The evolution of Lucy Liu

The actress directing an episode of her series "Elementary."

CBS News

As her artwork makes clear, it's hard to put a "label" on Lucy Liu. Actress, director, artist, and single mother ... not so simple, as our Mo Rocca discovered:

Actress Lucy Liu showed Rocca around the set of her series, "Elementary":  "This is a precinct which is where we shoot a lot. There's a bathroom here but it actually goes out into the morgue. So if you go to the bathroom, you end up in the morgue!"

For CBS' take on Sherlock Holmes, Watson is a woman, played by Liu. 

The "Elementary" actress and artist continues to grow, taking on directing and motherhood. CBS News

But that's not the series' only distinguishing feature. While the dynamic of traditional Holmesian drama is that Sherlock is brilliant and almost infallible while Watson is worshipful and tagging along, it's different here. 

"Sherlock is fallible," Liu said. "He's got an addiction problem. She started with him as a sober companion, and then it's turned into a partnership.

"I think it's fair to say it's a much quieter role. It's a role that I have learned patience with. I've had many roles that are quite fiery, and have had a lot of exclamation points after the name. So I think it's nice to change it up a little bit!"

Yes, it's definitely a change from the rock-'em-sock-'em roles she's played in movies. And it's the first that's connected with one fan in particular.

"So is this the first thing that your mother has really grooved to?" asked Rocca.

"Absolutely! Yeah. No hesitation. No hesitation," Liu replied. "This show she understands. She was a huge 'Columbo' fan.  Now I've made it big time, because I'm on a detective show!"

Liu was raised in the New York City borough of Queens, speaking Chinese while growing up. "And then when my sister when to school, we started speaking a little bit of English, so it was sort of a little 'Chinglish,' a little mixed bag."

Lucy Liu outside her childhood home in Queen, New York.  CBS News

Her parents emigrated from China. She said, "They are definitely people that worked very hard, and had that whole idea of the American dream, and they pursued it."

But she kept her dream of acting a secret when she went off to the University of Michigan, where she auditioned for a production of "Alice in Wonderland" -- and was cast in the lead role.

"It was shocking,:" Liu said. "I thought there was a mistake, a big mistake. I kept following the name to the character. And I was in shock.

"Growing up as somebody from another country, really, not what you see on television, I never saw myself in the forefront, ever. We were always in the background."

Lucy Liu with Taye Diggs in "Ally McBeal." Fox

But soon after moving to L.A., Liu would get used to being in front of the camera.

She recalled going to an audition for the series "Ally McBeal": "Everyone was basically Caucasian. And there was me, and then there was, like, one African American person. So I was like, 'Okay. So they're just doing this for the census!'"

Lucy didn't get the part she auditioned for, but series creator David E. Kelly was impressed, and wrote a role just for her, the acerbic Ling Woo. "A lot of people said that she was a bitch. But I felt that she was a very honest and very unmasked person, and was very direct."