Olivia Munn: Hollywood's Hottest Geek
By Patrick Pacheco
In her cheeky memoir, Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek, Olivia Munn recalls being in the midst of a full-blown panic attack just before a 2009 TV appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She calmed herself down by fantasizing about life as a mellow Mongolian sheepherder, carrying a staff and coming home to eat stew. “I would not go on television,” she writes of her paralyzing fear of talk shows. The strategy worked. She survived. And as far as fantasies go, it wasn’t all that far-fetched.
“I would love it, being nomadic, having fun,” says the 31-year-old actress. “I also like the idea of opening a smoothie shop in Anguilla where you can rent boogie boards. And if it’s your birthday, you get a free boost in your smoothie.”
Munn, in fact, is about to get a boost, though not in her smoothie. This summer, the voluptuous, raven-haired beauty is on the cusp of major stardom after climbing the Hollywood ladder as the one-time cohost of Attack of the Show!, a live TV program of pop-culture parody; featured roles in films like Sarah Jessica Parker’s I Don’t Know How She Does It; and a continuing stint on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She’ll also be unveiling two new roles: as a financial analyst in The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new television series on HBO about a cable news network; and as the sexually promiscuous, commitment-phobic girlfriend of Channing Tatum’s male stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, Magic Mike, a good portion of which was filmed in South Florida last fall.
Says Sorkin of his featured player, “In a lot of ways, [Olivia] reminded me of a female version of Rob Lowe on The West Wing—she plays a wonk who doesn’t know or doesn’t care that she’s good-looking. I’d seen her on The Daily Show, so I knew she was a world-class comedian, but it wasn’t until her audition that I saw she was also a world-class actress.”
The Newsroom is being shot in Los Angeles, where Munn has lived since 2004 (she now splits her time between LA and New York), while Magic Mike took her to Miami for the first time in her life. It was a revelation. “I thought it might be too overwhelming, all that color, exposed skin, and party atmosphere you get from TV,” she says. “But I instantly loved it. It was much more suburban, a neighborhood feel within a big-city energy, with that friendly mentality. You can party, but if you want to chill, all you have to do is go down the block.”
To party or to chill. A yurt or a manse. Caribbean smoothie shops or high-powered Hollywood agents. A whole universe appears to live within Munn, as might be expected from a woman who is half Chinese, half American WASP, who was born in Oklahoma but raised in Japan, and who was once hailed as the “Queen of the Geeks” for her role in Attack of the Show!—and who three years later found herself gracing the cover of Playboy (albeit a non-nude one). If Munn is now being seen as emblematic of the New Hollywood, it is because of her fearless ability to combine an unapologetic sexuality with antic humor. She once jumped into a giant chocolate cream pie dressed in a sexy French maid’s outfit in Attack of the Show! And as Joanna in Magic Mike, she portrays an empowered woman who turns the tables on her G-string-wearing boyfriend. It is he who wants the commitment, she who wants to be free to fool around.
Munn says that in creating Joanna, she was able to use some of her experiences with former boyfriends, a roster which has included actors Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake, Matthew Morrison, and pro hockey player Brad Richards. “Like her, I don’t like to be forced into anything, particularly a forced intimacy,” she observes. “As Joanna says, ‘Sometimes you’re the girl and I’m the guy.’ I love that she pushes against the stereotype, that she refuses to stay within the box that people, especially other women, want to put her in. Joanna doesn’t shy away from all the parts of herself, including her sexuality. And neither do I.”
Solving the puzzle of how all those parts came together in Munn invariably starts with one woman, her mother, Kim Schmid, a prototypical Tiger Mom who was born in Vietnam but who with her large family fled the war and came, impoverished, to Oklahoma in 1975. Right out of college, Schmid briefly married Winston Munn, Olivia’s biological father, whom his daughter describes as “a good but selfish man” with little time for family. By the time her daughter was two, Schmid was remarried to a career military officer in the Air Force and the family moved to Japan for the next 14 years. It was a hellish period for Munn. She felt like a fish out of water, a tomboy unable to connect with her peers. Her stepfather, whom she refers to only as “the Devil,” was abusive, dictatorial, and demeaning.
“He would always say, ‘You’re not smart enough, pretty enough, you have no talent,’ and it would knock me down, but it wouldn’t keep me down,” says Munn. “My mom was blunt. ‘Don’t get pregnant.’ ‘Don’t do drugs.’ But she also said just as often, ‘Always make a name for yourself, don’t just become someone’s wife.’ That’s how she influenced me. I work really hard to come up on my own merits.”
It was also during this period that Munn learned to channel her anger at the same time that she was able to offer a respite to her four siblings from the increasingly ugly encounters at home. She discovered a burgeoning talent. “When [my stepfather] would be screaming his head off in the living room, I would hustle everybody into my room and launch into imitations of teachers or do scenes from movies,” she recalls. “And that would take their minds off of the hell that was happening down the hall.”
While in Japan, the family would import videotapes of classic movies and TV programs from the States. Munn says she fell in love with Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, and Chevy Chase, among others. “Chevy Chase was an enormous influence. I loved every single movie he did.” Later, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would become her heroes.
After her mother divorced her abusive husband, the family moved back to Oklahoma and Munn discovered that the only group with whom she felt comfortable in her junior and senior years there were the “geeks and nerds,” who would later become her fan base on the tech-crazy Attack of the Show! She says that the term “geek,” to her, simply means people who are “smart, really sweet, and passionate about what they like to do,” whether that means computers, the military, sports, theater, or television. She herself was most “geeky” about the latter two and, after graduating from high school, she begged her mother to allow her to go to Los Angeles to pursue a career in show business.
There was, however, no money, and her mother wasn’t keen to have her go off on her own at 18. So Munn attended the University of Oklahoma, majoring in journalism and minoring in theater. “With Asians, life is all about college, doctor, lawyer, scientist, but certainly not acting,” says Munn. “I’m glad now that my mom insisted I stay in Oklahoma. There is a sweetness and a pride there. People are really kind. But it was difficult. I found it very hard to find my place. That’s been true all my life. When you travel around so much, you have to keep reinventing yourself. And that toughens you up, gives you more tools to cope in life.”
Munn has needed them. By her own admission, she is “brutally honest.” In Suck It, Wonder Woman!, she castigates the good ol’ boy sexism of Hollywood, taking caustic, if anonymous, aim at a powerful film director who commits blatant and unprovoked indecent acts in front of her. After the book was published, Brett Ratner of X-Men: The Last Stand fame chose to identify himself as the target of her comic vitriol. He, in turn, took potshots at Munn but eventually backed down.
More recently, Munn’s cell phone was hacked and private pictures were published on the Internet. Rather than being in high dudgeon, she responded with self-deprecating humor and sarcasm. “If you ever hacked my phone, these are the pictures you’d find,” she tweeted, showing a fat Asian baby and a kitten. But Munn was most outraged when, after she was chosen as a correspondent on The Daily Show, feminist blogger Irin Carmon attacked the decision on the website Jezebel, suggesting that the show’s first female hire in seven years after exhaustive search came down to a woman better known for posing for the cover of Playboy than for her comedic chops.
"That was just malicious,” says Munn, casting her upfront sexuality more as a form of satire than seduction. “I’m not posing [for covers] for some man. I’m poking fun at the idea that a woman would embrace her sexuality in order to be liked. I trust the audience is smart enough to get that. So my only question to these bloggers is, ‘Don’t you want your daughters to grow up strong, smart, beautiful, and confident about their sexuality?’ Are you saying that you can only be funny and smart if you’re ugly? If the embrace of my sexuality makes you mad, it’s your problem, not mine.”
Describing herself as more of a “humanist” than a feminist, Munn says that she can only trust her instincts and let the chips fall where they may. She considers herself “beyond lucky” to be doing what she loves and to be able to support the causes she believes in, such as PETA, for which she posed in the nude. But while Munn realizes that she works in a medium that can have a powerful influence on changing the mores of a culture, she says that’s not why she’s in the business. “I think people downplay just how important it is to be entertaining,” she says. “Especially in this day and age. We need to laugh, we need an escape from what is going on. It’s always been a lifesaver for me.”
Photography by Brian Bowen Smith