Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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How Nonbinary Hacks Star Poppy Liu’s Star Rose in 2021

Poppy Liu

Even among a cast stacked with legends like Jean Smart — and legends-in-the-making including Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, and Megan Stalter — Poppy Liu managed to steal every scene of hers in HBO’s hit series Hacks. That’s because for Liu, a nonbinary (they/them, she/her), first-generation Chinese-American actor from New York, it’s exactly where they’re supposed to be: on our screens, representing the complex and beautiful matrix of identities that make them distinctly them.

Despite her gifts as a performer, for most of her life, Liu never considered acting to be a viable career. In part, Liu says her parents, who immigrated from China when she was just 2, set an example of hard work and sensible choices that kept her from thinking of the arts as a career. But also, a lack of representation and not seeing someone like herself presented on-screen prevented Liu from thinking of it as even a possibility. “It wasn’t even a conscious ‘representation matters’ thought as a kid — I just was like, ‘Oh, that’s just not even a room in this house,’” Liu recalls.

Acting didn’t start feeling like a real option for Liu until she started making her own projects on her own terms. “The first time I ever ventured into film...I kind of did it all. I wore all the hats for the first thing I did...[it] was a short film that was based on my abortion story,” she says. “It felt easier for me to create a piece of public work about my abortion than it was for me to imagine myself working in TV. It wasn’t even like I made the film because I wanted to make films...I was like, how can this kind of storytelling be accessible to more people? How can I share this and create more spaces where we can talk about our abortion stories?” Ultimately, she concluded film was that medium.

Poppy Liu

Once they were ready to make the leap into acting professionally, they set boundaries about the projects they were interested in. “In the early days...I sent this elaborate document to all of my reps with a breakdown of my personal identity statement, my personal mission statement, [and] the kinds of roles I was interested in, the kinds of people and spaces I wanted to work with, [and] the kind of work that I was committed to doing,” they say. That approach has allowed Liu to be the kind of representation on-screen that they didn’t dare dream of growing up, while also avoiding roles that clash with their ethos.

A perfect example of how sticking to her boundaries is paying off is Liu’s turn as Kiki, the pop-loving, Bentley-driving, private blackjack dealer in Hacks — a character who’s anything and everything but a stereotype. It’s a role Liu truly cherishes, thanks to their character’s positivity and surprising wisdom. “I always say Kiki is me on my best day,” she shares. “There are many days of just, you know, a questionable mental state, just regular depression, etc., in my own daily life, but on the day when all the stars align, once every full moon or whatever, I reach Kiki level,” Liu laughs. “In some ways [playing Kiki during the height of the pandemic] was like an antidepressant.”

Next up for Liu is a second season of Hacks as well as a role in Dead Ringers, a gender-flipped remake of the David Cronenberg film, also starring Rachel Weisz. One thing’s clear: Even if it took them a while to believe it, Liu has found their true calling.

 

This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands November 23, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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