Lucy Liu Puts a New Spin on Sherlock Holmes’s Sidekick Watson

Lucy Liu says she always thinks outside the box so she didn’t find it strange that the producers of “Elementary,” a new CBS TV drama based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, reimagined Sherlock Holmes’s friend and sidekick as a woman and offered her the role of Dr. Joan Watson.

The show, which premieres Sept. 27 at 10 p.m., puts Holmes, played by British actor Jonny Lee Miller, in New York helping the NYPD crack its most difficult cases. Holmes’s wealthy father hires Watson, a surgeon who three years ago lost a patient and consequently her license, to be Holmes’s live-in “sober companion.” The job means making sure the irascible detective, fresh from his stint at a drug rehab, doesn’t fall off the wagon. It also means tagging along as Holmes races around the city pursuing clues.

The gender-swapping role has generated some controversy among Holmes devotees, but for Liu, “changing it up is a good thing. … If you look at the percentage of ethnicities and the percentage of women on television now, it’s such a different time. That’s how you keep things current. You update and you change them accordingly. … People probably thought the same thing about the president of the United States, how is it possible that you have someone who’s not Caucasian, in that vision. I think things are shifting quite a bit.”

The cast has shot four out of 13 episodes, including the pilot (which was filmed in March). Liu, who starred in successful films such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill,” and in TV programs like “Ally McBeal” and “Southland,” says she’s learning about her character as she goes along.

“Joan Watson is somebody who, like Sherlock, is also quite damaged and has a little bit of a fragile history. We’re starting to piece her together … she’s her own puzzle,” says Liu, a native New Yorker. “She’s not maybe as eccentric as Sherlock is … in the pilot, she has something mysterious about her that’s going to reveal itself slowly as the episodes go on.” As she accompanies Holmes on his investigations, Watson discovers that she has a knack for playing detective. And Holmes discovers that her medical expertise — and ability to connect with people — helps him solve cases.

“I like that the depth of Joan — even though she is somebody who is there to help and assist someone else on their journey toward a new path of staying clean and sober — I love that she’s discovering things about herself as well because she has a great deal of damage and the two connect in their fragility. So it’s not just one person leading the charge. They both listen to each other and they learn from each other. And I think that’s important, otherwise it becomes too one-sided. I like that she’s open that way and that she’s got some place to go, emotionally…. There is a comfort in the fact that she has that vulnerability.”

What’s it like working with Miller and being in practically every scene with him? “Jonny’s wonderful. I adore working with him,” says Liu. “He’s incredibly giving. He’s very talented. We have a lot of fun together, which is also great because we’re together all the time.”

Casting an Asian-American actress for the role also goes against tradition, though Liu says she doesn’t think about what ethnic category she falls into. But she concedes that it’s nice she can represent a certain group of people. “It feels really good to be always breaking down walls and starting something new and trying something new. You never know – it’s hit and miss,” she says.

“It’s nice to be able to portray an Asian-American on camera without having an accent, or without having to be spoofy. And I think that’s a big step forward, because there are still representations of people that are more comedic. And that’s not what I’m playing. I’m just playing somebody who represents anyone else who would be living in America or outside of it, who is just a regular person.”

1 2