Charlie's Angels Lucy Liu
Artist, Actress, Amazing
As Ling in Ally McBeal, she showed women that being arrogant and powerful can be sexy. In Kill Bill, she showed men that women can use their eroticism, too, and in Charlie's Angels, she reconciled the genders with a good dose of humour. No matter what the situation, she's always unique. Lucy Liu, 39, is one of the few Hollywood superstars with Asian roots. The American with Chinese ancestors recently starred in a new American TV series called Cashmere Mafia, which was a Sex and the City spin-off, and she has even more surprises: she paints. "I'm not afraid of anything," states the confident Liu. Painting is something that suits a woman who publicly asks life's difficult questions and doesn't rest on the laurels of her fame. Andreas Tolke gets the inside scoop and reveals the true artist within a woman whose talents know no boundaries.
Liu is utterly authentic despite her fame. The motivated artist lives far outside the ivory tower – in 2006 she received the World Social Award from Michael Gorbatchev. She’s traveled to Pakistan to aid earthquake survivors and to Lesotho to document the inconceivable effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on children. And she’s still in contact with the people she’s helped.
The other side of the alluring actress is Lucy Liu the painter. It’s 10am and she’s presenting one of her works in Miami’s hotspot Casa Tua. Before the conversation turns entirely to art, the petite woman heartily digs into the breakfast buffet. Even here, she’s experimental. Oysters for breakfast? For Liu, it’s just a matter of style ... or simply worth a new experience.
The painting is a kind of commission for the Mont Blanc Collection. How was that for you?
It was a real challenge. I didn’t want it to become a flat homage to Mont Blanc – the idea behind the painting is the sea – how something freezes in various layers. Does that make sense?
Maybe if you explain the techniques with which you work…
(Laughs) Part of it is just insanity… I started with graphite. It was much more concrete at the beginning and the image became more and more abstract in the process. In the end I painted with ink and watercolor. It’s unbelievably difficult to work with watercolor – because it’s a real mess and you can’t correct anything once it’s on the canvas. That was really frustrating. And at the beginning I wasn’t happy at all, although a lot of people who visited me in my studio really liked it. Sometimes exactly that kind of early praise wrecks the whole painting (laughs).
Do you always create your paintings in various layers?
Actually, yes. Every artist knows this. Sometimes it’s wonderful when the brush touches the blank canvas, but when it doesn’t happen right away, you start to work over it until at some point you get the effect you want. It can sometimes take six or eight months until I’ve found out what a painting wants to say to me.
So you’re not a conceptual artist?
This is one of the few abstract works I’ve made. I’ve done a lot of portraits and on May 8, at Lisa Unger in Munich, I’m exhibiting paintings that are based on the tradition of Japanese woodcuts from the 16th century. So I can’t really nail myself to a direction.
When did you start painting?
When I was 15. Since then I’ve never stopped. I also went to art school. It’s a completely different way of channelling your energy. I only started acting in college, so painting’s been in my life much longer. And maybe it was a milestone to learn how to express myself creatively, which benefits my acting.
But you never went public with your artworks?
You’re right. My painting was something very private, something only the inner circle got to see. Then last year I had an exhibition in New York and the whole thing sold at Sotheby’s. I donated all the money to UNICEF. So a completely new circle is opening up in my life.
Who are your favorite artists?
Lucien Freud. But it’s so hard to say because I see so much. Not only painters but also sculptors. On one of my many trips I was at a Picasso exhibition in Austria and saw works that you never get to see in America. On the road I’ve seen so many new things that have completely changed my eye. And that’s a process that’s not over yet. When I was younger I didn’t understand Cezanne at all, for example. Now I like him a lot. The more I see the more I learn.
There are so many artists that make art and aren’t taken seriously.
How do you place yourself in this scenario?
I think it’s normal for artists to express themselves, no matter what field they come from. And then it’s possible to shift between forms of expression. I find it very good when you don’t limit yourself to one area, because it broadens your horizons to try things out in other areas; it has a positive effect on the main activity. I’m not afraid of being ripped apart by critics – the works simply exist and when I die, okay, there are just 1000 works I did.
That’s a self-confident statement.
It’s new for me to be dealing with the art world. It’s a real challenge. It’s also a challenge to open yourself.
And what about the extra points you earn as a celebrity?
I’ve worked on my paintings every day for decades – I’m not an amateur painter who just smears something on the canvas. And I’m not afraid of anything. If I can discover something new, I see it as a positive enrichment. Most people are afraid of the new, the unknown. If I were afraid, I wouldn’t have become an actress, because there you’re actually constantly confronted with your fears.
What made you so successful as an actress?
It’s simply a matter of fame. I made films before Ally McBeal, Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels but they came and went and were forgotten. I was just lucky that I was suddenly in productions that were huge successes. For that there is no recipe.
Are you happy about your fame?
After successes like this you become part of a culture; you’re part of the collective consciousness. You only get little snippets of what that means – when people in South America recognize you on the street, when paparazzi suddenly meet you at the airport. But it’s like other jobs as well – if you’re lucky you like your job. But even then, not every day is a paradise. I could be a world famous three-star chef and nobody would recognize me and there’d still be a hair in the soup somewhere (laughs).
So you can cook, too.
I wouldn’t run out and make huge feasts for other people, but I like to cook and other people say I’m good at it (laughs). It’s just a matter of how public you make your creativity.
Why are you having your first major exhibition in Munich, of all places?
I had several small exhibitions in New York but now I have the feeling that an exhibition in Europe is exactly the right thing. If you’re always in the same place with the same people, you don’t expose yourself to anything. And I’m interested in new experiences, how people react to me and my work, as well as reactions and experiences that I can’t gauge. These are the experiences that make you evolve as a person. And in Munich I know hardly anyone besides my gallerist. That’s going to be hard – everyone will come and say – what’s she doing here?
Have you ever thought of exhibiting anonymously?
That’s funny you ask – I have, actually. So my works don’t come with a label, but can really speak for themselves.
But being a big name also has its advantages.
Absolutely – I can do my charity work, and it’s great to use my fame for this. But I have to always and everywhere be prepared to take the heat – I can’t just pick out the raisins.
What does it mean to “take the heat”?
I’m always under scrutiny: Why’s she wearing this or that? What kind of shoes are those? They’re just the most innocuous things. But it’s amazing that just because you’ve made a couple of films you become a style icon – or the opposite.
Would you like to be back at zero?
I love being at zero. When you’re at zero nothing else can happen to you, you have no ego anymore and you can afford to be completely open. If you think you’re wonderful and fantastic, you can’t grow anymore. If you constantly try to redefine yourself and question yourself, there’s a lot of room for discovery.
But don’t self-image and taste have to grow through experience?
Of course. And I have people around me who give me their honest opinion. I can’t and don’t want to listen to everyone who gives me tips – wear more blue, don’t wear such tight dresses – to give you some obvious examples. You only need one person you trust. You can’t listen to everyone.
You’re probably showered with the newest collections.
(Laughs) Actually I am. But that brings me to a huge joy – shopping. It’s much nicer to discover what fits you than have a phalanx of stylists around you that have already edited what you’re seeing. I’m far too curious. I run from crazy flea markets to the super-expensive designer stores, experiencing everything that’s out there.
So your closet looks like this, too?
I don’t have any furniture. My studio in New York is a bed and my painting supplies. I have no living room, no separate rooms besides the bathroom.
What happens when guests come?
They sleep on an air mattress. It just happened this weekend. They sleep in the middle of all of my work. I don’t know how many works I have at my place. But there are a lot of them.
Is your fascination for painting transferable to your acting?
Yes, in a way. Even when I don’t understand or don’t like a character I’m supposed to play, there’s a molecule in me that speaks to the role and I built on that point. It’s like a seed.
Painters are solitary creatures in front of the canvas and actors are in the eye of the hurricane – how does this contrast fit into your life?
You’re right. Either I’m totally alone or in a room with 150 people. Both are part of me. These situations are like two feet, and I can stand on both. Even in a room with 150 people I’m still myself, I’m with myself and inwardly peaceful. No one can control what you think, even if they put a clown nose on your face. You have to go on that trip by yourself, no matter what you’re wearing, what your hair looks like or how you’re made up.
Speaking of what you’re wearing…
... I’m wearing a Zac Posen dress and a fabulous bag by Roger Vivier.
Is fashion art?
Absolutely! I’ve been invited to a few haute couture shows in Paris and there were dresses on the runway that are of course not meant to be worn everyday, but were so incredibly impressive. Real works of art.
Could you imagine working as a designer?
Yes. I’ve even already designed something – a bag for Tods. That was for a charity auction for UNICEF. I’m also working on a jewelry collection with a couple of other people. For me, fashion is part of a whole – it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m going into that field.
You’re 39 – are you afraid of aging?
(laughs) Do I look like I am?