Michelle Monaghan grew up in a small town in Iowa. She was a journalism student at Columbia College where she began a modeling career, a choice that led to dropping out with only one semester left before graduation in order to pursue acting. She gave a breakthrough performance as Robert Downey Jr.’s mysterious love interest in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and again as Casey Affleck’s private detective partner in Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. She returned to Chicago to shoot Duncan Jones’ genre-bending sophomore film Source Code starring opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. NBN sat down with Monaghan alongside another reporter from Columbia College for a roundtable discussion.
Do you think you’ve used anything from your journalism education in your work?
Totally, completely, and this is so crazy because I left, and I put myself through school, and that’s a lot of money. I remember thinking to myself, my gosh I can’t believe I just spent this much money and this much time doing something that I’m not going to do, and then as I was beginning my career, and I still do it now, I found myself, I think it was a role in North Country actually, and I was writing about my character, which I do, and I realized I was doing the who, what, when, where, why, and how. [Laughs.]
You were writing a lead?
Yeah, totally, and all of a sudden I saw it on paper, and seriously, I just grinned from ear to ear and thought “Oh my god, it wasn’t a waste.” Immediately I felt like I had gotten my money’s worth. So it’s interesting, in a roundabout way, it totally makes sense, and that’s how I prepare for my roles. It’s just about, literally doing a little, writing a little story, essentially.
When you first got the script for this movie and saw just how complex it is, how it jumps back and forth between parallel realities and perspectives, what was your reaction after your first read-through?
Am I this dumb? [Laughs.] No, it was tricky, that’s the thing. It was, it’s very cerebral, and we’re talking about science fiction, and that’s always a stretch, particularly for me because I can’t say that I’m historically a science fiction fan, but it didn’t seem that far off. There was all of this ethical dilemma I found, all this inner conflict within all the characters was really intriguing, and it grabbed me right out. I mean, those first 10 pages, all of a sudden it’s like boom and that explosion happened, I had to keep reading. It did sort of unravel itself to be kind of a puzzle, but from an actor’s point of view I thought this could be a really cool exercise in performance in trying to make eight minutes exciting over and over again. Before each Source Code we would huddle, Duncan, Jake, and I, and we would figure out what we needed to achieve, because each Source Code was almost like a short film within a larger film, and we needed to put a piece of a puzzle within each one.
When Duncan [Jones, the director] came off of Moon, that film is a very layered technical production with a very big performance anchoring it. Your performance in this film exists only within the Source Code, and an alternate reality. What did you talk with Duncan about when you were talking about the performance existing just in that Source Code?
That’s a good question because that was something that concerned me. It was really important to me, and for Duncan, he was true to his promise that it had to be character-driven. If you didn’t care about what these characters were going through then it doesn’t matter how cool your special effects are, and that’s true of any film. So I said to him specifically that there’s not a lot on the page for her, clearly, it’s a lot of the same thing, so let’s create a backstory for her. I thought this is a chick that is in a job that she really hates, and she takes the train to Chicago every day and she sits there and she’s miserable and she’s not living her life to the fullest, and I think she just sits across from this guy, she starts shooting the shit with him one day and he gives her a fresh perspective on her own life. I had to have all of that in my head, but that was the only thing that allowed me then to feel sort of really hurt when he’s not listening to me, or in another Source Code really vulnerable because my heart was sort of invested at this point.
Duncan’s last movie wasn’t a real big movie, but there was a certain kind of buzz around him within the sci-fi community, so was it exciting working with somebody who was kind of a burgeoning filmmaker?
Absolutely, I love any kind of filmmaker who is exciting, who takes material, or a genre and flips it on its side. Duncan was somebody who is a really great storyteller, and I think he does a lot with very little, clearly. He can take a big concept with a little money and kind of turn it on its head, and the great thing I thought, well I’ve never dabbled in sci-fi, but why don’t I go on this endeavor with Duncan. He has now, I think, infused science fiction with real sort of drama, and particularly in this case it’s kind of a love story, and I think that’s really unique. I think he also did that with Moon, you know, real inner conflict within the characters, and not just some cerebral journey of the mind, but it’s a real journey of the heart as well, and I think that’s really unique to him.
Talking about the love story embedded in the movie, structurally it doesn’t take the same path as a typical love story. How does that romance develop out of order in the film?
I think that’s also what’s interesting about this movie, it starts out with very little information, and as the movie goes it starts to expand. It progressively gains all this momentum because you keep adding all these pieces to the puzzle. And initially it’s these two characters that are really in separate realities. It was actually really hard to shoot with Jake because everything he’s saying makes no sense to me, we actually had to shoot them completely separate. I’ve never shot a film where you’re supposed to have non-chemistry chemistry. [Laughs.] But then you start to see how they start to intersect. It’s not until Jake actually understands what his mission is that he actually starts listening to what this woman is saying. I don’t really know how to explain it, but he gets more invested in finding things out and realizing that he can kind of change the past I guess, or influence the future. So they’re falling for each other because he’s inspired her to change her life, and she’s given him a second chance.
What was it like coming back and filming some scenes here in the city? People get really excited about that kind of thing.
It was so good. This is such an amazing city. People need to use it more as a backdrop. I was so surprised that nobody had actually used the Bean before. It’s so cool. It’s so beautiful. I even had a driver drive me down this morning to go around Millennium Park because it’s so beautiful there. When we were shooting there, I was especially nostalgic about it because I could see Columbia College from across the way. Talk about following your heart and living your life to the fullest, you know. That was a big decision for me to pack up and move and thinking, did I do the right thing, and when I was sitting there last year, standing at the Bean making the movie, it was kind of a profound feeling that yeah, I did.
You’ve talked a lot about small town beginnings. Having now shot a movie in Chicago, and sort of coming full circle in the first part of your career, is there anything now that you’re moving into a new phase that you’d like to do?
Producing, definitely. I’m developing a film at the moment, it’s kind of a Bourne meets Run Lola Run, I’m going to star in it, yeah, which I’m really excited about. It’s a book called The Blonde that I optioned the rights to, and got the screenplay. I definitely want to continue to develop projects, and I really, really want to do theater, that’s a big goal of mine. When I was in high school I did some plays, but I never dreamed I wanted to be an actress, but it only dawned on me when I started acting that I remembered that feeling that I’d gotten from doing those plays, it was the most extraordinary feeling after I’d finished. It was like my whole body was buzzing, and I’ve had that since then. So ever since that experience I really want to go back onstage and do it again. I don’t know where it’ll be. It might be so far off Broadway that it’d be in Jersey.
Or come do it in Chicago.
Yeah I could do it in Chicago. Oh my folks would love that [Laughs.]