When actress Lucy Liu was 9 years old, she experienced a life-changing moment in a five-and-dime. "I was with my mother and she was asking...

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When actress Lucy Liu was 9 years old, she experienced a life-changing moment in a five-and-dime. “I was with my mother and she was asking somebody a question who worked there. And he was very condescending and rude to my mother because she had a very strong accent,” says Liu.

“And I remember being really angry — and as a child you don’t ever speak up — thinking, ‘My mother knows how to speak two languages and you only know how to speak one.’ I remember I was angry and wanting to stand up for her and being so frustrated because I wanted them to SEE. She’s a biochemist. Yeah, she’s asking where the toothpaste is, and perhaps it’s not as clear as you’d like it to be, but there was a certain respect that was missing that really angered me. So I stand up for things that I find are injustices.”

Not only does she stand up to injustices, Liu has more on her mind than her next role or what designer dress she’s going to wear.

She’s a painter with a gallery showing in Munich in May, and is a devoted worker for UNICEF. Determination and industry is part of her heritage. She stood up to her parents when they objected to her being an actress, agreeing to earn her bachelor’s degree first.

“I think, in some ways, because I was not able to pursue acting until after I graduated college, it kind of made me bulletproof to any rejection,” says Liu, who’s dressed in a white peasant blouse, blue denim skirt and gold, high-heeled sandals.

“Because it didn’t matter … I didn’t know anyone in the business, didn’t know how to start. I just sort of went with complete innocent eyes, and I felt like I didn’t know what was out there. If I had known there were all these people that were going to be judging me … I had no idea. That naiveté, I think, really helped to keep me going because the more you know the worse it is, honestly.”

Some of that resolve is apparent in her new role as Mia Mason on ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia.” Liu plays a no-nonsense publisher who’s no more willing to compromise than Liu is.

It wasn’t easy to maintain that principle when she began. Another Asian actor warned her that her roles would be limited.

“And I remember saying to myself, ‘That’s fine but I’m going to make a difference. I’m going to change that. I’m going to be a part of that change, for sure. You can’t just go along with everything that’s out there. I’m sure they thought that Einstein and Thomas Edison were crazy. Nothing comes easy; especially when you’re focused on something, people think you’re insane. But you can’t accomplish anything without having that focus, that belief … I didn’t know any better and I didn’t care. I felt if I wasn’t acting there was no point in living, it was that extreme.”

She pursued her dream in New York with the same resolve she’d observed in her parents; and with hard work. Her father started as a civil engineer and now owns a paper company.

“I worked seven days a week. I knew I needed money if I was going into acting because I was probably not going to be making a lot of money off the bat. So I worked five days a week as a secretary and on weekends, during the day, worked as an aerobic instructor and in the evening worked as a hostess in a place called Tennessee Mountain in SoHo.

“To me it was grueling work, but I was excited by the idea about why I was doing the work … “

Somebody suggested she try L.A. “I got on a plane and I went and never looked back,” she says. “For me, if I’m scared of something I go face first into it because I want to get completely singed if I’m going to go for it, I want to get completely burned.”

Small roles followed until she landed the part of the feisty Ling Woo on “Ally McBeal,” a role especially written for her by the show’s executive producer, David E. Kelley. When “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” came along, it conflicted with “Ally McBeal,” but Kelley made arrangements for her to do both.

After more than eight years in the business, Liu hints she might take time for romance.

“You have to want more in order to have more,” she says. “A lot of people say, ‘This is fine. I only need to make enough money to get by.’ And that’s fine in the beginning, but if you have more, you can give more. You can live your life, fine, sustain yourself, but look outside of that. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m giving more. You have to also give to yourself and not forget your own needs.”