Poppy Liu in Dead Ringers
Hannah Einbinder as Ava and Poppy Liu as Kiki in Hacks
Poppy Liu's Life Lessons
The actress discusses the insights she's gained from her roles on Prime Video's Dead Ringers and Max's Hacks.
Poppy Liu had a head start, compared to her castmates on Dead Ringers. In addition to being an actor, Liu — who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns — also works as a birthing assistant, or doula, and serves on the board of directors for a reproductive justice collective for women of color called SisterSong. So, she was already well-versed on the issues raised by the Prime Video limited series, which focuses on Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical-twin OB/GYNs played by Rachel Weisz. "I thought it was really cool that the show was able to do quite a comprehensive take on birthing experiences," Liu says. "I love Beverly Mantle's dream of opening a birthing center, because I feel like her thesis of giving more personalized care is something I actually do stand behind."
Despite this, when Liu first read the supporting-character descriptions, she was hesitant. The part she was up for — Greta, a housekeeper — felt stereotypical at first glance. She wasn't interested in half-hearted attempts at diversity; she wanted roles that reflected her own experiences as a queer, first-generation Chinese American immigrant. Only after showrunner-executive producer Alice Birch explained the series' many mysteries, and Greta's larger role within them, did Liu become intrigued enough to take the part.
"Greta's definitely an enigma," Liu says. The more she thought about that enigma, the more she realized she could help build it. Greta might seem like she's in a service-oriented role, but she's using the opportunity in an unexpected way. We see her gather samples from the Mantle twins — used tampons, bodily fluids — and store them in her basement apartment. Greta's actions might give off serial killer vibes, but she's actually building an art installation about birth and motherhood, in the vein of conceptual artist Sophie Calle.
It was Liu's idea to change a line in her character's birth narrative to refer to the delivery doctor as a "she" instead of a "he," implying that one of the Mantle twins served as her mother's OB/GYN, to explain her character's fixation on them and their role in the exhibit. "Greta has her own agenda," Liu explains. "She transverses these worlds, unseen, and she uses her potentially invisible status as her superpower. She turns the role on its head, and that's fascinating."
Liu, who first garnered attention playing Mei Lin, a Chinese billionaire's daughter, on the 2019 NBC comedy Sunnyside, got another career bump with the role of fan-favorite blackjack dealer Kiki on the Max comedy Hacks. The series, which returns for a third season this year, follows a tenured Vegas comic (Jean Smart) who hires a young comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder) to punch up her work. A mentorship and friendship ensues, and Kiki is along for the ride — quite literally, when she joins them on tour in season two.
In the "whirlwind two years" since season one aired in 2021, Liu has worked on eleven different TV shows, she tallies, "most of which I didn't even audition or tape for," she says. "Most of them went straight to conversations with the producers, writers and directors, who said some version of they loved me as Kiki and wanted to bring something they saw into whatever world they were creating."
That's because Kiki's good-vibe energy is so contagious. "She exudes it without toxic positivity," Liu says. "She feels deeply and fully and without a filter, which is really refreshing." Playing the character was a lifeboat during the pandemic: "To be in her headspace means being unable to get beaten down by life. Life is too interesting to be depressed. That's what Kiki taught me."
To develop Kiki and Greta, Liu compiled character playlists (which she shared on Spotify). She also developed bigger backstories for each character. In Kiki's case, Liu came up with the idea that ever-hustling Kiki has a ring of people all over Las Vegas supporting her undocumented immigrant "cousins" with various jobs. "I bet she knows the bouncer at every single club and casino," Liu says. "In a much more chill, non-Godfather way, I think there are lots of people she can call on if she needs a favor."
Maybe this idea could become a Hacks spin-off? If not, Liu has other Hacks-related pitches — such as Snacks, the cooking reality-TV show Kiki could host in her spare time. Or we could see her many other presumed high-profile gigs, such as a tarot card reader for Celine Dion, or a poodle walker for Elton John. Or what about a show focusing on Kiki's personal life and her relationship with her daughter Luna? It could be a "Twenty-first century Asian Gilmore Girls." If they end up talking as much as Rory and Lorelai, call it Yacks.