Spreading the word on the issue of AIDS

AIDS is sometimes a very touchy subject to discuss, especially when it's in an entertainment setting. The new film, 3 Needles deals exactly with that - in three very different parts of the world, China, Africa, and Canada. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, the movie takes notice of the growing problem throughout the world.

Lucy Liu stars in the China portion, speaking Mandarin, her parents' real life native language. It's a whole new side of how we're used to seeing the Charlie's Angels star - vulnerable.

Sitting down with Lucy, you could tell how much this subject meant to her. As she walked in the room, something else was a little different about her look - her hair; she cut her locks short, just for fun. She said, "I just decided to cut it; when I do a movie, it's short. It's sort of refreshing and it will grow back; I don't want to ever be inhibited by a material thing like I have to have long hair."

After getting past her new look, we spoke about the film. Here's what she said about 3 Needles:

What was it like to take on such a different role like this?

Lucy Liu: For me it was wonderful, and actually those are the roles that I prefer to play. It's great to do commercial movies; they are fun. You're doing stunts, you are running around, there is a lot of money involved in the production; there are incredible sets and designs, but I started out doing theater so theater is about you going on stage and performing for 2 or 3 hours straight without having many takes. You only have one opportunity to do that, and this movie, because there was so little money involved, you had maybe 1 or 2 shots. There was no hair and makeup, which we didn't need, because the character is not going to go out there all worked up in a girdle; she was just who she was. So in the amount of time that we had we shot a lot of footage, but I felt like this dramatic turn isn't something that's different for me than I've done. It's probably less popular than the movies that have become commercial. So commercial movies will be seen by more people all over the world and this movie may not be seen by as many people, but I know for myself, I know what my career has been and I know how I can vary it and how I like to vary it because I think diversity is very key to anybody's resume, and also for your mental well-being. You don't want to continue to do one thing and only one thing. You want to keep challenging yourself and if you do well at it, great, if you fall on your face, you tried. Like, she's really terrible at comedy! Who knew? But if you didn't try and put yourself out there you'd never know.

Were your rusty with your Chinese when you got on set?

Lucy Liu: Of course, there was a lot of medical terminology that I was not familiar with that we don't have in everyday conversations like, 'Pass the soy sauce.' 'Let's talk about the research on the lobotomy in 1984.' It was a very difficult thing talking about transfusions and all of those different things; I'm more colloquial with my language in terms of talking about, how are you, did you eat, what's going on, more things that are user-friendly, so to speak. I think it was probably very difficult to go from Chinese and then suddenly go to kindergarten and start speaking English; it's very hard to transition back and forth when you are in that pivotal age. It's also hard to transition back, but if I was immersed in the country for a given amount of time, you are surrounded by it, everyone is speaking, you are learning new things, you are practicing all the time. But it is an absolute privilege to be able to speak another language and have it be something you grew up with. I think it's a very important thing and I think that everywhere else in the world people speak more than one language. People speak Asian languages or European romantic languages and English. English is always a secondary language for most people and they speak 3 or 4 other languages, so it's always a great thing.

Have you studied about AIDS and HIV?

Lucy Liu: I have studied it and I've been more informed about is as of late because I've been working with UNICEF for the last few years as an ambassador. I've gone out into the field and I've met children and I've spoken to families and we've gone to orphanages and hospitals and you see the situation in its most pure form. It's very raw to see kids who are 5 and 7 and being taken care of by their grandparents because their parents have died. The population between the ages of 25 and, let's say, 40 is almost non-existent in most places so it's a very tragic situation that can be sorted out over time, but right now the first thing is to educate people, that's the most important thing to do, and to get health services to children because children can get through things probably easier than a lot of elderly people, and get them the medical attention that they need and the vaccinations they need.

Was the birth scene a pivotal scene for you?

Lucy Liu: I really didn't talk about it very much because I felt like once I read the script I knew where Thom was going with it emotionally and where the bigger picture was. We were supposed to shoot it in a rice paddy and I was very grateful not to be in the rice paddy because there were mosquitoes everywhere and it would have been a mess with the baby because it was a real baby. And we got in the cornfield and we just started shooting and it just came organically because I had read it and I had taken it in. I generally won't do a role unless I feel like it's in my system somewhere, even if it's just a molecule of it. Like I just felt like I knew it and if I talked about it or discussed it or tried to rehearse it that it would take away the energy from that scene so I went in there and just did it. Sometimes you just have to do that. It's like if you are going to write a novel and you talk about it and you talk about it and then finally you sit down to write and you've talked it through and you don't have anything to say! You've sort of written it out over those conversations. So for me sometimes I don't talk about the research that I do because it takes away from the actual moment of it. And in any moment in acting it needs to be very present otherwise it's just not real.

What has been your experience with the AIDS disease?

Lucy Liu: I have a few of friends who are positive, and one of them we discovered what AIDS was together almost because it was quite a while ago. He got very sick, we didn't really know what was going on; it kept getting worse, he had to go to the hospital. Then we found out it was pneumonia. How did he get pneumonia? And then suddenly it went from pneumonia to some sort of weird immune system disease that's attacking his system. We didn't know, so as we were discovering it - that fear of not knowing - 'What do you mean you don't know what it is? What is happening?' They didn't know what AIDS was then; they didn't understand it. They had all these patients coming in all of a sudden and they could not figure out what it was. And then they sort of looked at it demographically and they said there is a lot of men, a lot of them are homosexual, what's happening here? They were discovering it as they were going along as well; that's why it became so widespread so quickly because people didn't know about it and people didn't know what safe sex was then. So my experience has been quite hands-on and going to these orphanages and talking to children and being with children who have AIDS, and there have been a lot of cases where infants are born with AIDS or HIV and as they get older their system fights it and they have lost the play. They don't have it anymore. They are trying to learn more about it, but a lot of people don't want their children who have AIDS. A lot of people die giving birth to their children who have AIDS and HIV and a lot of people don't survive after a time because they've been sick too.

Did these experiences help shape these characters?

Lucy Liu: Of course, yeah, because I think it's a very emotional story; it's a very intimate story about this woman, and I think when you have something that close to you, you want to make sure that you're aware of it and what does it mean to you and how can you engage in that character. You can take those experiences of AIDS and HIV, or you can just take the experiences from life; it doesn't have to be about disease to get you to that place emotionally, or to understand that character. That character, without the disease, without selling blood, was in a very dire situation - she's impoverished, she's destitute, she has two children, she's up against the wall. I think that when anyone is in that situation, you become very desperate, and things that you do may not be logical choices that you would normally make if you had everything that you needed at your fingertips.

Another film that shows a different side of you is Rise; what's that been like?

Lucy Liu: Yeah, it's a horror movie; it's like a whole different thing. I enjoy it, I love the director, too, Sebastian Gutierrez; it's just about mixing it up for myself. Like if you open a box of Crayola crayons, you wouldn't want just black. You want to have all the colors even if you decide to use them or not. It's your choice.

You can see Lucy in 3 Needles when it opens December 1st. It will also replay on Showtime on December 4th.