Versatility in action

SUCCESS on the small screen doesn't necessarily translate to the big screen. But that hasn't been the case for Lucy Liu.

The actress, 37, first came to fame in 1998 as the fiery, funny and brilliant lawyer Ling Woo on the Emmy Award-winning Fox series "Ally McBeal."

"She was colorful and wonderful," Liu says of Ling. "When you do television, it goes into everyone's living room and they feel like they can watch you every week."

The role, which was initially just a guest-starring appearance, garnered so much attention that the feature world quickly took notice. She played a leather-clad dominatrix in 1999's "Payback" and starred as a kidnapped Chinese princess in the hit comedy "Shanghai Noon." The latter role led to her being cast opposite Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz in the "Charlie's Angels" action-comedy features. She and her costars may have displayed martial arts expertise in the films but, contrary to popular belief, Liu doesn't do any martial arts off-camera.

Liu also put her mark on Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" with her quirky performance as the sword-wielding Japanese Chinese American O-Ren Ishii, queen of the Tokyo underworld and leader of the Crazy 88 fighter.

Her name even popped up in the lyrics of OutKast's hit song "Hey Ya."

The actress gets to show off her comedic chops in her latest film, the stylish thriller "Lucky Number Slevin." She plays the free-spirited Lindsey, who helps a handsome young man (Josh Hartnett) who has amnesia.

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Are you still planning to make a "Charlie Chan" feature?

I would be playing his granddaughter. I will be executive producing it. People do say it takes a long time to have something happen. We have been working on it for about five years.

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Didn't you executive produce a documentary on the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan?

No. I went there on a field trip for UNICEF. I have been working with UNICEF for a couple of years now, and I have gone on a couple of field trips. This one was something that Oprah [Winfrey] wanted to get involved in as well. So they had people come and document the trip. I went on Oprah after the trip for UNICEF to represent them and basically told them what I thought and how people can help.

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How did you get involved with UNICEF?

I always wanted to work with children, and I thought they were a great organization. I basically went to them and asked if I could learn from them -- listen and learn -- and just be part of it without making a huge announcement about it. Once I felt more comfortable with having gone on field trips and understanding what they do, maybe I could come out in the public and talk about it more.

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It must be difficult to witness firsthand the poverty and disease.

You can't try to go and try to change everything all at once. The most important thing is to look at it from the bigger picture and see what needs to be done, instead of trying to go in there and make everything better. It's not possible. It's not feasible. You can't make empty promises to the kid.

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Though you played Ling Woo on "Ally McBeal" and O-Ren Ishii in "Kill Bill," you are one of the few Asian American actresses who have successfully been cast in non-Asian roles.

People are always going, "You are the most this and that Asian American actress." I just want to be considered an actress. You want to be acknowledged as a writer and an artist. I am not ashamed of who I am. Ethnicity is part of your culture and your blood. For me, I want to be the best person for the job -- not the best color for the job. That to me would be the most ideal thing.

I love to do different things that are challenging. I don't think I stick to any particular genre. For me, it's nice to move around and do comedy and drama; I try not to stay in one place. You don't want to get too comfortable because then it's sort of you just phoning it in.

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One of the great sequences in "Kill Bill" was the stylized sword fight scene in the snow between you and Uma Thurman. How long did that take to choreograph?

We worked on it for quite a while before we actually shot it in Los Angeles. We didn't choreograph it until very much toward the end because we were just trying to learn separately just what it was to work with the sword. We learned all the different movements of the sword and how to stand and how to walk and all the things well before we had choreography for that scene. I think they also wanted to see what looked best for each of us and then choreograph to our strengths.

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Your character, Lindsey, in "Lucky Number Slevin" is sort of a free-spirited Nancy Drew.

She is pretty out there. She doesn't think anyone judges her, and she has no sense of insecurity in that sense, which is what I liked about her. She was a very open, free person. If it rains, I can see her running out and dancing in the rain -- that sort of thing.

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So it's all over the Internet that you developed a crush on Josh, especially since his character was clad in just a towel in many scenes.

I never said that. They asked me what my character was like and I said my character has a crush on Josh. In fact, I did Leno and he said the same thing to me and put me on the spot. I was like, 'This is horrifying. Josh and I have such a great chemistry together, but it is not that way.'

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You should Google yourself to read the story.

Honey, I have never Googled myself and I never will. I am not that curious.

-- Susan King

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