LUCY LIU IS remembered by some viewers as the cold and sharp-tongued lawyer on Ally McBeal, a part that earned her an Emmy nomination. For others, she is the unruffled action chick in Charlie's Angels and its sequel Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, in a franchise where she kicked and punched her way to a box office bonanza. But there is more to Liu than meets the eye. While she exhibits all the external traits of Hollywood stardom - for this interview in a Beverly Hills hotel, she is wearing a short, black dress and a trendy wide belt, with her hair in a designer-cut wavy bob - she is also atypically philosophical. She is serious about her work and, despite the success that has come her way, is still somewhat in awe of it all. 'I feel very grateful,' says Liu. 'I can't believe it. I could be not where I am right now. I could be doing something I really don't love, and I think it's important to continually understand that if you're not grateful for what you have now, you can't expect to have any more positive things in your life.' Liu hasn't lived in Los Angeles for the past year at least, instead travelling constantly on film shoots. She still has a place in Los Angeles, but really only comes through town when it's something work-related. Recently, that was to promote 3 Needles, a film she shot in Thailand two years ago and that co-stars Stockard Channing, Sandra Oh, Olympia Dukakis and Chloe Sevigny. An independent movie made by Thom Fitzgerald, it tells three stories around the subject of Aids, set in different parts of the world. Liu plays Jin Ping, a heavily pregnant woman who smuggles blood into remote Chinese provinces. Liu's character speaks in Putonghua and she says it was one of her more dramatic roles to date. 'I thought the script was wonderfully written and smart, and interesting and funny even. I thought the role was wonderful too. I felt like I was going back to where I started earlier in my career, where I'd done more dramatic work. Then I did a lot of commercial work, so now I feel like I'm coming back to it.' Even though the film was shot among the Chinese hill tribes in the far northern town of Mae Salong in Thailand (none of the film producers approached in China was willing to submit the project to the Censorship Authority given the subject matter), Liu says speaking Putonghua and playing a rural Chinese woman connected her to some long-buried part of herself. 'This role felt so close to home for me,' she says. 'It felt like myself as a child. It was very intimate and personal and hard to explain in so many ways.' Liu has the highest profile of all Asian-Americans working in Hollywood and has been described as a pioneer. She says the description is 'a huge compliment', but adds: 'I think that the [cultural] boundaries are still there, even if they've been lightened up. There's more of a melting pot out there, for sure, but I think there's such a long way to go. You can't stop doing the things you do because you think your job is done, because it's never done. Otherwise, you might as well throw in the towel.' Born in Queens, New York, to a biochemist mother and a civil engineer father, who had immigrated to the US from China, she was reared to believe that education was all-important, so she graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Asian languages and cultures. But when she told her parents she wanted to try her hand at acting, they were 'shocked, depressed, horrified, and then angry'. 'They really focused on education,' Liu says. 'But I've used my degree, whether in business or in culture, so I think it's important that I went to school in the end.' Her parents didn't really come around until they saw her in Charlie's Angels ('the second one, no less'), and now are more than supportive. Her mother was with her when she shot 3 Needles in Thailand. Liu says she has a lot to be thankful to them for. First, she credits her upbringing with teaching her to be discreet and low-key. 'We're very private people, very personal,' she says. 'I think it's cultural as well. I don't invite people into my life to collaborate in a way that's going to be exposed.' Perhaps that's why you'll never see a photograph of Liu stumbling out of some trendy LA bar in the middle of the night, or draped across the arm of the latest Hollywood stud. The fact that she is this low-profile, she says, was 'absolutely calculated'. 'My first priority is my work. It would never be about my personal life in the public eye. And if I have to stumble out of somewhere, it would definitely not be somewhere I'd be photographed. The most important thing to me is that when somebody sits down and pays a certain amount of money and they see someone step out on screen, then they should see that person and not that she's dating this person, or broke up with that person, or is going through a divorce. I don't want that. I know that that's a part of curiosity, but I'd rather have them see that character for who she is rather than all the things I've done in the past six months.' Liu has been involved with some pedigree projects of late. She was in Kill Bill, as well as in the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, for which she snared a Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Cast Award. She co-starred with Josh Harnett in Lucky Number Slevin, and will over the next year be in a number of films including Watching the Detectives with Cillian Murphy, which she described as 'a broad comedy'. In it, she plays a femme fatale who turns Murphy's character's life on its head. There is also The Cleaner, with Cedric the Entertainer and Nicollette Sheridan. Then there are plans for Charlie Chan, in which she plays the granddaughter of the detective, and an animated film called Kung Fu Panda that has been five years in the making, and in which she lends her voice, alongside those of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Jackie Chan. 'I like to bounce back and forth and do different things all the time,' she says. 'It's important to keep yourself on your toes and almost not be comfortable with where you are. It's best to keep running on hot and cold.' Between projects, she enjoys travelling, especially to Italy. She has been taking Italian lessons for years and is fluent in the language. 'I went to Rome once for press and absolutely loved it. I find that most of the people I've met abroad have been Italian and they've been so warm and lovely. I love the language, the food, the culture. There are wonderful aspects to the Italian language that help me with other languages. I speak a little Spanish, so it's not too hard for me to float off from that.' Liu says she tries not to get too invested in projects, beyond the actual work itself. 'I don't think you can do anything wrong if you really put your heart into it,' she says. 'Maybe something doesn't do so well at the box office, but it doesn't take away from the experience of what you did in that time, with those people. And even if something does well and makes tonnes of money, it still doesn't give you that experience when you walk out at the end of the day. You can't hold that in your heart. If you had a terrible experience on a movie, you can't take that money and make it better. That's why it's so important to enjoy yourself while you're doing a movie, to be there, and to be very present, and to wish you were nowhere else but where you are.' There are certain things about show business that nobody can control. 'You can't force the public to go see a movie they don't want to see,' she says. 'If you weigh your moods and happiness on those things, you're going to be a disaster.'