| February 18, 2014 | People
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Fifteen years ago, Michelle Monaghan was a journalism student at Columbia College (“I think I got an A in a couple of classes,” she quips), before the Iowa native left the Windy City for Manhattan to pursue an acting career. In years since, Monaghan, 37, has garnered attention for her roles in TV’s Boston Public and blockbuster films like Mission: Impossible III, Gone Baby Gone, and Source Code.
Now the mother of two (in October, Monaghan and husband Peter White welcomed son Tommy Francis) is moving full steam ahead into 2014, beginning with her role in HBO’s star-studded series True Detective and upcoming Ryan Murphy project Open, as well as film performances in Better Living Through Chemistry, A Many Splintered Thing, and as the lead in indie drama Fort Bliss. In an exclusive conversation with fellow actress Radha Mitchell (her costar in the recent release Expecting), Monaghan reflects on motherhood, her Midwest roots, and the movie stars who still inspire her.
RADHA MITCHELL: How are you?
MICHELLE MONAGHAN: I’m good! I’m actually in a total baby haze because I gave birth to a baby boy five weeks ago.
RM: Yay! How is motherhood the second time around?
MM: Listen, it’s always a challenge. When I had my daughter Willow, it was a whole new ball game, trying to figure out where is this job shooting, how long is it shooting for, can I be away from home? My husband Pete is such a hands-on father—I could not do it without him, and fortunately his career allows him to work from home, so the balancing act is a lot easier.
RM: Weren’t you pregnant when you were shooting the HBO show True Detective, with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey?
MM: I was pregnant. I wrapped that when I was at the end of five months, and I’d wanted to keep it quiet, so the only person I told was the costume designer.
RM: Did you feel the presence of somebody else in the space with you?
MM: That’s the funny thing, because around five months you start to feel the movement of the baby. There was this really intense, emotional scene that I was doing with Woody, and the baby kicked me, but it was the first time that I felt it. I was looking at the close-up, and my eyes dilated when that happened; it totally took me out of the scene. It took everything in my power not to have this big grin on my face because for five months you’re thinking, “Is this thing real?” And then it actually lives, and you’re like, “Aww, here you are.”
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RM: It is kind of bizarre that our movie Expecting is screening, and you’ve just given birth. How did you feel shooting that?
MM: Working on that film was one of the best times I have ever had on a set. We were just laughing the whole time. I felt like we were a bunch of 15-year-olds, making a movie, playing dress-up, pregnant. I’m so used to my costars being male and having chemistry with actors that it was so refreshing to have chemistry with a leading lady. I really appreciated working alongside you and also working with a female director [Jessie McCormack].
RM: It was great to dig into the female perspective with a female at the helm.
MM: Completely. And it’s not necessarily better, but it’s fun and different, and we’re talking about things that are inherent to us, so to have that perspective and collaborate with a female director.... When I finished that film, I went on to do another film with a female as well, and I was like, “Wow! I’ve got two in a row—the tides are changing.”
RM: Do you have any desire to direct?
MM: No—absolutely not.
MM: It’s funny because I asked myself that question today; I was in the car, it was raining, and there was just this beautiful shot, and I thought, “That would be really nice to shoot.” Then I thought, “Is that the way a director thinks?” And then I thought, “No, because then I’d have to come up with another 500 angles.” [Laughs] And that’s where it is—it would be the world’s shortest movie!
RM: What a beautiful haiku moment, captured. You got your start modeling—how did you segue into acting?
MM: I went to Columbia College in Chicago, and that’s where I started modeling. It was my dream to be a journalist, but it turns out that Columbia is one of the best film schools, and here I was studying journalism and loving it—even though I dropped out my senior year because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had this amazing opportunity sitting right in front of me, but it’s just a testament to where your life takes you, and at that time I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist. I knew I wanted to live in New York City, and I thought, “I’m going to move to New York, and I’ll continue modeling for lack of anything else to do.” It was there that I started going on castings for commercials, and a television series came to my modeling agency looking for an actress for a recurring role. The agency told me, “You’ve had good luck with some commercials; why don’t you audition?” I got the job, and a former agent of mine in Chicago helped me set up some meetings with agents in New York. I’m still with that same agent today.
RM: What are your favorite places in Chicago?
MM: I lived in the Gold Coast, so The Original Pancake House is one of my top favorite places. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around that area. I always go to Ikram; she’s an incredible buyer, and even if you don’t purchase anything, it’s just beautiful to go in and look at the pieces.
RM: Because you live in LA now, do you miss anything about the Midwest?
MM: I don’t miss the extreme seasons, but I definitely miss fall. The other day, my daughter said to me, “Mommy, I want to jump in a pile of leaves.” I looked outside and thought, Oh, dear, that’s not going to happen. “The next time we go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house,” I said, “I’ll get one of your uncles to rake up the leaves.” Going home to Iowa in the summer is one of my favorite things. I look out at the cornfields—it’s a backdrop of grain meets the blue sky, with the most gorgeous sunsets, and if you’re holding a beer it’s even more beautiful.
RM: When you were growing up, your parents took in foster children. How did that shape you?
MM: My mom and dad are pretty incredible. They brought in 12 foster children over the course of my years at home. I was 10 when we started doing that, and I have the utmost respect for that whole experience. It makes you very grateful for what you have.
RM: You have a lot to be grateful for. What’s coming up next?
MM: After Expecting, I shot an indie called Fort Bliss, which is a drama about a young woman who is an army medic returning home after 15 months’ deployment in Afghanistan; she’s re-acclimating into society and trying to reconnect with her family. That movie I’m really, really proud of. I have a romantic comedy with Chris Evans called A Many Splintered Thing, a movie called Better Living Through Chemistry with Sam Rockwell, and True Detective on HBO. I’m really excited about that project. It’s incredible, the caliber of people I had the opportunity to work with: the writers, the director Cary Fukunaga—he did that wonderful film Sin Nombre a few years ago; he also directed Jane Eyre.
RM: He directed every episode of the show, correct?
MM: He did, he did. The series is about two detectives—Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson—whose paths converge as they’re investigating a serial case. I play the wife of Woody Harrelson. It’s pretty dark and gritty, and all of our professional and personal lives interweave over the course of 20 years.
RM: Normally you hear about television shows and there’s always a different director for each episode; to go on that journey with one director must have been really intense, for him especially.
MM: Yeah, very much so, but it was such a great way to develop all the nuance of these characters because it was such a long time—over six months.
RM: Did the director also write it?
MM: No, a wonderful writer named Nic Pizzolatto did. He’s written a few nonfiction books, and this is his first for cable. He’s really talented, so that was a wonderful experience. That starts January 12, and then I’ll be shooting a pilot for HBO called Open, a new Ryan Murphy show about open relationships. It’s very provocative.
RM: Where are you shooting it?
MM: Los Angeles, believe it or not! In terms of balancing family/work, that’s going to make it a lot easier.
RM: When you travel, do you bring the family?
MM: I find it more difficult to uproot the whole family, and I feel guilty either way—as every working mom does—so I try to do what’s best for them, and I find what’s best for our family is to keep them in their routine. They don’t miss me nearly as much as I miss them. I’m the adult, and I can handle that just barely. [Laughs] I work 14 hours a day and completely devote myself on set, and then when I finish that job I can devote 100 percent of my time to being a mom and being proud of the job that I’m doing there.
RM: Where’s the Michelle time?
MM: [Laughs] I make time for myself as well, just going on a hike—an hour with some music, or walking out of the house and talking on the phone and just being outside.... And I like baking. That’s like my yoga.
RM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
MM: I’m going to still be working as an actress because I’m going to will it. I love this job so much, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I hope to have a very long career and still be doing work that really inspires me.
RM: Are there any actresses in their 50s or 60s whose careers you admire?
MM: I love Annette Bening, Jessica Lange, and my all-time favorite, Gena Rowlands. Those women have been so daring in all of their choices, and they have careers they can be extraordinarily proud of. That’s all I can hope for, really: to still be doing what I love—with a couple of grandkids on my lap.
RM: Not in 10 years, though.
MM: [Laughs] Yeah, no!
photography by brian bowen smith; Styling by Brad Goreski; Makeup by Shane Paish at Walter Schupfer Management using Marc Jacobs Beauty; Hair by Luke Chamberlain for Oribe Hair Care; Manicure by Tracey Sutter for Cloutier; Remix using Sheswai’s For Real