In the indie drama Fort Bliss, U.S. Army medic and single mother Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) struggles to find her place in her five-year-old son’s life, after returning home from an extended tour of duty in Afghanistan. When news of another deployment threatens the tentative bond she’s formed with her son, she’s forced to find a way to reconcile her duties as a mother with her obligations as a soldier. Written, directed and produced by Claudia Myers, the film also stars Ron Livingston, Manolo Cardona, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Pablo Schreiber and Dash Mihok.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Michelle Monaghan talked about how she got involved with Fort Bliss, why she found the story so compelling, how intense the experience was, and how putting on the uniform really affected the way she carried herself. She also talked about her experience on True Detective, and how excited she is about Pixels, with Adam Sandler, Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
MICHELLE MONAGHAN: It was really the old-fashioned way. Claudia Myers, the writer/director, sent a script to my agent. My agent called me and said, “I have a feeling you’re really going to want to do this.” So, I read it right away and, sure enough, I did. I sat down with Claudia a few days later, and it became very apparent, right off the bat, that this was someone who had a wealth of knowledge regarding the military, as a result of her doing a lot of documentaries and research. This was something that she was incredibly passionate about, and she had ever intention of making it with an authenticity, in an honest and truthful way, from a soldier’s perspective. For me, that was paramount, and for her, that was paramount. Let’s be honest, there are very few stories in our culture that reflect the experience for a female veteran. The character felt original to me, and it was someone who had a lot of substance, was flawed, had a lot of conflict, and was torn. That is an amazing opportunity, as an actor, to get to play.
When you read this script, what was it that most struck you about the story?
MONAGHAN: What’s compelling about the story and what’s very honest about the story is that it’s very real and it’s happening. There are 200,000 women in active duty, and over 40% of them are moms. This experience is shared by thousands of women, and no one is right or wrong. These characters live in a very brave world, and throughout the course of the film, you align yourself with the perspectives of the characters. One minute, you really understand her commitment, her sense of duty and her passionate for her job, but on the other hand, you think, “Maybe you’re not a very good mother.” She makes the choice to spend 15 months away. I think what’s great about this film is that it provokes a dialogue in which people decide for themselves what constitutes a good parent.
It’s one thing to read a story like this on paper, but it’s another thing entirely to actually go through it. Were you aware, when you signed on for this, just how much it would put you through the ringer?
MONAGHAN: Not right off the bat. I knew that this was something that was going to be an intense experience, just from the way I typically approach my work. I did not take the fact that I was going to portray a soldier lightly. It was so very important to me that I came across as believable and honest and truthful. I wanted to be able to convey the psychology behind the choice of leaving home for an extended period of time, knowing that you may never come back while still being a devoted parent. So, it was really important that I go do the necessary research. In doing the research, I spent time with a lot of medics and women down at Fort Bliss. I went through an intensive medical course there, with other medics. And then, I really sat down with all of the women that had been deployed, or were getting ready to deploy again. The common thread for them was family, and what a struggle it was for them to come home and face their children and flip a switch. One woman that I met, who re-enlisted and was getting ready to deploy in two months, had just found out that her five-year-old son has Autism, and she was struggling with that and how to balance that. She wanted to go, but she’s also very loyal to her family. These are daily challenges and struggles. So, it was really important to me to give an honest portrayal, and in doing all of the research that I could, I felt confident to be able to convey, emotionally, what was going on. You develop a kinship with these people, and I had an incredible respect for them. It was very emotional. After 21 days, it was a hard character to let go of. I still get a little choked up when I see the film now. This film remains profoundly important to me.
What was it like to put on the uniform and see yourself in it? Did that inform the way you carried yourself?
MONAGHAN: Completely. The character has a particular walk, and her voice is different and drops an octave. There were certain physical things that I did to try to make the character believable. These women who are soldiers are very strong and tough women, and they convey a certain persona on their post, but they’re also very feminine. We have this misconception about women in the military, that they don’t wear make-up, but in reality, they’re very feminine women. You can be a tough woman, and still be a very nurturing and emotional parent. It’s just not always black and white like that.
MONAGHAN: Well, thank you so much! I have to be honest, I feel the same way about it. It was just as fun for me to tune in every Sunday and get to watch it. I’m so happy with it. It was a wonderful show.
Obviously, you knew the quality of the work was there, going in, but there was no way that anyone involved could have predicted what it became. Was there a moment that you realized that it was becoming more than anyone could have imagined?
MONAGHAN: I think it was after Episode 4, when it just became what I felt everyone was talking about. And then, as the series was progressing, I was doing more and more interviews and, all of a sudden, I realized that there were all of these theories about who the murderer was. I had no idea that it would have resonated that much. With Episode 4 through 8, I really thought, “Wow, this is really taking on a life of its own.”
You recently spent some time working with Adam Sandler, Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad on Pixels. How was that experience, and what was it like to work with such a colorful trio of actors?
MONAGHAN: Oh, my gosh, I had so much fun! I just wrapped, and I’ve gotta tell you that I miss those guys. It was such a fun experience working with Adam and Peter and Josh, and getting to work with Christopher Columbus, who is a guy that loves to make movies. He brings an unbelievable energy to set, every single day. And Adam couldn’t be more of a generous, fun guy. I’m really excited about it. I think we made a good movie, and I’m looking forward to July. It’s totally awesome!
Fort Bliss opens in theaters on September 19th.