A story about Lucy Liu and Bill Murray clashing on the set of their 2000 movie Charlie’s Angeles has long floated around Hollywood, and it went viral earlier this month when Shaun O’Banion, who said he was a production assistant on the set during filming, tweeted about what he allegedly saw go down — which was, essentially, that Murray insulted Liu, calling her just a TV actress, in front of everyone.
Liu, who’s usually incredibly private, explained her side of the story when she was asked about the incident on Tuesday’s episode of the Los Angeles Times Asian Enough podcast. The actress had already made a name for herself on TV hit Ally McBeal by the time she joined the big-budget, Destiny’s Child-soundtracked action comedy. She co-starred alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz — her fellow angels — as well as Murray, who played the liaison between the women and their boss.
“I feel like some of those stories are private,” Liu said at first. “But I will say, when we started to rehearse this scene, which was all of us in the agency, we had taken the weekend to rework that particular scene and Bill Murray was not able to come because he had to attend some family gathering. So it was everyone else, and we just made the scene more fluid. I wish I had more to do with it but I didn’t, because I was the last one cast and I probably had the least amount of privilege in terms of creatively participating at that time.”
Barrymore was a producer on the project, while Diaz was on her way to becoming one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood.
“As we’re doing the scene, Bill starts to sort of hurl insults, and I won’t get into the specifics, but it kept going on and on,” Liu said. “I was, like, ‘Wow, he seems like he’s looking straight at me.’ I couldn’t believe that [the comments] could be towards me, because what do I have to do with anything majorly important at that time? I literally do the look around my shoulder thing, like, who is he talking to behind me? I say, ‘I’m so sorry. Are you talking to me?’ And clearly he was, because then it started to become a one-on-one communication.”
That’s when Liu decided to do something about it.
“Some of the language was inexcusable and unacceptable, and I was not going to just sit there and take it. So, yes, I stood up for myself, and I don’t regret it,” she said. “Because no matter how low on the totem pole you may be or wherever you came from, there’s no need to condescend or to put other people down. And I would not stand down, and nor should I have.”
For Murray’s part, he gave his version of what happened to the Times of London (via Entertainment Weekly) in October 2009: “Look, I will dismiss you completely if you are unprofessional and working with me. … When our relationship is professional, and you’re not getting that done, forget it.”
On Tuesday, a rep for the actor did not immediately respond to Yahoo Entertainment’s request for comment.
“I remember years later, maybe even decades later,” Liu continued, “some crew members that I didn’t even know at the time came up to me on other sets and told me that they were there at the time, and they were really grateful that I did that.”
She said that she’s encountered Murray since and that they’re OK.
“I have nothing against Bill Murray at all. I’ve seen him since then at a SNL reunion, and he came up to me and was perfectly nice,” Liu said. “But I’m not going to sit there and be attacked.”
The star also remembers clearly what it was like, when she was a child, to accompany her immigrant mother, who didn’t speak English, to the store. How “condescending” the salesperson was to her, how she was “so angry and felt so unable to speak.” Liu didn’t want the Murray situation to become that.
“I don’t know if it goes back to what happened to my mom in the store. But I don’t want to be that person that is not going to speak up for myself and stand by the only thing that I have, which is my dignity and self-respect,” Liu said. “Because in the end, we all end up in the same place as time goes on. Nobody is immortal. But in that time, no matter what happens between now and whatever career choices I make or whatever life decisions I make, I will walk away with my dignity.”
The Kill Bill star detected sexism in the way the whole thing was reported.
“What came out in the press was that I was this and I was that. It was incredible to me how it was turned around and they automatically thought that the woman was the difficult one,” Liu said. “But I didn’t understand how it got flipped when I had nothing to do with instigating it or creating that platform of confrontation or anxiety. So even though it’s been decades, it’s something that obviously I remember very intimately and have not forgotten.”
Liu also recalled that people told her to choose another career because she’s Asian. They said there wouldn’t be roles available to her. Still, she’s persevered.
When they asked what it’s taken for her to make progress for Asian Americans in film, she answered, “Every ounce of willpower and persistence that one can have.” She added, “I think when you do move the needle, or you do interact with the people and the career that you want to go towards, you are going to be the first to get cut by the thorns and the bushes. You will also, therefore, be standing in front of the spotlight to be criticized and to be somewhat crucified. And you have to be OK with that.”