To most people, Lucy Liu is a famous actor with more than three decades of work behind her and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but to her seven-year-old son, she’s just “Mom.” (He doesn’t even recognize her voice in Kung Fu Panda.) Sometimes when he’s with her, people will randomly stop Liu on the street for a photo or an autograph. “I’ll just say ‘Oh, that person recognized me and likes my work,’ and he’ll say ‘Okay,’” she says with a laugh. “It’s very cut and dried. If he asks the question [about what I do for a living], I’ll answer it fully. But I won’t give him more information because I think it can be confusing.” Liu is the same way with adults. She doesn’t feel the need to give people too many particulars—she takes a less-is-more approach. “If [someone] is curious, [they’ll] keep asking questions,” she tells me. “I always do.”

I experience this curiosity first-hand when we meet via video call. She immediately clocks a photo of my son hanging on the wall behind me and starts asking me about him. We quickly realize that our boys are almost the same age, born two days apart. “So they’re both little Virgos!” she exclaims. After a 20-minute mom-out session, I’m totally smitten.

I’m also in awe of the sheer volume and consistency of Liu’s work. Since the New York-born Chinese-American actor’s first mainstream-television appearance—playing a waitress on Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1991—she has literally not stopped. Liu has had at least one acting credit per year since that role (she has several credits most years), and her resumé even extends into 2024. Her IMDb page scrolls like a calendar. So it’s no surprise to learn that over the next few months, Liu will have two major movie releases: Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World (out on November 23), which is about a family of explorers and also features Jake Gyllenhaal and Gabrielle Union, and Shazam! Fury of the Gods—the sequel to DC Universe hit Shazam!—which also stars Zachary Levi and is slated for a March 2023 release.

But before Liu became my new mom friend and workethic role model, I was already a fan. I watched her in her breakout role as lawyer Ling Woo on Ally McBeal, which put her on the industry map—she even played herself in an episode of Sex and the City—and opened the door to bigger roles. Then there were the blockbusters: the Charlie’s Angels films, the Kill Bills and the Kung Fu Pandas. She has worked on countless television series and films alongside too many big Hollywood names to list, she made her Broadway debut in 2010 and she even has directing credits under her belt—most notably, episodes of Elementary, the award-winning CBS show in which she played the role of a female Dr. (Joan) Watson opposite Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes.

Dress (Gucci)

Elementary, which ran for seven seasons, was pivotal for Liu because she was able to direct several episodes, but it carried a much more personal significance. “It was the first time I recognized that I could have a family,” she says. “I think when you’re constantly moving around and living out of a suitcase, you’re not really thinking about the future. I was always very present in where I was and where I might be going right after, but I never thought about what [was possible] for me outside of work.” While the show had an intense shooting schedule, it allowed Liu to stay in one place (New York City, where she grew up and now lives) and create a more permanent home for herself—and, eventually, her son, who was born in 2015 via gestational surrogate.

“It’s a dramatic change because it’s an emotional decision,” says Liu of becoming a mother. “And even once that happens, you don’t know what’s going to follow. I didn’t read books, and I didn’t follow certain guidelines. I think it’s something you do, [something] you experience. And I kept very much to myself [during that period].”

Liu has always been one to keep her professional life and her private life separate. It’s not that she has anything against people who live in the limelight; it’s more that exposing herself to the media diminishes her sense of security. But there is an intimate side of Liu that she does share with the world: her artwork.

“It’s something I’ve always done as a way to express myself,” she says of her visual art, through which she experiments with painting, silkscreening, sculpture, textiles and installations. “When I was younger, I was very shy, so it was an emotional outlet.” When a friend of Liu’s saw her work, he suggested she show it publicly. That was the first time she realized that her art could be shared. “I didn’t really do it for anyone else but myself at the time,” says Liu. Since then, she has had numerous shows, including one at the National Museum of Singapore, and considers her practice a constant creative outlet in her life.

As someone who values expressing herself in different ways, Liu was thrilled when she was offered a role in DC superhero movie Shazam! Fury of the Gods alongside Dame Helen Mirren and Rachel Zegler, who play her character’s sisters. Although the plot has been shrouded in secrecy and Liu is tight-lipped about the details, she admits that being invited into this universe is pretty spectacular. When I ask her about working with the iconic Mirren, she gushes. “There’s a generosity and a warmth to her,” she says. “She’s somebody who is quite clear in how she carries herself, and she’s very family-oriented. I really respect that because she obviously has an incredible resumé but it doesn’t discount what she has in her life outside of work.” When Liu first took her son, who was about five at the time, to meet Mirren, he told Liu afterwards that he wanted to marry her. “I was like, ‘Well, what if she has a husband already?’” says Liu. “And he goes: ‘That’s okay. I’ll be her butler.’ People just fall in love with her.”

Dress (Alexandre Vauthier) and ring (Sophie Buhai)

Does that mean I only have the ability to play this person that I am? Well, then that’s not really interesting because I’m that person all the time.

It wasn’t just getting to act alongside such talent that did it for Liu; it was also rewarding being part of a genre that is leading the way in terms of representation and diversity. “There’s a feeling of inclusion that is very significant in these [superhero] movies,” she says. “It’s important because seeing yourself onscreen is going to make every difference in how you perceive yourself in the world.”

Things might be changing now, but for most of Liu’s career, casting was far from diverse. “There’s been a shift since the pandemic, and that’s very  positive, [but] I think there’s still a long way to go,” she says. “The most important thing is to not become overly prescriptive—meaning ‘If you’re not this, then you can’t play that.’ I think that gets a little bit dangerous. A lot of times, people will say ‘Well, you’re Asian, so you can’t play this person’s mother’ or ‘You can’t be this person’s sister.’ Does that mean I only have the ability to play this person that I am? Well, then that’s not really interesting because I’m that person all the time.”

Liu was only the second Asian-American woman to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and that was in 2019. The first one, who was an industry trailblazer and a source of inspiration for Liu, was Anna May Wong; she got her star in 1960 (and will be the first Asian American to appear on U.S. currency). “I’m glad that there are more possibilities now, but [the industry] has to branch out in a more significant way,” says Liu, noting the almost-60-year gap between the stars. “I think it’s going to take more time than we would hope.”

Addressing issues around representation is something Liu is more than willing to do, having recently made her frustrations public in a Washington Post op-ed that ran in April 2021. She felt the need to write it after she was sent a Teen Vogue article about the role the American entertainment industry plays in perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Asian women. An expert source in the article highlights Liu’s character in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Japanese Yakuza leader O-Ren Ishii, as a contemporary example of a “dragon lady,” describing her as “cunning and deceitful” and saying that she is “emotionally and sexually cold and threatens masculinity.” Liu was angry that her character had been singled out and felt it was just because she’s Asian; the movie portrayed three other female professional killers with similar characteristics, but none of them were called out for being a dragon lady.

Top (Louis Vuitton)

“If you’re going to bring an example like that to the forefront, you need to then go through the entire list of actresses in that particular movie and highlight why [they’re not stereotypes],” she says. “You have to do your homework…because it’s harmful to call things out like that without real evidence.” Her piece quickly went viral and was shared by various news outlets and cultural websites. When I ask her about making that choice to speak out and put herself in the public forum, she’s very clear in her reply. “My work is my work,” she says. “It’s its own thing, and whether people like it or not doesn’t matter—that’s a personal choice. That’s more subjective. But to say something and perpetuate something that I don’t think is true? You better watch out because I’m gonna have something to say about it.”

For now, Liu is hard at work filming A Man in Full—an upcoming Netflix limited series that is based on the Tom Wolfe novel of the same name and stars Jeff Daniels—in Atlanta. It’s executive produced by David E. Kelley and Regina King, and half of the show’s episodes are also directed by King. “I love the idea of the two of them together,” says Liu, who worked with Kelley on Ally McBeal and with King on TV series Southland. “I leave myself in his and her hands.”

She’s also getting ready to promote the visually stunning Strange World, a project that’s close to her heart as it’s something she can share with her son—and get his candid feedback on. “I adore hearing his reviews because he is so pure and sees everything from a point of view that’s different from [those of] grown-ups,” she says. In the highly anticipated animated adventure, Liu voices the character of Callisto, whom she describes as a risk taker. “She’s adventurous, courageous and a natural leader,” she says.

It’s a perfect fit for the actor, as she herself is a trailblazer who has inspired younger generations to follow in her footsteps. I ask Liu if at this point in her career—and her life—she feels like she has a certain amount of knowledge and confidence. “It’s funny because I have a lot more experience, but I also feel like I know so much less than I used to,” says Liu. “I think that’s a very good thing. There’s more to explore when you know less.”

Royal Gilbert

Find the full story in the December-January 2022/2023 issue of ELLE Canada — out on newsstands and on Apple News+ November 21. You can also subscribe for the latest in fashion, beauty and culture.