There is, rather unfortunately, a preponderance of evidence that numerous Hollywood stars were generated in a farcical, fame-seeking incubator buried beneath Mount Lee. When you speak to them, they speak at you, regurgitating vacuous mini-monologues about, say, “the great script” or “the amazing time” they had making their latest pile of processed, gold-plated dung. Michelle Monaghan is, thankfully, not one of those people.
Perhaps it’s her small-town Midwest upbringing, emerging from the cornfields of Winthrop, Iowa—population 850—or the knowledge imparted by her blue-collar parents (her mother ran a day care center out of the family home and her father was a factory worker), but Monaghan feels, well, real. And not in the J. Lo featuring Ja Rule sense. She also, as The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis recently put it, is “one of those performers you’re always happy to see” who “radiates intelligence.” For all these reasons and more, the 38-year-old actress has become one of the premier portrayers of working-class women onscreen. Take her first big role as Kimberly Woods, a “Teach For America” instructor in over her head on the Fox drama Boston Public; or as a miner opposite Charlize Theron in North Country; her Bahstin private investigator in search of a missing girl in Gone Baby Gone; the vodka-swilling long-haul truck driver in Trucker.
Despite her lengthy resume, the role you’re probably most familiar with is Maggie Hart, the beleaguered wife of Marty, played by Woody Harrelson, on the HBO phenomenon True Detective.
“I’ve been making movies for a long time, and the response I’ve gotten from that show is greater than the response I’ve gotten from any film,” says Monaghan. “So, it was great for me personally, and professionally. The challenge is finding great roles like that.”
Another one of those meaty roles is that of Maggie Swann, the woman at the heart of Fort Bliss. After serving 15-month tour in Afghanistan, where she earned a Bronze Star, the U.S. Army medic returns home to resume her duties as a single mother, but struggles to connect with a young son who barely remembers her. Claudia Myers’ film provides a rare, unflinching look at a wounded woman-warrior, and Monaghan delivers her most gripping turn to date in what The Hollywood Reporter’’s awards expert deemed “worthy of serious consideration” for a Best Actress Oscar nod.
“She’s so complicated, tough, vulnerable, flawed, and all those things that you can creatively sink your teeth into,” says Monaghan. “But also, it felt original. Stories about female vets are very absent from our culture.”
Myers hatched the idea for Fort Bliss while interviewing an Army vet and single father for the interactive film she penned, The War Inside, an Army-distributed PTSD education program that lets you play as four different characters who’ve just returned home from combat. Due to Myers’s relationships making that film, as well as the interactive movie Outside the Wire, the Army granted full access to film at the real-life Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
“All the background extras are real soldiers, and the vehicles, guns, everything are authentic,” says Monaghan.
Swann is, in addition to the problem of connecting with her estranged son, haunted by an experience that happened while training at Fort Bliss: Her best friend and superior, Staff Sergeant Donovan (Pablo Schreiber), attempted to rape her. According to Monaghan, this was a very regular occurrence among the female soldiers stationed there.
“I spent a lot of time with female vets at Fort Bliss, and every single one shared an experience with me about some level of sexual assault,” says Monaghan. “It’s incredibly prevalent, and it’s a huge problem.”
Fort Bliss was shot in just 21 days, with the crew, Monaghan says, “running and gunning, literally.” Like the Kristen Stewart-starrer Camp X-Ray, another woman-centric military flick in theaters next month, the film was made on a microbudget of under $5 million. When I ask her why these engrossing character studies of complex women are being relegated to the indie world, she doesn’t hide her frustration.
“We’re in that ballpark, man. It’s crazy,” she says. “These sorts of roles only live in this indie world. I would love to see more mainstream movies about complicated women, and I wish they didn’t have to be labors of love.”
She pauses. “It must be because we only represent one percent of the population,” says Monaghan, rolling her eyes. “It’s ridiculous, and it’s such a shame. People ask me, ‘How did you play such a tough woman?’ and I tell them, ‘I am a tough woman!’ I’m tough, I’m vulnerable, I’m independent, I’m strong, and I’m nurturing, and most of the women I know are, but unfortunately you only see a couple of sides of women reflected in most films.”
One of the fascinating things about Fort Bliss—as well as the aforementioned Trucker—is the way it subverts traditional onscreen gender roles. Swann is the macho, troubled, and charismatic center of the film, while Ron Livingston plays her nagging ex-husband (see: the wife), and Manolo Cardona is Luis, a hunky Mexican mechanic she toys around with.
It may surprise you a bit, then, to learn that Monaghan got her start as a model. The gigs helped her pay to attend Columbia College Chicago, where she studied journalism, before dropping out with one semester left to pursue acting. Her big breakthrough came in 2005, when she played the role of the damsel-in-distress—opposite Robert Downey Jr.—in Shane Black’s underrated neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Then came the bad news: She landed roles in two other big films, but the parts were left on the editing room floor.
“Constantine and Syriana,” she says. “But then the Constantine audition tape made its way into J.J. Abrams’ hands and he saw it and said he wanted me to read with Tom Cruise for Mission: Impossible III.”
She adds, “One of the greatest days of my life was walking onto the Universal set and Tom [Cruise] was doing re-shoots for War of the Worlds, and I was standing there ready to go to his trailer with J.J. to do this audition and he was shooting this fantastic action sequence, and after he comes over, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Oh, I want you to meet someone!’ and brings over Steven Spielberg. My heart was literally in my throat.”
Monaghan landed the female lead opposite Cruise, and other big parts followed in so/so studio flicks like The Heartbreak Kid, Eagle Eye, and Source Code. After that, the roles started to cool off a bit (see: the Lifetime film Blindsided), and then came True Detective.
“It’s funny—I’ve never been a part of something that was such a phenomenon,” she says. “I think we knew we were doing something special because the writing was fantastic on the page, and once we got started shooting, Cary [Fukunaga] is such a fantastic, detail-oriented director.”
One person who took issue with the series is New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, who branded it misogynistic, and Monaghan’s character “all fuming prettiness with zero insides.”
“I think it’s a misguided criticism,” says Monaghan. “The show is clearly shot from the perspective of these two very flawed male characters, and while they may do questionable things, the show isn’t misogynistic.”
She adds, “Nic [Pizzolatto] was always open to embracing how the character lived in my mind,” before sharing a story about this openness on set.
“A testament to Nic is there’s a scene where Matthew’s character and my character are doing the deed in the kitchen, and my motivation was self-preservation for myself, and my family. Then, we’re shooting the kitchen table scene with Woody a couple of days later. And initially, that kitchen table scene was Woody coming in, sitting down, and I say, ‘I have to tell you something: I slept with someone.’ And that was it. I remember after having that scene with Matthew in the kitchen, I understood that that was the catalyst for the big revenge scene I wanted where I could really stick it to Marty. So, I told Nic, ‘I really want to stick it to him—is there anything more we could do?’ He said, ‘OK, let me talk to Woody, we’ll go to lunch, and I’ll come back.’ He came back with the scene written on a napkin, and then we shot it.”
The New Yorker criticism aside, most people praised Monaghan’s performance on the show, and Hollywood took notice. Next month, she’ll star with James Marsden in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Best of Me, and later this year, in the romcom Playing It Cool with Chris Evans. Then next year, she’s the female lead in the Chris Columbus blockbuster Pixels, a film about an elite team of video game experts tasked with battling ’80s-era video game characters who’ve come to life and attacked New York. The film also stars Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage.
“My career was quiet for a little bit, I had some kids, took some time off, and I thought, ‘OK, has the industry moved on without me?’” says Monaghan. “It’s a tricky road to navigate for anybody—especially if you’re a woman. But things are really good right now.” She pauses, and smiles. “It’s a nice little balance.”