In a virtual conversation with USC Price School of Policy and Asian Pacific Islander Caucus (APIC) Tuesday afternoon, Olivia Munn discussed Asian representation and how she managed her family’s expectations while becoming a household name in Hollywood.
The event was hosted by APIC, a USC student organization that strives to increase awareness of issues affecting Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and featured Munn, an American actress who began her career as a TV host. She appeared in a variety of shows, such as The Newsroom and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as movies like X-Men: Apocalypse and The Predator.
As a first-generation American of Chinese-Vietnamese descent, Munn said though she wanted to be an actress for as long as she could remember, her mother used to limit her career options to jobs like lawyers or doctors. When her mother disapproved of her studying theater, Munn majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma as the “closest to being a storyteller.” Still, her desire to be an actor never stopped. She made a deal with her mother, who said if Munn graduated and used her degree for one year, she would support her acting.
“I have a lot of my white friends asking, ‘Couldn’t you have just done it?’” Munn said. “I find it’s very traditional in Asian families to really want the blessings of your parents. So even if I could have gone off on my own, I wouldn’t have felt good about it unless my mom gave me her blessing.”
After spending one year at an NBC affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Munn said she sat down to discuss pursuing acting with her mother, the turning point she called “life happens on a Tuesday.” When Munn broke down and asked what if she failed, her mother said simply, “then come home.”
“The fact that she said it like that was the key that unlocked everything for me. Feeling that no matter what I did, my mom would always love me and there would always be a home for me to come home to,” Munn said. “For our families to take this big jump to come to America and to immigrate here, that takes so much courage and bravery. It was this idea that we got to America, we put down roots, we have our children, now let’s try not to rock the boat anymore.”
Talking about being an Asian, Munn stressed the collective fear of being a minority in a country and the wish to be seen and bring things that are worthwhile. “I have found myself in the past wanting to show my gratitude by doing what people expect of me. The truth is we have so much more to offer than the buckets that have been assigned to us,” she said.
“The problem in life is not aiming high and missing. It’s aiming low and hitting,” Munn added.
Munn’s stories resonated with students who attended the event, like Adrienne Chistolini, a public policy graduate student. Chistolini said her biggest takeaway was that the problem with life is aiming low and hitting. Chistolini, who is half-Asian, said this piece of advice resonated with how she wanted to maximize her study at USC.
“People are so much more than the cultural or racial stereotypes that might be imposed upon them and it is high time that we look beyond these myths to discover the core of who people truly are,” Chistolini told Annenberg Media in an email.
During the event, Munn also said when she first started as an actress, many times she was told she was “too white” to play the Asian role and “too Asian” to play the white role.
“That did get me down a lot of times,” Munn said. “I would see roles that were very ethnic neutral, but they would always go to the white girl. [Then] somebody told me, ‘Don’t worry, because one day they will have to match them to you.’ It was that confidence that somebody else had changed my way of thinking. I didn’t know how to think that way.”
Speaking of the myth of model minority, Munn said she would turn down projects and work opportunities to not perpetuate stereotypes. “In this business specifically, there are a lot of white people telling the stories of minorities. You have to be the one to say that’s not right or accurate and lead them back to the line.”
Munn said it was really important to her to always talk about Asian culture, her family, and tell stories about her mom using her voice and her accent to normalize things.
“Being Asian-American, there is this truth serum that we all have,” Munn said. “I take a lot of pride in being able to say that I’m Asian and talking about it. Talking about it will normalize casting more Asians and giving them those opportunities, then that means a lot.”