ABOVE: LUCY LIU. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUSTIN STEPHENS/CBS.
There have been many great sidekick pairings in the history of modern literature. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Phileas Fogg and Jean Passepartout, Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet…the list goes on. Yet, it seems there has never been a delightfully tumultuous relationship that comes close to echoing the one embodied by rogue detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend and assistant Dr. John Watson. Written in the form of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the opium-den loving Holmes would terrorize London with his intellectual, astute, and stubborn prowess, with Dr. Watson providing medical expertise and chronicling their entertaining exploits along the way.
Doyle’s works have now long been entered into the public domain, with many film and television adaptions cropping up every few years. Still, when CBS announced in 2012 that it would be turning Doyle’s works into an hour-long crime-drama series titled Elementary, it elicited an unusually high response—this was mostly due to the news that a woman would, in fact, be portraying Watson. Her name would be Joan, not John. And she’s now a fallen from grace surgeon-turned-sober companion and private detective, forfeiting her “Dr.” title in the process. The woman chosen to take on this exciting, contemporary role of Joan Watson was none other than seasoned actress Lucy Liu.
Liu, who’s best known for her roles as a fierce and ill-mannered lawyer in Ally McBeal, an ass-kicking “angel” in the rebooted Charlie’s Angels, and an equally ass-kicking bad girl in the Kill Bill series, certainly provides the yin to the yang of Jonny Lee Miller’s gritty portrayal of Holmes. Elementary chronicles the duo’s relationship as they consult for the NYPD on various criminal cases while living in a shared brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. Initially starting off in Season One as a substance-free friend to the fresh-out-of-rehab Holmes with a keen interest in solving crimes, Watson quickly transformed into a sharp and observant right-hand woman who now clearly has the aptitude to work on her own. And it appears she’ll be doing just that—the end of Season Two left viewers witnessing Watson’s decision to move out of the brownstone and start a new career as a solo private detective, seemingly fed-up with Holmes’ erratic behavior.
The warm and delightful Liu recently called up Interview from her home in New York City to discuss Elementary’s upcoming third season.
DEVON IVIE: Were you on set today?
LUCY LIU: I was running around like a maniac, yeah. It’s beautiful today, it started getting a little bit cooler again. But of course I’ve been bitten by the two mosquitos that are still alive in New York City.
IVIE: I know you were recently at New York Comic Con. How was it?
LIU: It was amazing. It’s such a spectator place. Not only do you get super fans, but you also get people who are curious and inventive and imaginative. It’s fun.
IVIE: Did you run into any cosplayers dressed as Joan Watson?
LIU: Oh, no, I don’t know about that. That’s funny! We did a panel with a huge audience so I couldn’t really see if anyone was wearing anything specific, but it’s an excuse for kids and adults to get dressed up and just be crazy. You know you’ve made it when you have super-fans out there.
IVIE: When you first read the scripts for Elementary, what was it that attracted you to the role of Joan?
LIU: I liked the fact that it was going to be about [Joan and Sherlock’s] relationship and their friendship, and bringing that into modern times. And I thought it was wonderful to change up the gender.
IVIE: Did you immerse yourself in Arthur Conan Doyle’s work as preparation at all?
LIU: I did, I did! I started reading the short stories. I never read them before so it was a really great excuse to read them. I can’t believe it was written so long ago, because it’s so current. The characters are so colorful, which is why I think there are so many incarnations of Watson and Holmes.
IVIE: Do you have a favorite story? I love “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
LIU: There were some pretty amazing stories. The one that stood out to me, which was a Watson story that I got to know him a little more through, was “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” He really is on his own in that. Of course it turns out that Holmes has been there all along, but it’s interesting looking into his interior.
IVIE: Yeah, the entirety of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is narrated just by Watson. And his diary and letters, too.
LIU: Yeah, I think it’s really cool. We started incorporating that into the show, too, the letters and journals.
IVIE: Has this detective genre always appealed to you? Did you grow up watching or reading detective whodunits?
LIU: I remember more of the old school Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys sort of thing. I also grew up with the Scooby-Doo mysteries. Remember when the villain would go, “I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for you rascal-y kids!” Those were the kind of the things I immersed myself in. I have to say that my mother has always been a huge fan of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, so this show was her dream come true. I don’t think she totally understood what was going on with Ally McBeal. [laughs]
IVIE: I’ve enjoyed witnessing Joan’s evolution throughout the course of the show, starting off as a sober companion and eventually ending up as a trusty sidekick and confidant to Sherlock. What can we expect from Joan in Season Three?
LIU: When you see them in the third season, you see some friction between the two characters. Joan is now on her own, she has her own detective agency, has a boyfriend, and has been without Sherlock for eight months. She’s got her own apartment, she’s settled, and he shows back up. I think she’s a little bit hurt by what happened and how their relationship and partnership ended, which was basically his decision and his choice, and he left it all in one little note for her. I think she felt that their relationship was much deeper than that, and that he was dismissive in the way that he handled that.
IVIE: How would you define the relationship between Joan and Sherlock?
LIU: I think that it’s a really positive and good relationship, overall. They really have a good chemistry together, work really hard together, and understand each other. They acknowledge each other and respect each other, which is a really important way to have a friendship. And they can learn from each other, you know? She’s very curious about him and I think he sees that she’s a very smart person—that’s vital for him in having respect for someone, having them be intelligent and thinking for themselves.
IVIE: Do you see any of Joan in yourself?
LIU: I do to a certain degree. She’s a lot more measured and patient, for sure. She’s a very curious person, which I think I am, and I think she isn’t afraid of change. She was a doctor, and then became a sober companion, and then jumped off and became a detective. I think sometimes it’s good to make big leaps.
IVIE: You’ve probably been asked this question many times, but do you think a romance between Joan and Sherlock could ever fittingly happen?
LIU: It’s a question that’s often asked and I think it’s really up to the executives. Rob Doherty, the creator [of Elementary] really feels incredibly strongly about keeping their relationship platonic. He has already taken great strides to keep the relationship as clean as possible according to the literature, but he has also changed so much of it by changing the gender of Watson. To have them have a romantic involvement would turn the whole thing upside-down in a way that might really jump the line. [Doherty] felt really strongly about it and I think that’s the one thing he really wants to stay true to.
IVIE: I totally agree. Even on the BBC’s Sherlock, there are campaigns to get Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Martin Freeman’s Watson to become romantically involved. It’s like, enough already, no!
LIU: No way, that’s so weird! People do have that level of friendship oftentimes, but it doesn’t mean it’s physical. I think that everyone just assumes because there’s chemistry the next thing should be happening. I would vote “no” for a romance. I think for sure the creator would vote no on that, too.
IVIE: I’ve talked to both women and men who watch Elementary, and they all consistently mention how well dressed and fashionable Joan is. Do you collaborate with the wardrobe department on styling decisions at all?
LIU: That’s awesome. Yes, I collaborate with Rebecca [Hofherr], who’s the costume designer, who’s wonderful. She’s very easy to work with. One thing we try to maintain about Joan and her style is that she’s a bit wrinkled, you know what I mean? Sometimes it looks like things are really put together, but we always want to make sure things aren’t too tight and are comfortable, kind of like she throws things together. We don’t want it to seem so business-y, so we go away from suits. Chic, but not corporate. Also just to make her seem like her outfits aren’t so put-together all the time. But I’m glad that people really seem to like it, it’s a relief! We don’t splurge a lot on the show, we try to do cheaper things, like things Joan would wear a lot. She wears the same white jacket and shoes frequently.
IVIE: Will we be seeing more of the infamous Clyde the Turtle in the upcoming season?
LIU: Clyde will indeed be in it again. We have to share custody of Clyde.
IVIE: Is it true that Clyde is actually two tortoises? Pulling a Mary Kate and Ashley in Full House on us?
LIU: Yes. It’s just like having twins on a show. Just in case one is crying and screaming and passed out or something.
IVIE: You made your directorial debut for an episode of Elementary last season [“Paint It Black”]. Do you have plans to direct an episode again soon?
LIU: That was so exciting. I’ll be directing another episode again very shortly in December, so you’ll be seeing it in a month and a half.
IVIE: Where did your interest in directing come from?
LIU: I guess I was curious about it. Having been in this business for a while, you kind of see and get a glimpse of everything doing film and television. I think it seemed like a natural progression to go into directing, and I hope to explore more of it, because it’s very exciting and a really good way to collide all the things that you’ve known and experienced in the business and put them all into one.
IVIE: Is there an ideal guest star that you’d like to see on the show in the upcoming season?
LIU: I would love to see Mycroft come back. I really think there was a wonderful tension for Mycroft and Sherlock as well as the triangle that occurred when Joan became involved with him. There’s something very deep about that relationship, and I also think that Rhys Ifans is a fantastic actor. He commands the screen, but off-screen he’s incredibly lovely. A real treat to have on the show.
IVIE: I remember the first few episodes that I saw Rhys in, I was like, where have I seen this guy before? So I looked at his Wikipedia page and it became obvious: he was the crazy guy from Notting Hill!
LIU: Yes, the roommate! So good! Everything he does, he just kills it, no matter the role.
IVIE: And it’s always good to have some MI6 action on the show, which Mycroft provided. Some international flair.
LIU: [laughs] International flair, exactly, some added spice. Just throw some spy stuff in there to throw people off their game. You just don’t expect it, you know? It came out of nowhere.
IVIE: That whole three-episode arc at the end of the second season…
LIU: That was awesome. I was lucky enough to direct one of those episodes, which is more narrative in tone. It’s more fun in some ways, too.
IVIE: You’ve done a range of acting work for both television and film. Do you now find yourself preferring one to the other?
LIU: I love both of them equally. The lack of predictability with television is something that’s constantly changing what your perception of who you think your character is. Suddenly I have a father that’s schizophrenic, or I discovered something else, or I have a relationship with Mycroft. The things that pop up and change the game for you and always keep you on your toes. The wonderful thing about film is that you have something that has a beginning, middle, and end, and you have a concrete amount of time to shoot it. And the process of that can be longer, like editing and advertising and testing the movie, so it’s very different. Television you just continue going, no matter what’s happening outside of your world. You get lost in that vortex a little bit.
IVIE: It’s interesting that America is now embracing the “mini-series” format that has already been so heavily utilized overseas, where there are a set amount of short episodes, and that’s it. In a way, it’s kind of like a cinematic experience.
LIU: I like that, too. It allows you to have a freedom of creativity and at the same time you don’t feel like you have to be contracted to something for that long; you’re really working on a piece of art. And then you’re done and you move on, or it comes back, like Downton Abbey. You don’t know. Those things become little masterpieces. The thing about television is that you see a range of actors now that you may not have seen five years ago even, 10 years ago absolutely not, and I think now there’s no wrong about doing television. There’s no definitive category for what kind of department you fall into anymore.
IVIE: What’s a fun, secret fact about your costar Jonny Lee Miller?
LIU: A fun fact about Jonny Lee Miller is that he oftentimes does handstands on a wall before he does a take, sometimes with pushups, to get blood to his brain and get him geared up for a long monologue that he may have. He stays there, hangs a little bit, and then turns around and does the scene. Most of the time in the brownstone more than anywhere else. He’s in full costume and everything. That’s trivia!
IVIE: I wish I could do wall-handstands by myself.
LIU: Oh my god, I need someone to push my legs up and then hold me there. I’m a cheat!
ELEMENTARY PREMIERES THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30 ON CBS.