Wed, Jun 30, 2010
Lucy Takes the Hill
The actress logs thousands of miles each year on behalf of UNICEF...and thousands more as an actress most likely to surprise us.
Many actors play to type, bringing a certain swagger to the screen that ultimately defines them in the public eye as artists. Think Bruce Willis’ cheeky charm, Tina Fey’s everywoman appeal or Jim Carrey’s manic humor.
In the same vein, Lucy Liu, 41, is famed for delivering a distinct and biting bravado in TV and film roles, an array of colorful characters who pride themselves on taking no prisoners. These include acidic attorney Ling Woo on Ally McBeal, underworld crime maven O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Vol. I, and leather-clad Alex Munday in the Charlie’s Angels movies, to name a few.
Still, there may be no greater disconnect in Hollywood between person and persona than one finds in the reflective, empathetic, philanthropic and seriously artistic Liu. She’s about as bracing as a warm bath, or maybe a motherly hug.
Her long-standing work with UNICEF, the international organization created by the United Nations to work toward the development, protection and survival of the world’s most vulnerable children, speaks to this. First approached in 2005 to become a celebrity ambassador for the group, the actress now fills her calendar, and her travel schedule, by flying to some of the most remote and heartbreaking locales on the planet, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Lesotho, Cambodia and Côte d’Ivoire. “My main concern is to educate myself,” she says. “To be as quiet as I can, to ask questions and to learn … Each place I visit presents such a dichotomy: these lush, gorgeous environments against incredible poverty, destitution and a disregard for human life … I go so I can share their stories.”
Which is exactly what’s she done in her new documentary, REDLIGHT, which details the growing epidemic of human trafficking. She co-produced and narrated the film.
Liu is also an accomplished painter, photographer and sculptor who shows her work—at times anonymously to gain recognition for her artistry, not her celebrity—in renowned galleries in New York and Munich, Germany. In 2006, she auctioned the proceeds from one highly publicized show to benefit UNICEF, netting the organization an impressive $267,000.
And while it’s true the actress/artist/activist is also an expert martial artist—she practices Kali-Eskrima-Silat (knife-and-stick fighting)—with all this do-gooding, does she really sound like a tough-as-nails warrior to you?
Essence of Hope
“Lucy has an extraordinary grasp of the issues,” says Dr. Susan Bissell, UNICEF, chief of child protection.
Bissell recounts how last September in Washington, D.C., Liu was invited as keynote speaker to address a crowd of human rights professionals at a USAID symposium, where Bissell served on a panel of experts. “Lucy was a few minutes into her speech about child trafficking when she stopped and choked up—it was very emotional material—before collecting herself to continue with her message,” Bissell recalls. “But she was so impassioned, there was not a dry eye in the room. And I’m talking about a roomful of seen-it-all, done-it-all advocates.”
“There is hope,” Liu was quoted as saying at the time. “I believe this because of devoted individuals like yourselves, UNICEF and USAID … I hope you share my outrage.”
Liu’s crusade took form in REDLIGHT. The documentary unflinchingly presents the harrowing journey of young women who’ve been held in sexual or forced-labor servitude. These individuals—victims and survivors—represent a sinister and booming business that adversely affects an estimated 2.5 million men, women and children across the globe, although more than half hail from Asia and the Pacific. The cable network Showtime purchased the documentary late last year; it is now negotiating licensing rights.
Liu also narrated a similar short documentary, Traffic, in 2007 for MTV. It featured, among other true stories, a young woman forced to work in an Indonesian factory without pay or much food.
Whether it’s trafficking for child soldiers or enslaved labor, how does the average person make a difference? “Sometimes it’s easier to give money,” says Liu. “But honestly, awareness and education are just as important. Take the time to educate yourself about what’s happening, and volunteer if you can—it starts with intention, which can bring change.”
Despite some tough assignments as a UNICEF ambassador, Liu says she’s had plenty of positive travel experiences, too. The actress has traveled for press purposes to Italy, which she adores, and spent four months living in Paris in 2008, where she “rented a place” in the City of Light partly because of her art show in nearby Munich, and partly because Paris was simply calling.
As the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants, Liu has also long been fascinated with Chinese culture and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. (She didn’t learn English until age 5, when she entered school in Queens, New York.) “I’ve traveled to China twice,” she tells Flyer, “once for school and once for Kill Bill … It’s incredible to understand the history there. My favorite places are the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.”
As for D.C., Liu is admittedly a fan. “There’s so much to do there, so much history,” she says. “When I was there last fall, I was all about the museums.” Liu is a devotee of the National Gallery of Art (on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th streets at Constitution Avenue, NW; 202/842-6690).
Liu is mightily impressed with Washington’s restaurant scene, too. “D.C. has great food. I loved this [Mediterranean] spot in Georgetown so much I saved the address and phone number in my address book so I could return. Hang on,” she says. “Let me look it up so I can recommend it.” After rifling through her things, she comes up with gold: “Neyla!” she exclaims (3206 N St., NW; 202/333-6353; neyla.com). “It’s so, so good.”
Big Apple Lights
Liu recently tackled another new challenge: Broadway. In March, she made her debut in the Tony-award-winning comedy God of Carnage, co-starring Jeff Daniels.
“I was so nervous,” she says with a laugh when considering her first night on stage. “I had this pendulum of emotions swinging. But then I was so energized by the audience, and it was so symbiotic, I forgot my nerves.”
What’s next for this creative, independent and charitable woman who refuses to be pigeonholed, even if she is best known for a specific kind of role?
In addition to her animation voiceover work—Liu returns as Viper in Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom, slated to come out next year, and she’s taking another spin soon in the Tinkerbell series, too—the actress is now filming an independent film, East Fifth Bliss. So in between her Broadway run, movies in production, UNICEF duties and a New York apartment filled with “my bed and my artwork-in-progress and not much else,” she’s plenty busy. But we knew that much about her already.