This Saturday’s panel discussion of Elementary at PaleyFest 2016 featured a post-screening panel with cast members and show creator Rob Doherty, who were on hand to field questions about the popular CBS crime drama. The show is a modern-day riff on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about Sherlock Holmes, but in this instance, his dear Watson is Doctor Joan Watson, thank you very much. Lucy Liu, who plays Watson, responded at-length to a question from panel moderator Mike Hale of the New York Times about the “whitewashing of Asian characters and stories,” and her relationship to the show as an Asian actress.
The Kill Bill actress responded, “That obviously is a hot topic. It’s hard because often times I’m asked not how I feel or how I pride myself as an artist but how I feel as an Asian artist — there’s always some sort of a hangman before the actual thing. That disturbs me a bit. It’s never about the art itself, it’s about the adjective. I’m playing the main act of what’s happening.”
This places Liu in a weird position when receiving recognition for her work as an actress and/or as an Asian-American actress. “When you’re asked to go a festival and it’s Asian-American, or it’s an award, it’s specific to ‘that.’ Because I’m ‘that.’ It’s difficult to swallow.”
Reflecting on her acceptance into the Academy, Liu felt validated that she was accepted before the big push for diversity. “It was just a big honor. Then, with all that’s been going on, they sent a letter out, basically saying they wanted members to then open up and send a list of people that were ethnic in diversity.
“I had this moment of, I was just thinking about it. I was just so glad I was accepted into this wonderful group because of my work, not because I am Asian, and now they’re trolling the fields for people who fit that. I want to be acknowledged for my work, not for my ‘fill in the blank,’” she said.
Liu described how frustrating it is to be asked primarily about her identity rather than her performance. “It’s exhausting, to have to explain it. Is it difficult? Absolutely. There’s less to have, and there’s more to do, in order to get that less. It’s hard because it’s rare that I’ll be asked a question that is not with that before it. I always have this hyphen, even if it’s a great periodical — sorry to sound so geeky — if it’s a great something that people really respect and admire, they still will ask that as opposed to ‘How does it feel to be an actress in the business?’ It’s never that. ‘How does it feel to be an Asian person in the business?’ I don’t know. I don’t know what it is to be ‘Asian’ because I am a person. I’m a human being. I don’t look in the mirror, honestly, and say, ‘Oh, before I say something, I better remember that I am Asian.’ The whole joke is, like, when you go to China, you don’t order Chinese food, you’re just ordering the fucking food. So, yes, it’s not easy. I want to get the job. I want to get the thought or the acceptance because of my work, not because I have a hyphen before my name.”