If one must be stuck in a dark alley outside a Toronto nightclub while Chinese mobsters and government assassins hover in the shadows, it might as well be with Maggie Q. She is, after all, an action star, though to look at her is to question her ass-kicking ability. She is unfathomably thin; her toned arms are marginally bigger around than a Canadian two-dollar coin. She also has the unintimidating habit of cracking herself up, loudly and with knee slaps.
We’re on a location shoot for her new show, Nikita, the third reinterpretation of Luc Besson’s 1990 film La Femme Nikita, about a young junkie and convicted murderer trained to be a killer by a nefarious organization. The CW’s version picks up three years after Nikita, played by Q, has gone rogue. She’s determined to bring down Divison, the agency that conscripted her, and to that end she must infiltrate this nightclub, decked out in theoretically unsuitable assassin-chic gear: black mesh, leather, bra, and not much else.
The show’s executive producer, Craig Silverstein, says they cast her because—unlike the other equally beautiful and talented actresses they auditioned—when you put a gun in Q’s hand, “it didn’t all fall apart.” It’s a risk, anchoring a TV show with a relative unknown—you’d get more Americans acknowledging Q as the hot Asian chick in Mission: Impossible III than by name—except that unknown is relative to where you are standing. In Asia, Maggie Q inspires Justin Bieber–like frenzy, give or take a couple million more fans and even crazier paparazzi. When I get into a Toronto cab with a driver who happens to be from Hong Kong, I ask if he’s ever heard of Maggie Q. “Oh, yes!” he says. “She is very famous in Hong Kong!” I tell him she’s living in Toronto. “Wow!” And that I met her. “Really? Wow! Is she tall? I think she’s maybe five seven.” Almost. “She’s getting up there, isn’t she?” I guess, I say, if he considers 31 old. “Thirty-one?! No! Wow! I thought for sure she is 40. She’s been around a long, long time.”
Margaret Denise Quigley was born and raised in Hawaii by a Polish-Irish father and a Vietnamese mother who met during the Vietnam War. She started modeling in Tokyo at age 17, eventually ending up in Taipei. Bad move: Q, whose mixed-race looks read “Asian” in America and “weird” in Asia, was summarily rejected. “At the time, they wanted blonde hair and blue eyes. Or Asian celebrities,” she says. After her daily round of rejections, she’d go to Taipei’s night market to buy “my dollar box of food, then go back to my danky hotel that was literally a love motel—I paid by the night—and cry and eat my dinner.” A woman suggested she try Hong Kong. “They’ll probably get you there,” she told Q, and they certainly did. Or, rather, Jackie Chan did. He recruited her as one of the next generation of Hong Kong action stars: In all, she did eleven films. “I had never done a day of martial arts in my life when I started in the business,” she says. “I couldn’t even touch my toes.”
Q finally left Hong Kong because she was feeling like a hunted animal, “like I was suffocating.” Turns out celebrity weeklies in Asia far outnumber those here. That, coupled with fewer celebrities, means “you’re incredibly recognizable wherever you go,” she says. “I could never have a boyfriend. I couldn’t grocery shop for myself. I got very depressed by it.” So Toronto is a relative haven. Q does her own laundry, goes to the farmers’ market, and drives herself to work—which is why the first time I see her, she’s running, flustered and sweaty, her Chihuahua, Pedro, peering out of her bag. The car’s GPS directed her not to the downtown location but to a suburb off a freeway twelve miles away. She’s hustled into the makeup trailer, where the mirrors are lined with pictures of her dogs (she has three, all rescues). There are no fight scenes tonight, but Q’s covered in bruises from a scene earlier in the week with co-star Shane West (ER).
Jackie Chan’s intensive training stressed professionalism and a certain code: Q always does her own stunts. “I owe it to my audience. And I’m not 70, so I might as well while I can.” Her moves might be faked, but that doesn’t mean she can’t take care of herself. She gave a six-foot-four dude a black eye while shooting the Nikita pilot. And Bruce Willis made the mistake of underestimating her strength during a Live Free or Die Hard fight scene. He told her to try her best move, and she put him in an armbar, which hyperextends the elbow. “He kept hitting my leg. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he goes, ‘Tap out! Tap out!’ ”
The closest Q has come to an offscreen fight was in L.A. Her dog startled a sleeping buck, which knocked it over on its belly then lowered its antlers to charge. “The only thing I could think to do to get in between the deer’s horns and my dog was to jump on the deer,” she says. It threw her into a bush, splitting her leg and side open. Q was due, two days later, on the set of an “awful movie that hasn’t been released yet, thank God!” She showed up completely “mummified” in gauze. But she showed up.