Lucy Liu Talks Candidly About Racism And Stereotypes In Hollywood

Lucy Liu is perfectly happy naming, and talking about, the elephant in the room: racism is a problem in Hollywood.
Publish date:
May 13, 2013
sexism, racism, Hollywood, Lucy Liu

One of my favorite US actresses, Lucy Liu, is in Net-A-Porter’s Graphic Issue, which has me all kinds of excited. Because the only thing better than watching Liu at work is seeing her in fantastic frocks and reading interviews with her; she often has sharp, insightful comments on Hollywood and acting, while remaining quite modest and mellow.

She seems like she would be a lot of fun to hang out with.

(Lucy, come over some time! We’ll have tea and cookies!)

So Lucy Liu. At 44, she’s got a fair amount of experience in Hollywood, starting in the time-honored traditions of small guest roles and working her way on to “Ally McBeal.” She’s flitted back and forth between film and television, but as she herself points out, a lot of the roles she’s taken on have been really, really stereotyped.

You see, Lucy Liu is perfectly happy naming, and talking about, the elephant in the room: racism is a problem in Hollywood. Liu’s been cast as a Dragon Lady (Ling Woo on “Ally McBeal” for example), martial arts star (“Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill”), and, of course, mysterious sex worker with links to the Chinese mafia (“Payback”).

What she’s not often cast as is a woman who happens to be Chinese-American, a role where her race could be acknowledged and wrapped into the plot, without turning her into a total stereotype.

I wish people wouldn't just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me.

She rightly notes that race confounds any casting decisions, making it impossible for her to be seen neutrally as an actress who might fit well in a role. Instead, her race is front and center in any discussions about how to use her in film and television:

it [becomes], 'Well, she's too Asian', or, ‘She's too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It's a very strange place to be. You're not Asian enough and then you're not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.

Liu’s experiences in Hollywood, of course, mirror that of larger society, where Chinese-American women can find themselves in a strange social bind as they straddle multiple communities.

The daughter of immigrants, Liu has close ties to the Chinese community, but she’s also not entirely of the Chinese community, as she tells readers in the Net-A-Porter interview. She defied her parents to pursue an acting career, for example. Yet, at the same time, she’s not viewed as wholly “American” because of her race.

I love that her two favorite roles have been in “Lucky Number Slevin” (well worth checking out if you haven’t already) and “Watching the Detectives,” because both roles mark a departure from what people might think of as Liu’s ouvre, a reminder that actresses are often sandwiched into specific types of roles against their will. It’s not that Liu wants to be an action star or a Dragon Lady, but that these are the roles offered to her, and the ones she’s forced to take.

The fact that she’s getting more established and fighting to be on projects that aren’t pushing her into the stereotype corner is awesome, and I love seeing her in those roles. Her latest project, “Elementary,” definitely doesn’t cover stereotyped ground. As Joan Watson, she’s breaking all kinds of boundaries for an old and much-beloved classic. A companion to Holmes who’s not just a woman, but a Chinese woman?

Her casting in that role wasn’t without controversy, though. While the producers were very committed to exploring the Holmes/Watson dynamic as a friendship, with her race reflective of larger racial diversity in New York, fans were explosively angry about the decision to put Liu in the role. Considerable racial hatred was dredged up by people lobbying against her casting. Liu’s response when asked about it kind of encapsulated the many reasons why I love her:

If I didn’t try anything different, I’d still be doing a Calgon ad. You have to be a pioneer, which means doing things that are not scheduled and different. When you do stuff, it’s not always to please other people–it’s to please yourself. For me, the more individual you make something, the more universal it can be. You have to be a pioneer.

Lucy Liu is rocking on with her bad self in an environment heavily dominated by older white male decisionmakers, where white actresses have the pick of the roles and the paychecks, where it’s still acceptable to cast white people in roles of color, and where actors of color often find themselves pushed into boxes it’s very, very hard to escape. She’s fighting all the things actresses need to deal with in an industry where sexism is still a looming issue, plus the tangle of racism in Hollywood.

I love and admire her frankness on the issue, and her willingness to confront it through her career and the projects she works on. Thanks for being a pioneer, Lucy.