From steely office bitch in Ally McBeal, to the villainess with a vendetta in Kill Bill actress Lucy Liu is a force to be reckoned. There is a residual fearlessness to Lucy, even when off duty, flecked with pastel coloured finger-smudges of paint, and with her hair scraped back into a soft ponytail.
It’s an attribute that she doesn’t shy away from. She has publicly spoken out against the “invisible racism” faced by Asian actors in the film industry, and has campaigned for gay marriage. She is also open about her own fluid sexual views. In the hush-hush world of Hollywood, her candidness is refreshing.
Brought up by Chinese migrant parents in New York, Lucy was instilled with a first-generation, grafter’s work ethic. After graduating, she worked as a waitress and auditioned for TV bit parts, including a role in a new series, Ally McBeal. She didn’t get the part, but scriptwriter David E Kelley created the character Ling Woo especially for her.
In 2008, Lucy displayed a rarely seen vulnerability in Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles, playing an HIV-positive Chinese blood-smuggler. Last year, she made her first Broadway appearance in the Tony Award-winning comedy, God of Carnage.
Lucy has now come to London to lift the veil on a very different career trajectory. She has always taken an interest in visual arts, and first started showing her work under the pseudonym Yu Ling in 1993. Seven years ago, the 42-year-old bought a live-in art studio, and enrolled at the New York Studio School. Using her own name for the first time, she recently exhibited in London’s Salon Vert gallery. Taking collected scraps and objects salvaged while dumpster-diving, her work gives us an insight into her private experiences, as she explores her life as an Asian-American woman. Her latest installation, Seventy Two, consists of 72 primarily inked canvasses, and a limited edition book, inspired by the ‘72 Names of God’ in the Book of Exodus.
We asked Lucy to show us how she makes her work, before sitting down with her to talk about her passion.
“I didn’t know what a man looked like naked until I was 16. I still can’t figure it out.”
There’s a strong presence of the female form in your body of work. Why is that?
We didn’t grow up seeing anyone naked in our family, and I never saw what a man looked like until I was 16. I was astounded; I still can’t figure it out. I didn’t understand how it all worked and how it was attached. Obviously, I’m more familiar with it now, but it’s harder to capture. In my art, I connect with what I know. If a man could walk around naked all the time it’d be great for me, but who’s going to do that?
You’ve previously exhibited your art under pseudonyms. What made you decide to use your own name for your most recent exhibition?
When we had finished the book [that accompanied the show], which took more than two years, I asked myself, “Do we use my name or do we use the other name?” The publisher said, “We should use your name. This is your opportunity to really show your work and be proud of it.” It was the publisher that pushed me in that direction. It opened the door to an opportunity that has been there for a long time. I have been afraid to reveal this aspect of myself because people don’t like you to wear too many hats – they criticise you for it. I didn’t want it to be seen as disposable, because art is not disposable to me.
Has this fear stopped you reading reviews of your art?
I don’t read reviews about myself, even in film and in television, so I wouldn’t read reviews about my art. I think it taints the experience of it. When you do a movie or you are working in television, the people that you work with become your life; it is a very intimate experience that takes you somewhere emotionally. The experience of painting something has the same effect. Whether the painting is a success or a failure, the time that I was involved in it remains the same. To read a review about yourself, whether good or bad, can extinguish your experience and make you feel regretful, and I don’t want to regret time passing.
I hear that your upbringing was quite strict. Is it true that you didn’t celebrate birthdays?
My parents worked many jobs when we were growing up, morning, noon and night. That was their way to survive and to make it in America after moving from Taiwan. They relished the opportunity to do that; that is why they came to America. At college, people would talk about what they were doing for their birthday week, and I thought, “I can’t even remember when my own birthday is, let alone have a whole birthday week.” I love that people can celebrate that way, but in my family we were so busy trying to make ends meet.
Have you always painted?
We didn’t have any paints in the house when I was younger, but I would do collage. I would collect advertisements, rip them up, and then paste them together. That was the beginning of it. After that, I did photography, and then painting and sculpting. I began to realise how important it is to express yourself, and not be afraid of making mistakes – as mistakes often make something special and unique.
With the collages, were you expressing your reality or a fantasy?
I think both. There was definitely a feeling of self- expression, but I was creating a fantasy world, because the images were advertisements of things we couldn’t afford, so you created something of your own. That’s what made it special, because we didn’t have other materials. Even now that I have access to things that I couldn’t then afford, I am attracted to found objects. Sometimes I’ll go to the reject bin in the paint store and find the mixtures people decided that they didn’t want. I’ll make those into a painting instead of choosing the colours that I want. I find it fascinating that something that was once of use is not useful anymore. When you finish drinking a can of soda, you throw the bottle out. At one point, that bottle was undeniably important; the fact that it isn’t any more makes it much more attractive to me.
How do your art and film link?
I have a connecting point from one thing to another. There’s something important about the continuation of working. It’s like a string that doesn’t end. Even if I’m on set, I do something in my trailer. I can’t really sit around doing nothing; it would drive me crazy.
“When you’re doing something that you really care about, the passion is limitless. It feels like there is no end.”
You’re associated with playing less than angelic characters. Why is that?
A lot of people comment on the bitchy characters that I have played, but I’ve always felt that they have had so much heart. I like to explore a character to find the humility and the humour and think even the most sinister character should be gripping; you shouldn’t want them to die. You need a strong antagonist in films; you don’t want it to be that easy. The protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist, in my view.
You seem to be constantly challenging yourself. Do you think you’ll ever feel content?
It would be nirvana to get to that point. It is part of my system to want to work. Sometimes people retire and then pass away after a year or two; it might happen to me. It could be from childhood; work ethic being related to survival. But I do think there’s something magical about exploring and discovering. When you’re doing something that you really care about, the passion is limitless. It feels like there is no end.
Lucy Liu Seventy Two is published by Salma Editions.