Actress Lucy Liu Speaks Out

Considering that she has been traveling for almost two days to get from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to London, Lucy Liu looks fresh-faced and enthusiastic. The actress—known for her roles in "Ally McBeal," "Charlie's Angels" and more recently on the hit show "Ugly Betty"—traveled to the DRC as a UNICEF ambassador visiting a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, a hospital for young girls who have been raped and an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. The 38-year-old actress, who has a bachelor's degree in Asian studies from the University of Michigan, has been quietly working with UNICEF since 2004. But it is not just the plight of children that she wants to spotlight. She says she chose to play the role of an HIV-positive Chinese woman in last year's film "3 Needles" to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS across Asia. Last year she also produced a documentary, "Freedom's Fury," that told the story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution through the lens of the infamous Hungary versus Soviet Union semifinal water polo match at the 1956 Olympic Games. She has three films coming out this year, including "Watching the Detectives," which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. Liu spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell in London about her humanitarian work and her career:

NEWSWEEK: Tell me about your trip—why go to the DRC now?
Lucy Liu:
The situation has gotten progressively worse. I think it is important to not get to the point where it is hopeless. Right now is a great opportunity to go in—there is a democratically elected president—and a possibility of actually having services and access to speak to people. This conflict has been going on for so long and it is not seen as exciting in the news [anymore]. That is unfortunate. I was so struck by the situation when we were leaving the IDP camp. This older man grabbed my arm—he is probably not as old as he looked—and he said, "We are suffering, we are suffering." Almost 4 million people have died since 1998, and half that number are children. It is shocking that 20 percent of children do not make it to the age of 5, and there does not seem to be much hope coming down the pike for them.

The issue of child soldiers has recently been highlighted in films like "Blood Diamonds" and best-selling books like Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Home." What impressed you about what you saw with the rehabilitation of these children?
We had a difficult time getting there [to see them]. UNICEF is trying to abolish the school fees [for all children] because now it is a $1 a month to go to school. It is not a lot for us, but for them it is an impossible fee. Children look forward to school, and if you give them the opportunity they bounce back quite quickly: they have confidence, something to look forward to. So with a little bit of help, these children can make a huge comeback.

There is often a rolled-eye reaction when stories come out about celebrities traipsing around refugee camps or waxing lyrical on political issues.
Well if someone came into this like, "Oh, I will get some photographs with some very poor people," I think it would really open their eyes up, regardless of their intentions. You will be surprised that even if you have an agenda, when you leave you won't have one. That was not the case with me. I did not want UNICEF to tell the press that I was an ambassador until we needed to put attention on [places I had visited with UNICEF] like Pakistan or Lesotho. That is definitely not my mentality. This is something I intend to be involved in for the rest of my life. Up until the moment I have my last breath, I am hoping there will a way to create change. It is awful, seeing the deterioration of a human being—you can smell it and taste it because it permeates your skin. It is not something you will ever forget. And you cannot go on living your life, it is not the same thing. Your decisions and choices in life will change, and your world becomes much bigger.

It's interesting, because you seem like a very serious person yet you gravitate toward more comedic roles.
Well [smiles], I don't have a preference. I like to do a lot of things, not just caught up in the one thing. I love to do action, comedy, drama. And I love doing it in all different arenas—in the genres of film, television and theater. They say, "Oh, if you do TV, you do not do film," and I don't find that. It is about the role, the people you work with. I love doing comedy, but I like to bounce back and forth. It is all the same thing, it is a fine line. You cannot have a comedic role without some drama.

Have you found that the more successful you are, the less you are being pigeonholed as an Asian-American actress?
It is still a slow process. It has expanded a bit more, but I still think there is a great deal of the melting pot to go. I do not think it has completely been cleared where you can play Meryl Streep's daughter, but it is slowly becoming a much more open society racially. You see it on television and film, but there is still a lot of progress to be made in that department.

Are you drawn to or repelled by roles that call for an Asian actress? You have recently signed up to be in the Charlie Chan remake.
No, it's about the people I work with and the role. It varies but I do not choose a role based on my [ethnic] background.