'God of Carnage' stars Lucy Liu and Dylan Baker
I don’t want anyone to have one idea of me."
The word is overused these days, but nevertheless, “fierce” applies to Lucy Liu. With a bevy of action-packed flicks (Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill and Kung Fu Panda) under her belt as well as an unforgettable breakthrough performance as a vicious vixen on '90s TV sensation Ally McBeal, the actress’ persona is sexy, smart and tough as nails. Yet the Queens native, who is making her Broadway debut as Annette in the third company of God of Carnage on March 2, calls herself a “pretty mellow person,” one who shouldn’t be mistaken for any of the characters she plays. Liu recently took a break from Carnage rehearsals to chat about her experience as a first generation American in a family of Chinese immigrants, being a "good bitch" and an unusual e-mail relationship.
How have rehearsals been for you?
Great! It’s fast and furious because by the end of the second week, we had already stumbled through the entire play with blocking. We were already on our feet and moving around on the third day.
There must be an immediate intimacy that happens when you have to jump into playing these long-married characters, even if you just met your co-stars.
The thing is, with actors in general, you know how to get to know each other very quickly. It’s an immediate connection, because we all have our box of "things" that we bring from childhood or from our past.
So you dive in and try to create the chemistry as you go?
We listen a lot. Everybody has these incredible stories. We have a great chemistry, all four of us. [Dylan Baker plays Liu's self-absorbed husband alongside Jeff Daniels and Janet McTeer.] And the more we create stories for one another—backstories for the characters—the more we learn. That’s what is driving us now. I started e-mailing Dylan as the character to his character.
Really? So you spend the day in rehearsal, and then you go home and e-mail Dylan?
Well, I sometimes even do it during rehearsal when we have a break! [Laughs.] I’ll e-mail him, “That was really inappropriate, what you said!” It’s hysterical. I tell him what I think in character.
Are you a nagging wife to him?
A little. I’ll write, “Don’t forget, we have to meet with the Novaks.” It brings a whole other dimension to it that’s really fun. It’s just different when you read a message from your character than speaking as your character.
What made you want to do this play?
I really wanted to work with [director] Matthew [Warchus]. I think that the direction [of God of Carnage] is so key—and obviously the writing as well—but the director can change the way the writing is presented to the audience. I like how subtle he is and how real it is for him. If it were a farce, obviously, it would be a different story directed in a different way. But in this, we are doing something that is very real to us on stage. The comedy is in that—something so real it’s funny. Plus, there’s something a little bit off about it. I like that. The deterioration of these relationships that manifest over this short period of time is really kind of insane and incredible and odd. To be able to dive into something and have that emotional heat underneath it, that’s what I want to do.
As a native New Yorker, did you experience seeing a Broadway show when you were a child?
Oh my gosh, no! The only time we came into Manhattan was to go to Chinatown to the butcher’s market to pick up some meat for the rest of the month.
So Broadway wasn’t a childhood dream of yours?
Being an actor was a childhood dream. I’m first generation: My parents came over from China and met in New York. We weren’t exposed to that much. We were just exposed to the idea of being in a new place and getting adjusted to the language and the culture. That was enough. We didn’t have any extra art and other cultural aspects to confuse us. It was just about trying to get by and survive. In that respect, it’s a dream for me because it was so far from something I could have imagined as a child, even though it was just in a different borough, you know? It’s kind of amazing to be so close to something, yet not be aware of it. We honestly couldn’t afford it. We never went to any movies, let alone go see a Broadway show. But once I became an actor, I absolutely wanted to be on Broadway.
Where did this idea of becoming an actress come from?
I think it was just probably the idea of escape. When you’re a child, your imagination is very active. You can go anywhere: You close your eyes and you can be there. I think I thought that’s what acting was, you know?
You are mostly viewed as a film and television actress, but you have done quite a bit of theater. How did you get started?
I started in high school. We would put on our performance for the year, and I would be in the background. I did Oklahoma! and Hair in college [at the University of Michigan]. I never thought of myself as anyone who could be significant. When I graduated, I decided this is what I was going to do, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. I got Backstage and started hitting the pavement, going to open calls. I went to Pan Asian Rep and did theater there. I did a lot of regional theater—St. Louis, San Jose Rep. I learned a lot.
That’s even more stage work than I thought.
I did it pretty regularly and then moved to L.A. and started doing episodic guest star roles. And then landed Ally McBeal. I also did Pearl, this other show that was sort of like theater because it was a half-hour sitcom, so you do it in front of an audience. I was very comfortable at that point because I had done theater before.
Do you think you’re able to tap into something with this character that audiences maybe haven’t seen before from you?
I hope so. I hope that audiences will always see something a little bit different in the performances. It will be an interesting thing. I think that a lot of times, the natural feeling is to please and to want to entertain and I think it’s important to just keep it as real as possible for me. I hope it will be exciting for them to see me access something onstage that they haven’t in the other works that I’ve done.
Is it fun to play a mom?
It is! It’s fun to play a mom with a husband who has all these crazy quirks. And I love this other dimension that Dylan and I have as well. He’s open to it. We call each other Woof Woof [a term of endearment in the play].
Does his wife, actress Becky Ann Baker, know about this?
[Laughs.] I haven’t met his wife yet. I’m really looking forward to it.
You’ve played a lot of tough characters. And though Annette isn’t exactly soft, she’s not the asskicker we’ve seen you do.
It’s so weird because there’s other things you end up doing that aren’t as commercially successful, so of course those are never seen. But some of the popular ones can be categorized that way.
And you’re good at it.
I must be good at it. [Laughs.] I continue to try to pepper what I do with different challenges, but ultimately what’s more seen and more recognized are those other ones that are much more available to people.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
I guess that I’m the characters that I play.
Does that bother you?
I don’t really know what people think about me. Sometimes people come up to me like, “Oh my GOD! You play such a good bitch!” I didn’t know you could combine “good” and “bitch” together. It’s a little weird, but hopefully it will keep changing. I don’t want anyone to have one idea of me.
So you want to keep people guessing?
Yes, I try to keep my personal life pretty much out of it and keep people guessing. I don’t really need them to know who I am; I just need them to know what person I’m presenting to them.
You have the grind of rehearsals and eight shows a week, a lot of people say it’s like running a marathon. How are you going to unwind?
I’m going to sleep a lot. [Laughs.] I’m excited to have a regular schedule, and I’m thrilled to be in one place for a while. It will be nice to have our days free.
What are you going to do all day?
Trust me, I have tons of things. I love to do things like go to acupuncture and meet friends and have lunch. Go to the museums. If I have a set schedule, I can plan around that. If you’re working on a television show or a movie, you really don’t know. I’ve done projects where I’ll leave the set to see a movie, but then I’ll get a call, “We need you in now!” I still haven’t finished watching a lot of movies because I had to leave in the middle! I’m like, “Oh God, I never finished watching Boogie Nights.”
What’s most exciting about making your Broadway debut?
The whole thing is tremendous. I wonder is the debut the day you first go on?
I believe it’s the moment you step on that stage in front of a paying audience.
Wow. What a thrill. My father came to see me in a show once at San Jose Rep., and he’d seen other shows that I’d done in really small theaters with like 99 seats. He didn’t know it was going to be such a big theater, with something like 1,000 seats. He was just so shocked. I think it will be nice for him not to have to go very far to see me in a show—and to see that it’s more than 99 seats. I’ve graduated a little bit.
When this play is over, are you still going to e-mail Dylan?
I’m going to haunt him with e-mails and threaten him as the character forever.
See Lucy Liu in God of Carnage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.