Lucy Liu has a curious habit of spinning blondes into career gold, without (thank goodness) ever doing a thing to alter her trademark black mane. Her current character, for instance magazine magnate Mia Mason on ABC's new female-powerhouses-in-the-city drama, Cashmere Mafia (read the review) was written as a blonde, as was her part in the 2006 thriller Lucky Number Slevin. Both were promptly changed when Liu agreed to take them on. Her breakout turn as litigious witch Ling Woo on Ally McBeal? Created for her after she auditioned to play blond bombshell Nelle (a role that eventually went to Portia de Rossi). And it all began at the University of Michigan, when Liu found herself cast as the famously flaxen lead in Alice in Wonderland. ''That really changed my mentality,'' she says. ''I just thought, 'Wow, anything is possible.' That's when I started really living my life.''
Her latest non-blond role on Cashmere marks another turning point: a character with a much softer side than the assassins and man-eaters who made her famous. Playing Mia a cutthroat exec, yes, but one who loves her fiancé and friends as much as her job requires nary a growl nor a roundhouse kick. ''I think this will give me more opportunity to be someone romantic, someone who's heartbroken, someone who's challenged by her work,'' she says. Adds executive producer Darren Star, ''She brings a kick-ass energy to the role, but she's very vulnerable on the show. She smiles, and you just want to hug her.''
But the 39-year-old native New Yorker, who's also an artist in her off time, is far more prone to fuzzy green sweaters and esoteric artist-speak than her Patricia Field-clad alter ego. Ask her a straightforward question about, say, the prospect of playing the same TV character for multiple seasons, and she'll muse about art and love and infinity: ''You don't futurize the painting, though that's not to say you can't have intentions. But if you see it in your mind, it's not a creative process, it's a result. It's like if you get into a relationship and you envision the end and say, 'I'm not even going to go out with you.' For me, it's infinity, the connective tissue to the next thing and the next thing.'' To review: She's really nothing like the blunt ass-kickers she's portrayed on screen.
Not that she minds playing them, hard edges and all. Liu is particularly passionate in her defense of Ling, the showy Ally role she landed after seven years of toiling in tiny guest bits and failed sitcoms (think Rhea Perlman's Pearl). From 1998 through 2002, she garnered accolades and plenty of heat, thanks to her Chinese heritage for her acidic portrayal of the manipulative, emotionless powerhouse. ''A lot of people thought Ling was a perpetuation of this dragon lady stereotype,'' she says. ''But when you have an innocent eye, you just see her as a fun character. Everyone judges too much.''
The criticism didn't hinder Liu from becoming one of the big screen's few action heroines, with roles in Shanghai Noon, the Charlie's Angels franchise, and Kill Bill Vol. 1. ''I don't mind doing stunts, and I love action movies,'' she says. ''But I don't want to be pigeonholed.'' To that end she's spent the almost five years since Kill Bill mixing things up in more obscure fare like 3 Needles, an AIDS-related drama in which she played a Chinese black-market blood dealer, plus a few clear misses (Code Name: The Cleaner), and the occasional TV guest stint (Joey and Ugly Betty). But now, as Cashmere takes her back to the mainstream, Liu doesn't view that somewhat fallow period as the least bit wasted. Her typically long, artsy explanation which we'll spare you involves the discovery of electricity, but the more concise version goes like this: ''Whether it succeeds, that's not really the issue,'' she says. ''I think the idea is to have an interesting career that you can't predict.''
The Talented Ms. Liu
With the strike putting Cashmere production on hold, Liu has time for her many hobbies
1. Rocking the squeexebox
When she was a young girl, Liu's father mandated music lessons. ''They had guitar, violin, and accordion. My brother took guitar. I had two weeks of violin, but it's really hard...so I picked the accordion.''
2. Turning trash into beauty
She'll show her paintings this May in Munich, but another Liu passion is making art out of found objects. ''I collect junk. I have a crate that I bring with me when I walk my dog. It was much more dangerous in L.A. because I'd be on Laurel Canyon and be like, 'Stop! There's a hubcap on the street!' You have to go back at three in the morning when no one's there and put your hazards on.''
3. Speaking in tongues
For Kill Bill Vol. 1, Liu learned sword fighting, kimono arranging, and Japanese. ''Quentin Tarantino had written a lot of the script in Japanese, and when he finalized it, he wrote it in English. I asked him to put it back.... The Japanese made her kind of romantic. So I took Japanese from point zero.''