By Hugh Son
New York Daily News
NEW YORK -It’s hard not to notice when Lucy Liu makes an entrance.
Doing promotion on a rainy Labor Day for “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” which will be in theaters Friday the raven-haired beauty enters a luxury midtown hotel room with no fewer than five assistants at her heels.
At the photo shoot that follows, Liu doesn’t hesitate to give directions to the person clicking the shutter.
When asked to pose in an awkward way, she quickly declines.
Then, as the session winds down, Liu issues a command: “Can everybody leave the room while I do the interview?”
The 34-year-old actress exudes so much confidence that she has a far greater presence than her lithe 5-foot-1 frame would suggest.
“Not once,” she says, “have I ever felt I wasn’t in control of my own destiny.”
Liu became famous in 1998 when she joined “Ally McBeal” as fiery, summons-spouting Ling Woo, and then made the leap to film with a scene-stealing role as a dominatrix in “Payback” with Mel Gibson (1999), followed by roles as a rebellious princess (2000’s “Shanghai Noon” with Jackie Chan) and, with Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, one of the high-kicking “Charlie’s Angels” (also 2000).
In “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” Liu has the female lead as a covert-operations agent opposite Antonio Banderas.
Liu trained in martial arts and high-powered firearms to prepare for the part of Sever. “She gets betrayed by the man she works for and goes out for revenge,” says Liu.
“Ballistic’s” director, Kaos, found Liu to be an assertive collaborator.
“Because she has strong opinions, she doesn’t want to be excluded from the creative process,” he says.
“It challenges you as a director,” says the 29-year-old filmmaker from Thailand, whose full name is Wych Kaosayananda.
“With Lucy, you can’t pretend to have the answers, because she will break you down.”
Liu says she gets her fighting spirit from her parents, Chinese immigrants Tom, an entrepreneur, and Cecilia, a biochemist and from growing up in the melting pot of New York City, where she was born.
“I think anyone who is first-generation is going to have an adjustment period,” she says about her childhood.
“If your parents are not from America, you’re basically living a different culture, with a different set of rules at home.”
Liu attended IS 145 in Jackson Heights, and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1986.
She went to NYU for a year before transferring to the University of Michigan, where she studied Chinese language and culture (she’s fluent in Mandarin).
Her long road to movie stardom began in 1989, when she auditioned for a bit part in the college production of “Alice in Wonderland” and snagged the lead.
After graduating in 1990, Liu moved to Los Angeles and spent the next few years doing walk-on parts on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “NYPD Blue,” “ER” and “The X Files” before landing “Ally McBeal.”
With the success of “Charlie’s Angels,” which made $125 million in North America, Liu’s options have opened up.
In December 2000, she became the first Asian-American woman to be a guest host on “Saturday Night Live.”
She is currently commuting between the Los Angeles sets of two movies that will arrive in theaters next year: “Charlie’s Angels 2: Halo,” and Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated martial-arts epic “Kill Bill.”
“Working with Quentin is inspiring because he’s addicted to film,” says Liu.
“His blood is in the words and directing.”
She spent five weeks filming in Beijing earlier this summer and learned Japanese to play O-Ren Ishi, a Yakuza boss, in “Bill.”
Meanwhile, Liu is developing her own revival of the Charlie Chan film franchise, a series from the 1930s that originally starred Warner Oland, a Swede, as a know-it-all Chinese detective.
This time around, she’ll be Charlie Chan.
“We said, let’s turn it on its head, let’s make (Charlie) a woman,” she says. “And make it with someone who’s actually Asian, how about that?”
While Liu is probably the highest profile Asian-American actor now working –-Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat are from Asia – she engenders mixed feelings in the Asian-American community.
“I’m just glad she’s not this wilting lotus flower, she’s a kick-a– Asian girl, but we need to go beyond that,” says NaRhee Ahn, 31, a columnist for FunFactor, an Asian-American arts newsletter based in New York.
“I definitely think there are women in the Asian community who resent her because she chooses tough, bitchy women roles.”
To Liu’s critics, characters like Ling Woo perpetuate the “dragon lady” stereotype –a conniving Oriental seductress.
“What stereotype?” asks Liu, railing against her detractors.
“I’m playing a person with a personality, do you know what I mean? She’s got flavor, she’s got color.
If I’m too smart, I’m playing the geek. If I’m too sassy and sexy, I’m playing the dragon lady. It becomes very limiting.”
Despite her growing film success and bigger paychecks ($4 million for “Charlie’s Angels 2”), Liu is concerned that, as an Asian-American actor in mostly-white Hollywood, she’ll be typecast in chop-schlocky “tough-babe” roles.
“I do worry that it’s going to be limiting for me. They still want me to do a lot of martial arts,” Liu says.
“That’s not to say we won’t do `Charlie’s Angels 5,’ because it’s so much fun.
“You have to make the right decisions and you have to be satisfied with your work and respect the things that you do.”
© 2002, New York Daily News.
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