THE NIGHT BEFORE she’s going to be photographed in body-hugging designer outfits – including a Spanxlike pair of hot pants – Olivia Munn does what very few other actresses would: she consumes a copious quantity of rocky road ice cream.
“I’m not a model,” she says with a laugh. “They can’t get mad at me if I don’t wear the clothes.” (She does wear the clothes for the shoot – and there’s no evidence of the previous night’s sugar overload.)
Munn’s lack of affectation and self-consciousness are part of her immediate likeability, along with an easy honesty and a refreshing absence of pretension. Combine those qualities with brains, beauty, acting chops and an engaging sense of humour, and it’s no surprise that her face time is growing on screens big and small, or that she’s being afforded opportunities not generally granted to even more experienced actresses – such as a production deal at CBS, which has invited her to start creating television shows.
Munn, 34, first came to the notice of mainstream audiences in 2010, when Jon Stewart hired her as a correspondent for his hugely successful The Daily Show. After Munn left a year later, the bounce in her visibility led to calls by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, who cast her as the girlfriend of Channing Tatum’s character in the hit movie Magic Mike. Aaron Sorkin then gave her a prominent role in the acclaimed TV series The Newsroom, in which she played flinty, feisty brainiac anchorwoman Sloan Sabbith. More recently, Munn co-starred with Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow in the crime-caper comedy Mortdecai and has just wrapped the sequel to the popular Ride Along with Kevin Hart, Ice Cube and Ken Jeong.
Still, despite the growing momentum of her career, the half-Asian actress – her mother is of Chinese descent from Vietnam – thinks she has some way to go before genuinely finding her groove in the tumultuous world of entertainment. In a quieter corner of a photo studio in East Los Angeles one recent afternoon, she talks about segueing behind the camera for future projects, and why food services on film sets are nobody’s friend.
YOUR AMBITION IS TO MAKE TELEVISION SHOWS INSTEAD OF STARRING IN THEM. HOW’S THAT GOING?
There are a lot of talented people I’ve worked with over the years and I’m meeting up with them now. They’re clever and smart, and we’re looking at opportunities to work together. It will be fun to collaborate with them, and it will give them a platform and opportunity as well. I’m hiring executives right now. I don’t have a name for the production company yet, but I have some ideas. But I’m very excited to get behind the camera and try to create shows – not for me to be in, just to create. It’s an amazing opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.
WAS PART OF YOUR DECISION TO MOVE IN THIS DIRECTION AN ANSWER TO THE ONGOING CONVERSATION ABOUT THE LACK OF GREAT ROLES FOR WOMEN IN HOLLYWOOD? WILL YOU BE FOCUSING ON THAT?
Not especially. It’s always hard to find interesting parts, no matter if you’re male or female. A lot of male actors will tell you it’s hard to find great stuff. And it’s not about great stuff because that’s all subjective and relative. It’s about what you think is great for you. This was really because the opportunity just came up, and I’ve always wanted to do it, and I’m excited to become a producer and create.
YOU SEEM TO GLIDE PRETTY EASILY BETWEEN COMEDY AND DRAMA – OR MAYBE YOU JUST MAKE IT LOOK EASY?
In every drama there has to be a sense of humour and levity in there somewhere. I think it’s more the opportunities that I’ve been given, from The Daily Show and then going to Sorkin and Soderbergh, which is more dramatic. You ask any actor, “Can you do drama? Can you do comedy?” and you say yes and hope you can do it on the day. You just want to be able to work, whatever those opportunities are that come our way. “Can you fly a plane?” “Sure!” The things that have happened in my career have really been about an opportunity and me taking it and putting myself up for these moments and hoping that I don’t mess up too much.
YOUR ROLE ON THE NEWSROOM LOOKED CHALLENGING – ALL THAT SORKIN DIALOGUE AND LOTS OF SCREEN TIME. HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THE RIGOURS OF A WEEKLY TV SHOW?
I was lucky because my character didn’t have to be in the background that much. Sloan’s office in the newsroom was upstairs, so a lot of the time whenever I was on the set I was shooting scenes. Some of the other actors had to be in the background a lot – their characters were answering phones or running around. I didn’t have that much hanging-around time. [Co-star] Dev Patel and I are really close, and we both have ADD, while the other actors have such patience. They’ll sit there with a book.
THEN HOW DO YOU PASS THE TIME ON SET WHILE WAITING TO FILM A SCENE?
We hang out outside. And there’s a lot of eating that goes on, which is not the best if you’re an actor. My weight fluctuates on a weekly basis. I’m trying to get to a place where I’m better about what I eat. On The Newsroom they had two different sizes of jeans for me all the time. An episode would be shot over two weeks, but one week I’ll be in a smaller size jean, and the next in a bigger one. I guess most people couldn’t tell, but you can always see things yourself. I’d ask the wardrobe people if I could wear a cardigan, and they’d tell me we already shot part of the scene when I’m not in a cardigan. Or I’ll ask if I can sit down the whole time. I need to have more self-control over what I eat.
SO YOU’RE NOT A CALORIE-COUNTING SORT OF PERSON WHO’S IN THE GYM FOR HOURS A DAY?
There are people who look amazing, and they go to yoga and Pilates and talk about their diets and they look great all the time. I wish I could do that. I tell myself that I’m going to start doing yoga every single day and that I’m not going to eat carbs any more, because they make me bloated and tired. And then I tell myself, “Hey, you’re not a model! You’re an actress! Eating makes you more relatable!” Of course, I know I’m just giving myself an excuse to eat ice cream. Yesterday, before this shoot, I wasn’t stressed out or tired or sick. There was no reason for me to have to eat the rocky road ice cream. But in my head I tell myself it doesn’t matter because I’m not a model and they Photoshop everything anyway. The reality is, we don’t walk around life with an Instagram filter on. Although maybe we should. I should ask everyone to wear Instagram filter glasses so we all look amazing all the time. In reality, though, instead of feeling bad, I should really just be as healthy as I should be.
ARE YOU MORE DISCIPLINED WITH YOUR CAREER? DO YOU SET GOALS AND HAVE A GRAND PLAN?
I don’t always do a lot of goalsetting, only because I’m afraid, “What if I don’t make them?” It’s easier if you kind of know what your goals are instead of just completely setting them out there. It’s too hard to set career goals, especially in a career when a lot of the time it’s not up to you – it’s up to producers, directors, writers, the audience. If I don’t make the goals, then I don’t have to feel bad about not achieving them.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE AN ACTRESS?
Always. I grew up in a family of five siblings. I’m the second youngest. I loved making everyone laugh and impersonating teachers. If we all got into trouble at home and were sent to our rooms, I’d be the one to get everyone to laugh. I’d make everyone re-enact an entire movie. “Let’s all do Star Wars”! I’d be Han Solo, but my brother would tell me I was Princess Leia. I just loved being able to play around. I always wanted to do it, but of course you never think you’re going to be able to.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’VE HAD YOUR “IT” MOMENT YET, WHERE EVERYTHING HAS SHIFTED FOR YOU?
I think if you don’t know what my moment is, then clearly I haven’t had it. I’ve had moments that have definitely changed my life and helped my career, but it’s not been “the moment”. You can look at people who’ve had that and you know what it is. It happens for very few people, and you can name who they are. But the day that Jon Stewart asked me to be on The Daily Show was a huge moment in my life. It allowed my career to open up into a different world, and gave me the opportunity to be seen by some of these other people and to show them some of the things I was capable of. Even just being on The Newsroom allowed me to be seen in a different way by people. But I haven’t had that pivotal thing yet.
DO YOU AT LEAST FEEL SECURE IN YOUR LIFE AND WORK?
Yes. Yes, I do feel secure. Because I have work and I have opportunities and my production company, and I’m in a position where I can financially make decisions where I can and cannot do certain things. I’ve been working long enough in my life that I feel secure financially.
YOU LIVED IN JAPAN FOR A TIME WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER. HOW DID THAT SHAPE YOU?
I come from a military family, so we moved around a lot. We lived in Tokyo, then Utah, and moved back to Oklahoma when I was 16. For me, living in Japan made me more comfortable going to new places. It helped me establish a centre within myself and a strong sense of self. I think when people have the opportunity to grow up in a different country than where they’re from, it makes them more settled in their world. Otherwise, your sense of the world is only as big as you see and feel it. Now, I have a sense of how small I am in the scope of the whole world.
DO YOU GET MUCH OPPORTUNITY TO USE YOUR FLUENT JAPANESE?
No, not really. But I was lucky on The Newsroom, because Sorkin wrote an amazing episode where I could. He asked me if he could put a few Japanese words in, and I said sure. Then he said, “Do you mind if it’s a sentence or two?” and of course that was fine. And then I get the script and it’s full-on massive dialogue. Sorkin dialogue is hard enough to do in English – imagine doing it in Japanese. He wrote it out in “Sorkin”, then put in parentheses “in Japanese”. I had to go back and forth between English and Japanese. But I was very happy to use it. Even though I’m half Asian, most people didn’t know that I could speak a second language.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE STRUGGLES YOU ENCOUNTERED AS YOU TRIED TO ESTABLISH YOURSELF?
I’d go out for so many auditions, for everything. And then I’d be told, “You’re too Asian” or “You’re too white”. I remember someone telling me, “Don’t feel bad. One day they won’t be trying to match you to fit with anyone else. You’ll just be hired for you.” So you can’t help but get frustrated. That’s part of it all. There’s always competition in any business. And all it takes is one role. Not even necessarily a great role. Just one job that makes you feel like you’re a working actor. One job can turn your whole life around.
PHOTOGRAPHY ERIC MICHAEL ROY
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING PARIS LIBBY
MAKE-UP SHANE PAISH AT WALTER SCHUPFER MANAGEMENT
HAIR CHRISTIAN MARC AT FORWARD ARTISTS
MANICURE CHRISTINA AVILES AT OPUS BEAUTY
STYLING ASSISTANTS SHEENA KHEMANEY, BRITTANY ROMANO AND PAUL TEDESCO
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS TOM HENRIKSEN, CORY WHITTED AND RICH FURY
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS COREY BOARDMAN AND LANDON BEARD
LOCATION EDGE STUDIOS, LOS ANGELES