When I think of Michelle Monaghan, I instantly think of one of my Top 20 favorite movies of all time: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, written and directed by Shane Black, and starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer. In this loving (albeit vulgar) homage to the sordid pulp crime novels of yore, she plays the damsel in distress, Harmony Faith Lane, whose connection to the story’s hero makes for hilarious and wonderful cinema. In her new film, Fort Bliss (click here for our review), she’s Harmony’s diametric opposite. Whereas Harmony is a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants Hollywood ingenue, her Fort Bliss character Maggie is an embattled Army medic, returning home from a tumultuous deployment to Afghanistan.
On September 16, 2014, Michelle stopped by Washington, D.C. to promote Fort Bliss; I, along with John Hanlon of John Hanlon Reviews and Dean Rogers of The Rogers Revue, sat down with her for a roundtable interview to dig deeper into this film and her impassioned participation in it. The following is a fairly dry transcript of this interview, with minimal editing done to excise verbal filler (you know, the “like”s and the “y’know”s and the “ummm”s). It starts with me asking her where she wanted to sit, as I didn’t want her to feel penned in by three guys against a window…
Eddie: I didn’t know where you wanted to sit…
Michelle: (gesturing to Dean) I thought you could sit on his lap…
E: Okay! Dean, let’s go! We’re friends!
Dean: We’ve known each other a long time!
E: How are you?
M: I’m good, guys! How are you?
E: Good to see you! Welcome to DC!
M: Thank you! Thanks for turning on the weather for me.
E: Actually, this is the nicest it’s been – we’ve had a heatwave the last couple weeks.
M: That’s what they were saying, so this is beautiful; I’m gonna enjoy it.
John: Eddie, do you wanna start?
E: “Do I wanna–” Well, first off – wonderful. Wonderful.
M: Thank you.
E: Seriously, my first note is, “Thanks for making me ugly-cry during that last scene.” Oh, my God.
(The room cracks up.)
M: Well, it takes one to know one, right? So if I was gonna ugly-cry, you were gonna ugly-cry.
E: How difficult was that to film with that Oakes Fegler (who plays her son in the film)?
M: That scene was particularly very emotional, very painful for me, actually, to shoot. It just was, you know? We’d shot a very intense schedule – it was 21 days – we were living, eating, breathing it, and I was profoundly in the skin of this character. And we weren’t even nearly done, we were maybe halfway done, but I was so in the thick of it, that when we shot that scene, it was very emotional –
E: (Tearing up, no joke) I’m startin’ to, like, thinking about it… I’m sorry –
M: I know! It was very emotional! At that point, I’d spent a lot of time with female soldiers and parents. It’s an extraordinary sacrifice, and that scene really gets me, but the scene of her sitting on the bed, just watching the clock tick by for her to leave is really, really hard. And it happens to so many parents that I don’t think we have a full appreciation of the sacrifices that they incur, but really, the family’s sacrifice, and the cost of war, y’know, the kids and the loved ones, the extended family, and everybody that is their support system when they’re deployed.
E: Gotcha. Okay.
D: Well, I’d like to know, first of all, what attracted you to the role, and how did you prep for it?
M: Well, y’know, that was – when I read it, I was blown away with the character, y’know? First and foremost creatively, you’re always looking for someone who’s complex, complicated, somebody who has depth and substance. For me, I always like somebody just slightly flawed, y’know? That’s fascinating, that’s interesting to me, and so I was really intrigued by that. But then, moreover, this was something completely original, the story. It was unique, it was something that I was completely enlightened by, it was something I’d never considered. So when you respond so creatively to something and you’re inspired by it, but then, at the same time, you’re talking about something that’s relevant and timely and that really affects a lot of people, it’s kind of the icing on the cake. So that’s what really – I read it, I said, “Wow, I wanna do this.” I sat down with Claudia (Myers, writer and director of Fort Bliss), and after sitting down with her, it became very apparent that this was someone – the only person – to helm this project, because of all the research she had done on behalf of it for five years… So I had complete and utter faith in her, that she was the right one to do the job. And as a result, with the Army’s support and everything like that, logistically, we were able to go down to Fort Bliss, and as a medic in the movie, I was able to go through an intensive medic training program, and that was great. It was just two or three days, but it became very informative to me, to get a glimpse into the high-pressure scenarios and situations this character finds herself in, the technical things, the precision, and also the decision making. Obviously, it’s, like, 1% of what it actually is, but it was integral for me to be able to have some sort of understanding and appreciation. But the most invaluable thing was being able to spend time with a lot of veterans – female veterans, mothers down at Fort Bliss, and really being able to pick their brains, and their candor and their truthfulness about their experiences, good or bad, and their struggles. That allowed me to have some emotional appreciation and confidence in order to convey what they go through.
D: That’s great. By the way, I loved you in True Detective.
M: Thank you!
E: My wife said to say the same thing.
M: That’s so sweet! Tell your wife, “Thank you very much!” I really appreciate that. Does she have the hots for Matthew or Woody?
E: Umm… neither.
D: My fiancée – it was Matthew, all the way.
M: There you go. Fair enough.
J: Was there some resistance from female veterans, in terms of sharing their stories?
M: It’s interesting… I think there was maybe some resistance, at first. And naturally, y’know? How can you fully trust someone, I mean, women are very vulnerable in the military, in the terms of the way that they’re perceived, or misperceived, I should say. So I can imagine them being very cautious in sharing their stories and their experiences, because they don’t want them misconstrued. So Claudia assured me that the women she had spoken to would be willing to share with me; but I, too, when I sat down with them, really conveyed to them my intentions for this role, and how I really wanted to represent them in the most authentic way. And that’s always been my intention, to have their story be told from the soldier’s perspective and the dilemma and what they are faced with. So I think I earned their trust, in some respect, and I’m incredibly grateful, because without them, I wouldn’t have been able to tell their story. This is their story, and while a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s a very unique story,” it is, to most people. This is a very common story in the military, because there are 200,000 women on active duty. 40% of them are moms, so this is a very common story for them, and so it was important to represent it in the right way.
J: Were they on set with you, or was this mostly prep?
M: Yeah, we did! We had a few of them on set.
J: How was that?
M: Amazing. One particular platoon sergeant, Sergeant Martinez, she’s a medic, a highly-decorated medic, she’s SO badass. I love her. And I was intimidated – I had to portray a soldier in front of real soldiers. I was incredibly intimidated, and that’s why I took my role so seriously, with the utmost importance, because I needed to be believable as a soldier. I needed them to respect me. That was daunting, y’know? But it fueled me at the same time.
J: Did you try to keep and it out of your mind when you were filming, like, “Oh, they’re watching me?”
M: Yeah, I tried, but it was always there – I have really great peripheral vision.
(The room cracks up.)
E: You had an insane amount to juggle during this. You said earlier that you like your characters to be complex and a little flawed, but I just ran things down: you have women in the military, women at war, gender roles, loss of family for returning vets, re-upping in the face of certain danger, and PTSD. That aspect of your story was – that hit me a little hard. What was the hardest thing for you to try to – what was the thing you wanted to get across the most?
M: One of the things that I appreciated about the vets that I met, the soldiers that I met, is that these are very strong, independent, nurturing, devoted women who are very matter-of-fact. I really wanted to be able to convey their – I didn’t want you to feel sorry for the character. I didn’t even care if you liked the character – I just wanted you to understand her. I wanted you to be able to put yourself in her shoes, I just wanted you to respect her decision-making. Or understand it, you didn’t even have to respect it. That was really important to me, to have there be balance, and that I wanted – and this is a testament, again, to Claudia and her storytelling and her direction – I wanted to have restraint. That’s not like me, I’m a very emotional person, I wear my heart on my sleeve all the time, and these women have a real restraint. I wanted that to come through in the performance, so that when it happened at the end, when she decides to be emotional and let her guard down, it was impactful. And also, I wanted it to be representative of what truly the experience is for most soldiers. When they’re downrange, they are emotionally disconnected, and they have to be in order to perform tasks at hand and to do it in an objective way, so they become emotionally suppressed. When they come back home, they’re expected to just flip that switch, and it’s not easy. They are disconnected from themselves, from their family, they suffer from PTSD, and so I wanted that transition to be slow. It had to be sincere. It couldn’t be like, “Oh, there’s my son, and he recognizes me, and I know all of a sudden how to mother him and cook for him and be tender with him.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s so difficult for soldiers to emotionally extricate themselves from what they’ve been through, which is a lot of trauma, and a heavy, heavy experience. So I wanted to honor that and say that it is okay, that it is a process… And that it was okay to align yourself with Ron’s character, brilliantly acted. It was hard role – sometimes, when roles are done so well you can’t fully appreciate it, because they did it so well. But you feel for him at times, and you feel for her, and I feel like this is an important film because nobody’s right and no one’s wrong. This is a very gray area that everyone’s living in, and I feel like it’s the real world. I feel like these are folks trying to do the best they can in a really imperfect world. And that’s the reality for so many Americans, and I think that’s why it’s resonating so much with our core audience. I’m so grateful for that, but also, it’s speaking to the heart of many civilians as well, because I think it’s that universal theme of that struggle of career and parenthood and “Am I doing the right thing?” and the guilt. And it really taps into the heart of that, so it means a lot to me, because that’s what our intentions were.
E: Cool. Thank you. That was wonderful.
M: Good! Thank you.
D: You sing the praises of the writer/director. I want to hear what it’s like working with the cast. Ron Livingston, Emmanuelle (Chriqui), and Oakes, who plays your son. That must have been a tough chemistry between the two, especially with subject matter that’s very heavy.
M: It was very heavy, and again, we had four days of rehearsal for the whole entire cast. Manolo and I had an afternoon, Ron and I had a day, and I think Oakes and I had two days. Again, it’s a testament to Claudia and her writing, and having everybody totally be on the same page. Y’know, the great thing about the cast – it’s not overwrought with sentimentality and forcing anything down your throat – it’s everybody just being very real. Emmanuelle Chriqui, she’s so very, very real. It’s not like this competitive thing about the mother; it’s natural for a kid to gravitate toward another maternal figure, and Maggie ends up respecting that in her, and that’s very real. It’s also Ron Livingston saying, “If a mother leaves home, she’s a bad mother.” But my God, if a guy leaves, we don’t even question it; you and I, none of us would be sitting around, having this conversation. And it’s a shame that we have to choose – as a woman, not just in the military, but in general. You have to say, “Okay, you have to choose one or the other. You can’t leave home and be a devoted mother.” We judge that.
D: It seems like the overall message is, “The female soldier is torn between serving her country or staying with her family. You can’t do both.”
M: You can’t do both. That’s exactly right. And the reality is that these women who choose to do this are damn good at their job, and they love their job. They’re devoted to their platoons, and they feel responsibility to the people that they serve with, and that is such an honorable thing. I think that’s such a powerful thing, to be able to live that example for your children, because I think it’s a thing any one of us want for our children, to say, “What you do in a career is meaningful, it’s impactful, and it impacts on people’s lives.” And I think that if you allow men to have that, as an example, but you don’t allow mothers to have that as well, I just think you’re doing a disservice to everybody. I appreciate that, I appreciate Ron’s performance, and Pablo’s performance which, again, is a daring performance. It’s a hard role to take on, and he’s a daring actor. Freddy Rodriguez and his role as the CO, and that’s so true, and that’s painful. (Quoting the film) “If you don’t mind me asking, sir, how old are those pictures?”
E: (Quoting the reply.) “A couple of years.” That killed me.
M: “And I know ‘World’s Best Dad’ ain’t one of them.” Painful. And that’s a person that’s in the crosshairs of doing his duty, but also being sensitive to the soldiers that he commands. Everybody’s got their own dilemma, and I just feel like that’s really great storytelling.
J: Can you talk a little bit about the reaction of military families after they’ve seen the movie, and were you surprised by any of it?
M: Yes! Humbled and just gratified, because we showed it at the GI Film Fest. We got the most amazing response. When I tell you to hear the response that we represented them in the most authentic that they’ve ever seen – I’ve heard that from men and women. It’s so gratifying to show it to the people that inspired it, and to get their validation, is just – it’s why I’m sitting here. I’m so impassioned by it. This goes on – my passion for this goes well beyond this movie. This is something I want to continue. We showed it again last week to 600 or 400 people in uniform, it got a standing ovation. It was one of the proudest things in my life. We’re going to show it again – it’s really important to me. I’m really proud of it –
E: Well, you should be. It tells a great story, and it’s timely.
M: Yeah, exactly. And it’s gonna be timely – it was timely 10 years ago, and it’s gonna be timely for the next ten years any way you slice it, so it’s important that we honor and respect the people that are making those sacrifices, and it’s not just soldiers, but it’s also their families.
J: Were you aware of these stories before you started making this movie?
M: No, it wasn’t something that I considered, you know? It was an aspect of war that I wasn’t necessarily privy of and wasn’t enlightened to, and I think that’s the whole kind of point of this. When you see the response, not just from your core audience but civilians, they’re touched as well. You realize that gosh, it’s not just a good film, but it’s a really important one.
E: Just a side note: nice to see you working with Dash Mihok again! (He was a heavy in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.)
M: Oh, thank you! I love Dash! Yes! I was so excited when he said he was going to do the movie.
E: Between all three of us, you answered everything on my paper. I just really enjoy your work. Do you have anything coming up?
M: I have a complete 180º from this, October 17th, a Nicholas Sparks movie called The Best Of Me, which is a timeless love story. So you know all the restraint of Maggie?
M: GONE. Thank you. Exactly. Opposite James Marsden.
E: Who directed it, by chance?
M: Michael Hoffman. Good, great director, so I’m really excited about that. And then Pixels, coming out July 24th –
E: Yeah, dude! I’m totally – I’m all about that. I’m into that.
M: It’s totally great, so I’m very excited. And then some heavy stuff, I’m sure I’ll find one…
J: Do you like to switch from heavy to light?
M: Oh, for sure. Sure. I can’t live in the heavy world. I’d be divorced by now.
(Special thanks to John Hanlon, Dean Rogers, and PR Collaborative.)