On The Predator set, Olivia Munn talks finding a strong role in the sci-fi franchise as a woman who looks to the stars for God.
Olivia Munn is an animal lover. This much is immediately clear on The Predator set. After all, she brought her own new puppy, Frankie, to meet us and the other press huddled around a monitor in a tent next to where she and co-star Boyd Holbrook are filming an action sequence that involves gunfire and carnivorous hellhounds… those from somewhere a little more extraterrestrial than where Munn found Frankie (in downtown LA, abandoned and covered in fleas).
She is chatting with us between takes that involve rapid gunfire. Before each call of “action,” an assistant director warns that loud gunfire is about to go off. Initially Munn is only feigning concern about Frankie’s proximity to the explosions (she covers his small ears and holds him close). But after the actual gunfire sends the pup fleeing from her arms and out of the tent, we have to pause and start the interview again… after, like her onscreen character of Dr. Casey Brackett, she has saved a troubled soul.
“Just for the record, he was running toward the gunfire, he’s a badass,” Munn laughs after returning Frankie to the safety of a presumably sound-proof trailer. “He wanted me to tell you guys that.”
It is one of the more bemusing moments during our trip to the Vancouver set of The Predator, but it also is somewhat indicative of her character. By her own consideration, Munn may play the first human in a Predator movie not scared of the titular monster.
“This is like seeing God to her; this is what she’s studying,” Munn says about her scientist who is a far cry from the victimized and marginalized female characters in the original Predator movies. Instead Casey Brackett is a scientist who is almost on a different track altogether from the rest of the film’s Dirty Half-Dozen badasses, including Boyd Holbrook as the leader of a motley crew of damaged anti-heroes played by Keegan Michael-Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Trevante Rhodes, and Augusto Augilera.
For Casey this isn’t a horror movie or survivalist thriller; it is about a professional who, like the real-life and animal-loving actress, doesn’t necessarily see a reason to dread the barking dog down the street.
“If you ever see a dog that’s growling at you, and just a stray dog, the thought is to run away,” Munn says. “But then they start to chase you. So when I see them, I don’t go, ‘Oh my God, this dog is going to kill me!’ For me, someone who loves animals and loves dogs, I’m like, ‘Where is its owner? What’s going on?’ You’re trying to understand it more. So there is an element of realizing when you are in danger, but at the same time, trying to assess, and at the same time she doesn’t jump to conclusions because it doesn’t look like them, and it’s not speaking their same language. That doesn’t mean you shoot it right away.”
It’s an interesting angle for the new take on Predator, and one that Munn is all too happy to play in. While she didn’t even become a fan of the 1987 classic bullets-and-biceps movie until signing onto the project in 2016, Munn appreciates a different tact to the alien invasion film. Indeed, in our below interview, she considers just not how her character interacts with the Predator, but how she interacts with other people—and passes a measure Munn holds herself to: Her parts now need to have their own lives and agency, even in action movies, as opposed to being accessories to her male co-stars. She might be the “token female” in The Predator, but with her input, as well as Shane Black and Fred Dekker’s screenplay, she isn’t what you’ve come to expect from this genre or franchise.
Can you give us a base level of who your character is and how she fits into the story?
Yeah, I play Dr. Casey Brackett, and this movie, it’s like there are two different stories in the beginning. There’s Boyd and Keegan, and Trevante and Thomas Jane, and Agusto, and they are the soldiers and they’re encountered with the Predator. And then on the other side, on this other story that’s going on, my character has been on a list from the CIA, because she is an evolutionary biologist, and because of her expertise and the things she’s been able to accomplish in her career, she is one of the top people when it comes to evolutionary biology. So she’s on a list by the CIA in case there’s ever connection with a higher lifeform.
So at this point, she gets called into the labs to see what’s going on and try to offer her help.
We see that you’re armed.
Yes, I’m armed, but she’s a scientist—
And they all have side-arms?
I think when you’re running for your lives, and you’re going up against aliens and aliens that look like the Predator, you get armed. You strap up. [Laughs] Which is fun, when I first came here, we did a boot camp, like just weeks of gun training and all that, and it was so much fun. You should talk to our gun trainers, they’re amazing, and it’s such a skill to be able to use it, and to also be able to handle a gun also makes you less afraid of it, and more responsible around them. But then my character, being a scientist, we’re learning all this training and fighting combat, but she’s not a soldier.
So in regards to your character, we’ve interviewed people all day long about this [male] camaraderie. Do you think your character, as well as yourself as an actress, has a sense of isolation from the rest of this crew?
Well, especially looking at it as a character, I think, sometimes, the fun things that maybe an actor might do is, “Oh, it would be so fun to feel like the outsider.” But I always look at it as what’s the most realistic thing? […] But realistically, there’s a moment where you’re like, “There are all these guys and then there’s me.” And the reality of “Okay, are these the good guys? Am I with the good guys?” Because there’s a lot of crazy stuff happening. There’s aliens and we’re running for our lives, and it all just kind of happens, and you have no idea. We’re all kind of absorbing, our characters are absorbing the moment of what’s happening as we’re running for our lives, and at the same time, for my character too as an evolutionary biologist, her whole life has been about is there higher life? And now she’s seeing it. But as soon as they band together, they’re in it together.
Were you able to develop the backstory of your character, and what her opinion would be on seeing a Predator, seeing an alien, and eventually trying to communicate with it?
Yeah, there’s a that scene we do, and it’s a small scene, it’s less than a quarter of a page, and it’s just her seeing pictures [of aliens] for the first time. And we didn’t discuss it or anything, but all the prep I do before that is that—seeing it is a very emotional experience.
And where other people could be like, “Oh, this amazing, and holy crap and woah!” This is like seeing God to her. This is what she’s studying: How creatures change and evolve, and how it’s not scary. It is a very beautiful thing to see, so that was a big thing for me that I wanted her to—her whole life, this is something she’s been wanting to know about. Got herself onto the list on the CIA, got to the top so she would be discovered by people at the CIA, so that if anything ever happens, she’d be called on. And that’s basically everything she ever wanted.
Considering that’s what her whole life has built to, seeing God, how does she respond when they’re incredibly hostile and try to kill her?
What I try to think of is I’m an animal lover, and so is Shane. So we were able to tap into that with this character as well. If you ever see a dog that’s growling at you, and just a stray dog, the thought is to run away. But then they start to chase you. So when I see them, I don’t go, “Oh my God, this dog is going to kill me!” For me, someone who loves animals and loves dogs, I’m like, “Where is its owner? What’s going on?” You’re trying to understand it more.
So there is an element of realizing when you are in danger, but at the same time, trying to assess, and at the same time she doesn’t jump to conclusions because it doesn’t look like them, and it’s not speaking their same language. That doesn’t mean you shoot it right away. That’s a lesson for everyone in life. [Laughs]
If you’re an evolutionary biologist in the film, is there a chance we’ll see the Predators evolve or explore more of their biological history?
That’s a very good question. Make [the publicist] leave, and I’ll tell you. [Laughs]
Was evolutionary biology something you researched?
Yeah, my younger brother is getting his PhD in physics right now, so there are things that I would—before you get to the script, Fred and Shane have already vetted it out with scientists and biologists. But then I would take it on just another level and talk to my brother about it, and make sure what we’re saying is the right [thing]. Because anytime you’re playing a character who is very knowledgeable, it’s very important not to just recite the lines, but to know them.
Same thing when I was on The Newsroom, learning about the economy, I really had to learn it. So on this one, I had to really understand just the science of what makes up simply a protein and hydrogen, and make up just life. And having to go start from there and moving on, but it’s fascinating.
Could you talk about the first time you saw the original Predator and what kind of effect it had on you?
The last time I watched the original Predator was last fall after I signed onto this movie. [Laughs]
What effect did it have on you?
I loved it, and there’s a reason why it’s a classic. And I loved—it makes me nostalgic for that period of time where you could be cheesy but it wasn’t cheesy. We all love it, the original, so much that we have to remind ourselves, “Hey wait, pull it back, because now you look like you’re doing a spoof of your own movie.” It’s just such a great—I kept asking Shane could we do one where someone’s in the mud, that’s such a great [image]. I’m like, “Could I be in the mud?” But then I actually thought “no.” So if he did it, he gave it to someone else.
I think Jacob [Tremblay] got it.
What?! [Laughs] He’s got a great agent.
So you’re jumping into the action realm with X-Men and now this. What attracts you to these kind of roles?
I didn’t really realize how much I loved doing it until I actually was training for X-Men. When I signed on for X-Men, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it, and I was talking with Simon Kinberg. And he was like, “This is an introduction of the character, so it’s going to be a smaller part for this movie.” And I was like, “Well, that’s cool just as long as she can have a fight scene.’ To me, I grew up loving [Psylocke]. I know they didn’t really do it the first time she was introduced [in X-Men: The Last Stand], and I watched it and was like, “Meh, this is stupid,” the first time I saw it.
What you guys saw when you saw the movie, the fight scene that we did, that was like maybe less than a quarter of what we filmed. I don’t know, Bryan [Singer] sent me a long text, and I can’t really remember what he said, but I think he was like, “Blah, blah, blah, I took it out.” But working on it, I didn’t realize I’d have to do so much training for it until I got there and I realized that my stunt double, who is very athletic and talented, had never been a stunt double before, because nobody was expecting me, or the character of Psyclocke, or really whoever played her, to be like, “This is important to me.” And since I have a background in martial arts and gymnastics and stuff, and I cared so much about the fight scenes for the character, I started training every day, and having to learn sword.
They didn’t have a fight choreographer on that movie for whatever reason. Which you know, you have stunts, but you really need a fight choreographer, you know like those great movies like John Wick, and the people who end up directing them, and you have to have all those elements and respect all those elements of what it takes to make an action movie. But once I did that, I was hooked. I mean, I did all the fight scenes myself, and it was so rewarding and so fun.
On this one, I love that she is a scientist and I just love the world, and I am fascinated with alien life and stuff like that, but I really, really want to do something like John Wick. Someone told me Keanu [Reeves] does all his own stunts, and that’s something I would want to do. Obviously, there are things where you just need the professionals to take the hit and do all that, but I love that. When I watch a movie, and none of this is PC, but I want it to be violent and I just want to see him do things we don’t expect. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite movies, and I think that was the one… that put Robert Downey Jr. back on the map. And they did things in that movie that actually was very real, but we don’t see in movies, because there are real movies, real life in movies, and then there’s real, real life. So that’s what I would really love to do.
It’s impossible not to notice that you are a token female in this group of men, in a role fighting men. But to your earlier point, you were hired into this role, which is a starring role in an ensemble as a woman in which race was not a problem.
So I’ve been on this kick that people really close to me, if they were here [they’d say], “I’m going to get something to drink.” Because they’re so tired of hearing me talk about it. So microaggression, the term was created to describe how non-black people treat black people. It’s an unconscious bias. That’s the biggest definition of it. It’s an unconscious bias, and we keep perpetuating that.
And being in the media, and writers in front of the camera, behind the camera, behind the stories, it’s so important that your headlines, which we need and I understand everyone needs to get paid and that’s what drives traffic, but there has to be an accountability for what we’re putting out there in the world, and how it starts to seep into our brain. So the microaggressions happen with women over time. You look at women our age right now, the struggle is real when I say women do have this struggle of “I want to go off and have a career, and then I still have to come home and I want to be a good girlfriend and be a good mom and do all these things.” But the guys, they don’t worry if any of the dishes are done or any of that stuff. And it’s not that you don’t, it’s just that the guilt and the stress doesn’t come up as much and as severe as it does for women, and that is because of the microaggression that has happened in, I think, in Hollywood.
So you take a scene, and it’ll be me and “John,” and it’ll be, “So okay, you guys are talking about how Pluto is no longer a planet.” Mutual topic, so what should we do? “Okay John, why don’t you open your laptop and pay some bills, and Olivia, why don’t you just put some dishes away?” And we keep seeing that. You see these conversations, and you think, “Okay!” Because as an actor, an actress, it’s an independent activity, you’re doing your thing. But then as little girls are watching it, those things seep into your head.
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.” [Laughs] 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.
So the microaggression is really [present]. So you take small steps and you turn down things. I never want to do a role, no matter what happens in my career, no matter if I never work again, where she only exists if he exists. That is what happens most of the time, I’ve done those. And it’s just not the life, I don’t want to spend my life doing that.
So then with this movie, I am, yes, the token female, but at least I was able to tackle the microaggression part. That she’s not having some guys come in to save her, but then she’s also not just this badass who knows how to wield a gun automatically, because I think that’s the other kind of microagression, because if women are going to be strong, they’ve got to be so fucking strong that they’re lifting off trucks of things. It’s like you can be competent and flawed, and all at the same time.
But the next thing I want to talk of as the token female, and I know it’s hard, but you want to get to a place where the scripts that you involve yourself with pass the Bechdel Test, which I’m sure you guys all know. And it’s funny, because it’s easier to do but harder to find.
So how did you find, you sign onto the movie and then you go back and watch the original Predator, which has some indelicate treatments of race. There aren’t really women in there who aren’t victims. What was your thought then, and then the reality coming over with Shane?
I mean, that’s just the movies of that time, and so you enjoy it for what it is. We get almost too PC when it comes to race jokes or inappropriate jokes, and I think it doesn’t become life anymore on camera, and that’s what I love about Shane, because there are inappropriate jokes, and he’s like saying these things… you lose like the light from it. And I think we’ve gone too PC as a society. That we’ve almost gone the other way where everyone’s afraid to say anything.
Were you able to do any improv on the set?
On this movie, yeah. That’s what’s so great about Shane: he’s an actor’s director and he’s also a writer. So a lot of times writers can be so married to a script, and a lot of times a director looks at the script as a Bible, but then you end up losing a lot of life that comes up that you wouldn’t normally capture on camera. I’ve worked with directors where they shoot this, they shoot this, and then they go back into the editing bay, and they test it for the audience, and they go, “I love that character, that small character, did you get that?” But they didn’t get it, because they weren’t shooting.
So this movie, there’s been so much collaboration and just in the moment, just everyone coming up with stuff and thinking of stuff, and being present, that helps make the movie feel really fun and fresh, and alive.
Until you get a text that he’s cut out three-quarters of your big action scene.
No, Shane wouldn’t do that. [Laughs]
For this particular movie, you’re saying your character has her own career and agency.
Even if it’s a character you see for like one scene and that’s it, but you believe once you stop seeing her on-camera, you believe she has a life somewhere else, that’s what this character… a lot of times you see, most of the times, the woman—they work together, and he’s the spunky reporter who’s trying to get everything done, and she’s right there with him and just so in awe of him, and everything she does is just in reaction to him. And 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.
Piggybacking off that, you talked earlier about the “strong female” archetype and trope, and Shane Black doesn’t normally write archetypes or tropes. How does that play into your character?
We talk about how he skewers them. For example, our soldiers are just a little bit messy and things like that. But I don’t know if this is the right answer but it’s what I want to say right now in response. My honest response to what you’re saying is that we don’t really go that route with my character, we play her as real as possible. And any comedy that comes up is comedy that’s funny just because it’s real and it’s in the moment.
That’s not trying to be a wink and a “hahaha.” It’s just funny because of the scenario, and we’ve never talked about it, but my gut instinct when you ask me that question is we’re not at that point for a minority actress. We’re not there for a minority actress, we still have to establish [the archetype] before we can go back and poke fun at the other ones, because we can’t poke fun at anything and be like, “See we’re not there anymore.” We are still there.
I hope Frankie’s okay.
He probably took eight guys down. I’m really proud of him.
The Predator opens on Sept. 14.