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Lucy Liu on Elementary and That Other Sherlock Show Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Lucy Liu. Photo: Byron Purvis/AdMedia/Corbis

Fans of the BBC’s excellent Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson, were up in arms when CBS announced a suspiciously similar fall series called Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. Joan Watson, that is; she’s a surgeon with a dubious past who’s been hired by Holmes’s father to be his “sober companion,” but immediately gets drafted to be his sidekick in deduction. Steven Moffat, creator of the BBC series, has been vocal explaining what went down, which was essentially that CBS approached him and co-creator Mark Gatiss with the idea of doing an American interpretation, they said they loved the idea but weren’t ready, and CBS went ahead with it anyway, since the BBC doesn’t have a monopoly on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The rub: The CBS version (which premieres tonight at 10 p.m.) is pretty watchable. Vulture spoke to Liu about shout-outs, shooting in New York, and the remake controversy.

I just saw the pilot, which ends with your character watching the Mets as they lose. Was that an homage to your growing up in Queens?
[Laughs] I actually love the Mets and the Yankees and I think they originally had the Yankees in there. But the Yankees did not want to portray themselves, obviously, as a losing team. But I think the Mets were open to it and that’s how we ended up doing it. [laughs]

How important to you was it that the show shoots in New York? 
It was one of the main reasons I took the job. You can’t fake New York. They used to try to do that with Toronto but it’s just, it’s not really the same, you know?

Where is Sherlock supposed to be living?
We started with a brownstone in Brooklyn, and now they set it up on the soundstage. We’re shooting the exterior now in Harlem.

Oh, so Harlem as Brooklyn.
Exactly. At least it’s not Toronto for New York.

Any weird encounters with people on the street interrupting the shooting?
Uhhh. [laughs] Yeah. Well, sometimes I’ll get a shout-out in the middle of a take. They maybe don’t realize we’re shooting, but I’ll get a shout-out.

Who’s shouting and what are they saying to you?
It’s a lot of props, like, “Lucy Liu, I love you!” or “I love you ,Lucy Liu.” No one ever says my [first] name on its own, it’s always the first and last connected. I’ve even been asked if I was from the South. They ask me if my name is southern.

Like Lucyloo, like ‘Skip to my Loo’?
Kind of. Like if I was Elizabeth Liu, they probably just call me Elizabeth.

You think action movies get you more shout-outs than drama?
I think it probably makes people a little bit more adrenaline-pumped. There’s a different kind of vibe. I’m not sure. Like, Cate Blanchett is so talented, but I’m not sure anyone’s like “Cate Blanchett!” You would approach her like a respectful person and be like, “You are an amazing actress,” you know?

There’s been some controversy over whether this is a straight-up remake of the BBC version, and Steven Moffat, creator of the BBC version, was not incredibly happy about it.
Mm-hmm. I think they’re okay with it now. I think they were shown the pilot and they saw how different it was from theirs. I don’t know for sure but I thought that the creator from the original Sherlock had seen the pilot and he said that he was really impressed and pleased with how it turned out and he saw that the correlation was completely different. Sometimes when there’s a remake involved — and I had the same experience on Charlie’s Angels — people are kind of scratching their heads like, “Why are you doing that? It’s going to be so ridiculous.” And you never know how it’s going to turn out, but I think we all have faith in it and we hope that it’s received well. No one sets out to have it, you know, be terrible. [laughs]

The one thing about Watson being a woman is that people are already speculating if this is the usual “will they, won’t they” situation.
That’s natural, I’m sure. I don’t know, I think that Rob has said that not something we’re planning on doing. I mean, you don’t stop people having chemistry, obviously. We want to focus on their relationship and their partnership for sure, but what comes of it, we don’t know. But I don’t know, that was not his intention.

What excites you about this character in particular?
I like the idea that Watson is somebody who has a dark past as well and has damage and is not — you know, as she’s trying to keep his life together, she herself has a struggle and she’s using his regime as a distraction for what she should be focusing on.

You’re talking about the struggle of having been a surgeon who killed a patient?
Having been kicked out as a surgeon, having been sort of humiliated. Not only does she have a past, but Sherlock has a little bit of an eye into it, and this is the first time she’s worked with a client that actually broke it down for her. And at the same time she still has to maintain her profession and there’s also a mutual respect that sort of develops by the end of the pilot between the two of them. Because if he is as intelligent as he is, he really wouldn’t be able to stick around with somebody and have that person in their presence if they really didn’t contribute to his life in any way.

You have The Man With the Iron Fists coming out. Do you get to use any of your kung fu skills on Elementary?
Luckily for me, I don’t have to train at all on this. Watson’s just using her noggin. That’s all they got.

Lucy Liu on Her Sherlock Show, Elementary