Among Maggie Q's three tattoos is a large, ornately drawn Phoenix rising. It covers most of her left hip, and stands on proud, leggy display in the advertisments for Nikita, The CW's high-octane continuation of the 1990 French thriller-turned-basic cable series about a beautiful assassin in the employ of a sinister organization.
A bonafide star in Asian cinema, and hand-picked years ago by Jackie Chan to train as one of Hong Kong's budding action heroes, Q has the seductive self-assurance of Angelina Jolie. During the series premiere of Nikita (airing Thursday at 9/8c), she takes down villains poolside, and later in a sleek silver cocktail dress, always with steely-yet-sultry resolve. But Q says such confidence has been hard-won. She ordered up the tattoo of the immortal bird after years of toiling in uncertainty.
"Acting wasn't the plan. It absolutely wasn't in the plan," she told TVGuide.com just moments after wrapping a Nikita news conference in July. Dressed in a tiny, tan zip-up one-piece, and wearing little make-up, Q relaxed in her bar chair at the Beverly Hilton, marveling at all the seat-of-her-pants decisions that led to a starring role in primetime.
"When I got to Hollywood, I was 26. I feel like I came here when I was an adult," she said. Action film fans might her remember her first significant U.S. roles in Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III, where she blew up a fabulous lamborghini. "I did naughty things when I lived in Asia. I partied a lot, I went out — those were like my college years, and I got it all out of my system. When I got to America, it was like, 'I'm ready to work. Let's do this. I'm done with all that.'"
Q (nee Margaret Denise Quigley) grew up in Honolulu, the youngest of five kids to an American soldier and Vietnamese mother. After high school, she contemplated studying journalism and veterinary medicine before opting to join a friend on a money-making modeling gambit in Tokyo, first to help pay for school. Two months later, she was restless in Hawaii and intrigued by the challenge of making it abroad.
"I thought, 'I can't do this anymore. I can't stay here. I can't be an island anymore. There's a whole world out there that I haven't seen," she says. But things became difficult quickly when she next sought work in Taiwan. "They hated me," Q says. At the time, "all they wanted was blonde hair and blue eyes... I was rejected by everyone." Scared, determined and not wanting to go home a failure, Q moved to Hong Kong with 20 dollars to spare. The night she arrived, she met her future manager (who still works with her today), and eventually began booking TV and film roles.
"I'll be honest, acting was just a paycheck until my third movie," Q says. "I didn't know a soul. There were language barriers. There were cultural barriers — and let me tell you, they were not in love with my outspokenness in Asia. 'That Maggie, she's so Western!' I believed I was working hard enough to speak my mind. I also know when to shut up."
Then more emotionally meaty parts came up. And Jackie Chan came calling, readying her for scores of roles that relied on her being able to perform her own stunts while looking killer. Q learned to love it all, though the physical stuff didn't come naturally. "I'm half-Asian so immediately people go, 'Oh, well, you do kung fu... No. It certainly isn't something I can close my eyes and do.'" But her stubbornness kicked in and she found relief in mastering action scenes. Along the way, she's cracked her shins and fractured several other different body parts.
It now seems as if it was all building toward her playing Nikita, a hard-headed bad girl making good — albeit in a deadly sort of way.
Nikita's journey in the new CW series begins three years after she busts out of The Division, a secret government agency that forced her into a life of violence without disclosing their true intentions. Before she was merely lethal. But after the murder of her fiancé, Nikita is hurt, vengeful, and armed with a plan to bring the Division down.
Nikita executive producer Craig Silverstein remembered Q doing battle with John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the fourth Die Hard movie and began courting her for the lead role early on. He nearly lost her to CBS' Hawaii 5-0, which was also on the hunt. "It's something you can't play — you just are or you aren't."
"I was really nervous about it," he says. "If you've got someone like that, who is stunning and can both act and fight, chances are they're already a movie star. Fortunately, we got the movie star."
As Nikita, Q is at turns vulnerable and grieving, then gorgeous and baiting in barely-there swimwear — especially in a scene when she saunters up to a fool who thinks he's about to be kissed — and instead gets his neck snapped.
Shane West, who plays Michael, a Division operative, says he developed a crush on the actress pre-Nikita after watching her let loose in the silly comedy Balls of Fury. "It was always on cable!" he says. "Maggie would probably do a round-house kick on me right now for saying any of this," he says. "She could take us all out."
"But really, she's just so passionate. She's a natural leader," West says. Silverstein echoes the sentiment, divulging that Q set up an unsanctioned boot camp to help whip her co-stars into shape. "I didn't want to let the studio know about it in case the actors got hurt, but Maggie is so dedicated to getting it right. I absolutely depend on her."
Q says she's just getting started. "I feel like acting isn't a choice for me anymore. It's something I have to do, and if I didn't I might internally combust, because I do feel like so many different people inside... If I couldn't create characters who are real to me, if I couldn't express a part of myself through them, I don't know that I'd be OK."
With the recharged Nikita, Q says she identifies with her character's renewed sense of self. The Phoenix belongs to both of them. "Nikita's like me in the sense that we both have colorful histories, but she finally has control of her life. I feel like that, too. Like, I'm 31, and people are going to get to know me now that I finally have a little control. Yes! It had to happen some time."