Michigan grad sizzles as new 'Ally' spitfire

By Mike Duffy (Detroit Free Press)

OK, so it looks like a cool thing to do.

You go on a hot show like "Ally McBeal" to play a wild thing named Ling. It's supposed to be a guest appearance, a solid little merit badge for the acting resume.

And then good craziness occurs. Big time. Who knew Ling Woo would sizzle like a jolt of live-wire entertainment? Bang, zoom, she's on the moon.

"It's been overwhelming," says Lucy Liu, the actress who plays funny Asian spitfire Ling Woo. "I can't keep up with the madness. I need some madness pills to cope with it."

She's joking around, just plain enjoying the nutty serendipity of it all.

The petite Liu, a 5-foot-1, twentysomething graduate of the University of Michigan and a child of Chinese-American immigrants, grew up in the multicultural mambo of an Italian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. And quicker than she could say such signature Ling Woo lines as "Do you have a point?" or "I don't like your outfit" or "Stop bugging me," Liu was added to the regular cast of producer David E. Kelley's trendy Fox series.

Ling Woo, along with fellow newcomer and acerbic emotional soul mate Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi), has given "Ally McBeal" a smart, saucy infusion of tough cookie energy this year.

"It breaks it up, gives the show a little more controversy, a little more conflict," says Liu. "I think Ling's middle name is conflict."

Liu originally auditioned for the role of Nelle Porter, a super sharp, icily self-assured new attorney at the Boston law firm of Fish, Cage & Associates.

"After I did the audition and left the room," recalls Liu, "someone told me that David (E. Kelley) said, 'That was really good, but we eventually want to warm up the Nelle character. And that girl is soooo cold.' "

Liu is laughing as she retells the anecdote because Kelley then created a whole new character to suit Liu's acting talent for frosty and intense. But she isn't amused by the suggestions of some critics that the hard-edged, presumptuous Ling Woo is some sort of bitchily superficial Asian stereotype.

"I think that's incorrect," says Liu, putting it mildly. "It's just me playing a role. It's not me playing a Dragon Lady."

And furthermore: "I don't think Ling Woo's a bitch; she's misunderstood. She's just very forward and honest and blunt," says Liu of Woo, a perpetually vexed litigation freak who has struck up an endearing odd couple romance with the firm's boss, Richard Fish (Greg Germann).

Liu says she heard similarly misguided ethnic carping when she played a sarcastic Asian brainiac and college student on "Pearl," a short-lived CBS sitcom starring Rhea Perlman.

That's like slamming Bebe Neuwirth's famously amusing portrayal of Lilith Sternin Crane on "Cheers" as a stereotype of Jewish intellectual shrews, says Liu.

Neither Lilith nor Ling Woo is a mean-spirited female cliche. They're originals. And both are very funny ladies.

Liu, who is far more cheerful and upbeat than her tart-attack alter ego, majored in Asian languages and cultures at Michigan. But she also was swept up in a love for acting when she landed the title role in a production of "Alice in Wonderland."

"That kind of changed my world around. It was the first time I learned that I could handle a really meaty role," says Liu, who confesses she is still a bit mystified by the commotion over Ling Woo. "I think she's just a very deadpan character. What's all the hullabaloo?"

Come early February, there will be some additional Hollywood hullabaloo for Liu. She has a key supporting role in Mel Gibson's new movie, "Payback," playing a dominatrix.

But for now, Lucy Liu is caught up in the frenzy of finishing her first season on "Ally McBeal." The show's primary focus, of course, is still on Calista Flockhart's slightly neurotic, daydreamy Ally and her never-ending quest to find true love and happiness.

But Liu says we'll be discovering new humanizing sides of Ling Woo.

Who knows, maybe even an accordion duet with Fish?

Liu, an artist, photographer and high-energy sports lover who has juggled recreational devotions to mountain biking, rock climbing and martial arts, also plays the accordion. Like a champ. And costar Germann also plays the squeeze box, though he's a relative beginner.

"Greg has the same, exact accordion teacher as me. Can you believe that?" says Liu, who occasionally joins Germann for polka-playing breaks from filming on the "Ally McBeal" set. "David (E. Kelley) knows we both play the accordion and he thinks it's funny."

There's already plenty of funny in the cockeyed romantic relationship of Ling Woo and Richard Fish.

"They have a lot of similar energy. They both have that dry wit," says Liu. The two offbeat lovebirds also shared a famous first kiss last October, a scene that Liu remembers as "a very intense, short scene."

"It was a difficult scene because in the script it just said, 'Ling Woo licks Fish's lips.' Well, you don't want it to look sleazy, cheesy," says Liu. "You just want it to be sweet and intimate. And it was. It worked out very well."

Call it sublime chucklehead fate.

So far, life on "Ally McBeal" for both Lucy Liu and Ling Woo is working out very well indeed.

TV critic Mike Duffy can be reached at 1-313-222-6520 or duffy@freepress.com