Hollywood starlets take a multitude of routes to fame and stardom; Olivia Munn pretty much took them all. TV host. Nerd crush. Hot chick in a string of thankless movie roles, including a brief appearance in Iron Man 2 destined for the cutting room floor—thankless still, even opposite Robert Downey Jr. Fast forward through a decade of hustle and Munn’s become one of the few in Tinseltown unafraid to throw shade right back at her haters. In 2016 she’s got roles to match, playing women who, in their own ways, also DGAF.
In this weekend’s Ride Along 2, the sequel to 2014’s Ice Cube-Kevin Hart buddy cop hit, Munn plays a no-nonsense Miami detective who teams up with Cube and Hart to collar a Florida drug lord (Benjamin Bratt) with the help of his for-hire hacker (Ken Jeong). Of course she’s hot. (And Latina—meet Det. Maya Cruz.) As the cool and humorless lady cop equivalent to Cube’s cool and humorless Atlanta cop, Munn spends the film surprisingly straight-faced, packing heat and staring down Hart’s manic energy while managing not to crack a single smile.
The film’s got the requisite car chases, shoot-outs, playful banter, sexy tangos with bad guys. The most diverse mainstream release of the New Year also has zero white leads, and is expected to knock Star Wars: The Force Awakens off its box office throne. As Munn put it on Twitter, stumping for Ride Along 2 to her 734,000 followers: “More laughs, more action, more Asians.”
“From what I see and from knowing [the producers], they were just picking people based on chemistry and talent and what worked best for the movie,” said Munn, who was born in Oklahoma to a Chinese mom and an American dad and grew up on a military base in Japan. “It just so happened that we all are minorities.”
“That’s a really cool thing,” she continued. “Ken [Jeong] and I were talking about how when you’re a minority you just hope to be a working actor. You try to just get some jobs, whenever you can. It’s fun to see a movie where all the leads are minorities. It’s hopefully the beginning of a change.”
Geek culture may have given Munn her first big break, but some of comedy’s biggest names have been her biggest boosters. It was Tina Fey who recommended she be cast for a lead role in NBC’s half-hour comedy Perfect Couples back in 2010—and Fey who, that same year, came to Munn’s defense when Jezebel et al fired pointed shots when Munn was hired as The Daily Show’s Senior Asian Correspondent.
Jon Stewart had supposedly never seen Munn’s work on G4’s Attack of the Show, or caught the viral stunts—chomping wieners, diving into giant pies in French maid cosplay, making nerds drool in a slave Leia getup at Comic-Con—that defined her tenure in nerd bait television. Years before Amy Schumer would own the cultural debate on women being allowed to be sexy, funny, and utterly themselves, Munn was an easy target. Couldn’t she be hot and hilarious without being threatening?
Munn quieted her haters when she landed another plum job playing Sloan Sabbith, an economist with two Ph.D.s and limited social skills, on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. She’s also since worked with Steven Soderbergh on Magic Mike, filmed a cameo in the upcoming Zoolander 2, and is producing, but not starring in, a 1970s-set female sportscaster drama for the production company she has set up at CBS.
“Attack of the Show was a big one for me and gave me a lot of opportunities, but Jon Stewart bringing me on to The Daily Show was the biggest thing for me in my career,” she said, appreciative. “Then, Aaron Sorkin—no one to this day has given me the opportunities that Aaron Sorkin has given me.”
Those two projects come closest to connecting any dots in Munn’s career so far, she notes. “On The Daily Show I was pretending to be a fake reporter, and on The Newsroom I was pretending to be a real reporter, and in real life I majored in journalism. That’s the one through line in my career.“
Maybe that’s what’s allowed Munn to hit back at the critics where more conflict-averse celebrities might cower and no-comment. When the Jezebel kerfuffle hit, she replied by telling her haters to “just walk it off, bitch.” In a blog post that’s since disappeared from the Internet, she preempted judgy critiques of her Maxim photo shoot with a warning: “[If] you have any problems with me in this spread, I have two things to say to you: 1. Just don’t look. And 2. You sound like you just need a good fuck.”
Recently, when an ESPN.com reporter suggested her relationship with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was to blame for him underperforming on the field, Munn shut him down on Twitter. “Playing it fast & loose w/the journalism @RobDemovsky,” she tweeted. “Your professional skills are lacking... you must be having personal problems at home.”
Not that Munn hasn’t embraced the value of being famous, particularly in the age of social media when realness can range from shutting down reporters who cross the line to posting behind the scenes snaps of life in the spotlight. Flying across the country to Ride Along 2’s Miami premiere, she Instagrammed her workout from the middle of the aisle on a private plane that earned their own breathless celeb mag headlines. Munn’s charmed the infotainment world and the late-night set with texts and impersonations of her mother Kim, who even Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist punking on air.
“You just try to do your best with the opportunities you’re given,” said Munn. “I love journalism, and I always had a dream of being an actor. So opportunities came up and I started taking them to see how far it will go, never thinking I’d be able to make a career out of it.”
Munn still calls Stewart her “mentor” and went to him for advice when, during filming on the last season of The Newsroom, she wasn’t sure if she should take the Ride Along 2 gig.
“All the hustle was to get to a place where I could take my time, and not just do everything,” she said. But that meant every choice was weightier, every project more strategic. “I wasn’t really sure if it was the next thing I wanted to do—to go from working with Aaron Sorkin to Ride Along 2… I wasn’t sure if it was the right project for me to do right after an intense season of doing Sorkin material.”
Stewart’s advice? “He said, ‘First of all, Kevin Hart is an amazing human being. And second of all, ‘Just go have fun! You don’t always have to do Sorkin and Soderbergh. Just go have a fun time making a fun movie.’
“I think it’s the opportunities that come around that you don’t take that can define your career more,” she contemplated. “By the way, I don’t know if that’s the right thing. I may be like, ‘That was a dumb decision!’ I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but this is a little bit in my plan.”
Another big opportunity arose when Munn met with producers to join the cast of X-Men: Apocalypse playing mutant Psylocke, a fan favorite telepath-telekinetic Englishwoman whose consciousness is transferred into the body of a lady ninja.
Munn, a longtime X-Men fan, knew the role wouldn’t be huge. And it would require her donning a revealing outfit that itself has been the subject of many a fanboy blog entry. Before taking the part, she says she made a deal with producer Simon Kinberg.
“I said, ‘First of all, I love Psylocke and I love X-Men. So if you guys are doing it, I know that you’re just introducing the character and there are a lot of other elements going on with other people and other storylines,” Munn recalled. “It’s the introduction of Psylocke, so it’s cool if I don’t have a lot of dialogue or there’s not a lot for her to do—as long as she has a badass fight scene.’ He was like, ‘Okay!’
“I love Psylocke,” she said of the character who, in the May blockbuster, is one of disillusioned supervillain Apocalypse’s mutant-powered warriors. “Psylocke is awesome. She’s really strong and powerful, and in a superhero world where so many people have to think before they kill and they don’t always want to, she’s never had a problem doing that. To me, that’s a very badass quality in a villain.
“Just be lethal and be extremely dangerous and make your opponents fear you. As a kid I always thought it was really cool to see a female like that,” she said, “even though she has this really… interesting costume that she has to wear.
“Even training just changed my life in a different way, to want to work out and be healthy and keep that going. And now I have a sword closet, so that’s cool,” she laughed. “Don’t come knocking unless you’ve been invited. If anyone startles me, I’ve got a sword closet.”
With the 2016 presidential election approaching, now would be a pretty fun time to be a Daily Show correspondent, Munn admits. “I’ve been meaning to reach out to Jon Stewart because I just want to hear his breakdown of [the election],” she said. “I miss his take on it.”
Giving props to new Daily Show host Trevor Noah (“He’s so bright and so funny”), Munn says she still watches every episode. “But it would be fun to go back,” she said, mulling it over. “I should let Trevor know: Hey, if you ever need a Senior Asian Correspondent... I’m available, and I will travel.”