For a movie star, Lucy Liu is remarkably private. Best remembered for her roles in Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill: Volume 1, and ABC’s Elementary, it is her work that defines her more than her much-hidden romantic life. As an Asian-American actress, Liu also faced many obstacles on her way to success. Of course, she had a few tricks up her sleeve…including a surprisingly open-secret career in the arts that few of us expected. Buckle up for these 42 inspirational facts about Lucy Liu.
1. No Longer Tongue-Tied
Lucy Liu didn’t speak English until the age of five. Although she was born in Queens, New York on December 2, 1968, her parents were Chinese immigrants who only spoke Mandarin while at home. Obviously, Liu’s monolingual origins aren’t the case anymore—today, she speaks six languages, including Italian.
2. No One Sacrifices like A Parent
Although Lucy Liu’s father was trained as a civil engineer in China, he sold digital clock pens to support his family in the US. Likewise, Liu’s mother worked as a biochemist. Over the course of her childhood, Liu’s immigrant parents took on multiple jobs to support their three kids, of whom Lucy is the youngest.
3. She’s a Sharp One
From a young age, Lucy Liu was trained in the martial arts of kali-eskrima-silat, AKA the weapons-based technique of fighting involving sticks, knives, and other types of blades. Less dangerously, she is also trained in rock-climbing, skiing, and even horseback riding.
4. Reach for the Sky
One of Lucy Liu’s pre-Hollywood jobs was as an aerobics instructor. Maybe that came in handy for future roles.
5. One a Sister, Always a Sister
Liu is a former sorority girl. While earning her bachelor’s degree in Asian language and cultures at the University of Michigan, she served as a member of the Chi Omega sorority.
6. Started From Underground, Now We’re Here
Lucy Liu was first “discovered” while riding the subway. A talent agent spotted the 19-year-old Liu and started getting her work. Her first job was a commercial.
7. Down the Rabbit Hole
In her senior year of college, Liu auditions for a supporting role in her theater group’s production of Alice in Wonderland. She did not end up getting the small part—she got the lead.
8. Anything for Some Fairy Dust Right Now
Liu noticed right away how few opportunities there existed for Asian actors in the theatre. In 1990, she was being prepped to audition for a role in Miss Saigon, when she told reporters how hard it was for Asian performers to even get their foot in the door. It wasn’t until two years later that Liu made her dramatic New York stage debut in Fairy Bones by Tina Chen.
9. Deserves a League of Her Own
Lucy Liu’s big break came with her role in Ally McBeal, where she played the seductive and confident Chinese-American lawyer Ling Woo, who was basically the antithesis to the plucky, white titular lead. Originally, Liu had auditioned for the supporting character role of Nelle Porter (which went on to be played by Portia DeRossi).
The producers actually like Liu so much that they invented the Woo role specifically for her.
10. Diversity Starts with Her
Lucy Liu’s first big role in Ally McBeal was supposed to be a temporary gig. Instead, the Ling Woo character and show were so well-received, she was brought on as a permanent cast member. Woo’s impact on pop culture lasted too. At the time, Liu’s character was one of the few—if not only—main major representations of Asian-American women on primetime television.
To this day, her character is frequent the subject of scholarly analysis regarding Asian women in American media.
11. Go for the Gold
For her turn as Ling Woo in Ally McBeal, Lucy Liu was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards. She’s still one of the few Asian-American women to be given this honor.
12. First (Asian) Lady of Laughs
In 2000, Lucy Liu became Asian woman to ever host Saturday Night Live. It would take another 18 years until another Asian woman, Awkwafina, repeated the honor.
13. Serving Up Laughs
Even before she went to Hollywood, Liu always a heartbeat away from the drama—from 1988 to 1989, she served as a waitress at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase club. Imagine getting your drinks refilled by O-Ren Ishii.
14. Back to School
Liu is serious about arts. From 2004 to 2006, she attended the New York Studio School for drawing, painting, and sculpture. You can never be too good at all the crafts, I guess.
15. We Meet Again (in Drawing)
Liu lent her famous voice to Kung Fu Panda (2008) as Viper. The role reunited her with her Shanghai Noon (2002) co-star, Jackie Chan.
16. Hard-Pressed to Find a Better Beat
Liu plays the accordion. She has even shared a music teacher with her Ally McBeal love interest, Greg Germann.
17. You’ve Got to Have Faith(s)
Liu has practiced and studied multiple religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, and even Jewish mysticism. To quote the actress herself, “I’m into all things spiritual—anything to do with meditation or chants or any of that stuff. I studied Chinese philosophy in school. There’s something in the metaphysical that I find very fascinating.”
18. Shake Your Money Maker
Lucy Liu played an exotic dancer in 1997’s City of Industry. To truly get into her role. Liu worked and performed as a Los Angeles strip club for a month.
19. Who Doesn’t Need a Helping Womb?
In 2015, Liu welcomed her first child, Rockwell Liu. Although he is biologically hers, Rockwell was carried and delivered via gestational surrogacy. A single parent by choice, Liu wanted a child but was too busy working at the time to carry the pregnancy herself.
20. Let it Go, Lucy
In 2010, Lucy Liu made her Broadway debut in God of Carnage, an English adaptation of the French play Le Dieu du carnage, about how a fight between two boys at a park results in “carnage” for their parents. For the record, Liu plays Annette—a role where she was excepted to vomit on-stage every showing.
21. 72 Reasons Why
Lucy Liu has published her own artbook Seventy Two, which is compromised of 72 original pieces of ink and acrylic from the actress-turned-artist. The work is inspired by the 72 Names of God, i.e. sequences of Hebrew letters. The book’s Limited Edition printed only—you guessed it—72 copies. As with many of her artworks, Liu donated a share of her profits to UNICEF.
22. Happy to Be Represented
Lucy Liu was awarded a 2006 “Asian Excellence Award” for her work in Visibility for her arts and charity work.
23. Miss Marvel
Lucy Liu is an experienced director with multiple credits in her behind-the-scenes resume. In addition to directing multiple episodes of her show Elementary and even Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, she also directed the second season premiere of Marvel’s Luke Cage.
24. Can’t Clip Her Wings
Liu is a regular voice actress. Her most lent her voice to six of Disney’s direct-to-DVD Disney Fairies and Tinker Bell movies as the fairy Silvermist, an Asian water-talent fairy.
25. Catch These Swords
Could we have had Lucy Liu in the MCU (kinda)? She was in the running to play Elektra in the 2003 version of Daredevil. Unfortunately, the part when to Jennifer Garner.
26. You Can’t Download This Talent
Lucy Liu voiced herself in the Futurama episode, “I Dated a Robot.” In this episode, Fry downloads a Lucy Liu personality into a robot that looks like the actress. He becomes increasingly obsessed with her and learns about the future’s stigma against human-robot love—basically, humans will get too distracted, and it almost led to the end of the world, centuries ago.
The episode climaxes with an army of illegal Lucy Liu robot downloads turning against society until Fry’s Lucy Liu Bot sacrifices herself. The “real” Lucy Liu, now a head in a jar, falls in love with Bender the Robot, much to the fury of Fry.
27. Clowning With Clooney
Liu is a rumored ex-girlfriend of (now-retired) playboy, George Clooney. Back in 2000, it was whispered the two were a brief item and were even spotted kissing—although it was New Year’s Eve…
28. More Than Skin-Deep
In 2016, Liu let loose and expressed the frustration she experiences as an Asian-American actress. Mind you, not about being an Asian-American actress, but about only getting asked questions that revolve around her race: “It’s exhausting, to have to explain it. Is it difficult? Absolutely. There’s less to have, and there’s more to do, in order to get that less. It’s hard because it’s rare that I’ll be asked a question that is not with that before it. I always have this hyphen, even if it’s a great periodical — sorry to sound so geeky — if it’s a great something that people really respect and admire, they still will ask that as opposed to ‘How does it feel to be an actress in the business?’ It’s never that. ‘How does it feel to be an Asian person in the business?’ I don’t know. I don’t know what it is to be ‘Asian’ because I am a person. I’m a human being.”
29. A New Twist on An Old Classic
For seven seasons, Lucy Liu played the historically iconic role of Sherlock Holmes’s protégé, Dr. Joan Watson in ABC’s Elementary. The character was an Asian-American and female version of the popular sidekick. In addition to the race and gender change, Watson is also Holmes’ sober companion (i.e. recovery coach) before she becomes his investigative partner.
30. Mystery Lovers
Lucy Liu is notoriously private about her romantic life. She has been connected to her Hollywood colleagues Zach Helm and Will McCormack, but most of her relationships are ill-talked about. More recently, she dated the divorced hedge-fund billionaire, Noam Gottesman.
31. Hitting the Snooze Button on Her Biological Clock
When asked about motherhood in 2010, Liu laughed, “I don’t have a settling down time” and that “Someone threw out the battery” with regard to her biological clock. She concludes, “I never feel like it’s too early or too late for anything. I don’t ever think for me this traditional way is the way to go for me because I haven’t had a traditional life.”
32. High in Calcium and Creativity
Back in her Ally McBeal days, Liu made headlines for her on-screen kiss with co-star Calista Flockhart. When asked about the scene years later, Liu commented, “It was a good kiss. I remember it tasting like milk.”
33. A Matter of Mixed Origins
In Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Lucy Liu memorably plays Japanese crime boss O-Ren Ishii. From the moment the character was conceived, director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino wanted a Japanese actress to play the Japanese character. However, he was so impressed by Liu’s performance in Shanghai Noon (2000), that he changed the part just for her.
O-Ren was re-written as Chinese-Japanese-American to make Liu’s casting make sense. American-born Liu’s parents hail from Taiwan in real life.
34. Paint it Forward
Liu doesn’t make art for the money. She has repeatedly donated her share of profits from her visual art shows to UNICEF, notably her share from the NYC Milk Gallery show. She went on to serve as an ambassador for UNICEF USA.
35. Art With a Purpose
In 2014, Liu made her directorial debut with Meena, a short film about an Indian girl who is sold to a brothel. The film was based on a chapter from Nicholas Kristof’s book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which aims to shine a light on the issue of human trafficking.
36. Listen to the Sound of My Voice
Liu has musically collaborated with the Bullitts, the stage name of British singer-songwriter act Jeyme Samuels. In 2011, she lent her vocals as narrator for the track “Close Your Eyes” on They Die By Dawn and Other Short Stories.
37. Ivy League Honors
In 2016, Harvard University named Lucy Liu their Artist of the Year. In her honor, she was given the Harvard Foundation’s arts medal at the Cultural Rhythms Festival in Sanders Theatre.
38. These Hands Were Meant to Build Too
Ever heard of “Yu Ling”? It’s not only Liu’s Chinese name—it’s also the pseudonym under which she publishes her visual art. As a multimedia artist, she has been showcasing her work since she was 16 years old. Her portfolio is a blend of painting, photography, collage, and even sculpture. One of her paintings, titled “Escape,” was even showcased in Montblanc’s Cutting Edge of Art Collection in 2008.
39. You Can Never Be Too Safe
Liu survived a breast cancer scare in 1991, after doctors discovered a lump in her breast. Shell-shocked, she immediately went into surgery to have the lump removed. Although the lump was found to be benign, Liu later became the spokesperson for the Lee National Denim Day fundraisers for breast cancer research.
40. Second Is the Best
Lucy Liu’s star-making big-screen role as Alex Munday in the Charlie’s Angels reboot was originally offered to Angelina Jolie. The latter actress was producers’ first choice—the two other stars, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, even tried to personally recruit Jolie for the part. However, Jolie didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into the “tough girl” action hero role she had already explored in Tomb Raider.
Luckily, Lucy Liu stepped in to give the role life and diversity.
41. It’s Not the Size That Matters
Among her co-stars, Liu was paid the least for her work in the Charlie’s Angels franchise. Drew Barrymore made the most for being the film’s producer, but Cameron Diaz got the biggest take-home paycheque. For the sequel, Diaz was paid $20 million, whereas Liu only took home $4 million.
42. Read Him the Bill of Rights
Movie sets are full of ego, but what happens when one actor blatantly criticizes another in the middle of production? In Charlie’s Angels, Lucy Liu allegedly attacked Bill Murray, screaming and throwing punches at his face. Was she justified? Moments before, Murray had stopped a scene in progress, apparently in order to compare Liu to her co-stars Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz.
He praised the two other actresses, then pointed to Liu and asked, “What in the hell are you doing here? You can’t act!” Nice Bill, real nice. He was replaced by Bernie Mac for the sequel. To this day, Murray will insist he was simply insulting the dialogue Liu was given; for her part, Liu simply said, “there’s nothing to talk about.”