For Poppy Liu, the vision of the “radical queer future” is not what one might imagine. It boils down to a simple concept: comfort. Being at ease with oneself is exactly how she feels on the set of Hacks, where she plays Deborah Vance’s favorite blackjack dealer, Kiki.
“The times that I feel the happiest and best have just been when I feel really comfortable,” she says. “With [my LGBTQ+ castmates], it just feels like home, it feels like these are my people. I can exhale. I don’t have to be performing a version of myself that I’m not…. I’m like, Wow, the revolution is just about feeling good.”
Liu compares her Hacks family to a “gigantic slumber party,” complete with beef jerky, soda, giggling, and “the spiritual equivalent of braiding each other’s hair.” This dynamic cuts against the “cutthroat” stereotype often placed on Hollywood actors — especially for actors with marginalized identities.
“There’s the myth of ‘There’s not enough out there for all of us, or there’s only a few spots. There’s going to be the token queer person in the show, the token Asian person, you can’t have both….’ With Hacks, it feels the opposite of scarcity mentality. It’s really abundance mindset where it’s like, No, we totally all exist in this universe. And there is more,” she says.
Liu is no stranger to show biz. The Chinese-American actress, 30, was a star of NBC’s short-lived Sunnyside; her other credits include Better Call Saul, New Amsterdam, and iCarly. They are also set to star in an Amazon Prime Video series called Dead Ringers alongside Rachel Weisz.
Liu has found that, as opposed to a “lone wolf” career mindset, it has been the relationships they’ve formed in creative queer and AAPI communities that have helped them rise. A win for one is a win for all. “We know how much we need each other and how interdependent we are,” they say. “And so it feels only natural that it translates over in celebrating our successes collectively too.”
Liu, who identifies as queer, nonbinary, and genderfluid, and uses both she and they pronouns, has seen the impact of her visibility firsthand through her 13-year-old-sister. Liu recalls explaining pronoun preferences to her sibling when she was in elementary school, and it was the “easiest click.” By fourth grade, Liu’s sister had changed her own preferred pronouns, then changed them again in the fifth.
“Seeing her navigate that as someone who’s Gen Z, who’s one of the closest people to me…and see it land for her in just this easeful, comfortable, relaxed way actually brings me so much joy,” Liu says.
“Gender so far in her life is not a fight — it’s not something that is anything other than just joyful and exploratory and full of curiosity. And I think I wish for that,” says Liu, who is disgusted by right-wingers who are exploiting LGBTQ+ children for political gain. “Literally, the world is ending. Can these terrible politicians stop trying to make queer and trans kids’ lives miserable?”
It was a longer journey for Liu to come into their queerness. They identified as an ally in college, where they were active in LGBTQ+ student groups. But they hadn’t quite connected the dots yet. “I was like, Yes, there’s something here that resonates with my heart, but I never felt like it was a room [where] I personally belonged,” Liu says. “…I think that had to do with whiteness a lot. A lot of the queer visibility that I saw was around white queerness, and it just didn’t feel like it was like a space for me.”
It took until Liu discovered members of the queer Asian community in their mid-20s for something to “monumentally click.” She recalls thinking, Oh, my God, where have all of these people been?
“I think that’s part of what is really important about visibility,” Liu reflects. As humans, “we learn by imitation, we learn by seeing something — a blueprint that resonates or fits our own neurological map and makeup to be like, Oh, yeah, that’s for me and this is it. And I feel like when you’re in a space and there’s not even a blueprint for you, it’s almost like you don’t even know that there’s something missing that’s there.”
It’s this “blueprint” that makes shows like Hacks vital for change. “All of a sudden, that room of the world is open. You see a Kiki, you see a Wilson, you see a Damien, you feel like a Marcus and you’re like, Oh, yeah, those people are just in this world,” marvels Liu, referencing the comedy’s various queer characters.
For Liu, her life came together once she came to understand her separate identities and realize that they exist together to form her selfhood. “I was like, Oh, I didn’t know that flour and sugar and egg and water made a cake. I just knew that those separate ingredients existed. But I’m a cake,” she declares.
Liu views Hacks as a “Trojan horse” of queerness because it could attract a wider audience that might be interested in say, leading lady Jean Smart or the Las Vegas milieu. And then the turn of the screw arrives. “Surprise, bitch! Now you’re in this world and now you’re saturated with queer characters,” Liu laughs.
Despite their character’s casino expertise, Liu is an inexperienced blackjack player; they had to be trained by a coach to play Vance’s dealer. But they hope that the HBO Max production will one day bring the cast to the Strip for a fun night of gaming (it’s shot primarily on a soundstage in Los Angeles). “Imagine us at the Bellagio — that would be chaos in the best way,” they say.
While Liu may be a gambling greenhorn, she cautions viewers not to underestimate Smart. “Jean’s such a good blackjack player, and you can see she’s such a pro,” Liu says. “The minute the card’s on the table, you can see her just locked in, and then she’s in it to win it. And I’m before a blackjack master dealing, so I better show the fuck up.”
LOUIS VUITTON All Clothing and Accessories
This article is part of Out's May/June 2022 cover story, appearing on newsstands May 17. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. And don’t miss season 2 of Hacks, premiering May 12 on HBO Max.
Talent POPPY LIU @poppyrepublic
Creative Director BEN WARD @_benjaminward_
Photographer SAM WAXMAN @wamsaxman samwaxmanstudio.com
Styling MINDY SAAD @mindysaadstylist
DP ARIAN SOHEILI @arianshreds
Photo Assitant DAVID ZIMMERMAN @davidgzimmerman
Location STEVEN BARROW BARLOW @sbarrowbarlow DANIEL MORGAN @theairportbar
Grooming CAITLIN KRENZ caitlinkrenzbeauty.com
JONATHAN TAPAN @jonathantapan greymatterla.com
Make-up ROSIEKIA ARTIS @artis_Thee_artist
MICHELLE CHUNG rougeartists.com
Hair BRIAN FISHER
Hair & Make-up ERIKA VERETT