DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There have been a lot of versions of Sherlock Holmes over the years. But as far as we know, none of them have had a Watson who sounds like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "ELEMENTARY")
LUCY LIU: (as Joan Watson) My name is Joan Watson. I've been hired by her father to be your sober companion. He told me he was going to email you about me.
GREENE: That's the voice of Lucy Liu, who's known for her roles in "Ally McBeal," the "Kill Bill" movies, and also "Charlie's Angels." Now she's Joan Watson, a washed-up surgeon and the sober companion to Sherlock Holmes, a recovering addict. The show is called "Elementary" and the famous duo are solving crimes in modern day New York City. We wanted to chat with Lucy Liu about her career and the new show, which premieres tonight on CBS.
Lucy, thanks so much for taking the time.
LIU: Thank you. I'm really happy to be on the show.
GREENE: So as I understand it, we've actually caught you during a break from taping an episode of the new show. What's the scene like there?
LIU: Yeah, I'm on the set of "Elementary" and we are shooting a scene with Watson in her bedroom. And she's got some special evidence that will reveal a lot about Sherlock. So it's a very intimate scene. For once, Sherlock's not in the scene with Watson.
GREENE: Wow, special evidence that will reveal a lot about Sherlock. You're leaving us with a cliffhanger, huh?
LIU: It's a cliffhanger.
GREENE: You're coming into a character, Lucy, that has existed for decades. I mean I guess I wonder how much research did you do into the old Dr. Watson, to get ready for this?
LIU: Well, the only research I did was actually reading the literature. When you read it, it's so current. It doesn't feel like it was written in the 1800s. You feel like you really are reading something that's fresh and funny. And you know why it's in movies and television and people are constantly trying to bring back these characters, 'cause they're fascinating. They're unique.
And Watson is actually one of Sherlock's greatest fans. And what kind of bonds them and what keeps the stories so interesting is their relationship and their friendship and their partnership.
GREENE: It's interesting. You say you read back to the literature to kind of bring back the old Dr. Watson. But Dr. Watson as a woman? I mean does it make the role difference in some ways?
LIU: I think Dr. Watson as a woman is a wonderful concept, not just because it's, you know, more modern and includes obviously a different gender, but I think what Rob Doherty, who is the creative executive and the writer, wanted to do was to incorporate a layer of uncomfortability for Sherlock. And he's fairly awkward around women, and that's the one thing that Rob thought would be very interesting to incorporate into their relationship. It's a constant sort of uncomfortable sweater that one is wearing.
GREENE: I guess one obvious question that Dr. Watson and Sherlock spending so much time together, is there going to be some romantic tension as the series plays out?
LIU: I think the one thing that's Rob has been very adamant about is that there will be no romance between the two of them. And in fact, Rob himself has made it quite a statement by saying that Watson and Holmes' relationship is going to be more of a bromance than anything...
LIU: ...which then - you know, which kind of will dispel and extinguish any possibility of us going in that direction.
GREENE: Bromance, not a romance.
LIU: Yeah, a bromance between a man and a woman. But I do think that there is a really great chemistry between us. And I think that they didn't expect that, and now they're trying to sort of make sure that it doesn't go in any other direction that they don't want it to.
GREENE: Do you have some Sherlock traditionalists who are saying, female Dr. Watson, no way, not going to buy it?
LIU: The thing is, no one has said it to my face. I'm not sure if they're terrified.
LIU: I mean I can understand why people who are diehard junkies of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, that they would be less likely to jump on board. And I think that's fine. I would not want to force anyone into having to go in this direction. But you know, for me, I - my parents are from China. I'm basically first-generation Chinese-American, so to me I don't really have an option. If I want to be an artist, and in this business in order for me to survive, this is the direction that I have to go in.
I do think that it's important to always break boundaries and try new things, and probably put myself in the situation where there will be quite a bit of criticism.
GREENE: I wanted to ask you about your parents and growing up. Your parents arrived in New York City. You grew up in Queens. Tell me a little bit about that.
LIU: Well, we grew up in Queens. I mean we had quite a sheltered life in a way that we didn't really do very much except for go to school, come back, and then play with kids in the neighborhood. I guess we were latch-key kids. My parents worked, both of them quite hard and we didn't have very much growing up.
GREENE: A lot of latch-key kids, Lucy, and I include myself among them, spent a lot of time watching television.
LIU: Oh, yeah. I watched a lot of television and, you know, "Get Smart" and "Barney Miller" and "Brady Bunch" and things like that. And at that time, there were not very many Asian people on television. I think on "Barney Miller" there was only one person who was on there. And so I didn't grow up thinking that this was a possibility, even though this is something that I really wanted to do as a child.
GREENE: OK, so I imagine this little girl watching television and noticing that there are no Asian faces - you know, fast forward and you get your first big breakout role on the TV series "Ally McBeal" in the '90s. And I have to confess, I was a religious fan of that show.
GREENE: There's one zinger that I remember from your character Ling Woo. This is her talking about a defendant.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "ALLY MCBEAL")
LIU: (as Ling Wood) Part of me wants to sleep with him, 'cause I know if I did, I'd kill him.
GREENE: That's blunt.
LIU: It's really blunt. I don't even remember that.
GREENE: I mean she was vicious.
LIU: She was quite honest, actually. What I loved about her was that she was very clear about how she felt. And I don't think that she minced words. And it's funny too, because even though you are doing a character that's quite fresh and interesting, people still will label it as well. You know, like, oh, you're playing a dragon lady. First of all, I didn't even know what that meant.
LIU: I thought, well, if it was a man playing this role or if it was a Caucasian woman playing this role, would you still call that person a dragon lady? I think in some ways when they visually connect you to something, then they immediately label you as something. I think that's happening less and less for me now. But I always found that quite interesting.
GREENE: Well, did you remember when you were there on the set of "Ally McBeal" - were you looking back and saying, you know, here I am, here's the Asian face that I never saw when I was a little girl?
LIU: That's funny because I never really thought of myself as the only Asian face out there until somebody pointed that out to me, you know, and said you actually are quite a pioneer, and we hope that this is going to set a new precedent. As an actor, you're defining who you are little by little. you're learning about yourself through your work, especially with this role being something as dynamic as Dr. Watson.
The books are lore, and it gives a lot of people pause, but I think it's a great way to sort of break the glass.
GREENE: Lucy Liu, thanks so much for taking the time. I know you have to get back to work.
LIU: It's been such a pleasure.
GREENE: You can watch her as Dr. Watson on the new TV series "Elementary," which premieres tonight on CBS.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
And I'm Steve Inskeep.