In many ways, the headstrong, 16-year-old ninja Karai who Kelly Hu voices in tonight’s episode of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” bears striking similarities to the actress (no, really!). For instance, both know how to mix it up–Hu has been holding her own onscreen against regenerative, government-trained mutant assassins (“X2″) and The Rock (“The Scorpion King”).
And the Miss Teen U.S.A.-turned-model-turned onscreen tough lady knew what it meant to be headstrong and constantly fighting at 16: “When I was young, my mother would not let me get my ears pierced because I used to get into too many fights,” Hu told me during a call today. “I came from a tough area. She told me I had to wait until I was 16 until I could get my ears pierced, but by the time I turned 16, I was still such a tomboy, that I decided myself not to get my ears pierced and still haven’t done it since then.”
Since her young and dangerous years, Hu has been in numerous film and television roles, most recently playing China White in CW’s “Arrow” while taking on the part of another member of the extended Green Arrow family as the assassin Cheshire in “Young Justice.”
“I’m always attracted to playing the tough girls,” Hu adds, saying that she enjoys that the character’s cockiness. “I guess I’m still sort of feisty and a little bit of a tomboy [laughs].” When I ask her to describe the character, she talks admiringly about the character’s confidence: “she knows she can take on the boys.” That doesn’t mean the Karai’s all hard edges–Hu says that the ninja ends up finding a love interest in an unexpected place: with the uptight Leonardo (I would have thought she was more of a Raphael girl, though).
“She’s not just all bad girl. She has a bit of a conscience that she has to wrestle with, and she’s really not written flat at all.” Hu says she’s come across one-dimensional characters that are strictly broken down into nice girls and bad girls (she admits she’s played some herself), but that Karai was a refreshing break from that type.
Another character who could have been boxed into the bad girl role is Cheshire on “Young Justice,” who spends the first season of the Cartoon Network animated series as a foil for her sister, Artemis. Of the show’s recently revealed cancellation, Hu says “It was such a disappointment, because it was such a fun show and really well written and [Cheshire’s] really fun character to play.” In finding the character’s voice, Hu laments that she doesn’t have the same bag of tricks that many veteran voice actors can pull from in modulating their voice and creating new characters, but she says with Cheshire, she was able to play around with her own speaking voice in a way, saying that she was able to make the character very cat-like, adding that it was fun to play with the “musicality” of the character’s voice.
“She was definitely the evil sister to start off with… but as things went on, you see the different history, and they even jump five years into the future where she’s got a relationship and a baby. So it made it much more interesting in that sense. It’s such a disappointment that fans aren’t going to get to know more of these great characters because I think they were going in a really great direction.”
When I ask her what propelled her into the action arena, she says that growing up, there weren’t a lot of truly kickass heroines on TV–but then came Hong Kong cinema. “There weren’t a lot of action roles growing up–there were a few, maybe, like Wonder Woman, but then it wasn’t real action.” But when films featuring actresses like Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh started making their way stateside in the early 90’s, and she would “see all of these women in these cool action roles, doing martial arts with deadly weapons at the end of their hair, and it was always sort of intriguing to me.” She also adds that while she was headed to ballet lessons as a kid, she’d watch in envy as her big brother was carted off to his Kung fu lessons on Saturdays. “I always loved the idea of learning martial arts, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I really started doing it and taking up karate.”
You can see Kelly Hu at work (or hear her, at least) when the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” episode “New Girl In Town” premieres tonight at 7 PM ET on Nickelodeon.