Lucy Liu is a star of Hollywood films as well as hit TV dramas. The Mandarin Oriental fan talks about her creative passions, motherhood, and being at home in New York
Lucy Liu's MO fan campaign portrait
Lucy Liu rose to fame in hit television comedy-drama Ally McBeal, becoming one of Hollywood's most recognisable stars, with roles in films that have included Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Kung Fu Panda and Kill Bill. Since then, she has come full circle and is back on television in the Emmy-nominated American crime drama Elementary, a modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes starring Liu as Dr Joan Watson. The show, for which she directs an episode a season, is in its fifth series and has brought Liu back to her hometown of New York, where she also works as an artist. Speaking from the set, Liu is charming, friendly and gracious, calling me back several times, chatting happily about everything from the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to her New York art studio.
Your TV series,Elementary,draws on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Growing up in America, did you know much about the character?
I'd definitely heard of him, but I only started reading the stories when I first read the script for Elementary. The cases are interesting, as are the ways that Holmes and Watson solve them, but what I like is how the relationship between the two is the key point. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did an amazing job of creating such colourful characters that haven't dated, and the stories aren't antiquated in any shape or form.
Lucy Liu in the role of a deadly assasin in film Kill Bill (2003)
The character you play, Dr Joan Watson, has received a lot of praise for her wardrobe.
I work with the brilliant costume designer Rebecca Hofherr. We want the costumes to express where Joan is in her life and in her career. At the start, she was a sober companion and wore very loose clothing; we didn't emphasise the waist a lot. In the second season, we started creating more of a waist for her. And in the third season, we introduced a kind of uniform, where we had pants and a shirt with a tie. For this season, we have started to incorporate suits, as she comes into her own as a detective and as a more powerful force.
You are also an artist. What is it like to be in a studio after being on a busy film set?
It's so nice, I love it. It's sort of meditative for me. I work in different mediums and I've recently been doing a large painting series.
Lucy Liu painting in her New York studio
Do you set up a studio on the set?
I don't, because we move around quite a bit. Sometimes if I'm doing a smaller project I will bring the works to the set, but most of the time I am working in large format. I have a studio in a beautiful complex – it's a nice clean space with windows and a view.
I enjoy doing exhibitions as it’s important to share your work
When I interviewed the British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson recently, she said that she enjoyed the process of putting an artwork together more than the buzz from seeing it in an exhibition. Do you feel the same?
Ultimately, you're doing the work for yourself and that's the most important thing. You can't think whether someone else is going to like it, because then you'd be lost and it's not about that. Although, saying that, I do enjoy exhibitions as I think it's important to share your work at some point. It feels good to be there for someone; it's why people go to weddings or funerals… There's a shared moment, however awkward it is. It's not about whether you like the work or not; it's about being part of something – it's giving and taking, whatever your opinion may be.
You first showed under your Chinese name Liu Yu Ling. Did you want people to come to see your work without having any preconceptions?
I did. It's sort of that idea of Taoism, where you have the 'unnaming' of the name. You take it away so people can have free opinion and thought. It was a big decision to eventually use Lucy Liu as my name, and in the end I think it was the right choice.
How else do you like to relax?
I have a son now, so I love spending time with him and introducing him to new things. Last year, he saw sand and the ocean for the first time. Everything is magical for him and it becomes that for you. It makes you relook at the simple things that you take for granted. We'll go to Mandarin Oriental, Miami soon for a long weekend, so he can enjoy the warm weather.
Filming must have taken you to some incredible destinations around the world. What were the most memorable countries?
I've been to so many unbelievable places it's hard to choose just one that stands out. The northern part of Thailand was stunning; the people were so kind. New Zealand was also special. You can be on dark black-sand beaches and then go into a rainforest – it's an incredible country. And the Maori people are so generous. I have great memories of that trip. I also shot in Beijing for Kill Bill and went to Shanghai for The Man With the Iron Fists. Japan is one of my favourite places in the world. Travel gives you a sense of other cultures and it takes you out of your comfort zone.
What do you love about your hometown, New York?
Doing Elementary has given me the opportunity to stay in one place for a while, have a family and find a nice foundation for that. New York is such a great city. It's sort of a stopping point for everyone: a lot of friends stay over before going on somewhere else. You never have an empty guest room when you live here! The museums, the theatre, the culture… all of it is available to you, but at the same time if you want to go hiking you can escape the city and easily do that. There's a lovely balance between the two.
Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson in TV series Elementary
Do you have any other favourite cities in the world?
I am a city mouse! I love Paris and London. I also think that Munich in Germany is fantastic – it's artistic and hip. There's a lot of culture there as well. I've spent time in Rome, too – it's so romantic and has always been one of my favourite places.
Do you have any essentials that you always travel with?
I always have a bag packed in my closet, which is mainly for the plane. Inside, there's a pair of warm socks, a headset, a scarf to cover my eyes, and a sweater that can double as a blanket.
Doing Elementary has given me the opportunity to stay in New York
Have you visited many Mandarin Oriental hotels on your travels?
When I was doing press I spent time at Mandarin Oriental, Paris, which I loved. And also Mandarin Oriental, Miami, where the Peruvian restaurant La Mar by Gastón Acurio is amazing. What I love about Mandarin Oriental is that the hotels are luxurious, but also feel like home. It is as if you can put your feet up and be comfortable there. The hospitality is wonderful. The hotels open their arms out to you and that's so important when you are out of your element.
And do you ever visit the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York?
Oh yes, it's exquisite. Everyone there pays great attention to detail. I'm like that myself when I have guests – it makes something special.
Are there any other of the Group's properties that you'd like to visit?
I haven't spent time in any Mandarin Orientals in Asia, so that would be a beautiful experience. Hong Kong, in particular, would be wonderful. It would be great to jump from hotel to hotel; while there are differences between them, there's also that sense of comfort and familiarity. To go with my family would be to experience it on another level. You can really see how a hotel functions when there are children around!