Star Talk with Lucy Liu

As if the dream world of Ally McBeal's Fish & Cage law offices hadn't filled its quota for eccentric characters, actress Lucy Liu's litigious Ling Woo is currently unleashing her crippling charm on the disturbed denizens of the Beantown unisex. A fresh face on Ally, Liu is a seasoned actress who's tackled tough storylines on TV's top dramas ER, NYPD Blue, The X-Files and she'll soon be seen cutting up the big screen as a daring dominatrix in Payback (opening Feb. 5), starring Mel Gibson. Lively Liu talks about her big break on the hit series, the media craze over her costar's constitution, her "twisted" new movie, joking with Gibson.

'She's got to go shop, she's got things going on'

Q.Who's Ling Woo? Are you anything like her?

A.She's very confident but within that confidence she's, you know, somewhat of a child, I think. She's very blunt. She's very honest. But she doesn't beat around the bush; she doesn't have time for it. She's got to go shop, she's got things going on. She doesn't have time to mince words and protect other people's feelings. That's who she is and that's what makes her so interesting. I think I'm a really honest person and I like to be really blunt with things and life, but I'm a little gentler than she is. I like how aggressive she is. I like that she doesn't apologize for anything that she does. I don't think I have that quality, 'cause I feel guilty about some of the things that I do or don't do, and she doesn't have that. And I don't know how many similarities we have, but I know that I definitely respect her and love playing her. I don't know, I mean, maybe five years from now if I'm still playing her, maybe I'll eventually morph into this person. I don't know, 'cause you get so into this, into working and into who you are and who you're playing. But for now I feel like I'm pretty much individual and separate from her.

'This wonderful, beautiful rose of a woman [has] been destroyed by people judging her'

Q.What's your take on the media attention to Calista Flockhart's weight?

A.How come no one's calling me anorexic? That's what I want to know. I don't know what the big thing is. I think what I discovered is once you've hit a certain point and you become the center of attention like Michael Jackson or Princess Di, or like Calista Flockhart people want to get involved in your life. They want to talk about you, they want to find out "Oh, does he have skin disease?" "Oh, who's Princess Di going out with now?" "What's going on with Calista Flockhart?" There's going to be something. People are going to be picking on you. They find stuff about you and they weed it out, and they suss it out. And I think that anyone who has that much attention and who has a show named after her, and won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy, it's kind of to be expected. It's unfortunate, though, how the press has been handling it. Because it's this wonderful, beautiful rose of a woman who's been destroyed by people judging her. Honestly, I don't care who you are, when people point things out about you, especially as a woman, I don't care how secure you are, you're going to start thinking about things "Oh, maybe I should change the color of my hair" or "Is my nose too big?" You're going to think about that. I mean, this woman is eating, she's fine. She's perfectly fine. She's looked like this for years and years before. But why haven't they called attention then? Because nobody cared then. Now they're like, "Oh, what's going on?" And honestly it's none of anyone's business.

'There's definitely a seediness and a sleaziness to her'

Q.Can you talk about Payback, and your role as Pearl, the martial-artist/dominatrix?

A.I knew martial arts on my own, so the physical stuff wasn't difficult at all; it was really easy for me to get along with that. We just choreographed it and shot it really quickly. Honestly, I put the costume on and boom! there she was. Pearl was right there. She's rough. She's not mean, she's tender. She's tender and she's getting paid to be tender. She's getting paid to do what she does best. I thought, honestly, that my character almost didn't belong in that movie. 'Cause she seemed so odd in the whole mix of it. But there's definitely a seediness and a sleaziness to her that does mix in but the whole idea of it just seems like a completely separate movie when she walks on. There's a lot of darkness to [the movie], it's very twisted; underlying it is a sense of humor that you either get or you don't. It's an intelligent movie.

'These two people are having a conversation about money, and here I am getting all turned on by the gun'

Q.What was it like to work with Mel Gibson?

A.It was great; I had such a great time. He's a really charming, charismatic guy, and he's extremely honest with his work, and he's so much fun. I mean, we just had such a blast; it didn't seem like we were working. We were definitely working, but he's always telling jokes and he's got such a great energy. He really brought everybody on the set and the crew, everyone, up, you know. And we had six-day weeks, we were shooting really late, it was really cold in Chicago at the time, it was raining a lot, but it all went really well. At the time we were doing it I mean, it seemed so absurd more than anything. We were just doing the scenes and trying to be as subtle as we could with everything. And we didn't intend it to be that funny, but it came out really well. Because if we had played it really broad and for the laughs it wouldn't have worked. But since we played it so serious, that was what was so funny. I mean, these two people are having a conversation about money "You better have this and this," and here I am getting all turned on by the gun. I mean, that's not something we planned, it's just something that came out. Because they're in their own conversation; they're not paying attention to me.

'[Sexiness] is not always about the look. But in this case it was.'

Q.Was it hard to pull off that subtle sexuality?

A.Sexiness is really difficult to do. Sexy is not easy. I don't think sexiness is in the appearance. And I think in her character it really had to be, 'cause she's this dominatrix and she doesn't have that many lines. You just see her boom. I think sexiness in a real person is, you get to know them and you like the way that they sit or the way they eat or twirl their hair or whatever it is, or the way they look when they wake up in the morning. But when you actually have to just be there and be sexy, it's not easy. Especially in that outfit. I didn't really think about it as much 'cause once I was there I was doing it. But if I have to think about it now, it's really not easy. Even if you have all the right clothes. You know, someone looks just so beautiful but as soon as they start talking you're like, "Oh, my God, this person is the biggest turnoff I've ever met." So it's not always about the look. But in this case it was.

'Ally McBeal's put me over the edge'

Q.Suddenly it seems like you're everywhere. What was your big break, and what are your goals?

A.Well, ER definitely was a big milestone for me. I mean, a lot of people saw that show and I got a lot of attention from it. And then The X-Files and NYPD Blue. All the shows that I happened to work on, luckily, are No. 1 hits. Everyone sees them. And I think, honestly, I can't say if it was one thing or another. I think they all kind of built on each other and kind of snowballed into this. Even when I did Rhea Pearlman's show Pearl, I didn't really get as much attention from that as I did from ER or from The X-Files, or from smaller shows. Because it's so much easier to get lost in the background with that. But I definitely think Ally McBeal's put me over the edge. And if I hadn't gotten Ally McBeal, then maybe Pearl from Payback would have done something that would have caused some attention. I'm hoping that the attention will create interesting meetings for me. Not so much like people will run up to me and tear my clothes off, or something like that. I want to consistently work on projects that I have respect for. You want to invigorate your career as much as you can. You want to have a trajectory that you can look forward to and constantly be challenged by, and to change and learn, and that's what I'm hoping for. I'm not hoping for superstardom to the point of no return.

The End