Nikita 1.01 - Maggie Q
Episode 1.01 "Pilot" - Nikita (Maggie Q) © 2010 CW Network

Maggie Quigley, whose professional name is Maggie Q, is about to become a star, taking on the title role in the CW’s new series Nikita, playing a beautiful and deadly assassin attempting to bring down the shadowy government agency that trained her.

Maggie, who was born in Hawaii to a Vietnamese mother and American father, moved to Asia at a young age and became a model, which led her to starring roles in many Chinese movies.

She went on to play roles in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible III and Bruce Willis’ Live Free or Die Hard.

When we see you in this series, we just assume you’re one of these kids who started when they were real young and have been doing it forever. Is that right?

Nikita - Maggie Q
Nikita (Maggie Q) © 2010 CW Network

I’m half Asian, so immediately people go, ‘Oh, you do kung fu.’ It’s just assumed that you’re not working your ass off to make this believable and make this something great. And we absolutely are; all of us.

I was an athlete when I was a kid, but it’s such a challenge, all this action stuff. It really is, and I’m lucky that I’ve been doing it for long enough that I have a formula that works for me. But it certainly isn’t something that I can close my eyes and do.

What sports were you an athlete in?

I was a swimmer and a runner.

Was it a specific film that you had to learn martial arts for?

Yeah. When I was living and working in Asia, at the time Jackie Chan was looking for these new young people to star in movies that he was producing. So his team of guys trained me when I was very young in different disciplines. They broke me basically and molded me. They gave me my introduction.

I wouldn’t say they taught me everything, because I have to tell you once I got to Hollywood I feel like that’s when I really got into the action genre. I felt like the people here really have the time to focus on things when we’re booked for a project. They were very serious.

They’re like, ‘Listen, we’re going to train you from the ground up. This is how we’re going to make you real.’ So it does become very real. You can’t fake this stuff. You either know it, or you don’t.

Are your tattoos real?

They’re real. And what’s cool is that I don’t have to cover them. I usually have to cover them, but it’s in keeping with who she is. She was hardcore as a kid.

What is the most prominent tattoo?

It’s a phoenix. When I moved to Asia it was tough for me. It was a struggle to be a woman in the business. I was incredibly poor, inexperienced and insecure. I didn’t go and see fortune tellers, but I had friends who did and I would tag along because I thought it was so fascinating. And they would always look at me at the end of the session and go, ‘You’re a bird.’

As I started getting older and learning about myself, I got it. So I met an artist who basically said, ‘You understand what bird you represent? You’re a phoenix because you’ve come from nothing, and you’re building something.’ That meant something to me, so I wanted it to be the bird of strength.

When you were in Asia, how fast did you have to learn the dialogue and the fights, and did that make you a better action actor now?

Nikita 1.01 - Maggie Q
Nikita (Maggie Q) © 2010 CW Network

You’re absolutely right. It totally has molded me into the person I am in terms of work ethic. And in terms of just learning things on the fly, whether it be languages, action or learning how to fight fatigue. We don’t have unions in Asia.

When I got to America and they said, ‘You’re going to work 12-hour days,’ I almost fainted. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never worked a 12-hour day. I worked 16 to 18-hour days every day. And it didn’t matter if it was a big movie or a small movie. We weren’t spoiled. We didn’t even have trailers. I had a plastic stool, or the street. As actors, we’d sit on the street and eat out of lunch boxes. Literally that was it. I’ve been here five years, and it still blows my mind that I have somewhere to go back to when I’m not filming.

You said when you moved to Asia it was tough on you at first. What caused you to move there to get started in your career?

I’ve got to make a long story short. I was basically a broke student, and I moved to Asia, and I was making some money to go back to school One thing led to another, I was supposed to stay two months in Asia and I ended up staying eight years. Best mistake I ever made.  But I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t speak the language.

I’d left Hawaii twice in my life, so I’d been on an island my whole life. I had no clue. I didn’t know the industry. And then I was around veterans in the industry who expected a lot of me from the get-go. It was a lot of pressure.

Were you acting phonetically if you didn’t know the language?

I started like that. I did films in English, and I did films in Chinese. At first I had to create my own phonetic alphabet for Cantonese, and then I went from there.

I went back to China a couple of years ago, and I did a movie in Mandarin, and I don’t speak Mandarin, so I learned it phonetically. And then went from phonetic to memory. So now when I’m on set and somebody gives me English lines, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? What’s happening? This is amazing!’

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.