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TV To Go: Lucy Liu’s renaissance is beginning with Marvel

Lucy Liu tells us why Luke Cage is such a big deal, how art is meditation and what to do with your ego when on set

LUCY LIU is laughing, which is a relief. Because if you grew up watching her as the terrifying Ling Woo in Ally McBeal and you told Lucy Liu what you thought was a funny story and she wasn’t laughing… well, you’d be leaving the room on your knees.

But Liu, looking sharp and stylish when we meet at a Netflix pow-wow to talk about her directing Marvel action show Luke Cage, sweetly sees the funny side of how the two of us have a curious connection.

‘That’s a career first for me too, that’s pretty out there,’ she laughs softly. ‘So Joan Watson was your mother’s name?’

Fans of Elementary will need no further explanation here. But for those not up to speed on the hit US spin on Sherlock Holmes, currently into its sixth series on Sky Living, Liu plays a female twist on Conan Doyle’s classic Dr Watson character — Joan — opposite Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock. ‘I’ve never had that connection between character and interviewer,’ says Liu. ‘That’s pretty cool.’

And overused word as it is, cool is the best way to sum up 49-year-old Liu, who has a distinctive blonde hairdo when we meet. Having made her name as an actor, notably in the Charlie’s Angels films, she’s branching out as an artist and director.

‘When I think about what I want to do next, you want it to be something fulfilling,’ she says. ‘I love acting but with directing, it changes how I see something. You look at things in a much bigger way.’

The gang: Lucy Liu on the set of Luke Cage with its star Mike Colter (centre), creator Cheo Hodari Coker (left) and co-star Reg E Cathey

Luke Cage, played by the impressively built Mike Colter, is certainly big. But both he and the series stand a little apart from the Marvel universe. Cage, a convict turned crime-cracker, does possess superhuman strength but also a softer side.

‘The great thing about Luke Cage is that he’s one of the more realistic characters in the Marvel world,’ says Liu, who is at the helm of the first show of this new second season. ‘I was aware that people like and relate to his character so I didn’t go in to change things. But you want to add to what’s already there.

‘With a Netflix series you’re making mini-movies that will be seen around the world. It’s a great opportunity. You are able to explore. You get to see how he’s reacting to being a hero, what’s happening to his ego, his relationships. Who is this guy when he goes home and looks himself in the face?’

Remake: With Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary

The time is certainly right for Luke Cage to kick on to the next level. The success of the Black Panther film has shown there’s an appetite for stories with central black characters. Liu takes the point but is wary of focusing too much on political correctness. ‘I want people to see me for what I can do — I don’t want to get the work just because I tick all the boxes,’ she says.

Liu worked with Luke Cage series creator Cheo Hodari Coker on underrated LA based cop series Southland, which was where she got a taste for life behind the camera.

‘It was almost improvised, even though it was scripted,’ she says. ‘That taught me a lot about being a director.’

Zoom with a view: Liu directing the action on an outdoor shoot

She’s found the transition from actor to director relatively painless, saying actors-turned-directors have a head start, having seen life from both sides.

‘If an actor trusts you, then they’ll be able to do what you want,’ she says. ‘But you have to go into it with very, very little ego.’

If she does want to give her ego full rein, Liu has her successful side career as a visual artist and it’s in the studio where she enjoys her own headspace. ‘I’ve always done it but I never thought I’d sell anything,’ she says. ‘It’s a meditative thing. But a friend said, “You should share what you do” and it’s gone from there.’

Given her art and directing, it would make sense to make a film about a great woman artist. Who would she choose?

‘That’s tough,’ she says. ‘Louise Bourgeois had such a fascinating history, she worked for such a long time and had such a varied life. But there are so many women who inspire and who have made an impact on the world but their names have not been celebrated. Their stories need to be told.’

Luke Cage season two is on Netflix on Friday. Catch up with Elementary on Now TV