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Lucy Liu on how her role as Dr. Watson keeps her solving crimes—on-screen and off

The character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, and he’s come an awful long way since then. The most modern incarnation of the Holmes story might just be on CBS’s Elementary, which is returning for its third season beginning October 30. 

The series follows a modern-day Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), a recovering addict and crime-fighting veteran who’s helping to solve crimes in New York City. Alongside him, as always, is Dr. Watson—but not in the way one might think. On Elementary, Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, who was initially Holmes’ sober companion but has, over the course of the series, become a protégé, friend and, for viewers, an irreplaceable part of the series.

Liu’s involvement in Elementary goes way beyond playing Watson. After directing an episode for the show’s second season, Liu is back behind the camera again with an episode set to air later this year. Here, she takes a quick break between scenes to chat with DuJour about her character’s development, learning to be the boss and how Elementary has helped sharpen her real-life detective skills.  

How much did you know about the original Holmes and Watson when you signed on for this series?

It was all pretty new for me. I knew about Sherlock Holmes and Watson, but I didn’t really know much about anything more than what I’d already seen. I never actually read the literature until I signed on for the pilot. 

Elementary isn’t the first modernization of the Holmes story. What do you think differentiates you?

For us, it’s really is about friendship developing between the two characters as well as the underlying subjects—he’s a drug addict and she sort of came on as a sober companion. So, it’s a deeper relationship than two people who are both detectives or who started as partners. In terms of modernizing Sherlock Holmes, I think through the characters, Holmes and Watson are pretty historic and iconic, so you can take that and pretty much place it in any time period and it still works, which clearly has been successful. I think people are very fascinated by that. 

What do you most like about playing Watson?

I love that she’s breaking out of what she was. What’s happening for Watson is that there’s this constant change going on: She was a doctor, and then she became a sober companion, and then she became detective, and now she’s off on her own.  This new season, we start off with her having a boyfriend as well.  I like that there are layers in her changes, because that’s what happens in anyone’s life.  It helps to have that realistic background behind all of the insane cases she and Holmes have going on. 

How’s season three shaping up to be different than its predecessors?

What’s different about season three is it seems that the connection between the characters has become very solid. The relationships have more of a set energy and there’s ease to their relationship, so you can go into more of the characters’ emotional side.  They’ve also brought in a new character who is going to be Sherlock’s protégée, so it changes the relationship between Watson and Sherlock. 

You directed an episode last season and you’re at it again for this one. What’s it like to get behind the camera after being an actor on the series for so long? 

It’s incredibly exciting. It’s so much fun to be in that place where you know the crew, but also have a handle on it because you’ve been in the business for a long time. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling to know more than you think you do when you step into those shoes.  You know, sometimes you think, Oh, my God, am I going to be able to manage it? Will I be able to do all those things I need to do? And ultimately, you are. 

Does it change the way you look at the show as an actress?

I knew there was a lot involved in directing, and I think running around and being on set, you see what’s involved. But when you do direct an episode, the whole world opens up to you and you understand everything that goes into the production, all the parts of it. So, yes, it changes the way you see things completely.  You can’t help but think what kind of production goes into it every single day and how you value things; it’s really an incredible business.

Has playing someone with a knack for solving crimes translated at all into your real life?

I was always pretty aware of my environment and the things around me, but since I’ve been doing the show, I’ve become a little bit more aware because the way that Sherlock and Watson look at things is very specific and very different.  It’s not like he has a sixth sense, it’s more that he deduces things in a very different manner than other people would.  What I picked up from the show definitely seeps into my personal life. 

How so?

For example, somebody in my building recently noticed all this garbage out on the street and we didn’t know what had happened. You’d think someone just tossed garbage all over the street. But I did things that I wouldn’t have thought of before, like looking at the tire marks on the ground. That’s when we realized that it was because there’s a loading dock right across the street from the apartment building, and sometimes they’ll drive onto the sidewalk and pull along the garbage that’s been left out, so it looks like a drunken massacre of garbage. It’s a very basic thing, but it’s incredibly helpful. It makes you feel like you know a little bit more about life and its little mysteries.