Exclusive: Michelle Monaghan Keeps on Truckin’

Last year, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to actress Michelle Monaghan and writer/director James Mottern about the drama Trucker when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the movie opened this week at the Village East Cinemas in New York as well as California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other select cities. Being that Monaghan is getting a lot of attention for her performance, including more than a few mentions of the awards potential for that performance, we thought it would be a good time to revisit these interviews.

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One of the notable new movies premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is James Mottern’s filmmaking debut Trucker which stars Michelle Monaghan as Diane, a California truck driver going through a series of personal crises. Diane’s ex-husband Len (Benjamin Bratt) is dying of cancer, so he asks Diane to care for their son that she deserted at birth, but it takes some time for Diane to adjust to life with her now 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennett). At the same time, Diane is trying to come to terms with her feelings of her close friend, played by Nathan Fillion, whose marriage to another woman has kept them from taking their relationship further.

ComingSoon.net had a rare opportunity for an exclusive extended interview with Monaghan, and when the film’s production notes label Monaghan as “vivacious,” they aren’t kidding. Although this is a serious movie and role, Monaghan was a lively and fun interview, punctuating her responses with her delightful laugh and frequently calling the interviewer “dude” and “man” in a way that only she could ever pull off. We also had a chance to talk to the film’s writer/director James Mottern, an interview that you can read here.

ComingSoon.net: I’ve been a fan for a long time but unfortunately, all your movies have junketted in L.A. for some reason.
Michelle Monaghan: Yeah, they do unfortunately ’cause I’m in New York most of the time. (laughs)

CS: I’m glad your big indie debut is opening at Tribeca.
Monaghan: Thank you so much, man! I couldn’t be happier about that myself.

CS: I got to see the movie a couple days ago and you and James did an amazing job creating this character and capturing this amazing performance on film. I really don’t know how you did it.
Monaghan: Yeah, I don’t know. I look back on it now and I’m just glad I didn’t crash that truck.

CS: You were actually driving the truck in the movie?
Monaghan: Yeah, I mean I got my permit. I went to truck driving school and did it, man. Yeah, I drove the truck the whole time! (laughs)

CS: This role is obviously manna from heaven for an actor, getting a script like this. I know James had been working on this for a long time, so were you involved with it from the beginning and how did you get the script?
Monaghan: Yeah, I basically got involved in it about a year before we started. We went into production in August of last year, and it was the summer before that that James sent it to my agent. It basically happened the old fashioned way. My agent said, “You know I think you’ll really like this.” I read the script then I just sat it down in my lap and was just stunned for about a good hour. I met with James I think the next day, and I immediately attached myself to it. I had never read such a unique female character, and the opportunity to play her was just undeniable. I had to do it. These are roles that actresses long to play, someone who’s not one-dimensional, and it’s just a very honest character, a very honest look at a woman.

CS: Knowing that this was a first-time director and a lower budget than some of the other movies you’ve been doing, were there any worries about that?
Monaghan: No, not at all actually. That’s what sort of drew me to it, to be honest, that it was such a low budget. I mean, we made it for $1.5 million, I think less than, and we shot it in 18 days, and the idea of doing that certainly was daunting, because it was going to be a really big push, but incredibly exciting, because when somebody signs up to do something like that, whether it’s a cast member or a crew member, people are there because they want to do it. You’re certainly not doing it for the money, and you don’t even know if you’re doing it for glory or anything like that. You’re doing it because you believe in it, and it’s a labor or love truly for so many people. That for me was really exciting, and it sort of felt like we were in high school putting on a production. It was really awesome. There’s something about working at that pace, that everything’s constantly on the surface and the energy from that is just incredible. I couldn’t even really sleep at night because everything was just so palpable really. I just loved it. I want to make more films like that! I really do.

CS: I’m not sure if your agent or manager would like that.
Monaghan: (laughs) No, exactly! They’re going to pelt me for saying that. (laughs)

CS: There’s a lot of layers to Diane, so was all of that on the page? What was it exactly about her that jumped out at you and made you want to do the movie?
Monaghan: Well, certainly she’s a very complicated character, and when I first read it, initially what struck me about her was she’s fiercely independent, and that she wasn’t necessarily likeable by most people’s standards. She makes choices that most people wouldn’t, and I liked the prospect of playing someone who people don’t necessarily identify with initially. My goal was to portray this character—not that you’d necessarily like her in the end but you would understand her, and you’d understand the choices that she makes, so I knew that was going to be the challenge, and I knew that there would have to be a lot of layers to her to understand why she is, and why she makes the decisions she does.

CS: That leads into another question I had. I talk to a lot of actors and they say that they’re never able to judge their characters they play or they have to find some way to understand them. She does a lot of questionable things, especially with Nathan Fillion’s character, so did you have any of your own judgments on her?
Monaghan: No, I didn’t judge the character at all. I think that was the most important thing not to do. I think if you find that you’re making a judgment on the character, than your audience will make a judgment on the character. I wanted to play her as fair as I could, objectively. I don’t know how you do that.

CS: We do see a lot of sides of her through the different characters in her life, and I think that helps a lot.
Monaghan: Absolutely, and that’s certainly a testament to James’ writing. Listen, I only played a character that he wrote. He really created this character and certainly, I was able to add some color to it, but he’s the one who really established her. It was only through us sitting down and working really intensely on the writing and everything, and us throwing out ideas together that we really were able to really create this character. We had very little time to do it, so there was an implicit trust that we had to have with each other right away. I have never really worked with someone who was so open to my ideas and so welcoming, and it really meant a lot, and it gave me a lot of confidence to just try anything and be okay for failure and things like that.

CS: Was there a lot of rehearsal involved or was a lot of it on the set before shooting?
Monaghan: There was really no rehearsal actually. I think we had a couple of days where Jimmy (Bennett) and I went over a few scenes, but essentially, there was no rehearsal.

CS: Jimmy’s pretty amazing in this because I’ve seen him in a lot of big movies and this was definitely something different from him.
Monaghan: Oh my gosh, are you kidding? That kid’s got a longer resumé than I do! (laughs)

CS: This is very different for him though, so did you get to spend a lot of time with him when you weren’t shooting? What did he bring to your performance and vice versa?
Monaghan: Oh, he’s great. First of all, I can’t say enough about him as a young boy. He’s just a really down to earth kid, and on top of that, he’s incredibly present and talented. I guess that’s why I was a little bit shocked because I hadn’t really worked with kids before, but when I say “present,” he’s just right there in that moment with you, and the great thing is that he would change it up every now and then. He would really react to what you were saying. If I changed it, he would make the appropriate response, and he was totally great, and he always remembered his lines. He couldn’t have been better. It breaks my heart in that damn scene with Benjamin Bratt, I could just die.

CS: How much of the eighteen days did you spend working or hanging with him?
Monaghan: Damn near all of it, really. I really bonded with that kid. I really like him a lot, and I have to tip my hat to his mom, too. She let him get in that truck with me… On the freeway, dude, on the 10! They were pretty trusting, and I really appreciate that, because we shot probably 10 pages a day? We shot a lot. A couple takes and we had to move on, so we really worked fast, so we were together nearly every day.

CS: So when James approached you, had you already done “Mission: Impossible”?
Monaghan: I think it would have been after we finished filming, but I don’t think it had come out yet.

CS: I was curious whether or not he had seen you in that or in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” when he offered you the role.
Monaghan: Yeah, I know that was something that he had liked a lot, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” and there were some scenes in “North Country” he had seen that were specific to a feeling that he thought Diane had, but as a result of a couple different roles.

CS: I know you got your truckers’ license, but did you want to spend some time with female truckers before shooting?
Monaghan: I did! A lot of time, you bet! I mean, that was what was the most enlightening for me. I mean certainly learning to drive an 18-wheeler was, but I went on some short hauls with some female truckers that had been trucking for 30 years and they’re awesome women. I have a great deal of respect for them. I think there’s a misconception, often times, I think society portrays truckers as people who can’t get a better job or maybe uneducated, and I think that’s a really unfair assessment. Certainly, maybe even I had made those assumptions and really spending time with male and female truckers, these are people who are truck drivers because they choose to be truck drivers, because they are free spirits. They love the open road, and all of them were educated. A lot of them actually had creative backgrounds, and I probably was most surprised and really humbled by that. They’re really open people, and I certainly had a fear in spending time with these women, that I didn’t want to misrepresent them at all, because the time I had shared with them was really, really important to me, and they’re a lot of fun! (laughs)

CS: I’d imagine they’d have to be very tough, because as we see in the movie, sexism is very common and you’d have to be very thick-skinned as a woman trucker.
Monaghan: You have to be really thick-skinned, especially truck stops. They’re not necessarily safe places. There’s a lot of things that go down in truck stops and a lot of things they shared with me. You’re not in this job because it’s a tough living, but you have to love the job in order to be in it, because they’re long hours that take you away from your family and friends. Often times, it’s not safe, whether you’re just on the road or in a truck stop. I really tip my hat to anybody who is a trucker. I actually miss it so much, I can’t even tell you. Yeah, it was one of the greatest things I think I’ve ever done.

CS: You’re never on set and say, “Hey, I have a truck driving license, can I drive around a bit?”
Monaghan: Well, you know, I was filming a movie called “Eagle Eye” a few months ago and we were using some trucks in the scene, and I almost asked if I could get behind and drive it around the parking lot. (laughs)

CS: When you have a movie with a $1.5 million budget, you can’t exactly insure your star, who is driving around in truck for much of the movie.
Monaghan: I sort of made a deal with myself and a deal with James that if I wasn’t able to get my truck driving license, that I wasn’t going to make the movie, and somebody else would have to. I just wouldn’t have been able. He created such an honest and beautiful character that it deserved every action to be real, and that was so important to me, so by the grace of God, I got the license. I mean, there were a couple days that were pretty questionable, so I was really, really happy when I did get the license, ’cause then I knew I could make the movie.

CS: That’s an amazing investment to make for a movie. I wanted to talk about your co-star Nathan Fillion, who I love seeing in this and “Waitress,” both which showed what a great leading man he is. Can you talk about working with him and the relationship between the characters?
Monaghan: Nathan is a phenomenal actor. He shines in everything that literally he’s in, every role I’ve ever seen him in, he sort of jumps off the screen. He kind of reminds me of old Hollywood. He’s such a leading man in my eyes… and speaking of eyes, he’s got the most amazing eyes. He’s incredibly charming and really just a sensitive man. He has a very unique way of acting, a very unique style of acting that’s unique to him. I can’t say enough about him as an actor or just as a person. I love the guy. The characters, well I love the characters, and he really played against how I thought he might play it or how an actor might play it, so that was a really big surprise to me. We certainly didn’t have any rehearsal, so we just jumped into it, and it was really exciting, everything that we did. It always turned into something greater than what we thought it was going to, and that’s really because of his choices and what he brought to the character. It really allowed me to bring so much more to the character, so I really owe him a lot. I think that it’s a great relationship, because she really, really does desperately love him, and I think that she selfishly needs him for her own ego. He adores her obviously, but there’s just something that’s holding her back. She certainly has her guard up, and it’s hard for her to be vulnerable, but I think that is when she is at her most vulnerable, oddly enough, when she’s trying not to be. I think they have a wonderful relationship, and it sort of gives me hope and I love in the end that it wasn’t just tied up perfectly. That’s the great thing about James. There’s no perfect ending here. It just sort of gives you an inkling that maybe just maybe Diane might live the next five years of her life just slightly different, but still stay true to herself, and that her eyes may be opened a little bit. I like that, and I like to think that they’re going to hop in the sack and maybe become a family or something. I’m a hopeless romantic, too.

CS: You mentioned “Eagle Eye” which is one of my most anticipated movies because I’m a huge fan of D.J. Caruso going back to his days doing “The Shield.” He’s really an amazing director.
Monaghan: Whooooooo!!!!! Yeah, listen, you should be a big fan of him, rightly so. He’s another terrific guy, but just an awesome director. I wouldn’t want to compare him, but he reminded me of J.J. Abrams in “Mission: Impossible III,” just incredibly bright and passionate and high energy, and just a really great director with actors is what I really appreciated. He just has a great sense of who the characters are and has a really unique way of communicating with you to help you get the best performance. I really appreciated working with him and he and Shia definitely have such a great relationship, and that was exciting to be around, and a lot of fun, and I’m really excited for this movie. It’s going to be intense.

CS: I know you have “Made of Honor” coming up so you’ll have these two big New York premieres coming up soon.
Monaghan: Yeah, I’ll be there for that! I’m excited about that.

CS: I understand they’re holding an actual wedding at that premiere.
Monaghan: To be honest with you, I can’t believe that. I mean I’ve never seen a wedding on the red carpet, so I’m sort of looking forward to it. I guess I better make sure I don’t wear white. No, no, that would be terrible!

CS: Do you have any idea what you might do next?
Monaghan: I am taking some time off I think. I don’t really know what’s happening with the acting strike or anything like that, but there hasn’t really been anything that I’ve read recently that peaked my interest too much, so I’m just going to hang tight I think until something really fabulous comes along. We’ll see, and I’m developing a couple things, so I’m going to spend some time working on that.

CS: As a producer? Were you involved with “Trucker” as a producer?
Monaghan: Yeah, I got a producer credit, and listen, I wasn’t the nuts ‘n’ bolts of it, certainly not. Plum Pictures were. They were terrific in getting this movie made, but I was able to have more creative control and have access to things that I normally have not had before, as a producer. That’s definitely something where I want to get more involved in, and certainly have a lot more to learn, but it definitely interests me and I’m going to do more of that.

CS: How does it feel to be at that point in your career? Really, your name and presence in this movie probably helped get it made and seen. How does it feel to be in that position?
Monaghan: I mean, listen, I can’t tell you. It’s incredibly gratifying. To be able to make a movie like this and to be in that position where people will say, “Okay, we’ll give you $1.5 million.” It’s only $1.5 million, but we were able to make a movie for that, and I was able to act in a movie that’s one of the top few movies I’m most proud of. I’m so incredibly grateful for that. I want to be able to do more of it and I don’t care if it’s for a budget of $50 million or $1 million, as long as I can keep trying to make movies that move me, that move other people. I mean, that’s the greatest thing ever!

CS: As someone who has been going through the Hollywood system for the last nine years, is it everything you expected?
Monaghan: Dude, I’m loving the system right now! I mean, I’ve got no bones with the system! (laughs) I’ve gotta be honest. I’ve been so fortunate, so lucky. I really like the path that my career has taken so far. I’ve really had the opportunity to work with extraordinary people, talented actors and directors on interesting movies and to be able to do such a variety of different things. I think that’s what’s meant a lot to me, is for the industry to recognize that I want to try and do different things and people giving me the opportunity to do that is really exciting. I want to keep moving in that direction and hopefully I will with any luck.

CS: You’ve been very smart about your choices and been very selective about doing great movies like “Gone Baby Gone.” I don’t know a single person who didn’t love that movie. Do you have a preference these days in terms of doing comedies or dramas?
Monaghan: No, I really don’t. My only preference is just to do something different every time, to be honest. I don’t really want to try and repeat myself. I think if you really go on the hunt, there’s some really different and interesting things out there. Sometimes it’s not easy to get your hands on it as an actor, but eventually they come around. I love drama. Forget about it. Those are movies that move me as an audience, so I’m really connected to those sorts of movies, but most people in real life would say I’m a walking comedy, not necessarily funny, but funny to watch… (laughs) I really like comedy. I actually find comedy more challenging than dramas to be honest. I’m just continuously looking for new genres and things that really challenge me, most importantly. Those are the things that I want to keep doing, and if those lead to good choices, then by God, I hope they do.

CS: I was excited when I heard you might appear in the “Wolverine” movie then disappointed when it didn’t happen, but do you think you’ll have more action in your future?
Monaghan: Oh, man. I plan on going to stunt school. That’s how much I love action! And I’m serious about that! We did so much action in “Eagle Eye,” I can’t even tell you… car chases and running in four-inch stilettos and I still kept up with Shia, which was pretty impressive. I would absolutely love to do more of that, and again, I like physical challenges, I’m a bit of a daredevil, so that’s a lot of fun for me, to do those things.

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