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The Fretts on Film Interview: Lucy Liu on “The Man with the Iron Fists” and Mel Gibson

November 12, 2012

I was lucky enough to be asked by the SAG Foundation to moderate a Q&A with Lucy Liu yesterday. While we mostly discussed her role as Dr. Watson in the new CBS hit Elementary, we also touched on a few movie-related topics. Here’s what she had to say about how she shaped her part as the deadly Madame Blossom in the RZA’s directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists (currently in theaters) and her memories of playing a dominatrix opposite Mel Gibson in 1999’s Payback.

The RZA told me you were hard to get for Man with the Iron Fists because you wanted more fight scenes. He also said you wrote your character’s monologue about women and power—true?

The Man With The Iron Fists—it’s not Shakespeare. It’s a popcorn movie, it hits on a lot of the kung fu movies from the 70’s and the 80’s and it was what it was. So originally in that role she was a sort of dastardly madam, and she gets killed at the end. And there was not really much in between it. So it seemed like stunt casting without really anything interesting to do, and the RZA really wanted me to be in it. And I said, ‘Listen, if you want me to be in it then there has to be something more to it. If the audience is going to come see this type of movie, they’re going to want to see me do something physical. But more than that, if she’s the madam of this brothel, then she has to come from somewhere. Let’s give her a history. She was at one point one of these children on the street and she’s worked her way up to this position now, and that has control. Let’s give her that. So I wrote this monologue and he actually put it in there. So it was really good because you never know if it’s going to end up on the editing-room floor, but it was nice that I did do it, and he was able to incorporate it. And I think from that movie, there was something that I found that was special. Because you can have so many concepts and say, ‘There’s a director that I want to work with desperately,’ but there’s really nothing there for me. I’ll say to him, ‘I just don’t know how to make this role special.’ And if you’re not going to be special in something, you can hire anybody. It’s not for money, it’s for the love of the art, so you want to be able to contribute somehow.

You’ve done quite a few action films—the Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill movies—in addition to Man With the Iron Fists. Did Elementary appeal to you because it’s more cerebral—you wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into the action genre?

I like the fact that Watson is just a normal person, and I think that people are just waiting for her to break out and do something, like “chop!” It’s probably more boring for some of those audience members, but actually, it’s really nice to make sure to we know that those things are always available. We can do all of those action movies, which are fun, and adrenalizing—but I can be, and ethnic actors can be, real people and not anything that’s so outlandish. Her specialty is that she was a surgeon and she is this person now. So we’ll see how it pans out. But unlike Southland, there is not the need for her to be running around and to jump on someone’s back.

Mel loves Lucy—and vice versa—in Payback

Which actor that you’ve worked with influenced you the most or gave you the best advice? 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many different people. I have to say, sometimes it’s not even about what they say, it’s just how they are. And I know that Mel Gibson, more recently, has had a lot of flack, and I haven’t really been in touch with him, but he was one of the first actors I worked with [on Payback]. He was a movie star when I first started, and he still is, and he knew everybody’s name on the crew, he was kind to everybody, he taught me how to play poker. He was a very down-to-earth, very kind person. He was one of the few people that you meet that wasn’t lascivious and trying to make the moves on anyone. He was just a very nice person. The way that he treated you and other people around him was a real eye-opening experience. And from that point on, you can also see that there are other people who don’t have that type of status, but aren’t as kind to other people. And I find that to be one of the key factors—how people treat other people is a gauge how my relationship is going to be. So to me, it’s really about how open somebody is with not just the other actors—because actors treat each other a certain way—and if they treat the crew and other people in a separate way, you know you have to be careful.

Are you a Lucy Liu-natic? Post a comment!

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