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Just Who Is Lucy Liu?

When she walks into a room, the Wicked Witch theme song does not play – contrary to her entrances on TV's Ally McBeal. In fact, only her own singsong, "Hi guys!" accompanies her arrival to a journalist roundtable.

She does, though, don a snug leather vest over bare skin with a bracelet wrapped around her upper arm – a little number not too unlike something her sado-masochistic dominatrix might wear in the new Mel Gibson movie, Payback.

In the past few months, actress Lucy Liu has caught America's attention – first as Ally McBeal's Ling Woo, the ice queen who sues first and asks questions later – and now as Payback's Pearl, whose pleasure is your pain. But anyone who suspects the Asian beauty is simply playing herself might want to note her earlier work, when she appeared on series such as NYPD Blue and Pearl.

"In the past, I've played more vulnerable, open characters," she says. "Ones from another country who don't speak English very well."

Problem is, no one noticed. Now that they have noticed, they could easily get the wrong idea. Like maybe that she's fearless.

"I'm actually not fearless, says the Queens, New York native. "I think I lived my life in fear for a long time. Just growing up here and being first generation. And just not knowing. I didn't really stand up for myself before. I didn't really speak out when I thought things were wrong. If somebody was making fun of my mom or something, I would just stand there, because I didn't know. I was just kind of silenced by, not so much ignorance but youth, you know? But as I get older and see that people are getting abused in any way, I stand up for it. I think it's so important not to live your life in regret."

What she is is energetic, frothy . . .dare we say cheerful? "I'm pretty comfortable with myself," she confirms. "It's not like I have any issues about that."

Though she currently plays a couple of dragon women, she does not consider her characters race-bound. "I think there's definitely a kind of the fetish of the Asian woman being kind of like a flower, like a lotus flower, or that she's just like this powerful bad girl, nasty girl. And I think the stereotypes definitely exist. I know it was originally written in the script for Pearl to be Asian, but it could have been anybody. And Ling Woo could have pretty much been everybody too. She didn't have to be Asian."

Race aside, on McBeal's February 8th episode, "You definitely see a new color to her," Liu says of Ling. "I know people love her now because she's such a drama queen. But this is going to show something about her that's going to make her more human. I think everybody's going to be very interested in seeing what happens to her, including myself."

One thing that won't change on the show, according to Liu, is it's over-the-top level. The program is getting mre and more criticism for being too cartoonish – for going too far. But Liu disagrees. "I think that it's always going to be at the right level. Maybe people perceive it as being over-the-top because there's nothing "p.c." about it. It's pretty refreshing and it's original. And I think it challenges people's intelligence. Everyone is just so sick of the same thing over and over. I mean. . .if I can see something on Nick at Nite, why do I have to see it on regular primetime?"

At this point, Liu is only contracted to McBeal through the current season. "Of course I want to come back. I want to keep developing her. And of course I want to do new things too. But maybe the summer hiatus can fulfill that." At any rate, she expects to know her fate by June.

In the motion picture department, she has a couple of upcoming small movie roles – filmed after Payback but before her McBeal notoriety – including a stint opposite Clint Eastwood in his upcoming True Crime and in Mike Myers' Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Says she, "I'm really nice in them. Which is unusual." Then she laughs. "Nobody's going to buy it. They're going to want their money back."

Written by Rob Medich for CBS.comsize=-1>