 2003 and 2004, you couldn’t attend a multiplex blockbuster without seeing Liu – ever prim but feisty – roundhouse kick a jerk in the face.

Now at 54, and after a steady spell in TV and animated productions, she’s finally re-entered that cinematic milieu with Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the new sequel in DC Comics’ meta-comedy superhero franchise. Who convinced her to get back into beast mode?

“Well, listen, you don’t really need to be convinced to do a DC film,” Liu jokes over Zoom from her home in New York. “I think being part of that world of imagination brought to life is enough. I read comic books when I was younger, so seeing these movies the way they are now, it’s such a feast for the eyes.”

Lucy Liu as Kalypso in Shazam! Fury of the Gods.

The opportunity to play a literal goddess alongside Dame Helen Mirren on such heightened fare also appealed. Liu and Mirren, along with West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler, star as Kalypso, Hespera and Anthea respectively, sisters and the daughters of Atlas who’ve come to avenge their father against Shazam’s Shazamily.

“Oh my god, she’s heaven on Earth,” Liu says of Mirren. “We had a great time. She is a real superhero in my eyes. She just has a strength and a dignity that she carries that is just so attractive and so mesmerising.”

After a lengthy stint on TV, largely spent playing Watson to Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes on the hit Elementary which ran for seven seasons until 2019, the film promises the return of Liu as ass-kicking big-screen icon. It’s been at least a decade since her last major action flick, when she starred alongside Russell Crowe in 2012’s The Man with the Iron Fists.

“Was that it? I don’t even remember,” Liu says of her recent aversion to the genre that made her a global star. “I think it’s hard when it’s so believable for people to see me in an action movie to not fall into the trap of only doing that, and so I kind of stayed away from it for a bit. Because getting into the business of acting is not about action. It’s good to be able to do it, but you don’t want to get trapped into only doing it. So I definitely wanted to stretch myself a bit more and, you know, have some more varied challenges.”

Liu, Helen Mirren and Rachel Zegler at the launch of Shazam! Fury of the Gods in Rome in March.Credit:Getty Images Europe

A varied career it has been. Liu, born in Queens, New York to Chinese immigrants, has now amassed 30 years in showbiz, from her first credited role on Beverly Hills 90210 in 1991, to an early stint in indie films such as 1997’s Gridlock’d with Tupac Shakur (“He was so nice, we had a great time together and it’s so strange to think that he’s gone now,” Liu offers), to the odd movie star scandal (on her infamous “dispute” with Bill Murray on the set of Charlie’s Angels in 2000: “I stood up for myself, and I don’t regret it,” Liu told the Los Angeles Times about the incident in 2021).

“I remember it all,” says Liu of her salad days, “the rehearsals, the people, and just how alive I felt. It felt like I could finally be who I really was meant to be.”

Thirty years in the industry might feel like its own accomplishment, but certain moments have put it all in perspective. Liu recalls the moment when she got her star unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in May 2019, just the second Asian-American actress to receive the honour after Anna May-Wong, the pioneering silent era star who received her Walk of Fame star in 1960.

Liu celebrates her Best Villain award for her role as O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards.Credit:AP

“I remember it seemed so shocking when I was standing there because you think, ‘How did I even get here?’. It almost seemed like I had walked through a portal, like I had plucked something out of my imagination or some sort of a dream, and just walked in,” she says.

“I feel so proud of the things I’ve created and what I’ve been able to share and, really, who I’ve become as a human being, that I’ve been able to challenge myself and learn and just sort of understand what it is to really have fun in this world that I get to play in.”

That Liu’s A-list career was forged at a time when opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood was still limited, in the years before “diversity” and “representation” were distant buzzwords, still feels remarkable. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post in 2019, she wrote: “I feel fortunate to have ‘moved the needle’ a little with some mainstream success, but it is circumscribed, and there is still much further to go… It’s not easy to shake off nearly 200 years of reductive images and condescension.”

Liu has racked up 30 years in the acting biz. “I feel so proud of the things I’ve created,” she says.Credit:Getty Images Europe

She was critical of reviews that described her role in Kill Bill, for example, with racially loaded terms such as “dragon lady”. “If I can’t play certain roles because mainstream Americans still see me as Other, and I don’t want to be cast only in ‘typically Asian’ roles because they reinforce stereotypes, I start to feel the walls of the metaphorical box we AAPI (Asian and Pacific Islander) women stand in,” she wrote at the time.

In a Hollywood that has now seen the box office potential of films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All At Once, is she excited by the opportunities that appear to have opened in the intervening years since she first broke such ceilings for actors of Asian descent?

“There’s definitely more opportunity for Asian actors, but I also think there’s still a sense of pressure around diversity: that these are just boxes that need to be checked off, or that there are levels that [studios] need to reach in order to pass a test,” says Liu. “Unfortunately, it’s necessary, but I hope that it will just be something that comes naturally at some point. That will be true success when that happens.”

Listening to a recent interview with freshly Oscar-winning actor Ke Huy Quan around Everything Everywhere All At Once, I was struck by his explanation around his two-decade break from acting, that it was only after Crazy Rich Asians came out that he realised that maybe there was a chance for him to get back into his craft. It seems ridiculous, even tragic, that an actor so beloved in ’80s classics including The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had to wait for a movie that came out five years ago to feel like there might finally be a place for him up on that big screen. But Liu sees an artistic victory in Quan’s story.

“He started as a child, and so the opportunities that were laid out for him were probably doubly limited. But what ultimately wins is that he had a passion for it, there was something that was nagging at him, drawing him back. I think that’s what you have to listen to, you know? It has to come from within, it has to be real and it has to be an honest emotion towards what you love to do and what you want to do.”

Liu with her Shazam co-star Zachary Levi at Comic-Con in San Diego last July.Credit:Invision

With a seven-year-old son, a successful visual arts career (she works in oil paintings, collage and photography and has had her work exhibited in numerous international galleries), and her Hollywood hustle well in the rearview, Liu is increasingly selective on what she chooses to act in. Besides Shazam!, she recently completed work on the upcoming Netflix series A Man in Full, directed by Regina King and written by David E. Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal, the series that first made her a household name.

“I’m obviously an admirer of his – he’s so prolific and he really knows how to write for women – and he wrote this incredible role that really launched my career,” Liu says of Kelley. “But I think for me now it’s, like, time management: Do I really want to spend that much time doing this? Is it something I’ve done before? Am I going to enjoy it? I have to really think about it.

“But, like, if I didn’t want to do this, I wouldn’t do it anymore. And I have not stopped having the desire to be in this world. So if I wake up one day and I don’t want to do it anymore, I definitely will stop.”

Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens in cinemas on Thursday.

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