SINGAPORE—Olivia Munn, who plays the strong-willed, tough and confident character Sloan Sabbith in HBO’s original series “The Newsroom,” hated her “too Asian” looks—chinky eyes, dark hair, freckles—while growing up.
Munn, whose Chinese mother married an American military man when the actress was 2, said she grew up with a stepsister whom people tended to like more because she was “blond and so Western-looking.”
Rather than resent this, Munn said, she “accepted it as exactly what it was.” She told the Inquirer during a gathering of Southeast Asian journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel on Orchard Boulevard here, “I just had to accept that people wouldn’t be as sweet or nice to me as they were to her.”
Added the 33-year-old actress, “That’s how I live my life now.”
All shades of gray
Munn’s father is of German and Irish descent. She was born in Oklahoma but raised in Tokyo, Japan, where her stepfather was stationed for many years. She returned to the United States at 16, when her parents divorced. She took up journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
She pointed out: “It’s difficult when people always try to fight something, or resent something, instead of just [accepting] the situation. We do a disservice to ourselves when we spend so much time being mad about something that isn’t the way we want it to be. The world is not fair; it’s very complicated. We would all do much better once we realize this and [appreciate] all shades of gray.”
The actress recalled a time when she was convinced she wasn’t beautiful enough to ever be happy: “In media, we always see these blond-haired, really thin, beautiful, white people. I remember—as far back as when I was 6 or 7 years old—looking in the mirror and hating that my eyes looked more Chinese, and that I had freckles. I remember crying and being very mad at myself because everybody else who got much more love was Western-looking. Through my teenage years, I was always awkward and didn’t fit in.”
Things started to change when Munn turned 16 and moved from Tokyo back to Oklahoma City. “That’s when I decided to embrace what I perceived to be imperfections,” she said. “I said I was going to stop wishing for things to be different. I was not about to fight with people to make them like me. I realized there would always be taller, thinner, prettier and smarter girls than I was—in the same way that there would always be shorter, uglier ones. I decided to just be my best self all the time.”
Does own makeup
When Munn became an actress, she started in earnest to turn her imperfections into assets.
“This is why I do my own makeup,” she said. “My whole life, I’ve had a problem with people who can’t do Asian faces. I have a round face, small eyes, narrow lips, and I meet people who want to overaccentuate my features. I had to learn … because I’d much rather look bad by my own hands than someone else’s.”
Munn was in Singapore to promote the second season of the HBO original series “The Newsroom,” which premieres in Asia on Aug. 5 at 9 p.m.
The show, written by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, is a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make the nightly cable-news program “News Night” at the fictional Atlantis Cable News Network. The nine-episode second season covers the period from August 2011 to November 2012 and touches on the US government’s antiterrorism policy and the general elections, among others.
It begins in the days leading up to Election Night 2012, when the “News Night” staff is being prepared to give depositions in a lawsuit— the circumstances of which unfold throughout the season.
Will we see more of your own personality in Sloan this season?
One thing that I told Sorkin about Sloan was that I loved her social awkwardness, but that what I really wanted was for her not to apologize for it. I often don’t think I should be allowed [to show it] in public! Many times, I say the wrong thing and I enjoy it, but think I shouldn’t have been allowed to talk.
Do you think you can actually be someone like Sloan in real life?
I majored in journalism. My first job in college was writing for a newspaper. I got an internship at a local news station. When I left college, I worked at an NBC affiliate. I really wanted to tell stories. That’s what I think a journalist is—somebody who tells stories about things around him.
Nowadays, I think it’s so difficult to be a journalist. As a society, we have made it really difficult for journalists not to be biased, not to be forced to turn the murder of a child into a salacious story, for the sake of ratings. That’s the environment we’ve created in so many cable news and radio programs and in blogs and Twitter feeds. Now I prefer pretending to be a journalist.
Were you inspired by a real person in portraying Sloan?
This character is written by Sorkin. He told me that this wasn’t based on anyone, just on a lot of research that he did, which helped create the role. However, I was very specific with how I wanted Sloan to look. I didn’t want her to wear anything flashy because I didn’t want this to take away viewers’ attention from the information that she was giving them. I wanted her to wear a fitted suit, not something that was covering her up too much that she’d look like she was apologizing for being a woman. I didn’t want her to flaunt her femininity or sexuality, either, so I opted for her to wear something that was professional and fitted, the way a man would wear a nice fitted suit. Only after a whole season had gone on did I realize that the person I had always loved and looked up to for style was Diane Sawyer.
What attracted you to the role?
Two things really stuck out for me: First was Aaron Sorkin and, second, the fact that the script was unlike anything I had ever come across. I had just finished one show on NBC at the time and I was reading scripts, but I couldn’t tell the difference … When I came upon this, I turned down other offers [in] the hope of auditioning for the role. Everyone knows that, at the audition, I was the one the casting people didn’t want to see because I was not a Broadway actress or some Asian girl who became popular on YouTube.
What was it like working with amazing actors like Jeff Daniels and Dev Patel?
It was everything I hoped it would be. What was great about working with the cast was that we were doing this really serious, hard material, but that between takes, we were just laughing and joking around.
Were there moments during production that you consider memorable?
You see, Sorkin wrote every single episode, which was very rare for somebody of his stature. There was only one episode in the season where we didn’t get the script until the night
before—that was the one when not only was I speaking a dialogue the Sorkin way, I was also doing Sorkin in Japanese. When I saw it I was in shock. The first scene was this big fight with Sam Waterston’s character Charlie Skinner. I worked on it all night long. I cried about it between 2 and 3 a.m. and stayed up until 5 a.m. My favorite moment happened during the rehearsals. I heard some commotion by the video room. Sorkin jumped out of his chair, clapped his hands. He came up to me to say he was really happy. I felt like his words were given due justice. That’s why [I do this]—to make Aaron Sorkin happy. I’m such a fan of his works.
Do you think through “The Newsroom” people will get a better picture of what it’s like to be in broadcast journalism?
I think the show does a great job at depicting a mixture of both the business and reporting sides. We have one character, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), who plays the executive producer. He’s someone that you saw in the beginning who has a corporate mindset, who is all about getting the ratings, no matter what. We all saw how he ended up wanting to do better. It’s hard. You kind of have to have one foot in each. It’s a corporation. It’s not a “for the people by the people” company. It’s really difficult to create something that’s for the public, for their knowledge and safety, and at the same time be controlled by corporations and money. I think Sorkin did a great job of showing the complications of that.
For you, what’s the best part about this whole experience?
The best part is the response I’ve received from so many women, older and younger, and of different positions in politics, entertainment and pop culture, as well as women who are just about to embark on their careers. They all responded to Sloan—she doesn’t let other people’s opinion define who she is. I play Sloan as a man. I think of her as a man, not because she’s better as a man, but because it’s just the opposite of how people think of women in the news world. I play her like a strong man.
Will we see Sloan and Don get together this season?
There’s only so much they can do as the boss and employee. I was actually hoping for a Charlie-Sloan story line—that would be more fun. My favorite part of being in “The Newsroom” is interacting with Charlie as Sloan. I just can’t believe I’m working with Waterston—the “Law and Order” guy hanging out with me! He’s amazing. We share a trailer—that’s the coolest thing.
Sorkin is known to insist on making actors stick to the script. How challenging is that?
I do hear that some of the cast members talk about how they hate it, but I actually love it. I think it’s needed. If you read the lines exactly how it’s written, comma for comma, it really gives you an idea of who your character is. If your character has a lot of run-on sentences, he’s somebody who rambles. If you read it the way Sorkin wrote it, you get a lot about the character that you didn’t know before.
You’re Chinese, your mom was born in Vietnam, but you grew up in Japan. Which country do you identify with the most?
I identify with China and Japan. My mom speaks Mandarin and Vietnamese. I was used to speaking both when I was young, but when I transferred to an American school I became too embarrassed to speak them. I think I want to spend more time learning Mandarin.
Is knowing different languages important?
It is. One advantage of having a military family and moving around a lot is that you feel like a citizen of the world. Even if I feel awkward in life, I also feel that I can go anywhere, that everywhere is my home. I would love to come back and live for a month in a place where they speak only Chinese.
Is it a coincidence that Sloan is also able to speak Japanese, or was the character written around the fact that you know Japanese?
I met with the writers and they asked about my life and I told them I grew up in Japan. I told them I spoke the language but that I was a little rusty because I hadn’t been there for a while. Two weeks later, Sorkin said, “I heard you’re comfortable speaking Japanese. Is it OK if I make you speak a couple of sentences in the show?” I agreed. Later on, I realized that I was asked to speak not only conversational Japanese, but also Japanese for news broadcast! Even the Japanese actors on the set had to be corrected about the way they spoke the language! I get more and more nervous speaking in Japanese since I haven’t gone there for quite a while now, so the tutor goes over it with me. After this trip to Singapore, I’ll go to Europe then spend a month in Japan and live with a host family to finally be able to get my Japanese back on track.
Your mother seems like she’s quite a character. Has she made any requests, since you’re in Asia, for you to bring back some stuff?
I always thought of my mother as the typical Asian mother. I just got her a jeep and she was very excited by that. My mom came to America the day the war ended. Her daughter being in Hollywood is like a dream that she never thought she was allowed to dream. My grandmother had nine children who all grew up and had degrees in engineering and medicine, and so for me to be in show business was just beyond her.
Once, mom, in her Chinese accent, said, “Mommy love watching you on TV, but Mommy’s TV is so small. You buy Mommy LCD.” I said, “How do you even know what that is?” She said, “Oh I want one on the wall!” Of course, she got that, too. My mom is fine. She’s a hoarder of all things about me. She collects all those magazines. I feel bad that she stacks them everywhere in the house and that they are a fire hazard.