Onscreen, Elementary's Lucy Liu has kicked butt and kept Sherlock Holmes on track. But she'd still really love to do comedy ...
At the end of a long Friday workday, rumpled-suited detectives mill about in Capt. Toby Gregson's crowded NYPD office, replaying grainy video footage of a murder suspect. Outside the office, the stunning Joan Watson, MD—patent leather heels, short business skirt, cropped jacket—ushers me into the nearby, iron-barred holding cell for questioning. She seats me on a hard wooden bench, swipes back her long, thick hair and begins the interrogation.
Wait—I'm the journalist conducting the interview. But after a week spent binge-watching the updated Sherlock Holmes drama Elementary, it's disorienting to sit in a prop cell on the show's Silvercup Studios set, across from the stunning Lucy Liu, and not feel like a suspect. In a second, though, the star of movies Charlie's Angels and Kill Bill and series including Cashmere Mafia and Southland effortlessly transitions from the crisp, circumspect tones of Dr. Watson to her more naturally warm charm.
We chat about the trailblazing arc of her long career, her unexpected chemistry with co-star Jonny Lee Miller, and the surprisingly simple secret to her seemingly eternal youth. All the while, her huge chocolate Lab ("My beastie!") named Apple waits amiably and quietly round the corner for her owner and, perhaps (if she's as disoriented as I am) daydreams about her job on NYPD's K-9 squad.
Watch!: How does it feel to know that you've been doing this for more than 20 years? Lucy Liu: I don't even believe it. I was given an award for my body of work, and then it dawned on me that I've been in this business for so long. Still, I feel like I'm just getting started and there's still so much to learn.
Watch!: But you've been a part of so many huge shifts in entertainment. The lesbian kiss on Ally McBeal … Lucy: It was a big deal back then. Now they have shows about lesbians on network TV. It's not as shocking now because it's more accepted and more part of the mainstream, which is great.
Watch!: Even shows with vampire lesbians! Lucy: Dead people, for God's sake. If you don't have a dead person on your show, forget it. Throw in the towel!
Watch!: And when you started out, there were almost no Asian-Americans on TV. Now you're Watson. The TV my Asian-American daughter grows up watching will be very different than what I grew up watching. Lucy: It is significant, and I think we still have a long way to go. It is good that you'll have to explain to her that when Daddy was a teenager, there wasn't anybody like her on television. People say I'm a pioneer, but I don't recognize it because I'm still living it. Maybe on my last breath if they name a street after me in the city, I'll say, "Wow, I made a difference." Right now, it doesn't feel like it.
Watch!: And you've been a part of the power shift from film to TV. Lucy: In the past, there was a stigma if you were on TV. People like Meg Ryan and Demi Moore went from soap operas to being film stars. Not the other way around. Now it's hard to compete with television: The quality of people doing television now is stunning. I mean, Dustin Hoffman had his own show! [Laughs.] Maybe it didn't go on, but that's amazing.
Watch!: You've done TV and film, dramas, comedy and action. Will you keep mixing it up? Lucy: Yes. It keeps me on my toes. I love comedy, but I don't think people think of me for a romantic comedy and I keep pursuing that, because I just love them.
Watch!: What's your favorite? Lucy: It Happened One Night. C'mon! You can't beat that.
Watch!: Hard to beat Claudette Colbert—but why do you think people don't cast you in romantic comedies? Lucy: Because they want to see me punching people and getting my head cut off, which is great. But can I also do that? I'm raising my hand, but no one's picking me.
Watch!: Well, there's speculation that Holmes and Watson will get romantic. Do you play with that expectation onscreen? Lucy: We never do it on purpose, ever.
Watch!: Not even in the premiere when Jonny is shirtless talking about "love at first sight" while looking into your eyes? Lucy: Well, he is shirtless a lot. ... It was so strange that people were suddenly like, "There's so much chemistry." To me, always Sherlock and Watson don't get together. It's like Mulder and Scully.
Watch!: Really? Lucy: I don't get that vibe. But there is a tension and there is a love between them that's developing, and that's maybe a little deeper than friendship. There's always the possibility of something in any friendship.
Watch!: When you were cast, people were so surprised Watson was a woman that they never mentioned your ethnicity. Lucy: People don't like to bring up race. If they could have, I'm sure they would have, but it's not PC. It is easier to pick on gender.
Watch!: The big switch, though, is that Watson isn't a sidekick. She's becoming a detective with her own cases. Lucy: That's the thing: If you read the literature itself, Watson is so unlike what he became, which was the comedic one who got his foot caught in the bucket. When I signed on, I knew for sure that I didn't want to be a sidekick. I love being funny, but not that kind of funny—maybe unintentionally funny, or sharp, or dry. It has to be subtle, or otherwise it suddenly becomes a Benny Hill sketch comedy show.
Watch!: You're funny, but you don't have traditional comic timing. Your rhythm is slightly odd— Lucy: It's a bit syncopated. I think syncopation is good. I remember when I used to play the piano when I was younger; I was learning ragtime and it was driving my father crazy. He's like, "The whole thing seems off!" I told him, "It's syncopated: It's supposed to be off." The left hand is doing its own thing, different from the right hand. It is not synchronized. It's insane—and I think that's what life is.
Watch!: Another neat little trick is that you're Sherlock's sober companion, but you don't come off as a nag. Lucy: God, can you marry me, please? My worst fear is coming off that way. It's a fine line with Watson.
Watch!: Have you ever been in that role in real life? Looking after a troubled friend? Lucy: Absolutely. The key is to support someone, but allow them to still be themselves. That's really hard. You can't force someone to do or not do something ultimately. You ask yourself: Do you want to do good? Or do you want to control? I've learned you can live by example; that's all.
Watch!: As an artist, you've had a few gallery shows. Do you still paint? Lucy: Yes, I had a show in Manchester, England, in mid-May, including two new sculptures and some linen pieces.
Watch!: What's the feel of the new work like? Lucy: Pretty quiet. Very invisible. Very minimalist.
Watch!: Are you happy with them? Lucy: I don't know if you're ever satisfied as an artist. Your life changes and your experiences change. So you have to remember that in a sense, it's a photo album. It's a memory. It's a feeling. If you capture something from that time that you were feeling very strongly, maybe it's best to not go in there and start tearing it up and throw it all away. Acting is like that, too—like water.
Watch!: Over the years, you've become more involved with humanitarian work. What are your priorities now? Lucy: UNICEF has been my main focus since 2004. And I now work with Heinz, which has a micronutrient campaign to fight children's malnutrition. In some of these places, children have to walk miles just to get to water, let alone a hospital, and we don't want them to get to that point where they need to. Micronutrient packets can help kids grow and develop when they are unable to receive it naturally from the meals they are eating.
Watch!: I hear you meditate on set. What does that practice mean to you? Lucy: Two years ago, Deepak Chopra taught me how to meditate. It's a good way to remind yourself of what is important and what's not. When you're working long hours, and on the weekends you're learning your lines and you're doing press and doing photo shoots, you start to lose track. I have to wake up early to meditate, so it's painful if I have to wake up at 5 a.m. or 4:30 in the morning, but the payoff is amazing. Today instead of having lunch, I meditated. It is basically like taking a vitamin that you cannot get anywhere else because no one can give it to you.
Watch!: So that's part of your secret? Lucy: Oddly, people say I look so young, and I really think meditation has a lot to do with it. I don't know why, but people who do meditate look ageless.