Lucy Liu Is on Fire

True or false? 1. George Clooney was considered for the role of Alex Munday, the dark-haired Charlie's Angel, but lost the plum part to Lucy Liu. 2. Liu, an avid welder, nearly self-immolated during the filming of Full Throttle. 3. The angelic Ms. Munday is not only a super-cool crime-fighter, she's also a world-class gymnast, chess champion and neurosurgeon. Answer: All true! (That is, except the bit about Liu being an avid welder.)

"I was really lucky to be a part of it," enthuses the 35-year-old actress, who with costars Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore performs terrifying stunts in stilettos that would no doubt challenge even the courageous Clooney.

"Catching fire was actually a costume issue," explains Liu, who, clad in fire-retardant welder's gear for a short scene, nonetheless sported a handkerchief at the behest of director McG, in an effort to add a little color to the sooty ensembles. "All of sudden, I felt really hot. And there was this ember down my front, and I started screaming. The handkerchief was burning.

"They played it over and over from that moment on for the rest of the movie -- I'd come back from getting changed or whatever, and I'd see everyone crowding around the video monitor laughing, and I'd hear my voice saying, 'I'm on fire!' And I was like, 'Haven't we had enough of this, people? Can't we move on?'"

There were other injuries: Drew nearly broke her tailbone and Demi ripped a muscle in her thigh. "I pushed really hard, and the girls all got hurt in the fight sequences," says McG, who also helmed the first feature. "They would get fired up and there'd be this really healthy sort of competitive thing, where they're like, 'I can do it. You can do it. Get me in the harness.' Everybody got really banged up."

For the numerous fight scenes, the actresses trained with Cheung-Yan Yuen, the Hong Kong fight choreographer with whom they'd previously worked. Liu, an experienced martial artist, practices Kali-Eskrima-Silat (knife-and-stick fighting). And while stunt doubles were used for the perilous motorcross scene, Yuen says the actresses "trained so hard for the first film, they were in much better shape this time. They already had a foundation, which really paid off."

"It was just like coming back to your family," says Liu of reprising the role of Alex, whose clueless father in the film is played by the legendary comic talent John Cleese. "With the first movie there was a lot of pressure. There were rumors of the three of us having catfights; people wondered how it was possible that three women could actually get along. The success of the film has encouraged studios to do more action with women, women together. The formula works."

Expanding on the sexy '70s TV series, Full Throttle presents amusing vignettes that develop the Angels' characters. Alex, raised in the finest schools, is shown in Olympic contention as a teenage gymnast and as a studious chess prodigy who goes on to practice medicine.

"The audience knew what the tone was, so we were able to have a really relaxed, fun time and know that we could take it a level higher," says Liu. "It was such a creative arena. As soon as I set foot on the set, everything went so quickly. We were just really focused on making the movie the best that we could."

Considerable energy was expended on grooming and wardrobe (there are 114 costume changes in the film), and the actresses' fetching physiques are anything but underplayed.

"These women are all very confident, and they're obviously extraordinarily beautiful," says McG. "But everything comes from character. The girls don't let me get away with anything. I have to tell them why it's important for character, why it makes sense. They don't ever want to be exploited; they don't ever want it to be gratuitous. But that said, if we can shape it properly and make it feel like it makes sense for the film, they're happy."

"Charlie's Angels embraces femininity that goes beyond fashion, with the idea that women can be feminine and also be capable and strong -- not only physically but mentally," says Liu, who has a degree in Chinese arts and culture from the University of Michigan, has exhibited her multimedia art pieces in New York and won a grant to study and create art in China.

The actress praises her director for his ability to balance comedy and drama and deliver a meaningful message. "This movie is not about bad medicine," says McG. "It's about picking yourself up from your bootstraps and being the best that you can be."

Which is a familiar story to Liu, who after college moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and toiled in supporting parts in small films and TV series before her impressive turn on Ally McBeal led to feature films (Payback, Shanghai Noon). Liu can next be seen in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, with Uma Thurman, David Carradine and Daryl Hannah.

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