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Why Will Arnett and Lucy Liu are happy to be playing against type

In The Millers,Will Arnett moves away from absurdist characters into a role more grounded in reality. ‘It’s exciting to me to explore that.’

Would you say Lucy Liu plays a certain type? How about Will Arnett?

I bet you'd say hers is frosty and fierce – Ling Woo, her un-PC attorney character who shook up the 1990s TV series Ally McBeal (one of the first Asian leads in prime time), or Liu's self-possessed, kick-ass roles in three Charlie's Angels and two Kill Bill films. His would be wiseacre and way out: Arrested Development's Gob (pronounced Job) Bluth, as insecure as he is insincere, or Arnett's scheming network executive on 30 Rock and smarmy ice skater in the movie Blades of Glory.

These days, both actors find themselves in a similar place: He's 43, she's 44. Both are back on TV, on the same night and networks, Thursdays on CBS and Global. Both star in series that appear to have staying power: Hers, Elementary, is attracting around 10 million viewers an episode in its second season; his, The Millers, was among the most-watched shows in its recent debut. (Cable dramas may win the awards, but hit network shows still post higher numbers.)

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Most interestingly, both actors are happy to be playing against type. They're moving in from the outré fringes that made them famous, and taking a turn as the straight man – more or less.

In The Millers, created by Greg Garcia (Raising Hope, My Name Is Earl), Arnett plays Nathan Miller, a local TV newsman whose life is upended when his parent split up and his mother moves in with him while his father bunks with his sister. In both premise and execution, it's a type of sitcom rarely seen anymore: three cameras, live audience, set-up punchline. The draw is, the parents are played by two great character actors, Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges. And the pilot was directed by James Burrows, whose work has shaped network sitcoms since the 1970s, including Cheers, Friends and Will & Grace.

"I like that Nathan is much more of a straight man than people are used to seeing me play," Arnett said in a recent phone interview, in his deep, tumbling-rocks voice, often heard in commercials. "I came close to that in Up All Night, but I wanted to move even closer to the centre" – a sitcom in which he played a new father opposite Christina Applegate. "A lot of my characters were damaged in absurd ways, not tethered to the world. Nathan's problems are more grounded in reality. It's exciting to me to explore that."

Elementary, created by Robert Doherty (Medium), is also a classic network type, a police procedural where the crimes are solved at the end of every hour. It's a present-day take on Sherlock Holmes, with Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller, who co-starred in Trainspotting and is an ex of Angelina Jolie's) as a brilliant British loner who's moved to Manhattan and consults for the NYPD. In season one, he kicked a heroin habit with the help of Joan Watson (Liu), an ex-surgeon turned sober companion; by season two, Watson had become his protégé and partner in crime-solving.

"We took a long time making Watson's transition, so there were many colours to play, many layers to her character," Liu said in a separate phone interview. "It's nice for me to play someone who's quieter, not as overt as some of my earlier characters, who had no qualms throwing their opinions in."

She knows the appeal of her type: "Strong women who can fight, who are smart, who can take care of themselves, who are kind of quirky and strange," Liu says. "People find it attractive. And I think for good reason. People want to get outside their own lives and latch onto those qualities, or work toward them. But I'm enjoying playing someone who does it in a more pensive, less broad way."

Types don't spring from nowhere, though; the seeds of each actor's seem to have been in their personalities from the start. Liu grew up a tomboy in Jackson Heights, Queens, playing handball and spud in alleyways with her older brother and sister. Her immigrant parents (from Beijing and Shanghai) worked several jobs apiece. "They weren't around a lot; we were latchkey kids," Liu says. "We'd get to school on our own, do our homework on our own, eat TV dinners, whatever was there."

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Her parents did not understand or support her decision to pursue acting, Liu says. "It's a hard thing to grasp when you come to America from another country; you hope to bring better things for your family than you had, and then one of your kids goes off to do something there's nothing tangible about." She laughs. "They were happy when they realized I had a roof over my head, I could feed myself."

Arnett, it should come as no surprise, was "a major smartass" growing up in Toronto. "I was always interested in degrees of getting away with stuff," he says. His friends were all funny – "We knew how to move the comedy along, though we never consciously thought of it like that" – and he recalls a key conversation with his father, a corporate lawyer who was president of Molson Breweries for three years. "I can't remember the particulars," Arnett says, "but I remember making my argument in such a smartass but well-formulated, well-thought-out way that my dad had to give me props for the way I constructed my smartassness. He was like: 'You're being a dick, but I have to recognize that it's in a way that's quite clever.' It was a seminal moment for me."

He was kicked out of the Lakefield College School and dropped out of Concordia; then Arnett discovered his talent at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. He began acting in pilots and hasn't stopped. "On Twitter people say: 'This is like your 50th show, why do people keep giving you shows?'" he says. "I'm like: 'Thank you for sharing from your mom's basement.' But I think [audiences] understand there are situations where it's important to have a dry take. It's not too overstated; it's buried under a bunch of different layers, so you can't really be held accountable for it. People like seeing people get away with that."

Arnett thinks there's a Canadian point of view in comedy, and that he possesses it: "I think Canadians take themselves very seriously in pointing out that they don't take themselves seriously. We have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about that."

And Liu, who plans to direct her first episode of Elementary this year, thinks her parents finally understand her career. "Even with Charlie's Angels and Kill Bill, they didn't really get it. But now that I'm on a show that my mother can understand – something is solved every week – it's something she can relate to. It's funny: Now that I'm on a show that's more in the vein of Columbo, it's something she feels safer with and loves."

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