When Maggie Q first arrived in Hong Kong in 1997, she was 18 years old – broke, beautiful and utterly alone. Known then as Maggie Quigley, a Hawaiian girl of American and Vietnamese heritage, she got off the plane at the old Kai Tak airport with just one US$20 bill in her pocket, two huge suitcases and the phone number of a modeling agent she had never spoken with – her sole contact in the city. Seven-and-a-half tumultuous years later, she departed Hong Kong one of the most recognizable faces in China, jetting to Los Angeles to accept a role opposite Tom Cruise in the biggest action movie of the year: Mission Impossible 3. She has seldom looked back – mostly because, for the past few years, she hasn’t had a moment to spare.
Immediately following Mission Impossible, Q was cast as an exotic foil to Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4.0; after which, she was soon seen leading an imperial army across the Gobi Desert in the Chinese period action drama Three Kingdoms, co-starring Andy Lau. In essence, Q’s story traces the timeworn arc of the American dream, except that Hong Kong, China, is the place that made it all possible. From misfit American teenager, to Asian supermodel, to struggling Hong Kong action actress, to international screen star, Q’s ascension has been fast, rocky and improbable at every turn. “Maggie is the only young talent of her generation to come out of the Hong Kong system and make the transition to Hollywood success,” says local film producer and Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, who was one of Q’s confidants and frequent collaborators during her later Hong Kong days.
The New Year is shaping up to be a particularly fervent phase in Q’s relatively young Hollywood career. This spring she will wrap the first 22-episode season of her hit new TV show, Nikita, for CW Network. Shortly after, she will begin promoting her star turn in the big budget 3D vampire film Priest, which Sony Pictures is now readying as their next summer blockbuster. On the side, Q has been executive producing a high concept passion project tentatively titled Unity. A documentary about environmental conservation, the interconnected nature of the contemporary world, and the urgent need for greater social consciousness, this heady-sounding project is also speeding through post-production towards an imminent release. Lastly, and perhaps aptly, Q is currently spending mornings in the studio recording the voice of Wonder Woman for Cartoon Network’s new animated series Young Justice.
On the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she is enjoying a rare respite from Nikita’s relentless shooting schedule, Q remains the same warm, genuine, quick-to-laugh girl her old Hong Kong friends always knew her to be. “Work aside, I think 2011, at the age of 31, is the first year that I’m entering as a real, full-fledged adult. I’ve had such growing pains and crazy learning experiences over the last few years – it just feels good to be older. I wouldn’t go back to being 20 again if you gave me 100 million dollars.”
Margaret Denise Quigley was born and raised in Hawaii by an Irish-American father and Vietnamese mother who met during the Vietnam War. A theatrical child and a star athlete in high school, upon graduation Q won an athletics scholarship to a well-regarded private university, where, as a lifelong animal lover, she hoped to study veterinary science. “It was just a partial scholarship though, and my family wasn’t in a position to assist me financially, so I was looking for an opportunity that would allow me pay for school,” she explains. “I had some retail job at the mall, but that just wasn’t going to cut it.” Around this time a school friend who had done some modeling abroad offered to introduce the sprightly, exotically pretty 17-year-old Maggie to her agency in Tokyo. Without hesitation, she agreed, setting off from Hawaii for the very first time, hoping to make some fast cash in Japan so that she could start her studies in the autumn.
Her plans did not pan out: “I think I got one lotion commercial, which ended up barely paying for my trip.” After a short listless stay back in Hawaii, she took off again, this time for Taipei, where she again met with disappointment. “At that time in Taiwan, they weren’t really looking for mixed girls the way they are now. At every audition, they wanted a tall blonde with blue eyes, or a 100 per cent Chinese star.” With her unique Eurasian looks and petite 5’ 6” stature, Q couldn’t land a single modeling gig in the then stodgy Taiwanese market. Struggling to feed herself and starting to worry that she might not even be able to afford a flight home, Q met a woman at a party who suggested she try Hong Kong, passing on the number of a recommended agent. “I remember thinking, ‘No, I can’t do another big foreign city. I’m done with all this not knowing the language, and not having any friends and not knowing who I am.’ But then I got back to the depressing hotel where I was staying, and I don’t know what it was, but I just thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m leaving’.” Telling herself that Hong Kong was the last stop, she decided that if she didn’t start making money in Asia soon, she would give up on modeling and return to Hawaii for good. “So I spent all the money I had in the world on a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, as my very last chance.”
The agent Q was referred to was Mee-Yian Yong, head of the then recently established Hong Kong and Shanghai model and talent agency Starz People. “I remember I got a call about a girl who might be coming from Taiwan,” says Yong, “and then suddenly Maggie was at my door.” Desperate, adorable and impecunious as Q was – with no money for a hotel and no one else to turn to – Yong offered to take her in. “Not only did Mee-Yian treat me with kindness,” says Q, “which is already pretty rare in the fashion industry – believe me – she let me sleep on her floor until I could afford my own room. That’s the kind of thing, when you’re at a very low point in your life, that you never ever forget.” To this day, as a precondition of any new global film, television or fashion contract she’s considering, Q insists that Yong and Starz People be involved in the Asian side of her business. “I feel that I wouldn’t be where I am today without Mee-Yian, so I’m not excluding her from my success now – no way. She’s going with me all the way.” Asked what Maggie’s friendship and loyalty means to hear, Yong simply says, “Not all girls handle big success this way; Maggie is a very special person.”
“I remember meeting Maggie just a few days after she arrived in Hong Kong,” says Hong Kong fashion photographer Wing Shya from his studio. “I booked her from Mee-Yian for a fashion catalogue shoot and met her for a fitting. She was such a tiny, shy, nervous young girl. But she had this incredible energy and she worked very hard right away. Everything took off for her really quickly.”
Q’s unique Eurasian looks – her sharp, long, flawlessly symmetrical, seemingly computer-enhanced features – which had been a liability for her in Japan and Taiwan, were instantly devoured by a Hong Kong fashion and advertising scene hungry for something new. “I think her timing was quite lucky,” says Yong. “The business was ready for something different and Maggie’s unique beauty overwhelmed them.”
As images of the young model began to proliferate, the Hong Kong media, finding Quigley incommodious to the Cantonese tongue, rebranded her, “Maggie Q”. “As far as I know,” says Logan, “Maggie was the first in what became this pattern of Hong Kong models with a first name followed by an initial – Cara G, Jessica C, and all the others out there today.” Soon Yong was getting calls asking if Q would be interested in meeting to discuss appearances in movies.
Shya, who over the years became one of Q’s closest friends in Hong Kong, says he was unsurprised by her progression into film. “She was always an actress, even when she was a model. Depending on what she was wearing and how she was styled, she used to kind of play a character. I remember we did a shoot in Vietnam for Louis Vuitton and she asked me to tell her a story about who she was; that’s when I realized that she wasn’t posing for the camera, she was acting for me.”
Maggie got her first introduction to movie-making through the JC Group, a production company owned by Jackie Chan, which was developing new young stars for Hong Kong action and exploitation vehicles. “I remember that this was a tough time for her,” says Shya. “Breaking into the Hong Kong film industry, as a young foreign female model – it’s a very difficult thing to do.”
While Q remembers her early days in the Hong Kong film world as a particularly lonely and challenging phase in her life – owing to a profound feeling of cultural displacement and all the usual petty, professional obfuscations and personal imbroglios a young starlet has to countenance in negotiating the notoriously nefarious MO of the Hong Kong star-building industry – she also feels that the trial by fire she experienced on Jackie Chan’s film sets served as an invaluable training ground for her later work in Hollywood. “Jackie’s guys, you know, they’re no bullshit. They come in and they expect you to work incredibly hard. And I think that’s where I developed my aggressive, nobody-is-stunt-doubling-me attitude, because I never wanted them to pull me out. And Jackie, just by virtue of who he is, you learn a huge amount just watching him. I’ve never met a harder worker. So now, in America, I do everything myself and people can’t believe the jaw-dropping amounts of energy I put into things. But to me, that’s just what you do when you’re given an opportunity: you give it everything. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
After 11 film appearances in Hong Kong, without one undisputed smash hit, Q’s big break came with the invitation to audition for J.J. Abrams in Los Angeles for a leading part in Mission Impossible 3. “It’s all kind of a blur now, but I remember I flew to LA and I read a few scenes for J.J., and we we’re in the room, and he sort of looked at me and said: ‘What do we have to do to get you in this film; I want you in this film.’ And I just said, ‘Holy shit, what do I have to do?’” As it happens, the production had for months been struggling to cast Q’s part and pre-production training for the lead characters was due to start in days. In order to take the part, Q would have to move to LA immediately. “So, that was it. I had this entire life in Hong Kong, with all my best friends in the whole world, and everything I had ever known as an adult and a working person, and I just packed it all up in two days and never went back. It was a crazy time.”
Once in California, Q says she found a sense of contentment that had long been elusive to her in Hong Kong. “I remember the last two years I was living in Asia, and the last year in particular I was feeling very suffocated. I was feeling like I just couldn’t breathe. I knew that I was leaving, but I didn’t know how it was all going to go down.” Yong has similar recollections. “Because she had become so popular, for a long time, Maggie couldn’t lead a normal life in Hong Kong,” she says. “When we would go out shopping together, people would be following us around. When she sat down at a restaurant, people would be taking pictures of her before she could order.” Q’s romantic relationship with Daniel Wu and rumored on and off again involvement with Edison Chen naturally made her a favorite among Hong Kong’s rapacious paparazzi.
Sean K, who has styled Q for fashion shoots and red carpets for over seven years, was often amused to find himself roped into the local tabloids’ fabrications concerning Q. “Because we worked together so much, sometimes they would catch me in a photo standing next to her; and then the next day I would find out that I was her new boyfriend, or her bodyguard, or who knows what else,” he says, laughing. “The paparazzi in Hong Kong are worse than anywhere – if they don’t know what to write about, they just completely make stuff up.”
Logan also remembers that Q had begun to feel stunted by the Hong Kong entertainment industry. “Although she was hugely successful as a model and media personality, I don’t think the Hong Kong film industry ever recognized her true talent and gave her the roles and the opportunities she deserved. I was so happy for her when she got her chance in Hollywood, because it was long overdue.”
Q claims that she never really aspired or expected to end up in Hollywood. “I know that the people around me, the people who loved me, wanted it for me; but I just didn’t know if that was realistic and it was never my ultimate dream. But it became a dream come true for me, because as soon as I got to California, I felt like I was home. I didn’t feel lost anymore.”
Apart from the natural gratifying sense of homecoming that any long-term expat is likely to feel, the source of Q’s happiness in Hollywood is pretty easy to parse – she’s in the midst of a personal and professional hot streak. Q’s headfirst foray into American Television – her lead role in Nikita – sounds like it should have been a disaster. The third screen remake of Luc Besson’s 1990 film of the same name – which tells the story of a troubled young woman who is recruited by a covert government spy agency and trained to be an assassin – the odds were slim that anything fresh would come from the tired formula of Le Femme Nikita. Nevertheless, the show has come as a pleasant surprise to critics, with reviews ranging from lukewarm to effusive, with much of the praise focused on Q’s nuanced dramatic performance, rather than the show’s lavishly shot, high adrenaline action sequences. “I’m so excited because that’s honestly really hard to do,” says Q, “to take the attention away from the exciting surface stuff and get people to really care about the drama and the character development. Because of my background, people always assume, ‘Oh, you’re an Asian girl, you fight’. And I’m always like, ‘Well no, I do a lot of things, but I’ll let you come to that conclusion on your own.’”
Then there’s Unity, Q’s ambitiously abstract new documentary project, which is a follow-up to a film she co-produced in 2005 titled Earthlings. Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, and nicknamed “the vegan maker” for its emotionally excruciating sequences shot in puppy mills, factory farms and slaughterhouses, the film strove to expose the multifarious ways in which human beings profit from the agony of animals.
Laughing as she describes the challenging, abstruse nature of the new project, Q says: “Unity is more about consciousness and how we are all connected in this day and age – there’s a lot of Stephen Hawking in there and a lot of Plato, so it’s pretty heavy duty.” There are five sections to the film; she expects that Phoenix will return to narrate one of them, and is in the process of recruiting other celebrity narrators for the remaining four.
Q delights in the rigors of documentary producing and intends to take on an additional producer role for Nikita too, if it gets picked up for a second season. “When you’re a lead on a show in America, it’s really not just about showing up and knowing your lines and doing what you do as an actor. Because the show’s success is on your shoulders, everything has got to be good, and you find yourself involved in every part of the process.”
As I nudged our conversation toward her personal life, Q politely conveyed that she wasn’t particularly keen on dishing any details. But she did share this: “I’ve always been drawn to the man with values and a simple heart. Someone not caught up in the craziness of this industry. And that’s what I have now – I feel so happy and lucky.”
Nose down and determined, awash in multiple projects as always, Q is uncertain of what her future might hold, but she’s found the self-assurance that only comes with age. “In interviews, people always ask, ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ And I’m always like, ‘Dude, I didn’t even see myself here.’ But honestly, I don’t care what industry you are in, I think if you know what you love, you’re going to be okay. And that’s the way it is for me now.”
Source: Time Out HK