Taking No Prisoners

Lucy Liu has energized 'Ally McBeal' this season, stealing scenes as the sharky, litigious Ling Woo

By Yahlin Chang

Lucy Liu was so perfectly cast as Ling Woo that she can't even understand why the other characters in "Ally McBeal" hate Ling so much. Despite the woman's take-no-prisoners behavior and her permanent scowl. Or the lashings she delivers, eyes narrowed, a sneer on her lip: "Do you have a point?" "Stop bugging me." "I don't like your outfit." In one episode, Wicked Witch music from "The Wizard of Oz" fires up the moment Ling appears. "I know, what's up with that?" says the actress, annoyed. "She's not mean, she's misunderstood. I don't know what everybody's issue is with her."

Vicious and icy, Ling has proved to be exactly what "Ally's" second season needed. She and Nelle Porter--the supremely confident, quirk-free attorney played by the luminous Portia de Rossi--turned out to be necessary antidotes to Ally's stammering neurotic outbursts. (The show seems fed up with Ally, too--throwing her in jail one week, plunging her into a toilet the next.) And the fans seem to love Ling. "Ling is my hero!!" one wrote on Fox.com. "Man! is Ling hot or what," wrote another. In February they'll get to see Liu in a small part in Clint Eastwood's "True Crime" and in a starring role as a dominatrix in Mel Gibson's "Payback."

Liu had actually auditioned for the part of Nelle. She had an eclectic background: New York theater, guest gigs on "ER" and "NYPD Blue," a regular role in "Pearl." "Ally" creator David E. Kelley fell in love with Liu's biting delivery, and Ling was born. "David loves to write for Lucy," says Greg Germann, who plays Fish. "He takes from what she does and flies with it." But unlike Ling, Liu's warm and self-effacing. "I don't feel any different, but now everybody wants to talk to me," she says. "It's scary. It's like, what's so interesting about me?"

She's fearless, for one thing. Liu's a rock climber, a skier, a horseback rider and a martial-arts expert (knife and stick fighting included). Even after a bad bike accident this year and a recent fall off a horse ("The horse was going one way and I was going the other"), Liu's friends still had to talk her out of buying a motorcycle and taking up snowboarding. Liu's also a photographer and an artist. And a serious accordion player. She and Germann were delighted to discover that they share the same teacher; now they drag their accordions to work and jam between scenes. "I want to embrace life as long as I have it. I don't know how long I'll be here," Liu says. "I always thought I was going to go young. I don't know why."

The twentysomething actress grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She couldn't help but feel culturally alienated. "You go through a period when you don't like being Asian; you want to be 'American'," she says. "As I got older I wanted to accept myself." She majored in Asian languages and cultures at the University of Michigan, a credential that still doesn't shield her from questions about whether Ling perpetuates the stereotype of the Oriental dragon lady. "This role has been liberating for me," says Liu, noting that other parts have required accents and broken English. "I can bring who I am into it." Let's just hope those murderous gazes are more Ling than Liu.

Newsweek, November 30, 1998