Olivia Munn Talks Whitewashing and Microaggressions in Hollywood

Olivia Munn talks about her own personal experiences with whitewashing and microaggressive gender roles in Hollywood.

It was over a year ago when we walked across The Predator set. Still several months away, at the time, from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement transforming Hollywood and the culture at large, hopefully in a permanent fashion, there was nevertheless a clear and unmistakable sense that change was in the air. And it cannot get here fast enough for those as socially cognizant about their industry as Olivia Munn.

In the latest semi-reboot of the action franchise, this time masterminded by writer-director Shane Black, Munn plays Dr. Casey Brackett, a woman not defined by her race or even really her gender. The screenplay written by Black and Fred Dekker (the team behind 1987’s The Monster Squad) simply presents her as who she is. For Munn, however, an American woman who is also of European and Asian descent, this makes The Predator a rarity among racial and, to an extent, gender lines. After all, during our interview, Ghost in the Shell was only a week old. That movie—in which Scarlett Johansson played a character originally named Maj. Kusanagi in her Japanese manga origins—was accused of whitewashing. And that was before everyone knew the ending, in which it’s revealed the brain of a Japanese girl has been placed inside Johansson’s body. Mentioning that ending to Ms. Munn (who said she has no intention of ever watching the film) also caused some genuine reflection on her industry.

“Oh my God,” Munn gasps with genuine incredulity upon hearing of the plot twist. “This is the studio heads going, ‘Okay you guys, we’re getting some pushback. We didn’t realize the Asians would be so proud of being Asian.’ That’s amazing.” It also leads her to have the below intriguing thoughts about the challenges she’s faced as a multicultural woman in an industry notorious for pigeonholing talent.

“The interesting thing about it is that element of ethnicity and stuff is… there’ll be a role and it will be for a white person. It’ll be written that way. You can just tell by who they’re looking for. You’ll be like, ‘I love this script,’ and your reps will go, ‘Oh, they’re looking for an ‘All-American girl.’ But all-American is Latina or Asian, or Native American, and black and white. And it’s never an option. But if there’s an ethnic role, the white people always get an option! It’s always believable for a white person to play any ethnicity, but it’s never believable for an ethnic person to play a white role.

I think when I was on The Newsroom that’s what I really appreciated about [Aaron] Sorkin is that he never, he was never—I’m half-white, half-Asian, and some people see more white and some people more Asian—and he was like, ‘This has nothing to do with race.’ And it was never really addressed… But yeah, there is a big thing where the white people get to do all the roles, and the ethnic people have to stick to the very specific ethnic roles.

… I remember back when I first came to LA and going out for all these auditions, and it’s commercials, and it’s very ethnic. Like body type, body size, color of your skin, everything. And I’d be like, ‘Aaaah.’ I’d go out for these and I just wouldn’t get it, and I’d go out for some co-stars, and if you’re going out for the co-star role, if it’s a small, few-lines one, you’re like somebody’s friend or whatever. Then you get to be the guest star and you’re like someone’s sister. Then they’re trying to match you, and I would never match with anybody. I was too white to be Asian and too Asian to be white.”

These experiences in Hollywood, however, have also helped Munn as she’s grown into a more vocal actor who has her own standards for what kind of roles she’ll take now. Admiring how much freedom and longitude director Black gave her on The Predator to help create her own role—a part where she brings her own insight to understanding Predators as a species—she also considers the type of roles she once did, and wishes to stay away from in the future. You know the kind, where the woman is simply in awe of her male co-star’s intellect or bravery, and exists merely to prop up his journey of self-discovery.

“You see that so much, and I’ve felt that so much, and I’ve done that. But I want to play a character that’s, like in real life, that she would exist if he doesn’t exist in the movie,” Munn says. This is why she has refused to do scenes in the past of what she considers unintentional microaggressions against women. These are scenes that specifically code social gender roles onto the actresses in the film… and all the women watching them.

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“So microaggression, the term was created to describe how non-black people treat black people,” Munn says. “It’s an unconscious bias. That’s the biggest definition of it. It’s an unconscious bias, and we keep perpetuating that.” Munn even recalls a specific example where a director she elected not to name insisted, she must “look up” at her male co-star, like a child would to a parent, or a student to a teacher.

“It was not long ago when I was doing this scene in a movie, and the director asked me to look up to the guy and be like, ‘It’s not working.’ And I was like, ‘But he wouldn’t look up at me.’ Because these are the rules, the guy is never like ‘Uh, what’s what?’ A guy just sits there with it. So I said I don’t want to do that, and then they don’t understand why. ‘Just do one take.’ And I’m like, ‘All you need is one take.’ And I just don’t want to do it. And I know that I look difficult in those situations, but thankfully I’ve been around people who listen… because that is a thing as a woman where you go, ‘Okay, if I even just speak up, will you think I’m ‘difficult?’ Men don’t ever think that, they just speak up.”

Luckily Munn is speaking up very passionately and persuasively. You can find our full interview with her on The Predator set here. We also had a full, broader report about the film right here.