"I still consider myself a journalist," Olivia Munn says. She's not talking about her role as economics whiz Sloan Sabbith on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, which starts its third and final season this fall. Before acting, Munn was a journalism major at the University of Oklahoma while interning at the local CBS and Fox Sports affiliates.
"The sports thing was deliberate," Munn says. "The only way for me to stand apart was to be the only female in the sports world," even if it meant letting her producers stick her in oversized jackets so she'd look older.
After graduation, she tackled the assignment desk at an NBC outpost in Tulsa juggling 10 police scanners, loud TVs and a constantly ringing phone.
"I was horrible," laughs Munn, now 33 and living in the Hollywood Hills. "People across the room would shout, 'That's a fire!' How did they hear that?!" But she'd promised her mother, a first-generation Chinese immigrant raised in Vietnam, that she would use her degree for a year.
"I was a good Asian daughter," Munn says. "That was her way of holding me off from moving to Los Angeles. My mom was like, 'Only one man can do it: Tom Cruise. You're not Tom Cruise, you cannot make it!'?"
Munn was equally calculated in launching her acting career. She padded her résumé with plays she'd never performed, wagering that casting agents wouldn't check. At acting class, she eavesdropped for auditions to poach and avoided her classmates, aiming to be the school outcast.
"Every week when I'd get up onstage, I'm not looking back at these friendly faces," she explains. "They're all judging me, and that's what an audition room is."
It was good training. She soon got her big break co-hosting G4's gonzo nightly geek news Attack of the Show! When she later earned a correspondent gig on The Daily Show - a smart fit for her real résumé - she was battle-forged for the backlash from feminist sites who, before her first segment even aired, accused Comedy Central of pandering by hiring a hot chick with no business cracking jokes about Arizona's immigration laws.
"We're in a world where women are allowed to be able to check more than one box," Munn groans. "You don't have to be smart and ugly."
Besides, although Attack of the Show! meant jumping into a 7-foot chocolate cream pie in a French maid costume to reward the 61,167 fans who signed her petition asking the U.S. Congress to designate a National Pie Week, Munn treats her sex appeal as a joke. Her mock-sexy smile is an awkward grimace, like a dog being forced into a stupid hat.
"People want to see people earn their stripes," she acknowledges. "That's why I go for ensembles. Instead of being the lead in something OK, I'd rather be a part of something great."
That plan seems to be working. She's been the best bit in the mediocre rom-com I Don't Know How She Does It, a solid hitter in the superior Magic Mike and a standout in The Newsroom, where her character is a math-minded, socially awkward version of herself.
"Instead of trying to mimic somebody else, I was able to make her her own journalist and bring in my own thoughts and feelings," Munn says. Plus, she can doubly relate to her character. When Sloan's boss, MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer), promotes her to prime time because she's the rare hot economist, Sloan accepts with pragmatic disgruntlement: "You want me to do pole dancing while explaining subprime mortgages."
As Munn sees it, sports reporting, geek reporting, comic news reporting and fictional reporting all aspire to the same goal: "A good journalist is a storyteller."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on