We got to interview Lucy Liu at the Television Critics Association press tour session for “Elementary;” CBS’s new take on Sherlock Holmes puts the sleuth in modern day New York, fresh out of rehab. Joan Watson (Liu) is his sober companion who ends up following him into mysteries.
As a TV veteran (“Ally McBeal,” “Cashmere Mafia,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Southland”) Liu had a lot of ideas for her brand new Watson.
CraveOnline: Did your time playing a police officer on “Southland” help you when it came to this role?
Lucy Liu: You know, it’s strange. I don’t know that it did per se but I do think that I learned a lot about behind the scenes procedural work. And I do think that all the roles that you do play on television somehow culminate historically, from all the things that you learn. Now we’re doing interrogation scenes and things like that, I did learn some handcuffing, things like that, some basics.
CraveOnline: Do you know what Watson’s dark past is? Have you written a backstory?
Lucy Liu: Well, I think that what happened with her, and it’s in the pilot itself, is that she actually has a patient died on her watch and she was kicked out as a doctor. I think those two things together have incredible amounts of guilt and humiliation.
I think probably there’s a bit of shame in that because a person does work for a very long time to become a surgeon, so the fact that she now is a sober companion is kind of a very different place for her to be so I think there’s a lot of distance that we can travel in that for the character.
CraveOnline: What is the best part of filming in New York?
Lucy Liu: I get to go home every day.
CraveOnline: What did you really connect with the original Conan Doyle Watson?
Lucy Liu: I think the one thing I like is that you really get to see that she’s an intelligent character. She’s quiet. I think that she listens very well and she’s observant and I think that she learns very quickly.
The one thing I do think is special is that you really understand that she has a sense of humor, and I think that’s important because you want a certain amount of levity, but the humor is coming from her as opposed to she’s doing something silly that’s creating it. That makes it very different.
CraveOnline: Did you look at classic screen Watsons?
Lucy Liu: I have not at all. I have not. I have not been doing that. Maybe at some point I will just for curiosity’s sake but I do think that you don’t really want to carry on any isms from someone else when you’re creating something quite new and very different.
CraveOnline: Is this team-up kind of like a buddy picture?
Lucy Liu: Exactly. The key to this relationship is their interaction and I think also the key to this entire show is going to be their partnership and their friendship and their developing how it goes outside of just her being a sober companion. I think you guys have probably seen the pilot. She also adds something that he might miss. It’s hard because he doesn’t miss a lot. He doesn’t miss a lot but she might say something and it might spark something for him.
So there’s going to be a thread that she’s always going to present, otherwise there’s really no point. Something, it has to be really small and very minor because he’s the main brain of it and I think that’s a good quality for them to have because I don’t think all of a sudden out of nowhere she’s a doctor and she’s suddenly a detective. I think that’s just not believable. And if he wants to engage her in that way, he will but it’s not going to be on her own accord.
CraveOnline: Did you have any doctors in your family?
Lucy Liu: I do. I have two sisters. Different kinds, one’s an animal and one’s a human doctor.
CraveOnline: Did you talk to them about it?
Lucy Liu: Oh yeah, I’ll ask tons of questions. I’m never afraid. I’m not afraid to be the first person to ask a question. I don’t have any ego about that at all. I’m not going to pretend I went to 10 years of medical school and cut to two weeks of prep, “You’re on!”
CraveOnline: Why did you become the actress instead of a doctor?
Lucy Liu: I was the last, I was the youngest and probably just had a little more freedom and by that time everyone forgot about me so I was like, “I’ll do whatever I want.”
CraveOnline: What do you watch on TV?
Lucy Liu: Oh, one of my favorites is “Downton Abbey” because I’m a hopeless romantic. I love “Breaking Bad.” There’s so many wonderful things on television right now. I also love the show “Girls.” I think it’s brilliant and really smart and funny and very raw. It’s compelling.
CraveOnline: What are the quirks you’re finding between you and Jonny Lee Miller?
Lucy Liu: I think the chemistry between the two of us wasn’t written at all and it’s happening on its own. That’s something that they actually wanted to tone down a little bit and I was like, “I’m not doing anything. We’re just doing what’s written.” It doesn’t say suddenly they look at each other and there’s a chemistry. That came on on its own and they’re trying to filter it a little bit so that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to go towards a romantic turn right away.
CraveOnline: Is it nice to be launching a series on the ground floor again?
Lucy Liu: It is. It’s nice. You never know what you’re going to get and I think with “Cashmere Mafia” and other shows that you start, everyone has hopes for where it’s going to go and you never know if it’s going to go towards that direction, but once it does, it feels like you’re doing something fresh and new even though this is something that has already a very strong history and obviously has been out there in the world quite a bit.
It doesn’t feel like you can make a mistake because there’s no such thing as mistakes. I don’t feel that way. One thing always leads to another so I feel like it’s always a good thing to take a chance. The bigger the risk the bigger the reward.
CraveOnline: Did “Southland” change how the industry saw you, in a deglamorized role?
Lucy Liu: I don't know. I loved doing deglamorized. At the beginning of my career, I was only doing those kind of roles. To me, that’s really art, to be able to switch back and forth. What’s hard is sometimes doing a role that is seemingly more iconic and more in a fantasy world and if you can’t fulfill and step into those shoes and people don’t believe you then you’re kind of stuck in one place.
I think it’s better to be able to do both fantasy and reality and reality means something more raw and gritty. Because instead of why is so and so running around, that doesn’t even look real, I’m glad it was like an invisible thing where people did really notice that it was so obvious. And I think there were critics who were sort of like, “Oh, it’s stunt casting” but in the end they realized it wasn’t and I’m glad that it fulfilled or was able to decapitate any possible criticism that could’ve come my way.
CraveOnline: Could you come back on “Southland?”
Lucy Liu: I don't know. I don't know that that would be possible but I would welcome that because I loved working with everybody there, and they may be on a different schedule but we’ll see if I survive this season.
CraveOnline: Did you do the stunt in the video where the big guy slams you?
Lucy Liu: That was me, that was my actual cranium.
CraveOnline: We’re also looking forward to The Man with the Iron Fists. Is that a chance to create a whole new mythology?
Lucy Liu: I don't know how that’s going to turn out. That’s a very entertaining movie. It’s going to be one of those, as RZA said, bring a giant bowl of popcorn, sit down, kick back and enjoy the movie. I have to see because I never know how people are going to receive the movie, perceive the work you’ve done.