From the moment she appeared on the small screen as the icy-cold vixen Ling Woo in Ally McBeal, it was clear Lucy Liu had a knack for the ruthless. When she decapitated a Japanese drug lord in Kill Bill, she did it with such grace you couldn't help but applaud. Even when appearing in the children’s animated flick Kung Fu Panda, she played a viper.
Indeed, in a recent survey by Entertainment Weekly, Liu was named one of TV's Top 21 bitches, alongside Joan Collins and Miss Piggy.
Off screen, though, Liu is a lot less scary. In the last six years she has been raking in serious frequent flier miles, globetrotting to and from half a dozen disaster areas as one of UNICEF's most bankable Goodwill ambassadors.
“I think people can get too caught up in charity work and think too highly of themselves,” Liu said. “It’s important to have perspective. You don’t want to be too much of a bleeding heart.”
The same trait that has aided her acting career is also setting her apart as an activist: fearlessness. She spent part of June of 2007 with refugees and rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo, considered the most dangerous place on Earth—over a 13-year period of region turmoil, approximately half-a-million Congolese women and girls have been mass raped and 5 million people have died, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.
In August 2005, Liu flew to Lesotho, an enclave in South Africa where half the women are infected with HIV/AIDS, to talk to teenagers about safe sex. When an earthquake struck Pakistan that same year, Liu took a camera crew, got on a plane, and recorded the devastation. After she talked about it on Oprah's couch, UNICEF was flooded with letters stuffed with more than $700,000 in checks.
"We're very fortunate to have her," said UNICEF VP of Public Relations Lisa Szarkowski. "When she talks to children she treats them like people, and they respond to that. She doesn't pat them on the back or hug them indiscriminately."
Liu made the first call to UNICEF in 2004 to see how she could help. She'd been doing the charity circuit for years, going to glitzy benefits, lending her name to A-list fundraisers, even donating her own money. But she wanted a deeper kind of engagement.
"I was really nervous when I first started," she admitted about her first UNICEF trip, to Lesotho. "I really didn't know much about traveling."
She remembers bringing with her tons of camera equipment and books, not realizing she'd have time for neither. Since then she's learned to pack light: one little carry-on that includes a tiny digital camera, few clothes (she wears the same outfit the entire trip), a stash of antibiotics ("in case you get sick, there's no medicine where we go"), and forget about books. When she has a moment to herself—which is not often—she uses it to sleep.
Between earthquakes and floods, Liu always comes home to New York City. These days she's appearing in her first Broadway show, God of Carnage, in which she plays Annette, an affluent woman concerned with appearances whose husband is having an affair with his cell phone. Asked whether it's hard to hear privileged New Yorkers complain about their latte being cold after what she's seen, she answers, no.
"I don't think you should stop living your life. I think you should love your life more and enjoy it more," she told The Daily Beast. And no, she doesn't talk about her trips with her friends unless they ask.
"I think people can get too caught up in charity work and think too highly of themselves. It's important to have perspective. You don't want to be too much of a bleeding heart."
But since Liu started working with UNICEF, her choice in film projects has shifted. She just produced a documentary about child sexploitation in Cambodia called REDLIGHT, using footage smuggled out of brothels. Her directorial debut, Meena, is about an Indian woman sold into slavery, and will be one of six segments directed by American actresses in the upcoming feature documentary Half the Sky, about issues facing women in the developing world. Liu even convinced the producers of Carnage to pass a collection bucket for UNICEF during an upcoming performance.
But for everything she’s doing, Liu says she still feels like it’s not enough. “You can't band-aid things,” she said. “There's a big system that has to be dealt with on a larger basis.”
Itay Hod is a former reporter for CBS News where he reported on a range of topics from breaking news and politics to lifestyle and culture.